Fox News Report: Some See Hope for Dying Tongue in 'Passion'
- Source URL: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,112160,00.html
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 could vanish
within a few decades, hope for a boost from Mel Gibson's 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 church in Jerusalem, though even here it is
little more than an echo these days.
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 in Jerusalem.
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
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 Aramaic
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.