Saturday, December 23, 2006

ARAMAIC WATCH -- Aramaic in Minnesota:
In Jesus' language

Aramaic, the ancient Middle Eastern tongue, is kept alive in churches in the Twin Cities.

By Jean Hopfensperger, [Minneapolis] Star Tribune

Last update: December 23, 2006 – 12:51 AM

The Rev. Rodrigue Constantin belongs to a rare group of Minnesotans who can carry on a conversation in Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago.

When he consecrates the bread during his Christmas services, Constantin's words, "Ho no den ee tow faghro deel," will carry an added authenticity, because this is how Jesus would have told his disciples: "This is my body."I find that people are really fascinated by the language; there's a mysterious aspect to it," said Constantin, of Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church in St. Paul. "There's a historic thread starting 2,000 years ago that has reached me."

He is among roughly 100 people in Minnesota who can order loaves and fishes -- or lefse and lutefisk -- in Aramaic. They are mainly immigrants from small Christian communities in southeastern Turkey, one of a few pockets of the Middle East where a dialect of Aramaic remains a living language.

Aramaic also lives on in Minnesota as a liturgical language, used during church services at Holy Family and St. Maron Catholic Church in Minneapolis.


Downstairs in the church social hall, Susan Youmes is having breakfast with her husband. The daughter of the Cans, she's among the next generation of Aramaic speakers, and proud of it. Listening to Aramaic prayers and songs in church, she says, "brings something to your heart."When I watched 'The Passion of the Christ,' I didn't have to read the subtitles," boasted the young mother from Burnsville.

Language of cinema

That comment brings a smile to the Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and Aramaic scholar who translated the dialogue in Mel Gibson's movie from English into the ancient language. He also was an adviser to producers of "The Nativity Story," released this month.

Syriac, the Aramaic dialect that Youmes and the Cans speak, is the modern language closest to what Jesus would have spoken, said Fulco, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Well, maybe, but it's not all that close. Jesus spoke first-century Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, which was a Western dialect. Syriac is an Eastern dialect that was spoken somewhat later in Edessa (in modern-day Turkey) and which became the standardized language of the Eastern, Aramaic-speaking Church. The two dialects are not all that similar, although speakers of one Aramaic dialect can generally get the gist of what's being said in another Aramaic dialect.

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