New Efforts Underway to Save Aramaic, Language That Jesus Spoke

A linguistic professor in England has launched a new effort to try and record the ancient Aramaic language that Jesus Christ and his disciples were believed to have used more than 2,000 years ago, before it becomes extinct.

Professor Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge told Smithsonian Magazine that only a handful of communities scattered in the Middle East still speak Aramaic, which is tied to both Hebrew and Arabic. It was a key language in Israel between 539 B.C. and 70 A.D. and so is likely to have been spoken by Christ. Back at that time, it was used by Christians, Jews, Mandeans, Manicheans, Muslims, Samaritans, Zoroastrians and pagans.

Khan's mission is to find the last remaining native Aramaic speakers and record how they use the language.

"It completely blew my mind," Khan said of a meeting with a native Aramaic speaker in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. "To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating."

The linguistic professor has published a number of books in the past 20 years documenting ancient dialects found in of Barwar, Qaraqosh, Erbil, Sulemaniyya and Halabja in Iraq, as well as Urmi and Sanandaj in Iran. According to the Smithsonian, Khan is also working on a web-based database of text and audio recordings that will allow word-by-word comparisons of a number of different Aramaic dialects.

ZeeNews India reminded readers that one of Jesus' most famous remarks as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark was in Aramaic, when on the cross he cried out "Elahi, Elahi, lema shabaqtani?" (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) before he died.

Aramaic went into a drastic decline in the seventh century A.D., when Muslim armies conquered the Middle East and banished the language to the Kurdish mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, where it survived in isolation for another 1,300 years. Khan has said, however, that demographics are changing again, and native Aramaic speakers are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

It is difficult to document just how many native Aramaic speakers are left, but Khan has been visiting the scattered communities in the Middle East that still speak it. The language is one of the thousands currently facing extinction in the modern globalized age, as 94 percent of the world's population speaks only about 6 percent of its languages. Projections say that by the end of the century, 90 percent of the 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to die out.