Nicholas Al-Jeloo is a socio-cultural historian with expertise in the socio-cultural history and heritage of ethnic Assyrians. As a scholar in the fields of Middle Eastern, Syriac and Modern Assyrian Studies, he has been active in research and fieldwork for the past 15 years. He completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Sydney in 2013.
Assyrians today are in a situation whereby the majority of them live in the diaspora, with less than half a million Assyrians left in the Middle East and more than two million in North and South America, Europe and Australasia. Of those remaining in the Middle East, about 200,000 reside in the area of northern Mesopotamia, encompassing traditional Assyrian lands in north Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran – and even many of these are either Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or refugees, waiting to receive visas to emigrate to foreign countries. A large proportion of those who remain in many of these communities are either elderly, or very poor and waiting for the opportunity to join their relatives overseas. This is a dangerous situation in regards to language preservation, since it is estimated that most languages do not survive in a diaspora situation past four or five generations, in the best case scenario, and often die out after the third generation. Younger generations, for instance, feel obliged to learn and use the language to communicate with their grandparents. When they pass away, however, the language goes with them. On the other hand, national languages used in all official domains have a much better chance of survival across the generations – especially when individuals in diaspora communities maintain close ties with their homelands.
The maintenance of literacy amongst the diaspora-born generations, especially, is by far the biggest challenge. While many of the diaspora Assyrians can speak and understand the language, most cannot read or write in it. This is even a challenge in the homeland, where the percentage of those who are illiterate in Assyrian is generally greater than that of those who are. This is because it has never been recognised as an official national language, nor has it been granted the status of other majority languages in the Middle East. Neither is there a standard, uniform, worldwide education system that takes into account the diaspora reality of children growing up often not speaking the language at home. Educational efforts to teach and preserve the language, whether in the homeland or diaspora, have been varied over the last two centuries and have produced different results. This is because each group of schools runs its own curriculum. The history of Assyrian language education, however, is the subject of an article in its own right. At any rate, the number and distribution of such educational institutions today is wholly insufficient and many more need to be established if the language is to be passed on to future generations effectively.
While many of us would not like to even think that our language might be endangered, a significant number of the world’s languages are actually at risk of becoming extinct soon. The crisis of endangered languages is one of the most serious issues facing humanity today, posing moral, practical, and scientific problems of enormous proportions. Of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world today, some 3,000 (43%) are endangered. If this trend continues, the number of languages which no longer have speakers will soon swell dramatically. Experts have predicted that in the worst case scenario 90% of all languages will be extinct within 100 years; in the best case scenario, only 50% will survive, and just 10% are considered safe during the next century. Clearly, languages on a course towards loss of their speakers are vastly more numerous now than they have been in the past. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regularly publishes a list of endangered languages, as well as an Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger in both print and online versions (http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/). UNESCO provides a classification system to show just how ‘in trouble’ a language is:
Safe – language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted.
Vulnerable – most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).
Definitely endangered – children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home.
Severely endangered – language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parents’ generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.
Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.
Extinct – there are no speakers left.
The Endangered Languages Project (ELP, http://www.endangeredlanguages.com), on the other hand, provides a more detailed table, reproduced below. This is run by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, which has some 30 member organisations – including some 15 focusing on indigenous languages of North and South America, as well as Europe, Africa and Asia, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, the Association for Cultural Equity at New York City’s Hunter College, Eastern Michigan University, the Endangered Languages Catalogue team at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, the Language Archive at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, UCLA Phonetics Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the World Oral Literature Project run by the University of Cambridge and Yale University.
Below is a comparison of the two classification systems:
While some languages are well and truly extinct, there are others that are sometimes declared to have no remaining native speakers but whose status may not be definitive. Where there have been no known speakers for hundreds or even thousands of years, extinction is clear and uncontroversial. There are certain languages, however, about which one source says the language in question is “extinct,” “probably extinct,” “possibly extinct,” or has “no known speakers,” where another equally credible source reports it as still having speakers. The ELP, in contrast to UNESO, therefore classifies languages of this sort, as well as languages whose last fluent speaker is reported to have died in recent times, even when sources do not disagree, as “dormant.” In some cases of languages recently declared extinct, other speakers were found later on. In the case of some of these languages, communities are engaged in efforts to revive them; languages which have lost their last native speakers but which have ongoing revitalisation efforts are called “awakening” languages. To encourage efforts toward recovery of languages that lack fluent native speakers, they avoid the designation “extinct,” and speak instead of “dormant” languages, and when they have revival programs then of “awakening” languages.
