I’ve always had an inexplicable fascination with Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Near East for a long time, and when I was studying linguistics I envied the linguists who did field work documenting little-known languages and dialects, so Ariel Sabar’s Smithsonian magazine piece on Geoffrey Khan and his quest to document as many dialects of Aramaic as he can was right up my alley:

Chicago’s northern suburbs are home to tens of thousands of Assyrians, Aramaic-speaking Christians driven from their Middle Eastern homelands by persecution and war. The Windy City is a heady place for one of the world’s foremost scholars of modern Aramaic, a man bent on documenting all of its dialects before the language—once the tongue of empires—follows its last speakers to the grave.

The tax preparer, Elias Bet-shmuel, a thickset man with a shiny pate, was a local Assyrian who had offered to be our sherpa. When he burst into the lobby of Khan’s hotel that morning, he announced the stops on our two-day trek in the confidential tone of a smuggler inventorying the contents of a shipment.

“I got Shaqlanaye, I have Bebednaye.” He was listing immigrant families by the names of the northern Iraqi villages whose dialects they spoke. Several of the families, it turned out, were Bet-shmuel’s clients.

As Bet-shmuel threaded his Infiniti sedan toward the nearby town of Niles, Illinois, Khan, a rangy 55-year-old, said he was on safari for speakers of “pure” dialects: Aramaic as preserved in villages, before speakers left for big, polyglot cities or, worse, new countries. This usually meant elderly folk who had lived the better part of their lives in mountain enclaves in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Turkey. “The less education the better,” Khan said. “When people come together in towns, even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed. When people get married, the husband’s and wife’s dialects converge.”

I liked Khan’s description of how he got started on his quest; worn out from studying the Cairo Geniza, “he asked a local organization of Kurdish Jews for referrals to actual native speakers of Aramaic. No sooner had Khan sat down with a Jew from Erbil, a northern Iraqi city whose Aramaic dialect was undescribed, than he felt he had found his calling. ‘It completely blew my mind,’ he told me. ‘To discover a living language through the lips of a living person, it was just incredibly exhilarating.'” And the piece ends with a touching anecdote about a visit to Tbilisi (where I wouldn’t have thought to look for Aramaic-speakers). Thanks, Paul!


  1. Tbilisi’s Assirians have long been a part of the ethnic mosaic of the town; I always assumed that they’ve lived there since times immemorial, only to discover (in a discussion of a recent Rio Wang post about Tbilisi) that they arrived “just” a century ago. There were great many Assirians in Moscow too, well-known for their traditional cobbler trade; as a college kid, I used to repair my mountaneering boots with an Assirian patriarch who lived in a nine-storey appartment tower across the courtyard from our Khruschevka.
    BTW I hope to put together, soon, a Rio Wang piece about a linguist who hunted for dying splintered and diaspora langauages, and their legends, in the mountains of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Aleksandr Gruenberg a.k.a. Grjunberg. Never thought I’d be into biographies of field linguists, but this guy happened to be also a poet!

  2. London’s Assyrian community lives, for reasons that are unknown to me, mostly in South Ealing, a scrubby suburb on the way out to Heathrow Airport. They even have their own soccer team, FC Assyria.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    The Assyrian community in Sweden is especially concentrated in the industrial town of Södertälje south of Stockholm. The community is large enough to “… have five churches, two bishops, two soccer teams (Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC), many shops, association and the headquarter of TV Channels of Suroyo TV and Suryoyo Sat that is shown worldwide” (Quote Wikipedia). The two clubs have even become the main teams of the town, both struggling to cease and hold a place in the top league, Allsvenskan.

  4. BTW I hope to put together, soon, a Rio Wang piece about a linguist who hunted for dying splintered and diaspora langauages, and their legends, in the mountains of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Aleksandr Gruenberg a.k.a. Grjunberg. Never thought I’d be into biographies of field linguists, but this guy happened to be also a poet!
    Excellent, I look forward to it!

