The world's top experts in
endangered languages meet at UNESCO
Paris – As the linguistic diversity of the
planet shrinks at an unprecedented rate, to the point that
most of the world's languages may be replaced by a few
dominant languages by the end of the 21st century, the top
experts in this field, from the scientific community and
non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are to meet at UNESCO
from March 10 to 12.
06-03-2003 2:14 pm
"Safeguarding of Endangered Languages" is the title of the
International Expert Meeting on the UNESCO programme that
will seek to identify the means to combat the phenomenon of
linguistic decline and to establish UNESCO's specific role
in the actions to be taken.
The meeting will be opened by UNESCO Director-General
Koïchiro Matsuura, who says that "the preservation of
languages, which are a vector of humanity’s intangible
heritage, is a priority for the Organization." He adds: "As
the guardian of cultural diversity, UNESCO must reinforce
its action to encourage governments to fight against the
decline of thousands of languages. This in no way means
weakening dominant languages, but rather to build truly
multicultural societies in which nobody feels excluded."
The Director-General's speech will be followed by the
screening of nine short films produced by Discovery
Communications Inc. in partnership with UNESCO and the UN
Works programme. These short films, which highlight the
stories of speakers of endangered languages, were shot in
Scotland, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Argentina
and India, and were distributed during International Mother
Language Day on February 21.
Some 40 high-level linguists will be present at the March
10-12 meeting, including Michael Krauss (United States),
Herbert Chimhundu (Zimbabwe), Margarita Lukina (Russia), Sun
Hongkai (China), Lachman Khubchandani (India), Eithne Carlin
(The Netherlands), Tapani Salminen (Finland), Joseph Palacio
(Belize), Bruna Franchetto (Brazil) and David Crystal
(United Kingdom), who will open the debates with a speech
entitled, "Crossing the Great Divide: Language Endangerment
and Public Awareness".
Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former President to Iceland and
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages, as well as
representatives of NGOs such as Terralingua, SIL
International and the European Bureau for Lesser Used
Languages (EBLUL), among others, will also attend.
"About 97% of the world’s people speak about 4% of the
world’s languages; and conversely, about 96% of the world’s
languages are spoken by about 3% of the world’s people. Most
of the world’s language heterogeneity, then, is under the
stewardship of a very small number of people; at least 50%
of the world’s nearly six thousand languages are losing
speakers. Even languages with many thousands of speakers are
no longer being acquired by children. We estimate that about
90% of the world’s languages may be replaced by dominant
languages by the end of the 21st century."
This evaluation is from the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on
Endangered Languages, made up of a dozen specialists who
wrote the working document for the meeting entitled
"Language Vitality and Endangerment". The participants will
give updates on the state of linguistic research, linguistic
diversity in different regions of the world, and solutions
on how to fight the decline of many languages.
They will propose courses of action that could underpin
UNESCO's future programme aimed at safeguarding endangered
languages. As an organization committed to protecting
cultural diversity and the intangible heritage of humanity,
UNESCO can play a key role in encouraging and helping member
states to preserve and revitalize languages under threat,
should the communities concerned so wish.
According to the preliminary proposals from the Ad Hoc
Expert Group on Endangered Languages, five types of measures
can contribute to this goal: training teachers and produce
teaching materials; establish local language research
centres; implement linguistic policies promoting diversity;
develop language courses; and improve the living conditions
of communities speaking endangered languages.
language of Jesus is dying out
March 24, 2003
The modern world is
encroaching upon the village at a rapid pace, and no longer
can Maalula be considered remote. A paved highway whisks
commuters to Damascus in 45 minutes. Satellite dishes beam
programs from around the world - none of them in Aramaic -
into local living rooms. Job opportunities are scarce, and
the younger generation is moving away, to the cities and
overseas, taking with them what may turn out to be the last
memories of this ancient language.
