Mission to record last of Aramaic

A British academic is attempting to document different dialects of Aramaic spoken by Iranian and Iraqi Jews before the language disappears from active use for good.

Dr Geoffrey Khan, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, has been researching Aramaic since the 1990s, studying both its historic application and the many modern variations spoken in Christian and Jewish communities today.

Now on sabbatical at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Hebrew Studies, he is part of a team embarking on a last-ditch effort to make recordings of the few remaining Jewish Aramaic speakers.

For centuries, Aramaic survived in Jewish communities in Iraq and northwestern Iran, the majority of whose members fled to Israel or the West in the 1950s. Few have passed it on, leaving Jewish Aramaic particularly vulnerable.

An ancient language, dating back to as early as 1,000 BC, and used in myriad Jewish texts including the books of Daniel and Ezra, rabbinic writings, and in the Babylonian Talmud, Aramaic was dominant in the Middle East until the emergence of Arabic.

“Now only the very old can still speak any of the dialects,” said Dr Khan. “These are the final vestiges of this spoken language. We have 10 years at most; we are at a very urgent stage.”

Dr Khan’s mission is not religiously motivated, nor is he hoping to keep the language alive.

“That is a job for politicians, not academics. Losing these dialects would be a loss to human culture”.

Last updated: 9:45am, February 8 2013