British scientists in Cambridge have been undertaking efforts to preserve the Semitic language of Aramaic, believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago.
Saving Aramaic from extinction
University of Cambridge linguistics professor Geoffrey Khan has begun a quest to record the Aramaic language by visiting the scattered communities where it is still spoken.
Professor Khan has found that the language’s speakers are very few – thought to be roughly 500,000 – and spread out across locations, from Iraq to America, and particularly in Chicago where several thousand Assyrians live. In 2005, the first Assyrian school opened in Los Angeles.
After talking to an Aramaic-speaker from Erbil in Northern Iraq, Professer Khan said “[The experience] completely blew my mind”.
“To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating”, he added.
Recording the language will act both as a means of cultural preservation and as an investigation into how languages shift and splinter over time. For Aramaic specifically, it means that the pronunciation and lexis will not be forgotten if it loses all of its native speakers.
The history of Aramaic
The ancient language, threatened by dwindling numbers of speakers, was once common throughout the Middle East and was a key language used for Israeli trade, government and divine worship from 539 BC to 70 AD.
Its first speakers, the Arameans, were desert nomads, but its Middle Eastern standing was lost when Muslim armies entered the area and made Arabic the principal tongue. Aramaic survived, in part, by being used in large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, and the Jewish text, the Talmud.
It is written in the ancient Dead Sea scrolls that as Jesus died on the cross, he cried in Aramaic, “Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?” meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Other languages facing extinction
Unfortunately, Aramaic is not the only language where survival is an urgent point of concern; around 50 to 90 per cent of the 7,000 languages thought to be spoken today, are expected to die out by the end of the century.
The Smithsonian magazine reported in their February 2013 issue that many languages are likely to disappear within a generation or two – the result of a more global and connected world and migrants seeking to move to urban areas and adopting the language of the new region.
Currently, 94 per cent of the world’s population communicates using just six percent of its languages, with the most widely spoken being English, Mandarin and Spanish.
Respecting language and culture
Khan’s efforts to document and save Aramaic from extinction are highly admirable and highlight the uphill battle faced to save dying languages that offer insights not only into communication, but also culture.
This should serve as a reminder to the role communication plays in society and culture. Cultural understanding and understanding the pride individuals have for their language is paramount and operates as a matter of mutual respect and productivity to all involved.
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