Within a few decades at
most, Maalulans believe, Aramaic will have passed into
"In 10 or 20 years, it
will be dead. The children don't speak it anymore, and all
the young people are moving to Damascus," said Maria Hadi,
30, who grew up speaking Aramaic but moved to the city to
attend high school and has forgotten the language of her
Maalula is the last place where they still speak Aramaic
as that Christ fellow would've spoken it two thousand years
ago, and only about two thousand people still speak it
In Jesus movie, some
see hope for a dying tongue
Gibson's film features
dialogue in Aramaic, which few still speak
Sunday, February 22, 2004 Posted: 6:21 PM
EST (2321 GMT)
JERUSALEM (AP) --
An ancient, dying language gets a new life on
American movie screens this week.
Some linguists, who fear the language spoken by
Jesus could vanish within a few decades, hope for a boost from Mel
Gibson's new film, "The Passion of the Christ," opening Wednesday in
U.S. theaters. The dialogue is entirely in Aramaic and Latin.
Among the few places in the world where Aramaic is
still familiar is a small Syrian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, though
even here it is little more than an echo these days.
A church elder laments that he has few people to
speak to in Aramaic besides the monks. Parts of the liturgy have to be
said in Arabic. A nun who sings the Lord's Prayer says the words are
just about the only ones she can recite in Aramaic.
Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the Middle
East and parts of Asia. Today, the Syrian Orthodox community in
Jerusalem offers Aramaic summer school classes, but there is little
interest and fewer than half the 600 members speak the language.
"Maybe the new generation will wake up and
continue," said Sami Barsoum, 69, a community leader and fluent Aramaic
Just a half-million people around the world,
mostly Christians, still speak Aramaic at home.
"Undoubtedly, Aramaic is in danger of
disappearing," said Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of the
Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.
Aramaic is one of the few languages that has been
spoken continuously for thousands of years. It first appeared in written
records around the 10th century B.C., though it was likely spoken
It is a Semitic language and has similarities with
Hebrew and Arabic. Carpenter, for instance, is "nagouro" in Aramaic, "nagar"
in Hebrew and "najar" in Arabic.
Aramaic reached its widest influence when it was
adopted by the Persian empire about 500 B.C. Written in a 22-letter
alphabet -- similar in form to Hebrew -- it was a relatively simple
language, and scribes and intellectuals helped spread it in a largely
illiterate world, Bar-Asher said.
Aramaic texts have turned up as far apart as India
and Egypt. Jews returning from exile in Babylon around 500 B.C. helped
spread the language to the eastern Mediterranean, where it largely
Scholars believe Jesus might have known Hebrew --
which by that time was reserved mainly for use in synagogues and by
upper classes -- and some Greek, but Aramaic was the language of his
The New Testament records Jesus' last words on the
cross in Aramaic: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" The Gospel of Mark,
most likely written in Greek, adds, "... which means, 'My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?' "
Michael Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and
Semitic languages at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Israel, said it
is believed that parts of the Gospels were originally written in
Aramaic, but only Greek writings have been found.
Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic during the
Islamic conquest of the 7th century.
Today, a few people speak it in parts of Iraq,
Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Europe, Australia and some U.S. cities,
including Chicago, Illinois.
In Syria, once the core of indigenous Christian
Aramaic speakers, the language is still heard among 10,000 people in
three villages perched on cliff sides in the Qalamoun Mountains north of
But it is dwindling as the older generation dies,
said George Rizkallah, a 63-year-old retired Syrian teacher. Rizkallah
has appealed to the Syrian government and international organizations to
help save the language.
A few thousand Israelis who emigrated from other
Middle East countries still speak Aramaic, but few pass it on to their
However, the Talmud and other Jewish religious
texts are written in Aramaic. It appears in the Kaddish, the Jewish
prayer for the dead, and in Israeli marriage and divorce contracts.
Sokoloff, the Semitic languages professor, is
helping write an Aramaic dictionary.
Gibson's film, depicting Christ's final hours,
uses subtitles. The script was translated into first-century Aramaic for
the Jewish characters and "street Latin" for the Roman characters by the
Rev. William Fulco, director of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola
Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.
