LONDON — Geoffrey Khan had almost given up. A linguist at the University of Cambridge, he was in Tbilisi, Georgia, to find the last speakers of a rare dialect of Aramaic. The first of his three leads, an old man in his 80s or 90s, had a stroke the previous month, and could no longer talk. The second, an elderly woman of nervous disposition, lived by herself with four howling rottweilers who made conversation impossible. The next day he visited the third address, a tall Soviet-style apartment block with dark corridors. A tiny old woman answered the door, and as she served him tea at the kitchen table, her hand started shaking.
“She was exhausted just pouring. I didn’t know if she would survive the interview,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Can I ask you a few questions about your language? You’re one of the final speakers.’ This little frail arm came over the table and grabbed my wrist and she said, ‘Ask me, ask me anything you like.’ I asked her a few questions and said, ‘I don’t want to exhaust you, have you had enough?’ She said no and gripped me tighter, telling me to ask everything I needed to know.
“She was looking at me and I knew she felt she had to tell me everything because she was the end of a line of language that goes back 3,000 years. She didn’t let me go for two hours. It was very emotional.”
For most people, that there are any native speakers of Aramaic left at all will come as a surprise. In fact there are half-a-million, and Khan is one of a tiny band of researchers trying to document their speech. But it is a race against time. The most fluent speakers are all beyond retirement age, and the language is expected to die within a generation.
‘The final voices are with us for another 10 years, but will be silent very soon’
“The final voices are with us for another 10 years, but will be silent very soon,” says Khan.
Partially as a result, there has been a recent surge of interest, with 11 of the leading academics in the field spending up to 10 months this past year at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University (HUJI), comparing notes on individual projects and working together on a new book of neo-Aramaic. At the end of May, an academic conference marking the end of the joint study year attracted around 50 people.
“That was practically everyone in the world” working on it, says Professor Steven Fassberg, Caspar Levias Chair in Ancient Semitic Languages at HUJI, who co-convened the conference. “It is a hot topic – at least in certain circles.”
What makes the effort so difficult is that modern Aramaic is not one language but more like a family of languages, with up to 150 different dialects. None of them sound like the language of the Babylonian Talmud or of Jesus. According to Professor Otto Jastrow, professor of Arabic in the department of Middle East and Asian studies at the Estonian Institute of Humanities of the Tallinn University, “a speaker from biblical times wouldn’t understand a single word, or even recognize it’s Aramaic.”
‘A speaker from biblical times wouldn’t understand a single word, or even recognize it’s Aramaic’
Nevertheless, there is a direct relationship. Aramaic emerged around 1,000 BCE in the Middle East, and spread throughout the area nowadays known as Kurdistan – northern Iraq, western Iran and south-eastern Turkey. Like all languages, it evolved over time (Khan notes that modern English-speakers can barely understand texts like Beowulf, written in old English just 1,000 years ago). It also evolved geographically, particularly as many speakers lived in isolated villages deep in the mountains. And for the past millennium, there has also been a split between Christian and Jewish speakers, whose dialects can differ radically.
Aramaic’s downfall was that its speakers – Christians, Jews and Mandaeans — were all minorities in the Middle East, and over the past century have suffered such persecution that they have mostly dispersed. Jewish speakers moved mainly to Israel between the 1950s and 1970s. Christian speakers, who are by far the larger group – perhaps as much as 85 percent, says Khan – moved throughout Western Europe and America, but are also found in the Caucasus, Lebanon, and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Turlock, California, is “the Mecca” of Aramaic speakers.
In Sweden there are enough people to support a newspaper, radio show and television station, while famously, Mel Gibson managed to film parts of his 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” in Aramaic. (Khan says that he has consulted on a couple of Exorcist spin-offs where either the devil or God spoke Aramaic.)
In Israel, a group meets in Jerusalem every few weeks to read poetry together; one budding poet even wrote verse about Khan. There were Aramaic plays staged in Holon but it is becoming harder to find actors and audience members and an Israeli Aramaic journal has folded.
As in most immigrant communities, the difficulty is transmitting the language to the next generation, who assimilate into the culture of the majority.
“It dies in stages,” says Khan. “The second generation will understand and still be able to communicate, but there is already a loss of vocabulary, particularly to do with the traditional way of life. There is often a desire to pass it to the third generation, but it is hard to pass on the language in all its richness.”
In fact, by the third generation, there is usually very little Aramaic left. And after decades in the “diaspora,” even native speakers may find that they can’t speak as well as they used to, or that their vocabulary has been influenced by friends and family from other regions, making it hard for researchers to find “pure” examples of particular dialects.
