Now, as the war in Syria drags on and the Islamic State’s occupation of much of northern Iraq marks the end of its first year, worries are mounting about another slow death: that of modern-day Aramaic, a tongue that’s the closest living relative to the language of Jesus.There is some debate over how widely Hebrew was spoken in the Palestine of Jesus' day, on which see more here and links.
Although Jesus was a Jew, the language he spoke wasn’t Hebrew. By the time of Christ, Hebrew was spoken only by Jewish priests and perhaps nobles, says Amir Harrak, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Toronto. As the spoken language of ancient Israel, Hebrew had almost entirely given way to Aramaic. A relative of both Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic had become the common language of much of the ancient Middle East by around 500 BC; its origins go back at least another 500 years.
That Aramaic is still spoken today — probably by somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people — sometimes surprises his students, Harrak says with a laugh. “I’m not exaggerating: you have important towns, essentially Christian, and people have spoken that dialect since the first millennium BC.”The situations is indeed very grim, but we should not give up hope yet. As a more recent article by Pieta Woolley in the UC Observer points out, there are at least Five languages that have returned from the brink, Hebrew and Sanskrit among them. For some time I have been following the story of the persecution of Aramaic-speaking Christians in the Middle East as well as recent efforts internationally to keep Aramaic going as a spoken language. See here, here, here and follow the many links.
At least, until recently. Sectarian strife that broke out after the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq spurred another wave of emigration, and the arrival of the Islamic State in the country’s north seems likely to mean the end of Iraq’s Aramaic-speaking community. Confronted with threats to convert to Islam, an estimated 200,000 Iraqi Christians living in the plain of Nineveh fled eastward to Kurdish-held territory after the Islamic State swept into the area last summer. From there, they have been moving on to more distant places in the Middle East and around the world, including Canada.
To Harrak, whose own background is Iraqi Christian, this diaspora does not bode well for their language.
“It’s the end of Aramaic, basically,” he says. The descendants of these refugees, he believes, will eventually assimilate to the language and culture of their host countries. “We know that the Germans in the U.S., the descendants of Germans are very much attached to the language, the culture, but by the third generation they are Americans. That’s the danger. And it will happen here. There’s no question about it.”
I will let Professor Harrak have the last word:
“You know, we talk about genocide,” Harrak says. “But linguists, they have another term — ‘linguicide.’ So we have genocide, linguicide and also culturcide. Because three millennia of culture is going.”