There’s probably nothing in John McWhorter’s Atlantic piece “Where Do Languages Go to Die?” that will surprise any LH reader familiar at all with Aramaic, but McWhorter is always an enjoyable writer, and he opens with the piquant image of “a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago” visiting our world and being amazed by the dominance of Arabic — in his time “an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads” — where he would have expected to find Aramaic. A sample paragraph:
Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time—a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one’s village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own.
If you find that enjoyable, might as well read the whole thing. But I found this a bizarre assertion: “Russian, spoken by countless millions, is so horrifically complex that part of me always wonders whether it is an elaborate hoax.” Dude, try a language from the Caucasus sometime. (Thanks again, Trevor!)