THE LAST OF THE ARAMAIC SPEAKERS
Geoffrey Khan had almost given up. A linguist at the University of Cambridge, he was in Tbilisi, Georgia, to find the last speakers of a rare dialect of Aramaic. The first of his three leads, an old man in his 80s or 90s, had a stroke the previous month, and could no longer talk. The second, an elderly woman of nervous disposition, lived by herself with four howling rottweilers who made conversation impossible. The next day he visited the third address, a tall Soviet-style apartment block with dark corridors. A tiny old woman answered the door, and as she served him tea at the kitchen table, her hand started shaking.
“She was exhausted just pouring. I didn’t know if she would survive the interview,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Can I ask you a few questions about your language? You’re one of the final speakers.’ This little frail arm came over the table and grabbed my wrist and she said, ‘Ask me, ask me anything you like.’ I asked her a few questions and said, ‘I don’t want to exhaust you, have you had enough?’ She said no and gripped me tighter, telling me to ask everything I needed to know.
“She was looking at me and I knew she felt she had to tell me everything because she was the end of a line of language that goes back 3,000 years. She didn’t let me go for two hours. It was very emotional.”
“The final voices are with us for another 10 years, but will be silent very soon,” says Khan.
Partially as a result, there has been a recent surge of interest, with 11 of the leading academics in the field spending up to 10 months this past year at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University (HUJI), comparing notes on individual projects and working together on a new book of neo-Aramaic. At the end of May, an academic conference marking the end of the joint study year attracted around 50 people.
“That was practically everyone in the world” working on it, says Professor Steven Fassberg, Caspar Levias Chair in Ancient Semitic Languages at HUJI, who co-convened the conference. “It is a hot topic – at least in certain circles.”
What makes the effort so difficult is that modern Aramaic is not one language but more like a family of languages, with up to 150 different dialects. None of them sound like the language of the Babylonian Talmud or of Jesus. According to Professor Otto Jastrow, professor of Arabic in the department of Middle East and Asian studies at the Estonian Institute of Humanities of the Tallinn University.
Nevertheless, there is a direct relationship. Aramaic emerged around 1,000 BCE in the Middle East, and spread throughout the area nowadays known as Kurdistan – northern Iraq, western Iran and south-eastern Turkey. Like all languages, it evolved over time (Khan notes that modern English-speakers can barely understand texts like Beowulf, written in old English just 1,000 years ago). It also evolved geographically, particularly as many speakers lived in isolated villages deep in the mountains. And for the past millennium, there has also been a split between Christian and Jewish speakers, whose dialects can differ radically.
Aramaic’s downfall was that its speakers – Christians, Jews and Mandaeans — were all minorities in the Middle East, and over the past century have suffered such persecution that they have mostly dispersed. Jewish speakers moved mainly to Israel between the 1950s and 1970s. Christian speakers, moved throughout Western Europe and America, but are also found in the Caucasus, Lebanon, and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Turlock, California, is “the Mecca” of Aramaic speakers.