11. The Assyrians and Aramaic: Speaking the Oldest Living Language of the Middle East
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Abstract: Far too many people are surprised when they hear that a substantial community exists worldwide that still speaks Aramaic as its mother language. But in another 50 years, will today’s surprise be the reality? Can Aramaic survive as a living language if its speakers are driven into diaspora and scattered worldwide?
In the following article I will address three issues:
- How have Assyrians retained Aramaic into the 21th century?
- Will they be able to continue the language?
- Under what circumstances can Aramaic survive?
Changing Language Use Patterns
In this ever more global cultural environment, language has ceased to be associated with a region or country. Instead, the rise of English as an international language of business is creating a new paradigm for global language use different from French when used for international diplomacy, and Latin or Arabic as used in the past.
English today (and some posit, Chinese in the next century), serves to connect people whose schooling language is not English. In China today, teaching English is big business.
Where does this switch to English leave the speakers of small languages, some of which, like Aramaic were the international languages of their day (8th c BCE – 8th c CE).
Aramaic speakers face a dilemma: to what extent can they embrace multi-lingualism? Through what means?
For speakers of small languages multilingualism is an absolute necessity. Managing three languages on a written and spoken level, people like the Baluchis, Lezgin or Assyrians is a major challenge. Depending on circumstances, the written form of the native language of small groups often gives way, even if the spoken language is retained. Will this scenario explain Aramaic retention?
Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers?
Nearly three thousand years ago, Aramaic speakers were concentrated in the Near East, with their heartland in Mesopotamia. Writers and readers of Aramaic, an elite group trained specifically for political, commercial and religious employment, centered in the areas covered by Iraq, Syria, and adjacent areas.
Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world. Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering.
The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian’s Wall.
With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it.
At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan).
The number for the world Assyrian population varies but the general agreement is that fully half of this population now lives in Diaspora outside the Middle East. Persecution of Assyrians, beginning with Kurdish attacks during the mid-19th century, followed by Ottoman Turkish genocide attempt during World War I, and culminating a hundred years later in the anti-Christian expansion of radical Muslim extremists, have displaced and driven into refugee camps a large number of Assyrians. The largest Diaspora lives in English speaking regions – the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK – possibly as high as one million – while large numbers live in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria. This latter group constituted about 500,000 at the start of the 21st century but Diaspora numbers have been growing with the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
The largest Diaspora, or a significant portion of modern Aramaic speakers, live in English speaking and writing environments, while another large percentage is exposed to English through schools in Europe, South America and Russia. In this single fact of Diaspora may lie the seeds for the retention of Aramaic.
All sources agree that knowledge of modern Aramaic, in whichever dialect, has declined in Diaspora. The communities in Diaspora face major roadblocks to language retention:
- strength and attraction of the state language no matter where they live
- educational institutions use of the state language or bilingualism with narrow definitions prejudicial to smaller languages
- broadcast and entertainment use of the state language
Aramaic in the Middle East
In the Middle East, the situation of modern Aramaic is in turmoil. Most specifically in Iraq, the status of modern Aramaic is both hopeful and desperate.
Northern Iraq has the largest concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world. Largely located in villages scattered north, east and southeast of Mosul, many of these villages have been depopulated and destroyed over the course of Iraqi history.
In the era of Saddam Hussein, when Assyrians were dropped from the 1977 census in favor of the sectarian name Christian, some 200 villages were systematically razed. Their survivors sought shelter in larger cities – Dohuk, Arbil, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. For many, these urban centers served as the stepping stones to emigration from the region.
The breakdown of ancient villages, coupled with the virulent nationalism that came to fruition in the mid 20th century in autocratic Middle Eastern States from Turkey to Iran to Iraq and Syria, devastated use and knowledge of Aramaic.
In Iran, on the contrary, prior to World War I, Aramaic expanded into strong educational institutions as well as print media, no less than four Assyrian periodicals were published in Urmiah (northwest Iran), all under Western missionary tutelege. After the “cleansing” of the area of its Christians, no books, no periodicals, no publications reappeared at all.
A similar demographic downturn is seen in Turkey – despite current hopeful signs – in the West Bank, and in Lebanon. Syria and Iraq remained the possible islands of hope for Aramaic. But these countries have dissolved into chaos as have whatever institutions such as Aramaic teaching schools that had existed.
The Effect of State Languages on Aramaic
Throughout the world where Assyrians live the rise of nationalism and national languages has broken down knowledge of Aramaic. In Iran after 1934 when foreign mission schools were forced closed, literacy in Aramaic dropped by about 90% in one generation.
Iraq and the Preservation of Aramaic
Out of the chaos of Iraq grows the hope for Aramaic. Out of the immigration to English dominant countries may come the hope for Aramaic retention in Diaspora.
In Iraq, an embryonic system of elementary and secondary Aramaic instructional schools was developed in the north mainly on the Nineveh Plain, that area southeast of Mosul where a substantial number of Assyrian villages such as Alqosh and Baghdeda provided concentrated numbers, perhaps as high as half a million persons. They functioned under the guidance of Mr. Yonan Hozaya who served as the cultural pivot of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) during the late 1990s and into the early decade of the 21st century.
The preservation of Aramaic has also made halting progress in English-speaking areas of the world. In Sydney Australia, an elementary school appeared in 2002. At the same time, another school appeared in Los Angeles under the aegis of the Assyrian Church of the East. But the communities in Los Angeles are scattered geographically and drawing a core student body has proven difficult. The school closed after a few years. Another church affiliated school has come into being in 2012 among the large Assyrian community of San Jose in Silicon Valley. Some hope exists for a charter school in the Chicago area.
For the first time, spoken Aramaic has been offered to students during the 2015-16 academic year as an elective at San Jose State University. This offering differs considerably from the academic study of Talmudic Aramaic, Empire Aramaic and other highly specialized but dead languages that relate to either Biblical or ancient studies.
The most systematic and institutionalized schools for Assyrians were established in the former Soviet Union because Aramaic, as spoken by Assyrians was one of the 100 nationality languages recognized by Moscow, and therefore funded on a cultural and educational level. With the breakdown of the Soviet cultural system that sponsored “nationalities,” these Assyrian schools have decreased or disappeared except in locations such as Urmiah (sic) an Assyrian enclave in Krasnodar.
In many respects, Aramaic may be more easily preserved in English speaking areas due to the fact that it need not be studied as a third language, but as a second or first language.
The obstacles in the the preservation of Aramaic are many: immigration from concentrated areas like Urmiah, northern Iraq, the villages of Tur Abdin, Qamishly and Hasake is just the most obvious reason. Added to this is the decline in vocabulary, spoken dialects, the loss of prestige to state languages, and the lack of recognition of its cultural role in the Middle East. Some of these reasons are tied to the general decline and abuse of Christian populations in the Middle East.
But the trend may be partially reversible in Iraq under the following conditions:
- Establishment of an Aramaic using cultural and administrative zone
- Support for the elevation of Aramaic, Syriac and the spoken language of the Iraqi Assyrian community at institutions of higher learning not just in Mosul, but also in Arbil, Dohuk, Baghdad.
- Support of internet language teaching programs for the diaspora
Many factors mitigate against the preservation of small languages. In the case of Aramaic, many historical factors work for its preservation.