Recent story in the Atlantic about the interest in the Irish language, a Celtic language, also called Irish Gaelic (as distinct from Scottish Gaelic) in Northern Ireland, the majority Protestant region of Ireland that is part of the UK, separate from the majority Catholic Republic of Ireland. The Irish language has long played an important cultural role in the Republic, but not so traditionally in the North, where it has often been associated with the Catholic South. Now efforts are underway to try to use the Irish language as a way to bring Protestant Republicans and Catholic Unionists in Northern Ireland together. There are still smoldering feelings of resentment and injustice there, going back to the “Troubles”, the 40-year violent confrontation between the two sides over the political future of Northern Ireland.
One of the surprising facts about Irish is the role that Protestants played in keeping the language alive at a time when its continued existence was threatened. This is a fact that Linda Ervine, a Protestant helping to organize Irish language classes in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, uses to recruit fellow Protestants:
“The language was almost lost by the end of the 19th century because Irish became associated with poverty and Catholicism (particularly during the potato famine, which hit the poor the hardest). During the famine, about 3 million Irish emigrated. But what few Protestants in the neighborhood know, Ervine says, is that Irish, or Gaelic, was saved by a small group of Presbyterians, many of whom were steadfast loyalists.”
The interest in Irish in the North corresponds to an initiative there called Líofa 2015, or “fluent” 2015, which seeks to promote Irish as a means of reconciliation through interest in a common cultural heritage. It’s not only in Ireland that languages which seemed destined to die out as living languages have been revived and used as a way to bring groups together. The role that Hebrew has played in shaping modern Israel is perhaps the best-known example. In the U.S. Native Indian tribes such as the Navajo are emphasizing the importance of learning their language as a way of cementing cultural identity.
Interesting story today on NPR about a new movie documentary on the classic Jewish song Hava Nagila (Hebrew for Let us rejoice). Anyone having attended a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah is likely to have heard the song and seen the ceremonial hoisting in the air of the honored individual(s) in a chair. According to the story, the song originated as a Hassidic nigun, or wordless prayer or melody from Ukraine and text was subsequently added by Jewish musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in 1905. Idelsohn had lingusitic and political movitations, according to film maker, Robert Grossman: “There were people who were, of course, revitalizing Hebrew as a modern spoken language, and then there were people who were using that modern spoken language to create poetry…Edelson had in his mind that if you could create a repertoire of folk song drawing on the roots of Jewish music from all over the world, in this case from Eastern Europe, and added Hebrew lyrics to it, then you could create a folk repertoire for the new nation, and that would help build the nation.”
Strangely, Hava Nagila became widely known in the United States, through its performance by Harry Belafonte, someone culturally far removed from the song’s origins. In the film, Belafonte recalls singing Hava Nagila in Germany, “It hit me kind of hard that here I was, an African American, an American, standing in Germany, a place [that] just a decade earlier had been responsible for one of the greatest mass murders the world had ever known. And here were these young German kids, singing this song, this Hebrew song of rejoicing. ‘Let us have peace. Let us rejoice.’ And I got very emotional.”
Jesus in Aramaic
The language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, has been in the news lately, in an article in the Smithsonian language and in a story yesterday on NPR. Aramaic used to be the lingua franca of Middle East and beyond, but today is spoken by a small number of inhabitants of isolated villages in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Syria. There is fear that the language is in danger of extinction. In fact, according to the article, Aramaic is spoken as the everyday first language in only one place today, the village of Maaloula, in the hills outside Damascus, Syria. I’m surprised that prophets of the End of Days have not descended on the village, as the place most likely for Jesus’ return, since linguistically he’d feel right at home (after some adjustment to the particular dialect). Actually Jesus most likely spoke Hebrew, Greek and maybe other languages. That issue came up a few years back when Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ was released, with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin and subtitled in English.
War and migration have contributed to the decline in the number of Aramaic speakers. Its decline may also result from another language’s dramatic rise in the 20th century, namely the spectacular revival of modern Hebrew, for centuries used in Jewish worship but not spoken as a living language. Many speakers of Aramaic were Jews and migrated to Israel, eventually giving up their mother tongue for Hebrew.
So where are linguists seeking out speakers of pure undiluted Aramaic dialects? Chicago! The Smithsonian article chronicles a field linguist’s visits to older speakers of various dialects of Aramaic and it turns out there a large number in the Chicago area. The linguist is trying to find unadulterated versions of different dialects and it often happens that emigrants maintain more faithfully aspects of the language, which in the home country have undergone change, as all languages do. It’s great that the language is being recorded and analyzed for posterity but it seems unlikely that Aramaic will see a reversal in its decline. Unlike Hebrew, it suffers from not having a national state behind it. But it would certainly be sad to see Jesus’ language die out.