[lg policy] Saving Endangered Languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 30 15:32:21 UTC 2012

Saving Endangered Languages
Posted GMT 3-29-2012 20:6:39

*As part of the Spring 2012 World Policy Journal issue Speaking in
we invited acclaimed Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir to write for The Big
Question about the importance of keeping endangered languages alive. Shbeir
writes and sings in the ancient language of Syriac, drawing attention to
the beauty of the endangered Aramaic dialect that originated in the
Mesopotamian city of Edessa, which now lies in Turkey. Syriac was the
lingua franca of much of the Middle East from about the 7th century BC
until the 7th century AD, when Arabic pushed the language to obscurity.
After persecution of Syriac speakers in Ottoman Turkey during the 1890s and
in the period of 1922-1925, the cities of Edessa and Diyarbakir in
southeast Turkey, home to major Syriac populations, were abandoned. Some
Syriacs stayed in the region of Tur Abdin, while many fled to neighboring
countries like Syria and Lebanon in the late 19th and early 20th century or
later immigrated to the West. Shbier is one of the last artists innovating
and pushing the rich Syriac language forward, creating new and beautiful
language in Christianity's ancient tongue. Shbier's short piece is a call
to arms to preserve languages on the brink of disappearing.*

Language embodies the culture and religion of a population, the history of
a land, and creates the frame of reference of a community. Throughout
history, societies have faded and been replaced by other populations with
new languages and cultures. When nations move on and languages are
forgotten, chapters of history, science, and culture are closed to future

The Syriac language serves as a good example. It used to be the musical
vernacular of cultural and scientific communication for religious and
educated people of Middle Eastern societies. The alphabets of many
languages originated from Syriac, including Arabic. With the rise of Islam
in the 8th century, the Syriac language began its long decline as a
commercial and everyday-use language.

Today, Syriac is primarily regarded as the language of Christianity, spoken
by priests in churches and monasteries. But to me, it should still be
considered a major literary language that produced the religious writings
at the beginnings of Christianity.

I am fascinated by the wonderful images of Christian religion that Syriac
conveys. Every time I study and get deeper into the texts and the images
that reached civilizations at that time, I discover that their translations
never do them justice. Keeping the Syriac language alive is therefore of
utmost importance to me. Unfortunately, the number of researchers of the
language has dwindled, creating a lack of awareness even to its existence.
The number of books, articles, and magazines have declined, which only
contributes to the popularity of other languages.

What is being done to sustain the remains of a language that has made such
tremendous contributions to world literature? After hundreds of years with
fewer and fewer speakers, those familiar with the Syriac language are still
fighting to keep it alive by preserving and expanding its dictionaries and
grammar books. And, as one of the few remaining believers in Syriac, I am
contributing to the spread of this historical language in every possible
way by writing texts and manuscripts that I record on CD. As a musician, I
use Syriac's unique and complex sounds to create a new way of singing in
Arabic. In order to do so, I drew from famous and great works of ancient
Syriac writers, such as father Mar Evram. All these efforts seek to ensure
that Syriac is passed on from one generation to the other in a truthful and
authentic way.

By Ghada Shbeir


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