In Defense of Aramaic

By Fr Andrew Younan. Originally published on 18 July 2020 at Younan Blog The FA Blog 

The language of the Chaldean and Assyrian people is colloquially called “Surath” but technically named Neo-Aramaic by linguists. Two families of regional dialects closely related to each another are, at least in English usage, called Chaldean and Assyrian.

I am one of a growing number of Chaldean priests who do not know Arabic, but I often hear people from an Arabic-speaking background make deprecating comments about my language. I thought I would take an opportunity to respond to an occasional tendency among some Chaldeans (which is laudably close to nonexistent among Assyrians) to detract from their own language in favor of others. It goes without saying that I do this with all due respect to the persons in question. What follows is only an explanation of my strong disagreement, and should not be taken in any other way.

The Claims

There are typically four remarks made by those who wish to disparage spoken Aramaic:

1. There is no (unified) language, only “dialects” which differ from one another.

2. Most or all of these dialects are not “pure” Aramaic, but mixed with other languages depending on locality – Arabic, Kurdish, Persian, English, etc.

3. There is no solidified or official grammar, which makes it too fluid a thing to be called or treated as a serious language.

4. For these and other reasons, it is better to speak in the language of the country or surrounding area, so that people can better understand.

My Responses

While there are arguments to be made behind some of these four points, I do not agree with any of them in their entirety, nor with the implication that my language should be taken less seriously than any other.

1. While it is true that there are different dialects of “Surath,” this is the case with every language on earth and in history, and the different dialects are (from my observations) as mutually comprehensible as the different dialects of Arabic – possibly more so (can someone from Morocco understand the Arabic of someone from Mosul?). Within the dialect families of Chaldean and Assyrian, the mutual comprehensibility of different dialects seems basically universal. Just as importantly, the various dialects can (and I think should) be understood to be complementary and adding to the richness of the language, not as obstacles to taking the language seriously.

2. Again, while it is certainly the case that there are many loan words taken into Chaldean and Assyrian, this is true of every language, and can be seen not a mark of weakness but rather of strength. While I make it a point to use an Aramaic word rather than a loan word whenever there is one available, I do not see it as a defeat to incorporate a new word into my speech whenever there is need for it. There are around 1,000 new words added to English dictionaries each year. Living languages grow.

3. The claim that Neo-Aramaic has no grammar is patently false. Even besides the Grammar I co-authored with Bishop Sarhad Jammo, there are numerous scholarly works chronicling the grammar of Neo-Aramaic. Again, there are some dialectical differences, but within the two dialect families, the grammar is much more common than it is variant even when vocabulary differs. It is also worth pointing out that Arabic, among other languages, has a notoriously messy and difficult grammar.

4. The irony of saying that we should speak in local languages of the countries of our diaspora rather than our own is that insofar as we do that, we cease to communicate with one another as a people. The fact that I, a Chaldean priest, often need to ask for a translator to understand a prelate of the Chaldean Church, is one prime example of this irony. The same would go for Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iran, or France, or Holland, or Australia, or even Kurdistan, for whom the Arabic language is daily becoming less known and less relevant.

Why Aramaic

I’d like to conclude with some reasons why I think our language is worthy not only of use, but of great respect, and why we all should work to keep it alive in every way we can.

A. The most obvious is that this is the language of Jesus Christ, Mary, and the Apostles. Yes, it is “Neo” Aramaic, but it is Neo “ARAMAIC.” I don’t see how that’s not something to be proud of.

B. While it’s no longer the language of an empire or country, it is the language of me and my people. When I visited Alkosh (a village so old it’s literally mentioned in the Bible), the bishop there was gracious enough to take us to his library and find the baptismal record for my grandfather from 1911 (pictured at the top of this post).  It was written in Aramaic, as were all the records from that era. Then my grandparents taught it to their children in Baghdad, and my parents taught it to me in Detroit. If we don’t even love what is our own, how can we love anyone or anything else? Not caring about what is yours is not an act of loving “universal humanity” but of low-self esteem, which can never be the basis for loving another. Loving your neighbor as yourself assumes that you already love yourself.

C. The fact that Aramaic is the language of Christ and of my own people is enough to make it extremely dear to me, but the fact that it is the dying language of one of the tiniest minorities living today should make it even dearer. It is hard to imagine a heart so cold that it would see something that belonged to Christ, survived for millennia, and was given to you by your own parents, and then turn a blind eye as it dies before your eyes. Much less to insult it as it is dying.

Certainly anyone has the right to his own opinion, but anyone who disparages my language does not speak for me. I will continue to speak and promote my language, teach it to our seminarians, and love it as I love my own skin.

Fr Andrew Younan is priest of the St Peter Chaldean Church of Babylon in San Diego. You can follow Fr Andrew Younan @younan3000