Interviews
4:59 pm
Sun February 24, 2013

The Language Of Empires Faces Extinction

Originally published on Sun February 24, 2013 8:40 pm

For centuries, Aramaic was the language of an entire empire. It was the language of Christ, of biblical scholars, and of the Middle East. And for that reason, Esho Joseph, a former translator for the Iraqi regime who now lives in the U.S., is saddened by its slow disappearance.

"This language ... is ... [of] historical importance," says Joseph, who grew up speaking the language. "... And now it ... [is], you know, dying. It is really painful."

Joseph says it isn't just a loss for those who speak it; it's a loss for human culture and human heritage. He isn't alone in his concerns. As it turns out, there are some efforts to preserve Aramaic.

Ariel Sabar is author of an article on the disappearing language in February's edition of Smithsonian magazine. He says it's astonishing to think that Aramaic could be disappearing because it once was as common as English.

The language was spoken by Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. At its height, it could be heard from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Now, it may be one or two generations away from vanishing. It's only spoken in small villages across northern Iraq, Syria and southern Turkey.

"That led me to this wonderful, scrappy, adventure-seeking group of linguists who have literally criss-crossed the globe in search of these remaining pockets of Aramaic speakers," Sabar tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Most of the towns where Aramaic is spoken are small, mountain hamlets or farming villages. For research on his piece, Sabar, author of My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Family's Past, interviewed five linguists, including Hezi Mutzafi, a scholar at Tel Aviv University.

"He would get a phone call from Finland, someone saying — you know a priest, an Assyrian priest saying — I've got a guy here who speaks this dialect that's never been documented," Sabar said. "And Hezi would sort of drop everything, get on the first plane and go out there, because he was worried that this guy might not live another week.

"I said, 'What is that thrill like?' And he said, 'Remember the scene in Jurassic Park where the scientists come across, you know, a living dinosaur?'"

War and migration have taken a heavy toll on the village cultures whose very isolation preserved Aramaic over the centuries. In the last decade alone, it's estimated that nearly half of all Christians who speak Aramaic have fled Iraq. In his piece, Sabar writes about the search for people from those villages who speak what linguists call a pure dialect.

"[University of Cambridge linguist Geoffrey Khan] said they're speakers of what he called pure dialects," Sabar said. "And by pure he meant typically elderly people who had spent their entire lives in sort of small, isolated villages," Sabar says. "And whose dialects had not been diluted either by, you know, moving to bigger cities where a bunch of different dialects would converge."

There is some effort to preserve Aramaic today in northern Iraq where schools teach the language. But linguists are right to scour the globe searching for the last links to the oldest, purest forms of an ancient language.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Aramaic)

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

These young people learning their communion prayers are singing in Aramaic, the language of Christ. They're singing at a church in Zakho, Iraq, a city on the Turkish border. Aramaic today is mostly spoken in small villages across northern Iraq, Syria, southern Turkey, and it's a haunting experience to hear it in remote places.

I first encountered it with Esho Joseph, once a former translator for the Iraqi regime who is from Zakho and who grew up speaking Aramaic.

ESHO JOSEPH: This language - I mean, all languages are important obviously for their speakers, but this language specifically has its historical importance. It was the language of great empires - lingua franca of the entire Middle East for once. And now, it has, you know, dying. It is really painful. And it was also the language of Jesus. And that matters for, I think, human culture, human heritage. It is one of the old, you know, languages that I think should - something should be done to preserve it.

LYDEN: This month, writer Ariel Sabar has a piece in February's Smithsonian magazine about attempts to do exactly that - to preserve what many say is a dying language. It's astonishing to think that it could be, he says. It was once as common as English, spoken by Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians. At its height, Aramaic could be heard from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Now, it may be one or two generations away from vanishing.

ARIEL SABAR: And that led me to this wonderful, you know, scrappy, adventure-seeking group of linguists who have literally crisscrossed the globe in search of these remaining pockets of Aramaic speakers.

LYDEN: That's Ariel Sabar. His own father, Yona, happens to be from the same city as Esho, and he was the last Jewish boy to be bar mitzvahed there in Zakho, now an important and large border city. But most of the towns where Aramaic is spoken are far smaller: mountain hamlets or farming villages. For research on his piece in Smithsonian magazine, Ariel interviewed five linguists, including a scholar at Tel Aviv University, Hezi Mutzafi.

SABAR: Literally, he would get a phone call from, you know, Finland, and someone saying, you know, a priest - an Assyrian priest saying, I've got a guy here who speaks this dialect that's never been documented. And Hezi would sort of drop everything, get on the first plane and go out there because he was worried this guy might not live another week. And he - Hezi described it to me as - and I said, you know, what is that thrill like? And he said, remember the scene in "Jurassic Park" where the scientists come across, you know, a living dinosaur?

LYDEN: War and migration have taken a heavy toll on the village cultures whose very isolation preserved Aramaic over the centuries. In the last decade alone, it's estimated that nearly half of all Christians who speak Aramaic have fled Iraq.

In his piece, Ariel Sabar writes about the search for people from those villages who speak what linguists call a pure dialect. Surprisingly, perhaps, many are now living in the Chicago suburbs.

SABAR: Typically, elderly people who had spent their entire lives in sort of small, isolated villages and whose dialects had not been diluted either by, you know, moving to bigger cities where a bunch of different dialects would converge or even had married someone from a different village.

LYDEN: Esho Joseph has lived in America now since 1991, and his own children don't speak Aramaic. And yet, his cultural memories of his father, their grandfather, riding his horse through the fields, chanting the Song of Solomon each and every day of his life. Esho translated some of the song for us.

JOSEPH: (Aramaic spoken)

LYDEN: But for me, the most beautiful depiction of this language comes not from the Torah or the Bible, but from a folk song, sung for many centuries in Zakho about its famous Roman-era bridge. It's called the Delale Bridge. And the legend goes that the bridge builder's daughter-in-law, Nemo Delale, had to be walled into the foundation to make the bridge stand. One day, back in 2003, Esho Joseph stood on the bridge and sang the song for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGE SONG 2")

JOSEPH: (Singing in Aramaic)

LYDEN: There is some effort to preserve Aramaic today in northern Iraq. Schools do teach it. But linguists are right to scour the globe searching for the last links to the oldest, purest form of an ancient spoken language.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Aramaic) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.