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!