  5. Soccer? What’s the Aramaic for “On me ‘ead, son”?

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Boy, now I can’t get extra credit for volunteering that the Assyrian community in the U.S. is especially concentrated in the Chicago area. The article doesn’t mention Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian church (well, at least of the largest faction – these things are always complicated) relocated the entire church’s world hq from the middle east to Chicagoland about 30 years ago during the disruption of the Iran-Iraq war, and his patriarchal cathedral (an imposing structure originally built by the Christian Scientists) was one block away from the church I attended myself back in my Chicago days, in Rogers Park (said to be the most polyglot neighborhood in the whole city). The church hierarchy had actually spent much of the 20th century on the run – wikipedia says that the current fellow was elected at a synod assembled in London (Ealing, as it happens) after his predecessor was assassinated in San Jose.

  7. Fans of Aramaic might enjoy this.
    I used to find the distribution of modern vernacular Aramaic mystifying, until I realized it could be thought of this way: Aramaic is spoken by the Christians and Jews of Kurdistan, as well as by two small outlier populations: one in a handful of villages in western Syria where it is spoken by both Maronites and Muslims, and another in the Mandaean community of SW Iran. I don’t think it’s thriving in either outlier group, and there are many pressures on the Assyrian community (and Jewish Aramaic is, of course, moribund, like every Jewish language other than Hebrew and Yiddish).

  8. Some interviews with Moscow shoeshiners and cobblers in the Big City project, about their migrations, faith, habits, and language. Some report moving from the Caucasus and others from Balkans; many ended up in Moscow following Khruschev’s reversal of Stalin’s 1949 deportation (when the dictator’s designs on Turkey and Greece failed for good, and his revenge fell on the Black Sea belt minorities such as Greeks and Assyrians)

  9. Geoffrey Khan is a serious scholar: “He is currently working as the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (5 volumes, Brill, in progress), which will include approximately 1,000 articles on all periods and aspects of the Hebrew language.”
    He was appointed an Honorary Member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language in 2011 and since 2004 has directed the research team that has created the North Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project at Cambridge University.

  10. Ye heretics, don’t forget, the fabulous Joshua ben Joseph spoke Aramaic…
    ur fiend
    thegrowlingwolf (known in Aramaic as the anti-Christ)

  11. How do you say ‘anti-Christ’ in Aramaic?

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Is this term relevant to the tenets of the Assyrian Church?

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    The so-called Lamsa Bible (now out there free on the internet) is a translation into English directly from the Peshitta (the very ancient Aramaic version of the New Testament used by the Assyrians). I don’t know how good/accurate it is, but of the 5 NT places where “antichrist(s)” is the usual English (translating antichristos or some other inflected form thereof in the Greek), Lamsa has one of those as “antichrist” but the other 4 as “false christ(s).” Your guess is as good as mine as to what distinction this might reflect in the underlying Aramaic text, although anyone who can actually read Aramaic could check the relevant verses readily enough. From a related website, I see that an anonymous medical student in Johannesburg has begun an interlinear translation of the Peshitta into Afrikaans (although only the first two chapters of Mark are posted). Truly the world of language is a varied and glorious place.

  14. It would appear to be mšīḥā daggālā, like Arabic al-masīħ ad-dajjāl.
    Mashiakh or mashiach משיח is Hebrew for Messiah. Degel דגל means flag in Hebrew, but I don’t see a connection in meaning.
    A Hebrew New Testament uses ruakh soten hamashiakh רוּחַ שׂוֹטֵן הַמָּשִׁיחַ for anti-Christ. Ruakh means spirit or wind and soten is a verbal form of the noun Satan, leading to “a spirit that bedevils the Messiah.”
    How close are Syriac and Hebrew? There are only two words in the verse Lameen cites for which I can’t see an obvious cognate in modern Hebrew. has searchable trilinear targums (Hebrew, Aramaic in square Hebrew script and English) of the Hebrew Bible and and an interlinear Syriac-English New Testament. The texts of both are searchable, but specific books/chapters do not have unique URLs. Alas, for whatever reason, the Syriac-English NT has only the four main gospels and 16 chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The site has some good links.

  15. Searching for “antichrist in Aramaic” in Google yields more than four million hits! A lot of people don’t like Barack Obama . . .

