New York Times: In Syrian Villages, the Language of Jesus Lives

Monday, April 28, 2008

An article a few days ago in the New York Times about the state of the Aramaic language, and it's not good.

Malula, once entirely Christian, is almost half Muslim.

Malula, along with two smaller neighboring villages where Aramaic is also spoken, is still celebrated in Syria as a unique linguistic island. In the Convent of St. Sergius and Bacchus, on a hill above town, young girls recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic to tourists, and booklets about the language are on sale at a gift shop in the town center.

But the island has grown smaller over the years, and some local people say they fear it will not last. Once a large population stretching across Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Aramaic-speaking Christians have slowly melted away, some fleeing westward, some converting to Islam.

In recent decades the process has accelerated, with large numbers of Iraqi Christians escaping the violence and chaos of their country.


Malula’s linguistic heritage stirred some interest after the release of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” with its mix of Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew dialogue. Virtually everyone in town seems to have seen the film, but few said they understood it. That was not their fault: it included different dialects of Aramaic, and the actors’ pronunciation made it hard to understand anything, said Mr. Sabar, the Semitic languages professor.

Aramaic has also changed over the centuries, taking on features of Syrian Arabic, Mr. Sabar said.

But most residents of Malula believe that their town’s ancestral language is still the same one Jesus spoke, and will speak again when he returns.


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