Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?
February 3, 2013 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Saving a Dying Language
posted by empath (34 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I had no idea Chicago was such a last refuge for Assyrians. I worked for seven years in an Assyrian restaurant. I met my wife there. My next door neighbors are Assyrian. There are Assyrians all over the Chicago area. With such a sizable community here, I was startled to hear that Aramaic was a dying language.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:05 AM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm grossed out by the safari metaphor in this article already. They're people, not giraffes.
posted by Tesseractive at 7:14 AM on February 3, 2013


This is amazing - I thought/had been told Aramaic had died out centuries ago
posted by mumimor at 7:28 AM on February 3, 2013


Nice article. It is a bit too much like a language safari but it's done with respect and love for the people he's documenting. (The author's father is a native Aramaic speaker; he's not an outsider.)

I'm of such mixed emotions about saving dying languages. It just seems natural that a few main languages are going to dominate: English, Spanish, Mandarin. Imagine growing up in Chicago speaking only Aramaic at home and in school! Or growing up in New Mexico only speaking Zuni. That'd be terribly limiting; of course you want to raise your kids to speak English, to have opportunities, to be part of American culture. But then if everyone's kids speak English they're going to speak it at school, at parties, and pretty soon Aramaic dies out. Without a deliberate conscious effort to garden a language like has been done for Hebrew or Gaelic, it seems modern intercommunication destroys minority languages.

I guess the balance is in countries in Europe, particularly northern countries. Every Dane I've ever met speaks English, and yet it's hard to imagine Danish ever dying out. But they're a whole country. How is a smaller group of people, particularly one spread far and wide, supposed to maintain?
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I should think there would be growth market for teaching (and thus preserving, somewhat) Aramaic within the hard-core fundamentalist Christian scene. Speak as Jesus spoke? Sell it as the true-tongue of Christ, or something like that.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:49 AM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


“The less education the better,” Khan said. “When people come together in towns, even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed.

Anyone arguing for less education for any reason is fighting the tide.
posted by three blind mice at 7:52 AM on February 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


"He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of...Aaaaaaagh.."

First thing that comes to mind anytime I hear the word "Aramaic".
posted by rhythim at 7:53 AM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


A former friend of mine who is Assyrian, born and raised in Turlock, CA, near Modesto, which has a large Assyrian population, used to study what she called Assyrian. She never called it Aramaic.

She moved from San Francisco to Boston to live with an Assyrian guy from Iran that she barely knew, who turned out be, not surprisingly, very Middle Eastern in his views on women and the relationship didn't last long. Fast forward ten years, she's now a scary, fundamentalist Christian who makes Pat Robertson seem reasonable.

I did have some lovely Assyrian meals with her family. Her mother was Assyrian and she had a very large extended family.
posted by shoesietart at 7:55 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]



Speaking as a hardcore fundamentalist Christian, I can tell you we are more interested in Koine Greek because that is what the New Testament is written in. And even then we are more interested in reading than speaking. The Book of Daniel was partially written in Aramaic though. Our collective fascination with end times prophecy might inspire some the take up Aramaic on that account. I am also quite sure seminarys will continue to teach Aramaic for that reason.
posted by vorpal bunny at 7:59 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I should think there would be growth market for teaching (and thus preserving, somewhat) Aramaic within the hard-core fundamentalist Christian scene. Speak as Jesus spoke? Sell it as the true-tongue of Christ, or something like that.

Ah, I got into a great argument with this utterly pretentious coworker about that once.

He was going on and on about the "literal Word of God", and how it was directly translated from the Hebrew and Greek texts, and I just said "And the Aramaic?"

"The what?"

"Y'know, the Aramaic. The language most of that region spoke at that time? I mean, surely you'd want to make sure that the Word of God was as properly translated as it could be, especially with the Book of Daniel being so important to you - not just rewriting old King James ridiculousness."

"Oh...um..."

"Yeah, you didn't know about Aramaic at all, did you?"

"I have to get back to work now."
posted by Katemonkey at 8:03 AM on February 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


“The less education the better,” Khan said. “When people come together in towns, even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed.

Anyone arguing for less education for any reason is fighting the tide.
posted by three blind mice at 7:52 AM on February 3 [+] [!]

He's not arguing for less education. He was just saying that he wanted to speak to the people, who already exist without any of his effort, that are native speakers and have little to no education. It's hardly the same thing.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:05 AM on February 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Saving" in this case seems to mean documenting, not reviving. The article didn't say anything about the latter.


