language gets new lease of life in Oxford
An Aramaic course offered
by Oxford University is drawing scores of scholars from as far
afield as Liverpool and London
Caviezel plays Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the
Christ, which features Aramaic dialogue. Photograph: Philippe
It is the language that
Christ spoke, but is regarded as "endangered" with ever fewer
scattered groups of native speakers.
But in Oxford, Aramaic has
been flourishing again, with a course in the ancient language
drawing people from as far afield as Liverpool and London. There are
now 56 people learning Aramaic at the university, including three
classics professors, solemnly completing their weekly homework tasks
and regularly attending the free lunchtime lessons, more than the
numbers studying Greek.
Their first lesson might
have surprised the writers of the books of David and Ezra in the
Bible, and of the Talmud, both originally written in Aramaic: the
scholars pored over a transcription of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
David Taylor has
previously taught the language to groups of two or three people in
his study, and was astounded by the turnout for his first public
lesson. Though a few fell by the wayside, more than 40 stayed the
course until the classes ended in time for Christmas.
John Ma, an Oxford
classicist and one of the leaders of Project Arshama which organised
the lessons, said: "You would probably have to go back 2,000 years
to find a room so full with people speaking Aramaic – the time when
Jesus would have been speaking the language."
Dialects of Aramaic – a
3,000-year-old language once spoken by millions across the
Mediterranean and near east, from Syria to the borders of India –
are still spoken, but Taylor believes the war may push it to the
verge of extinction in Iraq.
His students were learning
imperial Aramaic, from his own newly devised grammar, which is
intended to be easier to learn as a beginner. They were not entirely
convinced. Boris Chrubasik, an Oxford classics graduate, said:
"Getting used to a semitic language is all but easy, and when the
radicals start dropping one gets upset." However, he insisted
staunchly: "Learning Aramaic is fun."
Most of the students were
postgrad classicists like Chrubasik, but some theologians and
biblical scholars came too.
Ma, a fellow and tutor at
Corpus Christi, took the lessons himself and is beginning to dream
in Aramaic. Very dull dreams, he admits. "Mostly verb paradigms
(since there's some rote learning, as with other
languages) and once saying to
someone, 'Mindeam la avdeth anah' … I didn't do anything."
And he ruefully quotes a
fellow student on mastering a particular vowel sound, "a guttural
throat sound not unlike incipient vomiting".
However, after two lessons
he could read in the original the words spoken by Christ on the
cross: "My God, my God why did you forsake me." After eight, he
realised to his surprise that he could understand the Aramaic
dialogue in Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.
"It was very satisfying,
it's not always like that when you learn a new language," he said.
The lessons were organised
by Oxford University's classics faculty and faculty of oriental
studies as part of Project Arshama, a collaboration between the
universities of Oxford and Liverpool, funded by the Arts and
Humanities Research Council. The project is focused on one of the
treasures of the vast Bodleian library, the 13 Arshama letters,
written on leather in the Persian empire in the 5th century BC –
priceless to scholars because so many documents on parchment or clay
have not survived. There will be a seminar and an exhibition on the
letters next summer.
Ma has supplied some
useful Aramaic phrases for the season (with a nervous eye on his
tutor, because he's not quite sure he's got all his vowels right):
• "Shelam biznah
qodemay, ap tamah qodemayk shelam", from a letter written 2,500
years ago, translates as "Peace here before me, and also peace over
there before you", but colloquially means "I am well, and hope
you're well too".
• "Anah rahem leki"
(from a man to a woman) and "Anah rahmah lak" (from a woman
to a man), which means "I love you".
• "Shelam we sherarat
saggi hawseret leki" for "I have sent you peace and much
• This article was amended
on 22 December 2010. The original referred to a translation of
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and described John Ma as a fellow and
tutor at Christ Church. These have been corrected.