Almost a year and a half ago I posted a teaser about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which is now causing such a brouhaha; my interest, of course, was and is in the use of Aramaic and Latin—particularly the former, since now that I know the Latin is spoken in modern Italian church pronunciation I can’t say I have much interest in it (and it should, of course, be Greek anyway). Now the NY Times has an article by Clyde Haberman on that very subject, leading off with a modern Aramaic speaker:

George A. Kiraz can hardly wait [to see the movie]…
“I want mainly to see if I understand any of the Aramaic, and what form of Aramaic it is,” said Dr. Kiraz, director of the Syriac Institute in Piscataway, N.J. His organization promotes the study of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect that is the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church and some other churches with Middle Eastern roots.
“I call it BBC Aramaic—the standard form that continues to be used today,” said Dr. Kiraz, 39. He began speaking it as a boy in Bethlehem (as in Little Town of Bethlehem, not the place in Pennsylvania). He uses it today with his daughter, Tabetha.
“Since she was born three years ago, I’ve only spoken the classical Syriac, which is Aramaic, to her,” he said. “Now when she speaks to me, it’s always in Aramaic. It’s mostly a language used among bishops and priests. It would be like someone speaking Latin to his kid.”

I hope there will be further quotes when he’s seen the movie.

The Syriac Institute (Beth Mardutho) “seeks to promote the study and preservation of the Syriac heritage and language” and has published Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies since January 1998; it looks to be a good resource for anyone interested in the language.
The link to the Times story is via Classics in Contemporary Culture, a new (since December) blog whose creator says:

[…in this weblog, my interest is in:]

It too looks worth following.
Addendum. The Guardian has published a glossary of Aramaic phrases for filmgoers.

Aykaa beyt tadkeetha? Zaadeq lee d-asheeg eeday men perdey devshaanaayey haaleyn!
Where is the loo? I need to wash my hands of this popcorn.
Een, Yuudaayaa naa, ellaa b-haw yawmaa laa hweeth ba-mdeetaa.
Yes, I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t there that day.

Silly but amusing. (By the way, they’re using ee to indicate a high front vowel, more or less as in English see.)


  1. had a link to an article on Chaldeans seeing the movie, which was interesting.

  2. Thanks! I sure wish they’d had more on their reaction, though. This was the sum total of it, in a fairly long article:
    “Manna, who is president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Farmington Hills, saw a matinee Wednesday and left the theater moved by the story but slightly confused by the language.
    “‘These people were obviously amateurs when it came to the language,” Manna said of the actors. “We did catch about 30 to 40 percent of it.'”

  3. There are still a lot of speakers of Turoyo Aramiac in SE Turkey and northern Syria. A lot of London’s kebab shops are run by Turoyo speakers.

  4. So essentially, nobody in the world can understand the dialogue. If they had done it in Klongon, they would have had better results.
    I never liked dialogue anyway. Eisenstein’s films (silents with music) are among my favorites.
    Reviews here in Portland: “Christian snuff movie…. probably not a good date movie.”
    Gibson wanted to keep in the line “His blood be upon us and on our children”, but the secular Jews (his words) wouldn’t let him, so he put in an androgynous non-Biblical Satan figure to even things out. One person somewhere argued that the application of the collective guilt is universal, not just to the Jews, so perhaps there could be a Monty Python footnote-type person standing up after the his-blood-be-upon-us speech explaining the fine print.
    Apologies to anyone offended by my raging secularism. I firmly believe that the sacred texts of every religion need very cautious and selective exposition if they are not to be harmful, and Mel Gibson is not the man to do it. (Neither is Madonna, of course).

  5. Gibson wanted to keep in the line “His blood be upon us and on our children”
    I’ve heard he did keep it in, but left it unsubtitled; anybody know if this is true?