> Anyone arguing for less education for any reason is fighting the tide.

For his research, Khan is trying to locate immigrants who speak their native dialects in pretty much unaltered form. He's not arguing that lack of education is a good thing.
posted by nangar at 8:07 AM on February 3, 2013


(Like FirstMateKate said.)
posted by nangar at 8:09 AM on February 3, 2013


Don't forget this contribution to the effort to save Aramaic
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:22 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Aramaic" refers to a lot of different semitic languages and dialects spoken by a lot of different communties. The language is also known as "Syriac". The language is used among a bunch of different communities-- the Assyrians (the Chaldeans and the Nestorian Christians originally from Northern Iraq and eastern Turkey) and the Syrian Orthodox. The dialect most common among the people in eastern Turkey, Turoyo (named for the Tur-Abdin area) isn't the same language as those Syrian Orthodox in Maoulla, Syria, for example. The locals in Turkey call their language (at least to me) "Aramaean", and in Turkish it is called "Syriani".

The local Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Eastern Turkey spend a lot of time teaching the language to members of the community, particularly those in the diaspora who now live in other parts of Europe. I think, though I am not sure, that the monasteries are trying to promote a "standard Syriac" rather than the localized dialect, but I don't know enough about the details.

I was in a situation in a monastery there where the only guy who spoke English was an Australian of Syriac descent who was studying Syriac. My driver was himself Syriac but only spoke Turkish, so we got another guy at the monastery to translate from Turkish to Syriac to the Australian, who translated what my driver said in English, and then went back the other way when I needed to explain something to my driver.
posted by deanc at 9:46 AM on February 3, 2013 [12 favorites]


Great story and photos! Thank you.
posted by Lynsey at 9:46 AM on February 3, 2013


Used to know an Assyrian girl who worked at a Chicago-area client. Very attractive, very glamorous dresser, and worked part-time as a model. She was on her cell phone constantly with friends and relatives arranging things a la ASSYRIAN ASSYRIAN ASSYRIAN and I'll pick you up at the mall, OK?

You can hear a bit of Assyrian in the announcers of the Assyrian-American parade. (And I can't tell if it's her, but the female announcer has the exact same accent.) Anyway, as you can see they are a super-tight-knit, active immigrant group.
posted by dhartung at 10:44 AM on February 3, 2013


I'm told that Jesus probably spoke a dialect of Aramaic, and that most of the Talmud is in Aramaic.
posted by jamjam at 10:48 AM on February 3, 2013


Actually I bet it is her speaking -- she's become a demi-celebrity. Here's an interview of hers in Assyrian with an Assyrian rapper (and the same language switching) -- however I couldn't find him rapping in anything but English. Ah, people I knew when.
posted by dhartung at 10:59 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, here is the movie -- in Assyrian -- that she acted in a few years ago. She wasn't enthralled with her co-star and found the love scenes creepy. I never knew this was online until now! Anyway, the director's goal is -- or at least was -- to create an Assyrian-American cinema.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 AM on February 3, 2013


Every Dane I've ever met speaks English, and yet it's hard to imagine Danish ever dying out.

Hadn't you heard? "The Danish language has collapsed into meaningless guttural sounds."

And while I admire the hell out of the work these people are doing, describing it as "saving" the language claims too much. Without an active community of speakers, the language really is dead. They're making a fantastically detailed death mask, which is better than nothing, but it's still kind of sad.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Smithsonian Mag has really been fantastic lately - I have their RSS feed in Google Reader and I'm never surprised when one of their stories shows up on the blue. I should probably look into joining. Thanks for the post.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:45 PM on February 3, 2013


She was on her cell phone constantly with friends and relatives arranging things a la ASSYRIAN ASSYRIAN ASSYRIAN and I'll pick you up at the mall, OK?

Slightly off-topic, but I kinda love it when people do this language mash-up thing. My favorite manicurist does this with her kids all the time - a torrent of Vietnamese in very excited tones, followed by a few sentences in English. She tells me that sometimes it's just faster to tell them to feed the dogs and do their homework in her mother tongue.
posted by MissySedai at 2:31 PM on February 3, 2013


"making a fantastically detailed death mask" after it's too late defines a lot of human activity.
posted by Earthtopus at 4:34 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Without an active community of speakers, the language really is dead.

