Israeli Maronite children learning Aramaic (Photo: Ksenia Svetlova)
Aramaic is best known as the lingua franca of the Holy Land of two thousand years ago. It’s still spoken now—in various modern dialects—by an estimated 200,000 people worldwide. But few speak it as their mother tongue.
In Israel, there’s a move afoot to change that. The country’s roughly 10,000 Maronite Christians are seeking official recognition as a national group. They’re currently classified as Arabs—a label that the Israeli government insists on. But the Maronites say they’re distinct, and they are appealing to Israel’s high court. They say they should be known as ‘Aramaic.’
As part of an effort to maintain their culture—and to prove to the authorities that they are deserving of their own classification—Maronite activists have organized Aramaic language courses for kids. Most Israelis Maronites speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Volunteer teachers—whose Aramaic skills are of varying quality—want to ensure that the next generation speak the language better than they do.
In the pod, we speak with Israel-based reporter Ksenia Svetlova about all this. Her fascinating report for the Jewish Daily Forward outlines the history and politics of this linguistic initiative. It also explains why largest concentration of Aramaic-speakers today is in, of all places, Sweden.
A book written in Aramaic
Here are the 5 stories Carol Hills and I selected as our top five language-related stories for the past month or two:
5. The sad tale of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s translator at the United Nations General Assembly. Gaddafi spoke for 94 minutes, 79 minutes longer than he was alloted. At 90 minutes, his translator appeared to collapse and was replaced by a UN translator.
4. The quixotic tale of the real estate mogul who is trying to export Korean Hangul script to Indonesia. Koreans are immensely proud of their 24-letter alphabet, which was established in the 15th century in a document caled the Hunmin Jeongeum — “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” (See above: the Hangul-only column is fourth from left.)
3. India’s burgeoning number of official languages. It currently has 22 official language, with 38 more under consideration. Where will it fit all those languages on its banknotes?
2. A declaration from UNESCO that a southern Swedish dialect is in fact a language under threat. The image above is a 13th century rendering Scanian and Church Law, which includes a comment in the margin called the “Skaaningestrof”: “Hauí that skanunga ærliki mææn toco vithar oræt aldrigh æn” — “Let it be known that Scanians are honorable men who have never tolerated injustice.” Sweden recognizes five minority languages but Scanian is not among them — and it’s not likely to be designated as one any time soon. Most Swedish linguists call it a dialect – a thick one that many Swedes poke fun at – but a dialect nonethless.
1. A German court’s decision to permit Nazi hate speech, so long as it’s not in German. The words in questions are Hitler Youth slogans; they clearly have greater potency in the original German.
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