Jesus’ language

Jesus in Aramaic

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.

Speaking Latin

popeWhen Pope Benedict announced this week that he was stepping down, he did so in Latin.  The small group of reporters listening to the Pope on a live feed at the Vatican scrambled to understand what they quickly saw was a significant announcement.  Italian reporter, Giovanna Chirri confirmed for her colleagues (and the world through a tweet) that in fact the Pope had announced he was resigning.  My Latin teacher in high school would have jumped at the opportunity to point out – “You see how useful learning Latin can be!  You could be the first to announce to the world something that hasn’t happened in 600 years!” The reporters’ scramble reminded me of the press conference where Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Giddy suddenly quoted Nietzsche in German, “Was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stärker” (What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger). Reporters back then were also struggling to understand.

The Pope’s announcement has led to a flurry of interest and news stories about Latin, not often in the news these days. Latin of course is still studied in schools and universities.  There is a radio station in Finland that has been broadcasting a program in Latin for a number of years.  But learning Latin is quite different in nature from learning Spanish or any other living language, and not just because it is no longer spoken, As Annalisa Quinn puts it, “Latin serves as a cultural signifier — if you are studying classics, you announce either your wealth or your devotion to the selfless pursuit of knowledge. In movies and books, knowledge of Latin or Greek is a little bit like glasses and knitwear — a kind of shorthand for intelligence.”  Aside from the cultural messaging, learning Latin can actually be useful,  even if you’re not a Vatican reporter. It is an essential enabler of classical studies, but also is an excellent way to learn about the nature of language and linguistics, and to learn about the etymology of words in English and many other languages (as my Latin teacher hammered home at every opportunity). According to the Telegraph, Pope Benedict is one of the last truly fluent Latin speakers – apparently not all the cardinals present at the announcement actually understood the momentous news.

Crazy English

Li Yang, the infamous Chinese English teacher

Li Yang teaching “Crazy English”

Story on NPR today about Li Yang (李阳), the originator of the unusual language learning method called Crazy English.  It’s a method that’s enjoyed considerable popularity in China and involves shouting out English, either alone or, preferably in a group (the normal Chinese way to do things).  His main motto is “To shout out loud, you learn”.  Another of his sayings is “I enjoy losing face” – pointing to the need for Chinese English leaners to overcome their shyness and fear of making mistakes.  It’s not a method that differs very much from the traditional learning techniques in China, namely repetition and memorization.  According to Wikipedia, there are some 20 million practitioners of Crazy English. The New Yorker had an interesting article about the method just before the 2008 Olympics, as it was being widely used in China in preparation for the Games. There’s also a 1999 documentary entitled Crazy English by Zhang Yuan (张元).

However, he was not in the news today because of Crazy English, but because his (American-born) wife has successfully obtained a restraining order, a first in China.  It seems that Li Yang not only shouts, but hits as well.  In fact, his wife was beaten so badly that in desperation she posted a picture of her face on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) under the heading, “I love losing face = I love hitting my wife’s face?”.  This kind of public acknowledgement of what happens within a family is highly unusual in China, and the message went viral and has led to more pubic discussion of domestic violence.

The wife, Kim Lee, is using her own story to try to raise awareness.  According to the NPR story, “Now, she wants to use her high profile to help others. She is particularly concerned about one woman, Li Yan, who is facing the death penalty after murdering her husband. She suffered years of abuse, during which her husband even hacked off one of her fingers. She went to the police, but they didn’t intervene….Beyond that case, there’s still much to do: China still doesn’t have a specific law forbidding domestic violence.”

You can watch the entire documentary from Youku, it’s in Chinese, but with English subtitles => Crazy English

Copy or have sex?

annette-schavanIt’s interesting to compare across cultures how politicians run into trouble from their personal behavior.  In the USA having an affair can get you into hot water.  In France, not a big deal.  The ultimate  no-no for American politicians may be saying you’re an atheist.  Lately in Germany, it’s been plagiarism that has gotten two of Angela Merkel’s ministers into trouble.  Two years ago, the wonderfully named Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg was forced to resign from being Minister of Defense after it was discovered that he had plagiarized passages in his Ph.D. dissertation.  At the time he was the most popular politician in Germany.  Now, the current Minister of Education, Annette Schavan, has been found by a university panel to be guilt of plagiarism in her Ph.D. thesis.  It’s particular troublesome, as she oversees German universities.

For German politicians having advanced academic degree can be a big plus (unless , of course, they’re caught cheating).  That’s quite a difference from the U.S. where politicians don’t want to be labeled intellectual eggheads.  George W. Bush promoted himself by talking up his Texas roots, not his ivy league degrees.


Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 10.26.11 PMI’m in the process of watching the Super Bowl, a quintessentially American institution and a demonstration of American competitiveness. There’s a lot of stake of course, but do the coaches and the players have to look so angry all the time? It started with the coin toss when the team captains frowningly looked away from each other. As the game progresses, lots of scowling players.  The tv commentators commented that the respective coaches encourage their players to be “on edge”.  In fact, lots of pushing and near fights.  But for me the most interesting scowling was the “game face” on Beyonce throughout her half time set. Does even music have to have an “in your face” attitude? This is an image of America that’s being projected to the rest of the world, in an event broadcast to a large number of countries.

Here’s another TV program which may not embody the best of a culture:  the German variety show, “Wetten, dass…” (I’ll bet that…).  An article in today’s NY Times, “Stupid German Tricks, Wearing Thin“, discusses the drop in popularity of the show which has run since 1981 and has been one of the highest profile shows on German TV.  I have to agree with the article that it’s astounding that such a dreadful show would have such a long run, given the grand cultural traditions in German literature and music.  Of course one could say the same for the popular German singers of recent decades such as Peter Alexander or Heino.  Could it be that the silly antics of “Wetten, dass..” (contestants bet with the host and others that they can win ridiculous challenges) are a release valve for the seriousness of German life? German society, like that of the US, is largely individualistic and values and rewards individual achievement. But for Germans, entertainment is making a mockery of that competitiveness.