The Death of Aramaic

Aramaic Language


Image: Aramaic Script Styles


According to an article published in Foreign Policy, ISIS, the Islamic militant group that has occupied portions of Iraq and Syria, has murdered thousands of Christians and forced them to flee their villages. ISIS’ purge of Assyrian Christians is placing in danger the survival of their language, Aramaic.

Many people living in northern Iraq are Assyrian Christians who speak various dialects of Aramaic, a language that has been spoken for more than 3,000 years. With the rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire in the seventh century B.C., Aramaic became the language that was spoken throughout the ancient Near East. The persecution and extermination of Assyrian Christians by ISIS is threatening the survival of the language spoken by many people living in the time of Jesus.

Below is an excerpt from the article published in Foreign Policy:

Aramaic covers a wide range of Semitic languages and dialects, all related but often mutually incomprehensible, now mostly extinct or endangered. The last available estimates of the number of Aramaic speakers, from the 1990s, put the population as high as 500,000, of whom close to half were thought to be in Iraq. Today the actual number is likely to be much lower; speakers are scattered across the globe, and fewer and fewer children are speaking the language. Nowhere does Aramaic have official status or protection.

It’s a mighty fall for what was once almost a universal language. First spoken over 3,000 years ago by the nomadic Arameans in what is now Syria, Aramaic rose to prominence as the language of the Assyrian empire. It was the English of its time, a lingua franca spoken from India to Egypt. Aramaic outlasted the rise and fall of empires, flourishing under Babylonian power and again under the First Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C.E.

Millions used it in trade, diplomacy, and daily life. Even after Alexander the Great imposed Greek on his vast dominions in the fourth century B.C.E., Aramaic continued to spread and spawn new dialects — for instance in ancient Palestine, where it gradually replaced spoken Hebrew. It was in Aramaic that the original “writing on the wall,” at the Feast of King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, foretold the fall of Babylon.

Nearly three millennia of continuous records exist for Aramaic; only Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek have an equally long written legacy. For many religions, Aramaic has had sacred or near-sacred status. It is the presumed mother tongue of Jesus, who is reported in the Gospel of Matthew to have said on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) It came to be used in the Jewish Talmud, in the Eastern Christian churches (where it is known as Syriac), and as the ritual and everyday language of the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious minority in Iran and Iraq.

Centuries after Alexander, Aramaic continued to hold its own across much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was only after Arabic began spreading across the region in the seventh century C.E. that Aramaic speakers retreated into isolated mountain communities. The speakers of these varied “Neo-Aramaic” dialects were primarily Jews and Christians in what is now northern Iraq (including Kurdistan), northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey. Most Christian Aramaic speakers refer to themselves as Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Arameans.

ISIS’ campaign of violence and terror against innocent people in general and against Assyrian Christians in particular may destroy what the Persians, Greeks, and Romans could not destroy: the culture of a group of people who still pray in the language the early Christians used.

Many of the Aramaic speaking Jews have fled to Israel. But the Christians in Iraq have no place to go. Many of them have remained in Iraq. Others, fortunate enough to escape Islamic fanaticism, have fled to the United States and found refuge in places such as Michigan, California, and Chicago.

Christians everywhere should be concerned about these Assyrian Christians. A few days ago, the United States returned to Iraq to rescue some of these Aramaic speaking Christians and to try to stop ISIS. It is my prayer that the United States will succeed and that our nation will be able to rescue these Aramaic speaking Christians.

And let us do all that we can to rescue their language also.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to The Death of Aramaic

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival - August 2014 - Biblical StudiesBiblical Studies

  2. Pingback: Summer’s End: A Brief Update. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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