Tracking them down, says Jastrow, can be like “a detective novel.” The German professor was one of the pioneers in neo-Aramaic, specializing in the 1960s after realizing how rare it was to be able to study a language that had been spoken continuously for 3,000 years. In the early years he conducted fieldwork among Christian speakers in Turkey without the requisite research permit, which he felt was unlikely to be granted because the community was oppressed. He was eventually arrested, interrogated and expelled from the country.
He is particularly proud of finding two “final speakers” of Aramaic dialects, including one, in Syria, to whom he was introduced while searching for an Arabic dialect also nearing extinction.
“He was afraid to talk to me, but I got enough to write a book,” he says.
The last speaker died in 1998.
The death of the dialect, says Jastrow, “is very sad but you see it coming. The process stretches over years or decades. But you also care for the people. In Western Europe where neo-Aramaic is dying, but the people are well-established and integrating into Western European society, it is a linguistic tragedy but you don’t feel sorry for the people themselves. It’s a different story when the people are massacred and dispersed around the globe.”
Fassberg has never needed to venture further afield than Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for his Aramaic research, as there are strong concentrations of speakers in the moshavim surrounding Jerusalem and in its suburbs. But even in this limited region, finding good speakers can be a lengthy process. Fassberg recalls how one man originally from the village of Challa in Turkey referred him to a friend’s Aramaic-speaking father-in-law, who in turn led him to a retired policeman who came to Israel in the 1930s on a donkey.
“He already wasn’t a very good speaker but he had a cousin who came to Israel in 1951 as an adult. He spoke to me freely and when he died a few years ago, with him died the entire Aramaic of his village,” Fassberg says.
He finds the process emotional from a national-religious perspective.
‘It’s an unbroken tradition from the days of the Talmud. They have been there since the Babylonian exile’
“It’s tracing Judaism back to its roots,” he says. “It’s an unbroken tradition from the days of the Talmud. They have been there since the Babylonian exile.”
Inevitably, he is exposed to harrowing stories of life back in Kurdistan, including stories of siblings being kidnapped by Muslims, converted and married off. As an American-born oleh who grew up in a safe environment, this can be difficult to listen to.
“I heard of one person who went back to Kurdistan to meet up with his sister, who had [willingly] converted and brought her children up as Muslims,” he says. “He was very upset to talk.”
On the whole, however, his sources are not overly emotional about their histories.
“A lot of the things are over 50 years old.”
Fassberg says that the native Aramaic speakers know that their language is nearing its end, but are too old to do anything about it themselves. But Khan says that the Aramaic-speaking community needs to take a role in the language’s preservation. He has fundraised among them in the States to pay for a research assistant, who ran sessions in Iraq training Aramaic-speakers to record their own language. He is also in the process of building a website with recordings of different dialects, for the communities themselves to use.
Khan – who is a Christian Briton with Indian heritage – fell in love with neo-Aramaic after 10 years of studying the manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah. After a month looking at microfilms in a dark room in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, he decided to venture into the sunshine and find an Aramaic speaker “for fun.”
“Trying to investigate a spoken language with a living speaker blew my mind,” says the Regius Professor of Hebrew from his Cambridge office, which is lined with mostly Hebrew books, including the Mishnah. “Instead of a manuscript, I had a human being, and language was part of them. It really brought it to life.”
Ironically one of the peculiarities of studying neo-Aramaic is that there are very few manuscripts; it is a largely oral tradition, which makes documenting modern speech even more important.
“The Talmud is a record of oral discussion,” Khan notes. “They were not writing books, they were writing law. The Talmud is in vernacular language and our knowledge of the modern vernacular helps us understand that – although I’m not sure yeshiva bochurs would be very excited about this.”
Worryingly, he says that Jewish Aramaic is even more vulnerable to extinction that its Christian counterparts, partially because of the ideal of speaking Hebrew in Israel. He urges Jews around the world not to be complacent about the impending death of the language and to do what they can to support research and documentation, financially and otherwise.
‘When one talks about Jewish heritage, language is critically part of that’
“When one talks about Jewish heritage, language is critically part of that,” he says.
Jastrow notes that academic research into neo-Aramaic began far later in Israel than elsewhere and that although it has now caught up, there is still particularly low awareness in Israel.
“Kurds in Israel are not regarded as a Jewish group of high culture or education – rather the opposite, they are looked down upon,” he says. “This is completely unjust, and is based on ignorance of the public who haven’t realized they spoke extremely interesting languages and had a very elaborate popular culture.”
So can the entire family of languages be documented in time?
Fassberg says that the Aramaic of the larger villages and towns has largely been recorded, the grammars written and the texts published, but there is still much work to be done on the languages of the smaller villages. They will continue going, he vows, “till the last native Aramaic speaker is gone.”