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.