Stammbaum or continuum: the state of modern Aramaic

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When most people think of Aramaic, they think of a certain controversial and bloody movie from 2004; it is the language of early Christians, long gone and unknown except to monks like Brother Maynard. Visiting Professor Ron Kim presented a talk yesterday describing where this language can be found in the modern world and what can be inferred about its history. The description that emerged explained the pockets of Aramaic that survive today not as discrete dialects, but as preserved pieces of what was once a continuous spectrum.

Aramaic’s past is interwoven with the history of the Middle East. The complex interactions between political boundaries, religious groups, and ethnic divisions have alternately harbored and scattered its speakers. The majority of communities whose language is directly descended from ancient Aramaic are situated in mountainous parts of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq east of the Tigris River. Nearby communities just over the border in Iran also speak a similar variety. A second group, somewhat distinct from those above, is called Mandaic and is found in villages of southwest Iran. A small area in Syria has yet another distinct variety. Finally, two instances of Aramaic found in south-central Turkey are treated by some linguists as a fourth group.

These speech communities have preserved Aramaic for a variety of reasons. In some areas the minority Christians or Jews have continued speaking it in addition to the dominant language of Arabic. Another interesting religious tie is Aramaic’s connection to surviving minorities of early Christian Gnosticism. To Nestorians and other Gnostics Aramaic serves as the language of scripture. Majority religions have alternately tolerated and interrupted the preservation of Aramaic.

Similar to the effects of religion, political influence has been radically different in each country. The mandatory draft in Turkey was cited as a strong force for linguistic assimilation. Contrast this with the treatment of surviving Aramaic groups in Syria who may soon receive legal protection by the government. These political forces have changed rapidly over the last century. Unrest in and around Iraq, from the current conflict, to the 1980s, to WWII has scattered Aramaic speakers across Europe and the wider world.

National forces also bear resemblance to Aramaic’s relationship with the Kurdish people. As a smaller minority living in much the same area as a more politically relevant one, Aramaic speakers have been made to rapidly acquire the language of those around them. Given all these forces it should not be surprising that Aramaic exists today in isolated pockets scattered throughout the region.

In studying this language, linguists have attempted to apply the usual system of language classification. The idea of a ‘stammbaum’ or forking tree of genetically related languages is the canonical representation of language formation. For example, Indo-European forks into several parts, a branch of which, Latin, forks into the romance languages of today. The branching points in this tree are most easily determined when a group of speakers travel across a relatively impermeable boundary, like Polynesians settling Easter Island. Professor Kim argued that this model is not applicable to modern Aramaic. The geography of the region does not pose boundaries any more difficult to cross than fording the Tigris. The fragmented pattern found today was caused by the arrival of new inhabitants with new languages. Aramaic was preserved in specific locations which were not significantly isolated from each other.

This distinction is important in classifying the many varieties of Aramaic. Previous efforts to do so have focused on splitting Aramaic into two, three, or four contrasted groups. Kim asserts that regional history should inform us in creating a different model. Modern Aramaic should be seen as preserved instances of a larger continuously variable language community. To support this he points to important differences between the surviving varieties. Easily identifiable contrasts in stress placement, gendered suffixes, and syntax do not line up in their geographical distribution. The more concentrated area in northern Iraq is easy to group together, but the fringes do not present clear boundaries. This explains the arbitrary nature of previous attempts to apply a ‘stammbaum’ model. Aramaic communities underwent regular linguistic change while still in some contact with each other and it is not possible to separate out a framework for a predecessor language.

This was the first in a series of linguistic lectures being held at Swarthmore College. Further information will be released before each event.

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