Will Middle East’s Aramaic language survive?

An Iraqi Mandean priest conducts a wedding ceremony for five couples in the ancient Aramaic language on the Tigris river in Baghdad in this file photo. (Reuters)
By Dina al-Shibeeb | Al Arabiya News
The survival of Aramaic, once the Middle East’s lingua franca, is in jeopardy amid regional turmoil.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has listed it as an endangered language in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

“Aramaic boasts an exceptionally long, continuously documented history of over 3,000 years, longer than all other known Semitic languages to which, for example, Arabic and Hebrew also belong,” Paul M. Noorlander, a researcher from Leiden University’s Centre for Linguistics, told Al Arabiya News.

A book written in Aramaic is seen in a glass case at the Museum of St. George’s Catholic Church in Kormakitis, Cyprus. (Reuters)

Western neo-Aramaic “is now confined to a couple of diminishing thousands of mainly Christian but also a few Muslim speakers from a few villages in Syria, among them well-known Maaloula, belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage,” he said.

Maaloula is a village located 56 km northeast of Damascus. About 2,000 of its people, according to a 2005 census, speak Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

It is one of three villages where Western Aramaic is spoken in Syria.

There were “presumably about 150 Eastern dialects” of Aramaic, some of them now “extinct” or “endangered,” said Noorlander.

“The Eastern varieties are, or at least used to be, spoken by Jews and Christians from northern Iraq, western Iran and southeastern Turkey,” he said.

“The Jewish speakers have all migrated by and large to Israel since the 1950s, and many Christian speakers to Western countries,” he added.

On Nov. 3, the World Council of Arameans urged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to recognize and support the country’s “indigenous” endangered Aramean people.

The NGO called for the constitutional recognition of Arameans as a minority.

Augin Kurt Haninke, a Sweden-based Assyrian journalist, told Al Arabiya News that the future of Aramaic depends on “the survival of the Assyrians and other Christians in the Middle East.”

The Assyrians are an ethnic group whose origins lie in ancient Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq.

Empowering Assyrians politically in Iraq is a way to guarantee the survival of the language, Haninke said.

“In my opinion, the only way we can preserve and develop our language is through autonomy or something like that, where the Assyrians decide their future,” he said, referring to the Nineveh plain in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul.

While there are Assyrian schools in the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq, Haninke criticized the Kurdish authorities for “trying to make life difficult for those schools and force them to teach false Kurdish history in order to Kurdify the next generations.”

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of nation states such as Iraq, Iran and Syria heralded the beginning of Kurdish struggles for independence.

Noorlander said: “Aramaic speakers found themselves largely in the cross-fire between Kurds and central governments.”

The researcher described religion as key in keeping the language alive, but also “the attitude of the speakers themselves, wherever they may find themselves, is fundamental.

“They have to stick together and continue celebrating their spoken language and its exceptionally long heritage.”

Those who have left the Middle East should keep in touch with speakers in the region if possible, said Noorlander.

“No matter what, they have to persist in passing down their dialect from their generation to the next. If parents stop speaking their dialect to their children, there simply won’t be a next generation of speakers,” he added.
Saad Shaya, who left Iraq to settle in Canada, speaks modern Aramaic at home and when praying.

The naturalized Canadian citizen vows to teach the language to his future children to “encourage the next generation to keep their heritage alive. My hope is the language will be alive through us and through the church.”