A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 26, 2011

Aramaic Part 2b: Spoken Aramaic Today: Eastern Neo-Aramaics

This is the last of my pre-cooked vacation posts from my undisclosed location. Back to normal bloggery on Monday whether I have caught Qadhafi by then or not. Assuming Washington is still there. They've already had an earthquake and broken the Washington Monument, and have a Category 3 Hurricane waiting for the drive home. Was it something I said?

Yesterday's post dealt with the Western variety of spoken Aramaic today. Today I'm going to deal swith the eastern. They are not equal; although far better known to Western feature-writers and tour organizers as "the last speakers of the language Jesus spoke," Western Aramaic speakers today number only some 15,000 (generally bilingual in Arabic); speakers of the eastern variety (also usually bilingual in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Hebrew, or a Western language depending on where they live) may number over half a million in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Israel, Georgia, and a diaspora in Europe, the US, Australia and beyond. Most are Christian, but there are Jewish and Mandaean speakers of Aramaic as well.(I'm using Wikipedia a lot here, which seems to depend heavily on Ethnologue, though I have some limited personal experience of these communities.) Nor do I deal here with Aramaic as a liturgical language, which it is in multiple forms of Christianity from the Middle East to India, normative Judaism, Karaite Judaism, Samaritanism, and Mandaeanism.

The largest number by far speak what is classed as "Northeastern Neo-Aramaic," a group of closely related languages usually calling themselves Suret, Surayt, Suroyo, or Suryoyo. All of these mean "Syriac." They are sometimes divided into Turoyo, Assyrian, and Chaldean. These are not linguistic divisions but sectarian ones. Turoyo, taking its name from Tur Abdin in Turkey, is mostly spoken by members of the Syriac Orthodox ("Jacobite") Church; Assyrian is applied to the language of followers of the Assyrian Church of the East (the "Nestorian" Church in Western Christian terminology, once the Church of Asia from Iran to India to China), while "Chaldean" refers to those Christians who, in 1830, left the Assyrian Church of the East and accepted the primacy of Rome, becoming an "Eastern Rite" of the Catholic Church.

These Christian languages, really minor variations of the same language, are all spoken by a people driven from their traditional homelands in eastern Turkey and dispersed int Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and usually subsumed under the term "Assyrian." Their complex and tragic history is a topic for another day. "Assyrian" and "Chaldean," of course evoke two great ancient Mesopotamian Empires, and modern adherents try to claim continuity (as the Copts do for Ancient Egypt). Neither the Assyrian nor Chaldean ("Neo-Babylonian") Empire spoke Aramaic as their native language, but both used it as their administrative language, so the claimed identities, if a bit fanciful, are not pure fantasy.

There are still some remnants of Jewish Aramaic speakers in the Middle East (particularly among Kurdish Jews, many now in Israel, but also in small, disappearing islands around the region and up into the Caucasus). There is also the outlier case of Mandaic. Most Mandaeans speak Arabic or Farsi, swith the Classical Mandaic liturgy used in their rituals, but there is a relic community still speaking it, mostly around Ahvaz in Iranian Khuzistan. It is not mutually intelligible with other forms of Eastern Neo-Aramaic.

To end this lecture, an interview with a man in northern Iraq who's been teaching "Assyrian" for 38 years. No, I don't know what he's saying, but if you wish to hear the sound:

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