Fears that Aramaic
AM Archive - Thursday, 4 March , 2004 08:24:00
Reporter: Mark Willacy
TONY EASTLEY: Linguists are warning
that one of the world's oldest languages is in danger of dying out.
Believed to be about 2,500 years old, Aramaic was the language spoken by
Middle East Correspondent Mark
Willacy reports from Jerusalem.
(Sound of prayers in Aramaic)
MARK WILLACY: In the Syrian Orthodox
church of Saint Mark's in Jerusalem's Old City, a handful of worshippers
sing and pray in Aramaic.
Sami Barsoum is the leader of the
community in Jerusalem, and a proud Aramaic speaker.
SAMI BARSOUM: My mother, my father
they speak the language at home, but in the street, no. So with my
community, with my priest or my bishop they speak the language.
MARK WILLACY: Aramaic is believed to
have appeared more than 25 centuries ago in Mesopotamia or what's known
now as Iraq. It quickly spread, and Aramaic texts have been found as far
afield as Egypt and India.
And the President of Jerusalem's
Academy of Hebrew Language, Moshe Bar-Asher, says Aramaic was the tongue
of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
MOSHE BAR-ASHER: We some have
quotations in the gospels. If Jesus say "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"
– "My God, my God, why you leave me?" And it's written in Aramaic.
MARK WILLACY: Aramaic was largely
replaced by Arabic during the Islamic conquest of the Middle East 14
centuries ago. Very few communities in the Middle East still speak the
language on the streets. Three villages in Syria still do.
But linguist Moshe Bar-Asher fears
that Aramaic is slowly disappearing.
MOSHE BAR-ASHER: In the Middle East
probably the death of Aramaic, it's not a far away phenomenon.
(Sound of prayers in Aramaic)
MARK WILLACY: In his small tailor
shop in Jerusalem's Old City Sami Barsoum recites the Lord's Prayer in
SAMI BARSOUM: This is what Jesus
himself, he prayed this.
MARK WILLACY: Despite the fact that
Aramaic is being overtaken by Hebrew and Arabic, Sami Barsoum believes
the Aramaic language will survive.
SAMI BARSOUM: How come, how I speak
the language if it's dying? They used to slate from Greek to Aramaic and
to Arabic. So it will not die.
TONY EASTLEY: Jerusalem tailor, Sami
Barsoum, with Mark Willacy.
program to save Aramaic language
Correspondents Report - Sunday, 24 October , 2004
Reporter: Mark Willacy
HAMISH ROBERTSON: In Syria, the government has
launched a program to save one of the world's oldest and most important
languages from dying out.
Aramaic is believed to have been first spoken in
ancient Mesopotamia about 3000 years ago. And scholars say it was the
language spoken by Jesus Christ. But it's now only spoken in three
villages in central Syria and even these communities need help to pass
it on to their children.
Our Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy
compiled this report in the village of Ma'aloula in central Syria.
(Sound of Church bells)
MARK WILLACY: Sunday morning in the Qalamoun
mountains north of Damascus, and church bells summon the Christian
community to mass. In the hilltop village of Ma'aloula the service is
performed in a mix of Arabic and Aramaic.
In the church of Saint Serge, Father Toufic Eid
recites the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic.
TOUFIC EID: In fact Aramaic was the language of
all this area here and Jesus spoke in Aramaic. And this language
remained in these villages, Ma'aloula, Jebadin (phonetic) and Sarqa
MARK WILLACY: Outside the church Joseph Sharbit
and his friend Mike Khoury are discussing the looming fig harvest in
Aramaic. I ask Joseph about the future for this ancient language.
"I am very much afraid this language will
disappear," he says. "But at least now there is a new institute here in
Ma'aloula to teach it to our children so we can keep it alive," he tells
His friend Mike Khoury explains that Aramaic is
the oldest language in the Middle East.
"It existed in Damascus 1,000 years before Jesus
Christ," he says in Aramaic. "It's now only spoken in three villages,
but the new government institute is trying to keep it going. We're very
proud of it," he says.
