Is the Islamic State Exterminating the Language of Jesus?

We may be watching the deliberate destruction of Aramaic, unfolding in real time
Is the Islamic State Exterminating the Language of Jesus?

by Ross Perlin | Foreign Policy | August 14, 2014


Qaraqosh, Tel Kepe, and Karamlesh are just three of the Iraqi towns on the Nineveh plains captured in early August by the Islamic State (IS), but they represent the last major concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world.

Pushing northeast of Mosul towards Kurdistan, the jihadist army now occupies the ancient heart of Christian Iraq. According to U.N. officials, roughly 200,000 Christians fled their homes on the Nineveh plains on the night of Aug. 6, justifiably fearful that IS fighters would expel them, kill them, or force them to convert. A local archbishop, Joseph Thomas, described the situation as “catastrophic, a crisis beyond imagination.” Beyond the urgent humanitarian crisis lies a cultural and linguistic emergency of historic proportions. The extinction of a language in its homeland is rarely a natural process, but almost always reflects the pressures, persecutions, and discriminations endured by its speakers. Linguist Ken Hale famously compared the destruction of a language to “dropping a bomb on the Louvre” — whole patterns of thought, ways of being, and entire systems of knowledge are among what is lost. If the last Aramaic speaker finally passes away two generations from now, the language will not have died of natural causes.

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.

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