  6. Grauniad: Gibson film ignores vow to remove blood libel.
    Their own
    review that they quote but are too hapless to link (byGeza Vermes, emeritus professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University) :

    The light element in The Passion of the Christ is supplied by the use of Latin and Aramaic. Not only are Pilate and Jesus(!) fluent Latin speakers, but even the soldiers of the Jerusalem garrison, who were most probably Aramaic- and Greek-speaking recruits from Syria, converse happily in a clumsy Latin with Italian Church pronunciation. I did not find it easy to follow the Aramaic which was mixed with unnecessary Hebraisms. One point is worth noting. It has been said again and again that the fateful curse “His blood be on us and our children!” has been cut from the film. This is not so. The Aramaic words are there; only the English subtitle has been removed.

    Gibbo’s reaction to the unfavourable review in the NYT is quoted in the former Grauniad piece:

    In one interview, quoted in the Daily Telegraph, he said of the New York Times’s film critic: “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.”

    He really does seem to be a relentlessly unpleasant fellow.

  7. Yes indeed. Now I’m wanting a transcript of the movie. If the Aramaic is that badly spoken, maybe it would be better to read it anyway (not to mention avoiding putting money in Unpleasant Mel’s pocket).

  8. How do you say, “I want his intestines on a stick” in Aramaic?

  9. Wieseltier’s review, which is well worth reading, says of Jim Caviezel, “His Aramaic, like everybody else’s in the film, is grammatically correct and risibly enunciated.”

  10. does anyone know if the Aramaic of Jesus’ time contains any bilabial fricatives? I’d like to see the word Abwoon in IPA.

  11. Interesting review. I just wish I knew to what extent Leon Wieseltier is qualified to judge the enunciation of Aramaic.

  12. Maybe someone here should fake an expert critique of the Aramaic and see if they could get it published.

  13. Some bile on this subject over at my pages. See the February 27 entry.

  14. “‘These people were obviously amateurs when it came to the language,” Manna said of the actors. “We did catch about 30 to 40 percent of it.'”
    I kinda wonder though if this isn’t just a case of a Modern Greek listening to a barbarian Classicist recite from Euripides (or some such) and assuming that if he doesn’t understand it it ain’t greek.
    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but some of the things people have said lead me to believe that the Aramaic is pronounced Modern-Hebrew style.

  15. Damian Bennett says:

    Mr. Gibson’s remarks above about Frank Rich at the NYT were not prompted by Mr. Rich’s like or dislike of the movie, but Mr. Rich libeling Mr. Gibson’s father. Mr. Rich claimed Mr. Gibson, père, is a Holocaust denier.
    If you want to disparage Mr. Gibson and his movie, well, fine, but keep the discursus fair and read the sources and see the movie before offering an opinion. How am I to consider an opinion on a movie from a person who has not seen it? What sort of opinion can such a person have?

  16. Using Aramaic in “The Passion” was a bold artistic choice by Mel Gibson, and it worked. Linguistically, Galilean Aramaic probably had softened gutturals, due to the interaction with the Greek and Latin speaking population.
    There is a noteworthy website at for those wanting more info, or those with Windows Xp can just click on my name below for the Aramaic Gospel texts.

  17. The Aramaic in the film sounded to me as if it had been passed through the pronunciation filter of modern Hebrew – ie relatively soft. This didn’t strike me as very accurate sounding; most old Semitic languages (including Akkadian, earlier than 1st century Aramaic, and Syriac, later) – and those with a long history of usage (some Arabic dialects) – retain two emphatic consonants, a ‘qof’ and a ‘taw’ spoken at the back of the throat. These did not appear in the film, and are one of the features of Semitic language which don’t appear in modern (reconstructed) Hebrew. I know it sounds nit-picking, but the sounds contribute hugely to the non-western ‘feel’ of Semitic languages, and might have made the film less Hollywoodish.
    I’m not sure I agree that the Romans ought to have spoken Greek, as many contend, but the Latin did seem a bit simplistic to me, particularly in the conversation between Pilate and his wife.
    One thing I was looking out for – and am not convinced I saw – was the actors playing Romans exhibiting less facility with Aramaic than with Latin, and vice-versa with the actors playing Jews. It would have been a particularly nice touch in the Pilate/Jesus exchange, where each talks in the language of the other, but it didn’t look as if it was even attempted. Instead, the translator seems to have opted for occasionally mixing and matching the two languages into single speeches.
    One positive feature of the use of aramaic, I felt, was to hammer home the fact that jesus was a Jew – an interpretation ignored by those detractors of the piece who see it as anti-Semitic; a view which, as a Jew, I largely disagree with.

