In this ever more global cultural environment, language has ceased to be associated with a region or country. Instead, the rise of English as an international language of business is creating a new paradigm for global language use different from French when used for international diplomacy, and Latin or Arabic as used in the past. English today (and some posit, Chinese in the next century), serves to connect people whose schooling language is not English. In China today, teaching English is big business. Where does this switch to English leave the speakers of small languages, some of which, like Aramaic were the international languages of their day (8th c BCE -- 8th c CE). Aramaic speakers face a dilemma: to what extent can they embrace multi-lingualism? Through what means? For speakers of small languages multilingualism is an absolute necessity. Managing three languages on a written and spoken level, people like the Baluchis, Lezgin or Assyrians is a major challenge. Depending on circumstances, the written form of the native language of small groups often gives way, even if the spoken language is retained. Will this scenario explain Aramaic retention? Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers? Nearly three thousand years ago, Aramaic speakers were concentrated in the Near East, with their heartland in Mesopotamia. Writers and readers of Aramaic, an elite group trained specifically for political, commercial and religious employment, centered in the areas covered by Iraq, Syria, and adjacent areas. Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world. Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering. The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian's Wall. With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it. At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan). The number for the world Assyrian population varies but the general agreement is that fully half of this population now lives in Diaspora outside the Middle East. Persecution of Assyrians, beginning with Kurdish attacks during the mid-19th century, followed by Ottoman Turkish genocide attempt during World War I, and culminating a hundred years later in the anti-Christian expansion of radical Muslim extremists, have displaced and driven into refugee camps a large number of Assyrians. The largest Diaspora lives in English speaking regions -- the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK -- possibly as high as one million -- while large numbers live in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria. This latter group constituted about 500,000 at the start of the 21st century but Diaspora numbers have been growing with the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The largest Diaspora, or a significant portion of modern Aramaic speakers, live in English speaking and writing environments, while another large percentage is exposed to English through schools in Europe, South America and Russia. In this single fact of Diaspora may lie the seeds for the retention of Aramaic. All sources agree that knowledge of modern Aramaic, in whichever dialect, has declined in Diaspora. The communities in Diaspora face major roadblocks to language retention:
- strength and attraction of the state language no matter where they live
- educational institutions use of the state language or bilingualism with narrow definitions prejudicial to smaller languages
- broadcast and entertainment use of the state language
- Establishment of an Aramaic using cultural and administrative zone
- Support for the elevation of Aramaic, Syriac and the spoken language of the Iraqi Assyrian community at institutions of higher learning not just in Mosul, but also in Arbil, Dohuk, Baghdad.
- Support of internet language teaching programs for the diaspora
- Many factors mitigate against the preservation of small languages. In the case of Aramaic, many historical factors work for its preservation.
Eden Naby is a cultural historian of the Middle East. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University.