Friday, December 26, 2008

Aramaic Lives!

Many people became aware of Aramaic as a spoken language through the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ, which portrays the last hours in the life of Jesus.

Assyrian is a Semitic language very similar to Arabic and Hebrew. In the Israeli paper Haaretz, some examples of linguistic similarities are detailed. “Aramaic is a Semitic language and has similarities with Hebrew and Arabic. Water is “moyeh” in Aramaic, “maim” in Hebrew and “miye” in Arabic. Carpenter is “nagouro” in Aramaic, “nagar” in Hebrew and “najar” in Arabic.”

Those who have noted the similarities between Spanish, Italian and French have a good idea of the familial closeness of these three languages.

The opinion of Gibson’s movie that interested me greatly was that of the folks at This web site serves the Assyrian communities all around the world. It has an abundance of information about Assyrian history, language and culture. Its link page offers enough material for research and education to keep those interested in this fascinating community busy for a very long time.

A poll taken about Mel Gibson’s movie showed up on the site. The consensus was overwhelming that the Assyrians were glad that their endangered language was getting some major publicity. Mel Gibson put a great deal of effort into creating linguistic authenticity in his famous movie. The web site details Gibson’s efforts in an article they reprinted from the web site.

“Gibson sought the help of Father William Fulco, chair of Mediterranean Studies at Loyal Marymount University and one the world’s foremost experts on the Aramaic language and classical Semitic cultures. Fulco translated the script for “The Passion of the Christ” entirely into 1st Century Aramaic for the Jewish characters and “street Latin” for the Roman characters, drawing on his extensive linguistic and cultural knowledge. After translating the script, Fulco served as an on-set dialogue coach and remained “on call” to the production, providing last-minute translations and consultations.

To further authenticate the language, Gibson also consulted native speakers of Aramaic dialects to get a sense of how the language sounds to the ear. The beauty of hearing this dying language spoken aloud, he recalls, was very moving.

Ultimately, the entire international cast of “The Passion of the Christ” had to learn portions of Aramaic — most doing so phonetically — becoming perhaps one of the largest groups of artists ever to take on an ancient tongue. For Gibson, the film’s “foreign language” had another benefit: learning Aramaic became a uniting factor among a cast made up of many languages, cultures and backgrounds.”

Most people who know Assyrian, Chaldean or Aramaic (all variants of Aramaic) know it only as a liturgical language. About half a million people speak it in their homes. There is an Assyrian diaspora around the world, including a large number in the Detroit area.

In some villages in Syria, the language is preserved as a spoken language at home and in the street. I watched recently a video clip (included in this posting of a visit to Maloola, a remote village in which the language is proudly spoken. What was heartening in the video was the manifest pride of the villagers in their precious cultural heritage.

I had known of a religious rift among Assyrian speakers between members of indigenous Assyrian Christian denominations and those Christians who pledge allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope. What I am astounded to learn is that there are Muslim speakers of this ancient language in Maloola and perhaps elsewhere. The remoteness of the area and the bond of a rare tongue seem to create a harmonious climate in the area. Perhaps the fact that Assyria has Muslim speakers will afford the language some protection in a volatile region.

For the overwhelming majority of Jews, Aramaic lives on as the language of the Talmud, of parts of the daily prayers and of Kaddish, the prayer that marks death but makes no allusion to it. I heard a story of an Iranian boy who attended an American yeshiva and understood the Aramaic Talmudic texts with no translation. There are indeed scattered Jewish speakers of Aramaic. It would be a pity if the chain of oral transmission of Jewish Aramaic were to die out. Even if this dialect of the language were artificially recreated, some crucial elements would be lost. There is a multitude of Jewish diaspora languages, most notably Yiddish and Ladino. Hopefully, the State of Israel will devote some resources to their preservation.

One factor working in favour of Aramaic survival is a body of popular music in that language, including singer Evin Aghassi. I saw a video once when he went on tour in Syria where the crowds went wild as Aghassi inched through the streets of Damascus. As a show of their love and admiration for the famous singer, they picked up his Mercedes with him in it and walked through the streets. It was a unique and priceless display of the fan’s devotion.

The second video that I am including in this posting is a song by Evin Aghassi in Assyrian. It is set to a video from the movie Happy Feet. I show it to friends and tell them that it is a video from my son’s wedding. What is interesting about the video is its fusion of American influences with local culture. It drives home the point that a culture is in a process of evolution. Saving a language does not mean putting it in a sealed container. It means a certain measure of adaptation to new conditions.

I have found that many people who speak interesting and endangered dialects are ashamed of their fluency. Most feel that the endangered language marks them as a “green horn” or a “country bumpkin”. When a person who speaks an endangered language sees a world famous movie dubbed into their mother tongue, it gives them the feeling that their village has almost “made it to Hollywood.”

It would be nice to see Sesame Street and other staples of popular culture adapted to promoting the survival of endangered tongues. Perhaps it would also be possible to promote unique local cultures as having a value to a select type of tourist that wants to hear the languages that once were used to rule empires. It is truly ennobling to realise that one is in possession of a cultural treasure that is appreciated around the world. Divinity schools might be particularly suited for and disposed to this type of study.

When I hear that an old person has passed away, an image flashes through my mind of a library burning. There is a terrible sadness to the death of a language, when a body of folklore and inherited traditions finally lies down and draws its last, lonely breath. Jews, Muslims and Christians owe a great cultural debt to the Semitic languages. Any effort to preserve this cultural legacy offers an opportunity to deepen our respect for human life and our appreciation of diversity. All should applaud and assist those who facilitate the survival of Aramaic or indeed any other endangered tongue.

The second video mentioned in the article cannot be embedded due to copyright restrictions, but it can be viewed here:

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