Sunday, February 22, 2004
JERUSALEM An ancient, dying language gets a new life on
American movie screens this week.
Some linguists, who fear the language spoken by Jesus (search)
could vanish within a few decades, hope for a boost from
Mel Gibson's (search) new film, "The Passion of the Christ,"
opening Wednesday in U.S. theaters. It is performed entirely
in Aramaic and Latin.
Among the few places in the world where Aramaic is still
familiar is a small Syrian Orthodox (search) church in
Jerusalem, though even here it is little more than an echo
A church elder laments that he has few people to speak to in
Aramaic besides the monks. Parts of the liturgy have to be
done in Arabic. And a nun who sings the Lord's Prayer says
the words are just about the only ones she can recite in Aramaic.
Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the Middle East and parts
of Asia. Today, the Syrian Orthodox community in Jerusalem offers
Aramaic in summer school, but there is little interest and fewer
than half the 600 members speak the language.
"Maybe the new generation will wake up and continue," said Sami
Barsoum, 69, a community leader and fluent Aramaic-speaker.
Just a half-million people around the world, mostly Christians,
still speak Aramaic at home.
"Undoubtedly, Aramaic is in danger of disappearing," said Moshe
Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language
Aramaic is one of the few languages that has been spoken
continuously for thousands of years. It first appeared in
written records around the 10th century B.C. although it
was likely spoken earlier.
It is a Semitic language and has similarities with Hebrew
and Arabic. Carpenter, for instance, is "nagouro" in Aramaic,
"nagar" in Hebrew and "najar" in Arabic.
Aramaic reached its widest influence when it was adopted by
the Persian empire around 500 B.C. Written in a 22-letter
alphabet -- similar to Hebrew's square-shaped letters -- it
was a relatively simple language, and scribes and intellectuals
helped spread it in a largely illiterate world, Bar-Asher said.
Aramaic texts have turned up as far apart as India and Egypt.
Jews returning from exile in Babylon around 500 B.C. helped
spread the language to the eastern Mediterranean, where it
largely supplanted Hebrew.
Scholars believe Jesus might have known Hebrew -- which by that
time was reserved mainly for use in synagogues and by upper
classes -- and some Greek, but Aramaic was the language of
his native Galilee.
The New Testament records Jesus' last words on the cross in
Aramaic: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" St. Mark, most likely
writing in Greek, adds, "... which means, 'My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?"' (Mark 15:34).
Michael Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at
Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said it is believed that parts
of the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic, but only Greek
writings have been found.
Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic during the Islamic conquest
of the 7th century.
Today, a few people speak it in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey,
Lebanon, India, Europe, Australia and some U.S. cities, including
In Syria, once the core of indigenous Christian Aramaic speakers,
the language is still heard among 10,000 people in three villages
perched on cliff sides in the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus.
But it is dwindling as the older generation dies, said George
Rizkallah, a 63-year-old retired Syrian teacher. Rizkallah has
appealed to the Syrian government and international organizations
to help save the language.
A few thousand Israelis who immigrated from other Middle East
countries still speak Aramaic, but few pass it on to their children.
However, the Talmud and other Jewish religious texts are written
in Aramaic. It appears in the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the
dead, and in Israeli marriage and divorce contracts.
Sokoloff, the Semitic languages professor, is co-authoring an
Gibson's film, depicting Christ's final hours, uses subtitles.
The script was translated into first-century Aramaic for the
Jewish characters and "street Latin" for the Roman characters
by the Rev. William Fulco, director of ancient Mediterranean
studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
John Philip K
Kallumkathra St.George Church/
St.Joseph's Cathedral, Kottayam