About ten per cent of Syria's population is
Christian, and for them Aramaic is a direct link to Jesus Christ.
"The language is over 3,000 years old," says
Joseph Sharbit. "And in this village we are making an effort to pass it
on to the next generation," he says.
This is Mark Willacy in Ma'aloula village, central
Syria, for Correspondents Report.
HAMISH ROBERTSON: An extraordinary linguistic
survival into the 21st century.
Gibson Had a Passion
August 27, 2004
Filmmaker's quest for authenticity led to the onscreen revival of
a long-dead language.
One of Mel Gibson's earliest decisions as director of "The Passion of
the Christ" was to have the Jesus of his film speak the same language
that the historical Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago. That language is
Aramaic, an ancient Semitic tongue closely related to
Hebrew that today is considered by some linguists
to be a "dead language," still used in dialects by only a
small number of people in remote parts of the Middle East.
Once, however, Aramaic was the lingua franca of its time, the
language of education and trade spoken the world over, rather like
English is today. By the 8th century B.C., the Aramaic tongue was widely
in use from Egypt to Asia Major to Pakistan and was the main language of
the great empires of Assyria, Babylon and later the Chaldean Empire and
the Imperial government of Mesopotamia. The language also spread to
Palestine, supplanting Hebrew as the main tongue some time between 721
and 500 B.C. Much of Jewish law was formed, debated and transmitted in
Aramaic, and it was the language that formed
the basis of the Talmud.
Jesus would have spoken and written what
is now known as Western Aramaic, which was the dialect of
the Jews during his lifetime. After his death, early Christians wrote
portions of Scripture in Aramaic, spreading the stories of Jesus' life
and messages in that language across many lands.
As the historical language of expressing religious ideas, Aramaic is
a common thread that ties together both Judaism and Christianity.
Professor Franz Rosenthal wrote in the "Journal of Near Eastern
Studies": "In my view, the history of
Aramaic represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in
language (which is the mind's most direct form of physical expression) .
. . (It was) powerfully active in the promulgation of spiritual
matters." For Gibson, too, there was something ineffably powerful about
hearing Christ's words spoken in their original language.
But to bring Aramaic to life on the modern motion picture screen was
going to be an enormous challenge. After all, how do you create a film
in a lost 1st century tongue in the middle of the 21st century?
Gibson sought the help of Father William Fulco, chair of
Mediterranean Studies at Loyal Marymount University and one the world's
foremost experts on the Aramaic language and classical Semitic cultures.
Fulco translated the script for "The Passion of the Christ" entirely
into 1st Century Aramaic for the Jewish characters and "street Latin"
for the Roman characters, drawing on his extensive linguistic and
cultural knowledge. After translating the script, Fulco served as an
on-set dialogue coach and remained "on call" to the production,
providing last-minute translations and consultations.
To further authenticate the language, Gibson also consulted native
speakers of Aramaic dialects to get a sense of how the language sounds
to the ear. The beauty of hearing this dying language spoken aloud, he
recalls, was very moving.
Ultimately, the entire international cast of "The Passion of the
Christ" had to learn portions of Aramaic — most doing so phonetically —
becoming perhaps one of the largest groups of artists ever to take on an
ancient tongue en masse. For Gibson, the film's "foreign language" had
another benefit: learning Aramaic became a uniting factor among a cast
made up of many languages, cultures and backgrounds.
"To bring a cast from all over the world to one place and have them
all learn this one language gave them a sense of common ground, of what
they share and of connections that transcend language," he says.
It also compelled the cast to look more deeply into their physical
and emotional resources above and beyond the use of words.
"Speaking in Aramaic required something different from the actors,"
observes Gibson, "because they had to compensate for the usual clarity
of their own native language. It brought out a different level of
performance. In a sense, it became good old-fashioned filmmaking because
we were so committed to telling the story with pure imagery and
expressiveness as much as anything else".