I don't know what the alternative is -- I mean, the ultimate example may be the Stone Age culture of the Andaman (and Nicobar) Islands. I'm sure their language is intact, but we can't forcibly make people dial back modernity. I know that's not what you're saying, but in the circumstances, what we're doing is preserving a memory much like taking a photograph of a loved one.

By contrast, I think it's clear that Aramaic, at least, has a future for a while yet, although there's no way to imagine "saving" individual dialects versus the immigrant accretion.

I view this as the task of an archivist, but it verges very closely (as with objects) into the task of a collector. Like taking an ivory pipe out of the culture which spawned it, you save the artistry/craftsmanship, but you also lose something in the process. But then, the culture that made the ivory pipe may now prefer plastic from Indonesia. It's a choice that isn't ours to make.
posted by dhartung at 6:32 PM on February 3, 2013


We're on the same page, dhartung. I don't think there is a better alternative. Denying populations the chance to choose modernity just so we can enjoy their "primitive quaintness" would be awful.

Languages die. Cultures disappear. It's sad, but it happens, even without any violence or ill will. And at least these languages won't be lost, like, say, Etruscan. And we can always hope for the standard American third-generation re-discovery of their roots to revive it.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:50 PM on February 3, 2013


I'm sure it was another Assyrian dialect, but I do remember my wife telling me that she visited this village in Syria (in 2008) where her Syrian friends/ interlocutors told her they spoke Aramaic "just as Jesus did" or something like that. I was hoping the piece would have commented even a bit on how things have changed (or haven't) with the current conflict in Syria; I'm presuming all these far-flung communities would be affected quite a bit.
posted by the cydonian at 7:24 PM on February 3, 2013


There are a LOT of dialects that qualify as Aramaic, and their histories are far too divergent to be mutually intelligible. You have the spoken languages of remote Christian villages in Syria and Iraq. You have the Aramaic of the Book of Daniel. You have Aramaic all over the Talmud. And then there is Syriac, the liturgical Aramaic that remains in use in the Churches of the East. And the dialects being discussed in that article tell a sad story. That Aramaic survived shows the rigid apartheid that prevailed for centuries in the Levant. That it's dying out tells of how the last century's fanaticism drove these people out to the West, where their language will die in the American melting pot.

Syriac and Talmudic Aramaic will never die out. The others are endangered for the same reason Picard is endangered. You can only isolate yourself from the world for so long.
posted by ocschwar at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2013


"Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?"

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
posted by prepmonkey at 9:27 PM on February 3, 2013


"Aramaic" refers to a lot of different semitic languages and dialects spoken by a lot of different communties. The language is also known as "Syriac".

I actually studied Syriac in college. Not extensively, but enough that I was once able to read it and had a functioning understanding of how the vocabulary worked. It's a very particular expression of Aramaic, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was the dominant literary language in the Middle East from 4th to the 8th centuries, and important because many of the earliest versions of the Gospels are written in Syriac. Got an A in the class, but mostly because my given name is Matthew, my nickname is Max, and my lunchbox said "Steve" on it, which so flummoxed my instructor that he wasn't sure what my name was and so never called on me in class, even though I was only one of three students.

Alas, all I remember now is endless variations of phrases that involved "Uncle" "eaten" and "wolf." The wolf has eaten the uncle. The uncle has eaten the wolf.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:19 PM on February 3, 2013


Actually, a lot of the language we refer to as "hebrew prayers" are actually in Aramaic. The "bar" in "bar mitzvah" is from Aramaic (it is ben in Hebrew.) By the time the Talmud was composed, Aramaic was no longer used as a spoken language in Jewish communities, but the influence of written Aramaic in Jewish literature is very strong. The Zohar was written in a sort of made-up, composed "fake" Aramaic to give it a bit of theological street cred. Many terms in Yiddish derive from Aramaic, such as the diminutive ending -enyu as in "Gottenyu." and the Ashkenazic pronounciation of Hebrew is more conservative of Aramaic forms for vowels and some consonents, which are quite different in Modern Hebrew.
posted by zaelic at 2:12 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


ocschwar: "The others are endangered for the same reason Picard is endangered."

Oh, I'm sure Riker and Data will save him at the last minute.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:44 PM on February 5, 2013


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picard_language

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorrain_language

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champenois

The coalescence of France into a single nation killed a lot of languages.
posted by ocschwar at 6:45 AM on February 6, 2013


Speaking as a hardcore fundamentalist Christian, I can tell you we are more interested in Koine Greek because that is what the New Testament is written in.

And the oldest extent manuscripts of the Old Testament.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:51 PM on February 26, 2013


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