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The Language Of Empires Faces Extinction

By NPR Staff | 02/24/2013

For centuries, Aramaic was the language of an entire empire. It was the language of Christ, of biblical scholars, and of the Middle East. And for that reason, Esho Joseph, a former translator for the Iraqi regime who now lives in the U.S., is saddened by its slow disappearance.

"This language ... is ... [of] historical importance," says Joseph, who grew up speaking the language. "... And now it ... [is], you know, dying. It is really painful."

Joseph says it isn't just a loss for those who speak it; it's a loss for human culture and human heritage. He isn't alone in his concerns. As it turns out, there are some efforts to preserve Aramaic.

Ariel Sabar is author of an article on the disappearing language in February's edition of Smithsonian magazine. He says it's astonishing to think that Aramaic could be disappearing because it once was as common as English.

The language was spoken by Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. At its height, it could be heard from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Now, it may be one or two generations away from vanishing. It's only spoken in small villages across northern Iraq, Syria and southern Turkey.

"That led me to this wonderful, scrappy, adventure-seeking group of linguists who have literally criss-crossed the globe in search of these remaining pockets of Aramaic speakers," Sabar tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Most of the towns where Aramaic is spoken are small, mountain hamlets or farming villages. For research on his piece, Sabar, author of My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Family's Past, interviewed five linguists, including Hezi Mutzafi, a scholar at Tel Aviv University.

"He would get a phone call from Finland, someone saying — you know a priest, an Assyrian priest saying — I've got a guy here who speaks this dialect that's never been documented," Sabar said. "And Hezi would sort of drop everything, get on the first plane and go out there, because he was worried that this guy might not live another week.

"I said, 'What is that thrill like?' And he said, 'Remember the scene in Jurassic Park where the scientists come across, you know, a living dinosaur?'"

War and migration have taken a heavy toll on the village cultures whose very isolation preserved Aramaic over the centuries. In the last decade alone, it's estimated that nearly half of all Christians who speak Aramaic have fled Iraq. In his piece, Sabar writes about the search for people from those villages who speak what linguists call a pure dialect.

"[University of Cambridge linguist Geoffrey Khan] said they're speakers of what he called pure dialects," Sabar said. "And by pure he meant typically elderly people who had spent their entire lives in sort of small, isolated villages," Sabar says. "And whose dialects had not been diluted either by, you know, moving to bigger cities where a bunch of different dialects would converge."

There is some effort to preserve Aramaic today in northern Iraq where schools teach the language. But linguists are right to scour the globe searching for the last links to the oldest, purest forms of an ancient language.
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