Persecution can’t kill the Aramaic language

Since the war began in Iraq,  there have been several stories about how  the indigenous people of the area  have struggled to survive because of the Islamic extremism that has emerged against Christians.  One issue raised is the survival of the Aramaic language, still  spoken by Assyrians,  Chaldeans, and Arameans, primarily during church masses. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about the current state of Aramaic in Iraq found here (WSJ, Jan. 10, 2012).  I first wrote about the preservation of Aramaic almost 10 years ago.   Here’s my story (Daily News, Nov. 17, 2002):

Within the peaceful walls of a Burbank church banquet hall, the soft murmurs of a language spoken by Jesus and his disciples can still be heard.

And in a church classroom in Tarzana, the scene is the same. Children memorize prayers and train the muscles of their tongues to learn the language spoken by their forefathers.

Despite a slight difference in pronunciation taught to the students of both churches, the goal is the same: to speak, read, write and preserve Aramaic, a 3,000-year-old language that has quietly survived, even as war, assimilation and time have almost silenced its speakers. “My grandfather translated a lot of books into Aramaic,” said 25-year- old Tracy Grair, who drives from Camarillo each Monday night to take classes at Burbank’s St. Ephraim Syrian Orthodox Church. “Learning the language helps me to understand who he was. It’s a part of who I am.” Once the lingua franca of the Middle East, Aramaic thrives now within church walls of villages of Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey and Syria, and also in the United States, where Assyrians, Chaldeans and Aramaens still use the language as part of their liturgy. But scholars believe its very existence hangs by a fragile thread. 

“I wouldn’t say Aramaic is a dead language now, but it is in a precarious situation,” said Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic languages at the University of California, Los Angeles.“I think the chances of its survival are doomed.” 

Sabar points to several factors, including centuries of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, which has forced speakers of Aramaic to scatter across the world.

 In the Mideast, Aramaic-speaking villagers who move to big cities in search of better opportunities must learn to speak Arabic in order to survive, Sabar said.

 Under Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s regime, Assyrians, who speak a modern version of Aramaic, have been assimilated. Many have been forced to take on Arab surnames and are referred to as Christian Arabs, which they are not, Sabar said.

 At one time, Assyrian priests were killed if they were caught copying Bibles written in Aramaic, said the Rev. George Bet Rasho of St. Mary’s Assyrian Church of the East in Tarzana. Priests and deacons memorized the words and passed them down orally.

 “Our people have been struggling so much to preserve our language, which is a part of our culture,” Bet Rasho said.  “Because we have no land, no real country of our own, we are losing the language. We have mixed in the languages of the regions where we have lived.”

 And yet, like hope, Aramaic lives on in some corners of the United States.

 “Living in the West has helped us a lot,” said Bet Rasho, who teaches Aramaic to children, some of whom he hopes become deacons and priests. “In church, we use books that are pure Aramaic and that have never been translated. And the Internet is a safe place for us. That is where we unite. The opportunities for us there have been great.”


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2 thoughts on “Persecution can’t kill the Aramaic language

Add yours

  1. Awesome article! I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m Rosa’s grand-daughter. I enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the great work!

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