Language Jesus Spoke
By Associated Press
Source: Haaretz Daily: 23/02/2004;
Submitted by: Shaji Varghese, New Jersey
At a small Jerusalem church, Aramaic, the ancient language that Jesus
spoke, is little more than an echo these days. An elder from the Syrian
Orthodox congregation laments that he's got few people to speak to in
Aramaic besides the monks. Parts of the liturgy have to be done in
Arabic. And a nun who sings the Lord's Prayer says the words are just
about the only ones she's able to recite in Aramaic.
Some say spoken Aramaic may vanish in just a few decades.
Linguists hope for a boost from Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion of
the Christ," performed entirely in Aramaic and Latin.
Just a half million people, most of them Christians living in pockets
of the Middle East, Europe and the United States, still converse at home
in Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East and parts of Asia.
"Undoubtedly, Aramaic is in danger of disappearing," said Moshe
Bar-Asher, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.
Aramaic is one of the few languages that has been spoken continuously
for thousands of years. It first appeared in written records around the
10th century B.C. though it was likely already being spoken earlier.
Aramaic is a Semitic language and has similarities with Hebrew and
Arabic. Water is "moyeh" in Aramaic, "maim" in Hebrew and "miye" in
Arabic. Carpenter is "nagouro" in Aramaic, "nagar" in Hebrew and "najar"
The most popular theory on its origin says the language was first
spoken by nomads called Arameans, who migrated from the barren Arabian
peninsula to the lush farmlands of Mesopotamia and finally settled
around Damascus, modern Syria's capital, in the 13th century B.C.
Aramaic became a common language for much of the Middle East and
parts of Asia, reaching its widest influence when it was adopted by the
Persian empire around 500 B.C. It was a relatively simple language, with
just 22 letters, and a community of scribes and intellectuals helped
spread it in a largely illiterate world, said Bar-Asher.
Texts in Aramaic have been found in places as distant from each other
as in India and Egypt. Jews returning from exile in Babylon around 500
B.C. helped spread the language to the eastern Mediterranean, where it
largely supplanted Hebrew.
Scholars think Jesus might have known Hebrew - which by that time was
reserved mainly for use in synagogues and spoken by upper classes - and
some Greek, but Aramaic was the language of his native Galilee.
The New Testament records Jesus' last words on the cross in Aramaic:
"Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" St. Mark, most likely writing in Greek,
adds, "... which means, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"'
Michael Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Bar-Ilan
University near Tel Aviv, said it is believed that parts of the Gospels
were originally written in Aramaic, but that only Greek writings have
ever been found.
Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic during the Arab and Islamic
conquest of the 7th century.
Today, Aramaic is spoken at home by about 500,000 people - mainly
Syrian Orthodox and other Christians - in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey,
Lebanon, India, Europe, Australia and a few cities in the United States,
In Syria, once the core of indigenous Christian Aramaic speakers, the
language is still heard in three villages perched on cliff sides north
of Damascus in the Qalamoun Mountains.
About 10,000 people in those villages speak the language, said George
Rizkallah, a 63-year-old retired Syrian teacher. But the numbers are
dwindling fast. Church services are in Arabic, elderly Aramaic speakers
are dying and young people are moving away in search of jobs.
Rizkallah has appealed to the Syrian government and international
organizations to help preserve and spread the language.
A few thousand Israelis who immigrated from other parts of the Middle
East still speak Aramaic, but are largely not passing it on to their
children. Most Jews who learn the language study it only to read the
Talmud, a book of Jewish law, and other religious texts written in
Part of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, is recited in
Aramaic, and marriage and divorce contracts in Israel are until today
often written in the language.
Sokoloff, the professor of Semitic languages, is helping write a
comprehensive Aramaic dictionary. He said it will take years because of
the large amounts of literature to comb through. He noted that a similar
project for another ancient language, Akkadian, has been ongoing since
Source: Haaretz Daily: 23/02/2004;
Submitted by: Shaji Varghese, New Jersey