  18. one of the features of Semitic language which don’t appear in modern (reconstructed) Hebrew
    As spoken by Ashkenazim, that is. Traditionally, the Sephardim from Arab countries have used the emphatic consonants, which is considered low-class by the ruling elite. (As I understand the situation, that is; I have never been to Israel and can only go by what I read.)

  19. I think that’s true. Alas, my Hebrew is very yekke-tinged, as an ashkenazi.
    PS This is a wonderful discussion. Where does it originate? I found it on a google search after days of wanting to get the emphatic consonants off my chest. My friends all think I’m a semitics bore.

  20. This is a wonderful discussion. Where does it originate?
    Um, I’m not sure what you’re asking. It originates right here, where it is and where you found it. (If you want emphatic consonants, we got ’em here at Languagehat!)

  21. The aramaic spoken in the film is indeed a little light on the emphatic consonants and sometimes on the gutturals, but its not bad at all. One thing that needs to cleared up. The aramaic in this fim sounds absolutely nothing like ‘ashkenazi hebrew’. Ashkenazi hebrew places emphasis on the first syllables usually, not on the last.

    The aramaic in this film is close to sefaradi hebrew, that is the kind spoken by european jews from spain and portual. Sefaradi Hebrew is also the accent used in Israel.

    Ashkenazi hebrew is not spoken in Israel by the ‘elite’, but rather by a few thousand hassidic jews in mea shearim. It sounds very different. They also pronounce tav as an ‘s’. For instance hassidic jews say ‘ShAbbos’ not ‘ShabbAt.

    The aramaic in this flim also pronounces the vav like waw, as it is pronounced in Yemen and Iraq. Its not just ashkenazi jews that pronounce it as ‘v’ but also north african sefaradic jews, european sefaradic jews, and persian jews, among other communities.

    Most sefaradic communities do not pronounce the emphatic letters in hebrew, its mainly the mizrahi jews from Iraq and Yemen that do that.

    The film’s aramaic sounds very semitic, it does not sound european influenced. They keep the sounds waw, pronounce tav as ‘th’, they trill the resh like arabic, they pronounce the 3ayin as a guttural in some cases (although it is slight, but present).

    As to Israel, the majority of israelis are sefaradi. i am moroccan sefaradi, and we pronounce vav like ‘v’ not w. We aren’t treated as second class citizens either, that is a myth. We are the same color on average and have the same genetics.

    Ashkenazi hebrew vowels are actually closer to yemenite hebrew btw, which is the oldest pronunciation.

    Persian Jews don’t pronounce the 3ayin either, nor the 7et, they pronounce those letters just like ashkenazi jews and european sefaradi jews.

  22. And Moroccan Sefaradi Jews also pronounce the tzade like persian and ashkenazi jews, like matza. Only the jews in yemen pronounce it as an emphatic S, like arabic and chaldean aramaic.

    This movie chose to pronounce it like ‘tz’ in matza, basically the standard sefaradi way. No biggie. It still sounds semitic.

  23. Thanks very much for those well-informed and informative comments! I love the fact that I can keep threads open indefinitely now, so that people can chime in a decade later.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    There are still kinds of Aramaic where the emphatics are ejective.

    And in some others (I think Turoyo is one of those), they’re completely unmarked; this works because kaf and tav are aspirated (like in Arabic).

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