Sunday, March 16, 2003

From the Chicago Tribune:

The village in Syria that's the last place on earth they speak Aramaic

Historians attribute the survival of Aramaic in this farming community, clinging to steep mountains 5,000 feet above sea level, to the village's isolation and harsh climate. Blanketed by snow in winter, residents were traditionally cut off from the outside world for half of every year, leaving them to chatter away in the language passed down by their ancestors.The advances of the modern world are proving more powerful than those ancient conquerors, however. State schools teach in Arabic, the language spoken throughout Syria, and even the villages' ancient churches conduct services in Arabic. No written version of Aramaic survives, not even the Bible, despite the fact that portions of it were originally written in Aramaic.

Half a century ago, 15,000 people lived in Maalula, and Aramaic was the only language spoken in the village. Today, there are just 6,000 residents, and though more than 80 percent still speak Aramaic, barely 2,000 can speak it fluently, according to George Rizkallah, 65, a retired local schoolteacher."Maybe it will survive another 50 years, but after that it will die, unless we do something," said Rizkallah, who has made it his life's mission to save the language.

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