Thursday, February 26, 2004

ARAMAIC SPEAKERS go to see The Passion of the Christ:
Assyrians hear native tongue in 'Passion' (AP in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)


Aramaic is spoken by a handful of small Christian groups from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, including Chaldeans, who are Catholic, and Assyrians, who have their own church.

There are an estimated 250,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians in the United States - mostly in Michigan, California and Chicago - said Martin Manna, executive director of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, based in Farmington Hills.

In metropolitan Detroit, where Manna says the Chaldean community numbers about 120,000, Chaldean Catholic congregations have organized special outings to see the movie.


For Ismat Karmo, 48, hearing Aramaic in the movie caused mixed emotions.

"It makes me feel proud and sad at the same time. Proud that we always carry this language that at one time was the dominating language in the region and a language that was spoken by Jesus, and sad that today there is not enough support for it to preserve it," said Karmo, a businessman who came to the United States from Iraq when he was 21.

Did anybody ask him how well he could understand the Aramaic in the movie?

Also, note this:
But Joseph Amar, a classics professor specializing in Christian Aramaic at the University of Notre Dame, strongly criticized the endeavor, saying there is no way to know how similar the Aramaic spoken in Jesus' time is to the forms preserved today.

"It has no intellectual integrity. The very enterprise is bogus," he said.

I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly is very speculative.

UPDATE: There's more in this Detroit Free Press article. Martin Manna, mentioned in the article above, evaluates the Aramaic:
Manna, who is president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Farmington Hills, saw a matinee Wednesday and left the theater moved by the story but slightly confused by the language.

"These people were obviously amateurs when it came to the language," Manna said of the actors. "We did catch about 30 to 40 percent of it."

And another scholar gives his view:
Since then, Aramaic has evolved and splintered into dozens of dialects. Jews once spoke a western dialect, while Chaldeans and Assyrians used an eastern dialect. Chaldeans today speak a modern form they call Chaldean, though scholars and linguists call it Syriac.

"There are many, many forms; some of them I really can't even read," said Charles Krahmalkov, a recently retired professor of ancient and biblical languagesat the University of Michigan. "Dictionaries are coming out now all the time on the various Jewish dialects and Christian dialects."

Krahmalkov said he was astonished when he learned Gibson was filming in Aramaic and Latin.

"I don't think it was the first time it was done, but it is usually done in English and spiced with foreign languages," he said. Gibson "had a conception and an idea, and it was a fascinating one."

UPDATE: According to this BBC article, Syriac speaker George Kiraz had more success than Manna:
Some believe audiences may be put off by having to read so many subtitles, but for George Kiraz the language was the highlight.

For Dr Kiraz, who lives in New Jersey, this was the first time he could hear his own language in a Hollywood blockbuster.

"From a language point of view, they did a good job," the Aramaic-speaker told BBC News Online after being one of the first to see the film when it opened on Wednesday.

"I understood 60% or more of the Aramaic - not bad considering I wasn't used to the particular dialect they used."

Dr Kiraz is founder and president of the Beth Mardutho Syriac Institute in Piscataway, New Jersey. The organisation promotes the study of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect.

Other articles on Aramaic are here and here.

UPDATE: Pontius Pilate speaks Aramaic in the movie? So Monsignor William Carr in a round table discussion in Wichita:
"I even found it amusing that the Latin of course was with the ecclesiastical pronunciations, which came centuries later, but it was done with an Italian accent. I was able to get some of the Aramaic from the Hebrew... but little details you get hung up on. The inscription on the cross was supposed to be Hebrew, but was Greek and Latin. As I mentioned beforehand, the (language) of that time was not Latin but Greek. If anybody spoke another language, they spoke Greek. They didn't speak Latin.

"And Pontius Pilate communicating in Aramaic is just unbelievable. Totally unbelievable. So those things, I would get a little disturbed by. But that's me. The whole thing I think is to try to capture the message....

"Just unbelievable" is right. One of the strongest arguments for Jesus knowing some Greek is that it is almost impossible to imagine Pilate bothering to learn the Judean vernacular. Ancient Roman governors were not modern diplomats (who frequently don't learn the language of their assigned country anyhow). Presumably he spoke to Jesus and the crowd (assuming the story of the crowd is historical) in Greek. I suppose Gibson, rightly enough, did not want to have Jesus speaking Latin. But this brings us back to the fact that the characters should, at least for the most part, be speaking Greek rather than Latin anyhow.

UPDATE (27 February): Ruth Gledhill has more on the movie's Aramaic in her review in the London Times:
Does it matter that the film is in Latin and Aramaic?

There is not a lot of dialogue, so you hardly notice the language after a while. But it is important.

Gibson left out the deicidal line from Matthew 25:27.

She means Matthew 27:25. And he didn't: he just didn't give it a subtitle in English.
But there are two scenes where Jesus's persecutors demand his crucifixion, crying to Pilate: "Yitstalev! Yitstalev! Yitstalev!" This is Aramaic but it happens also to mean "crucify him" in modern Hebrew. How anyone in a post-Holocaust era, and aware of the sensitivities swirling around modern Israel, could have done such a thing as this almost beggars belief.

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