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The Last Speakers of Aramaic Fight So That the Language of Jesus Christ Does Not Disappear

The language that predominated in biblical times today is spoken by just over half a million people, and most are in the diaspora

"Tallitá kum" (in Aramaic, "Girl, get up"). Courtesy Emmanuel Cusnaider

Talitá, kum (“Girl, get up”), the Iraqi priest, of the Syrian Orthodox rite, Lorans “Jorge” Bahnam, 32, says in Aramaic to his little ten-month-old daughter, Bethlehem, every time he wakes her up in his cradle, in the house of the town of Frías, southwest of Santiago del Estero.

The daily phrase in the life of any family has the particularity of corresponding exactly to a quotation from the Gospel of Saint Mark 5,41, said by Jesus Christ in the account of the miracle of the resurrection of the daughter of the head of a synagogue.

The Syrian Orthodox priest Jorge Bahnam, with his wife Suha and their two young children during the baptism party of the little girl

Although there are several dialects, the Aramaic language has the particularity of being preserved practically unchanged since biblical times, so that some speakers of the 21st century would probably understand each other in their language with Jesus Christ . But the persecution against Christians and the war, a threat more serious than the passage of time, now puts at risk the survival of this at least 3,000-year-old language that is losing strength in the new generations of the diaspora.

Aramaic was one of the major languages ​​of the ancient Middle East. But since the Middle Ages it has been largely superseded by Arabic and Islamic culture. However , it survived into modern times among Christian communities ,” said Geoffrey Khan, a linguist specializing in Semitic languages ​​at the University of Cambridge.

The city of Maaloula in Syria

“But sadly, many languages ​​in the world are experiencing the same fate as Aramaic and are now in danger. The statistics are terrifying. Some estimate that up to 90% of the languages ​​currently spoken will be extinct by the end of this century. This is much higher than the extinction rates of biological species, currently 7% of mammals and 3% of birds in the worst case,” noted Khan.

Today it is estimated that between 500,000 and 900,000 people in the world speak some of the dialects of the language of Jesus Christ. Linguists consider that a group of 100,000 speakers is the minimum for the survival of a language, but in the case of Aramaic the dispersion favors that the new generations prefer to use Arabic or the languages ​​of their country of residence.

Aramaic is currently spoken in Syria (Qamshli, Yabadin, Maalula), Iraq (Bajdida, Bartle, Tel Escof, Ankawa and northern villages), Turkey (Tur Abdin, Mardin, Mediat) and some villages in Iran.

Several biblical books were written in Aramaic, such as Daniel and Ezra, in the Old Testament, and also the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Even in the Spanish version, the New Testament preserves phrases spoken by Jesus in his language, in addition to "Talita kum!", as when he dies on the cross and exclaims: "Eli, Eli, lama sabactani?" (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?), Matthew 27,46.

Experts believe that just as there are currently countries where ordinary people are bilingual or polyglot, as in Paraguay (with Spanish and Guaraní) or in Spain (where Spanish and local languages ​​are spoken), in the first century the Aramaic was the native language in Galilee, but Jesus was also fluent in Hebrew (the religious language of the Jews), and Greek (the administrative language of those times).

"In fact, it probably must have been understood in Greek in his dialogue with the Roman governor Pontius Pilatos," the archbishop of Syrian origin, Monsignor Crisóstomo Juan Gassali, patriarchal vicar for Argentina of the Syrian Orthodox church, commented to LA NACION.

Monsignor Crisóstomo Juan Gassali

But the war threatens to turn Aramaic into a dead language, as Latin is today.

"When the jihadists of the Islamic State arrived to form their caliphate in 2014 , together with my wife Suha, we fled our city of Bajdida, in Nineveh, Iraq, " recalled in dialogue with LA NACION Father "Jorge" -priestly name in the Argentina-. "My wife had already survived a terrorist attack on a bus and we did not want to go through such a situation again , " he said. Thus, while his parents fled to Sweden, the church assigned Father Jorge to the Argentine province of Santiago del Estero, where his two children - 4 years old and 10 months old - were born and where he is the pastoral manager of a hundred families of Syrian origin . "Argentines do not always value this enormous privilege of being able to live in peace and with freedom to profess their faith," he reflected.

For Monsignor Crisostomo, who arrived in Argentina in 2013, "the Peshitta -the Bible in Aramaic- and the liturgy were the main unifying and conservative factor to maintain the same language, even with its own alphabet, since the time of Jesus."

Just as Catholics have schools open to the general population, the Syrian Orthodox Church has schools in the Middle East and in several countries where Aramaic is transmitted to new generations.

Antoinette Makh, instructs her students in Aramaic at a school in Maalula, Syria

"But when I speak with friends from the diaspora, many tell me how nice it would be to meet again in Syria or Iraq, and talk in our language, " said Bishop Crisóstomo nostalgically. “Today everything is a little calmer in our countries, but the infrastructure is destroyed so it is very difficult for the refugees to return. In addition, I lived through the war in Damascus, Syria, between 2011 and 2014 and we know that the situation is always unpredictable. Our Archbishop of Aleppo was kidnapped in 2013 and is still missing. How many times did we say goodbye to someone without knowing if we were going to see him again! But war is like that, it has no codes.

That is why only God knows what will happen to our culture and our language ”.


2021 La Nacion


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