`Passion's' language, Aramaic, is fading away

For the Record

February 29, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Imagine the possibilities: T-shirts with Aramaic slogans, funny Aramaic bumper stickers, pull-string plush toys with Aramaic greetings.

Jim Caviezel, who speaks this ancient language as the star of The Passion of the Christ, entertained similar notions recently.

"Next year you may see comedies, thrillers, even musicals in Aramaic," he joked to a Hollywood reporter.

The English in Mel Gibson's controversial new film is in subtitles; the characters speak mostly in Aramaic, a Semitic language akin to Hebrew, prevalent centuries ago.

A comeback, though, is pretty unlikely. While Aramaic isn't quite a dead language, it might expire in a few short decades, some language experts predict.

Modern dialects are still spoken in small areas in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, mostly by older Arab Christians. A few groups in Europe and the United States also have kept Aramaic dialects alive. One estimate put the number worldwide at 400,000.

"It's not gone yet," said language researcher Jerome Lund, "but because there are only small groups speaking it, it may be a question of time."

Aramaic can be traced back to at least 900 B.C. in what is now Syria and Turkey. The name comes from Aram, the biblical name for ancient Syria.

The language of Palestine shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic, and it's believed that Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic. The New Testament Gospels, written in Greek, occasionally quote Jesus in Aramaic, although some of the words were in Hebrew. Most likely, Jesus was multilingual, said Lund, who studies ancient Semitic languages at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Lund is taking part in a scholarly project called the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, a dictionary that will cover 2,000 years of the Aramaic language. It can be viewed online at cal1.cn.huc.edu.

But don't take language lessons from Gibson's film, says film critic Michael Medved, who regularly studies the Talmud in Aramaic.

"The pronunciation of Aramaic in the film," he said, "is wildly uneven."

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