BERLIN — History has not favored the divided Syriac people. Their Syriac language, in all its different written and oral forms, has become an endangered Semitic language – one of many endangered languages within the Aramaic language family. And the future is bleak.
While the various liturgical forms of the Syriac language have been passed down through the ages, mostly in writing, ecclesiastical and liturgical Syriac has taken a downward path similar to that of Latin. The oral Syriac language traditions, not necessarily derived from the liturgical Syriac, meanwhile balances between Arabification, Turkification, and Kurdification, the uprooting and emigration from the Middle Eastern homeland of Beth Nahrin, and the devouring diaspora. Living history is not kind to the divided and scattered Syriacs.
One of the endangered variants of the Aramaic language family is Surayt or “Turoyo”. Surayt belongs to the Aramaic branch of the Semitic language family and is spoken by the Christian Syriac people in different countries in the Middle East, but mostly so in the Tur Abdin region in contemporary Turkey. “Turoyo”, is the academic name for Surayt, as it is called by the native speakers themselves. The term Surayt is derived from Classical Syriac “Suryå’īṯ” and means “Syriac” or “the way Syrians speak”. Today, many Syriac native speakers in the diaspora, where the vast majority of Syriacs from Tur Abdin now unfortunately reside, simply use the term Suryoyo for their language.
“Surayt has predominantly been a spoken language. It has been transferred orally from one generation to the other over the centuries. After the settlement of Syriacs in Europe it can no longer be properly passed on to younger generations and intergenerational language transmission is no longer feasible,” says the Surayt-Aramac Online Project on its website. It adds, “Surayt is a non-recognized minority language in the Middle East where it has been repressed and excluded from any official education. Due to the mass emigration of its speakers, the language has drastically weakened, and the number of active speakers in the Western diaspora is rapidly decreasing, particularly among the second and third generations.”
Prof. Dr. Shabo Talay (53) of the Faculty of Semitic Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin set out to change that and prevent Surayt from extinction. Talay, himself a Syriac native of Tur Abdin, is a leading expert in the Surayt language and one of the driving forces behind Surayt-Aramaic Online which aims to teach, revive, and pass on the Surayt language to future generations. Surayt-Aramaic Online is an online school that teaches Surayt in an academic manner, using a set of educational tools with high standards set according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
The project to develop the online Surayt course started in 2014. It managed to obtain European Union grants under the Erasmus+ program. Experts and academics from various disciplines and skills succeeded in producing accessible course material in seven different languages (for English textbook see here). Prof. dr. Shabo Talay and his team at the Freie Universität in Berlin took care of the academic coordination of the online course.
Initiatives like the Surayt-Aramaic Online Project are desperately needed to secure a future for the ancient Surayt language.
Ancient languages and peoples have proven highly vulnerable to the nation-states that emerged in the twentieth century. In Turkey and Tur Abdin, and in the Middle East in general, the emergence of nation-states out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire proved disastrous for the Syriac people. In the Tur Abdin heartland, only 1500 Suryoye remain and still speak the Surayt language. The Suryoye in Istanbul are one generation away from full assimilation – a policy actively pursued by the Turkish state. The diaspora is not that gentle either, only more subtle and non-violent. There, too, there is the threat of assimilation in the long term.
If the Syriacs think that somebody will come to their rescue, they must think again. No people will save another people. It will not be the Swedes who will open schools for Syriacs. It will not be the Germans who will bring back the former academic glory of the Monastry of Qenneshrin. Neither will the Turkish state with the current mindset want any kind of self-rule in Tur Abdin where the Syriac people can arrange their own linguistic education and future. It would come to haunt the Turks (and Kurds) for past misbehavior. Nor will the Lebanese revive their own Syriac language. They have slid too far on the sliding slope of Arabification. Only through national awareness and struggle, and through educational initiatives like the Surayt-Aramaic Online Project can the Syriacs themselves save their language and nation from oblivion.
Whether we will ever see Surayt Online’s educational material used in schools established by Syriacs themselves is a question mark. However, the material is there. Thanks to the diligent work of the Surayt-Aramaic Online Project team.
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