  16. For more on Dajjal see Masih ad-Dajjal at Wikipedia. The article identifies the meaning as: “deceiving” or “the Placebo” or “imposter”.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Mshiha daggala” glossed as “false messiah” in that Brill link sounds like a good predictor of Lamsa’s “false christ.” I’m not sure why Lamsa glossed one of the occurrences as “antichrist” but I think that’s the one in 2 John which is sort of funky anyway b/c that whole epistle was not included in most ancient MSS of the Peshitta and thus whatever Lamsa used as his vorlage for his English 2 John probably came from a distinctive/non-mainstream MS tradition and thus could well have had a slightly different Syriac phrasing than mshiha daggala. The Hebrew NT Paul quotes may be translating from the Greek (or whatever its vorlage may have been) rather freely.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are of course various Arabic versions of the New Testament and they must render the occurrences of “antichristos” in 1 and 2 John somehow or other – I guess either they use al-Masih ad-Dajjal (which might or might not evoke unhelpful Islam-specific associations) or they use something else, and perhaps different translators into Arabic have adopted different solutions. I suppose there *might* even be an Arabic NT out there translated not from Greek but from the Peshitta (since a nontrivial number of Christians belonging to churches who use the Peshitta liturgically speak Arabic as their primary language), but I don’t specifically know of one.

  19. For all varieties of Aramaic, try, now new and improved.
    FYI, in Syriac, the Anochrist is simply anichristos or antichristos bar abdana (destined to be lost).

  20. For all varieties of Aramaic, try, now new and improved.
    FYI, in Syriac, the Antichrist is simply antichristos or antichristos bar abdana (destined to be lost).

  21. J.W.,
    I suppose there *might* even be an Arabic NT out there translated not from Greek but from the Peshitta
    According to this, there’s tons of them, e.g. Vatican Ar. 13 (which also contains some readings that would suggest Old Syriac and not the Peshitta as the source).

  22. At the same site as bulbul’s Old Syriac link, I found this tidbit: “(T)he Peshitto also contains the rest of the books of the New Testament except for the Minor Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude) and Revelation. To this day, readings from these books are not read in Syriac Churches.” That explains why at the link to the interlinear Syriac-English NT I earlier provided there is no mention of these books.

  23. I recently read in Florian Coulmas’s book on Writing Systems that Aramaic was one of the way stations through which the Old Hebrew script was over 2000 years transformed into the Mongolian script: Old Hebrew > Aramaic > Syriac > Sogdian > Uighur > Mongolian.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    Yes, as I noted above, excluding 2 John reduces the number of antichrist passages you have to account for by one, but Lamsa apparently found some sort of extra-Peshittic (if that’s the word?) Syriac vorlage for the various omitted books so that his NT could seem complete. FWIW, I just noticed that in the standard Byzantine lectionary all of the various antichrist passages in 1 John and 2 John are appointed to be read in the course of next week (which happens to be when Meat Fare Week, i.e. the week before the week before Lent proper starts, falls this year).

  25. Florian Coulmas
    I’ve long wondered about the man’s surname. Greek for reed is καλάμι. Kulmos קולמוס means reed pen or writing quill in Hebrew, which Klein says comes from “Greek kalamos, whence also comes Aramaic kolmosa . . . and is accordingly cognate with Latin culmus (stock, stem); see English ‘culm’ (stem of grasses) . . . Arabic qalam (= reed pen, pen) is an Aramaic loan word.” Google Translate offers up Latin calamus for English reed pen.

  26. All the Syriac television you need — right from beautiful downtown Södertälje.
    Over and out to AJP כתר.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    I once read that there are Aramaic “dialects” that have preserved the emphatic consonants as ejectives, and that another has turned them into plain voiceless consonants, the other voiceless series being aspirated. I’ll try to find the (secondary) reference.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    I know a place in Vienna where ASSYRER is sprayed on a wall in half-meter-tall letters. There’s no context that I know of, and it’s been there for years.

  29. The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
    And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
    And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
    When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
         —Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”
    Punch, some years later, rewrote it thus:
    The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
    The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
    Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
    And Grace after dinner did not get a run.

  30. Grace after dinner, for those who didn’t get the reference.

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