The Current Status of our Language and its Dialects
Scholars estimate that more than 500,000 people around the world speak Neo-Aramaic dialects. This figure, and those given hereafter, are intentionally low, because they are meant to include only those who speak the language fully, in a native capacity, as their mother tongue (and often as their sole or first language). The vast majority of those who speak Neo-Aramaic, speak Christian dialects of Eastern Assyrian. The North Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project at the University of Cambridge (https://nena.ames.cam.ac.uk) has documented 105 sub-dialects and varieties, and another 12 are known from information provided by the ELP and Glottolog (http://glottolog.org), leading to a total of 117. According to UNESCO, the main body of Christian Eastern Assyrian dialects (for which they use the blanket term Suret) are spoken by an estimated 240,000 people and are definitely endangered since, in many cases, children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home. The ELP is more detailed, distinguishing the various dialect groups as separate categories:
Urmia Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (also called Suyray), spoken by at least 20,560 people, is only classified as vulnerable, as most members of the community speak the language. Speaker numbers may be decreasing, but very slowly since, in most cases, the language is used in most domains except for official ones such as government, mass media, education, etc. What has aided its survival is the fact that, after World War I, there was a push to standardise the written language in the 1950s, which was taught in some schools. It thus has a modern written tradition, and its development has had positive effects in that it allowed for the management of cultural heritage.
Northern Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (also called Surit), spoken by at least 20,000 people, is also classified as vulnerable, as most members of the community speak the language. Speaker numbers may be decreasing, but very slowly since, in most cases, the language is used in most domains except for official ones such as government, mass media, education, etc.
Southern Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (also called Sureth), spoken by over 100,000 people, is classified as threatened to endangered, as most adults in the community are speakers but, in many cases, children generally are not. A majority of community members speak the language, since it is used in some nonofficial domains along with other languages, and remains the primary language used in the home for many community members, but speaker numbers are gradually decreasing.
There is a considerable influence of Arabic on the dialect spoken nowadays. Most people introduce Arabic words and phrases into their speech without any adaptation to Aramaic morphology. A policy of Arabisation had been pursued among minority communities in Iraq in recent decades. Following government requirements, the school education of children over the last generation has been only in Arabic. Differences in speech patterns have thus developed between the older and younger generations, in that the latter, who have been through the modern education system, tend to mix more Arabic in their speech than the older generations.
Although the dialect has clearly been exposed to the influence of Arabic over many generations, this influence has never been so overwhelming as it is at present. Some younger speakers can avoid introducing a large quantity of unadapted Arabic elements into their speech by a concious effort. Others, however, are beginning to lose a sound active grasp of their dialect. If this situation continues, there is a serious danger that knowledge of the dialect will be lost by the future generations over the next few decades. Many of the dialects spoken by communities in the Nineveh Plain are in a precarious situation since they are rapidly becoming overwhelmed by Arabic.
Ashirat Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (also called Surith), spoken by at least 10,000 people, is classified as endangered to severely endangered, as only about half of community members, mostly adults, are speakers, but the language is not spoken by children – probably due to the usage of the standard written language in Assyrian education and media. Speaker numbers are decreasing steadily, since the dialect is used mainly just in the home and/or with family, but this decrease is not at an accelerated pace because it remains the primary language of these domains for many community members.
Other, more peripheral, Christian Eastern Assyrian dialects are also listed:
UNESCO categorises Bohtan Neo-Aramaic and Hertevin (also known as Surat) separately, for instance. According to them, the former is severely endangered since it is spoken by grandparents and older generations and, while the parents’ generation may understand it, they generally do not speak it to children or among themselves. The latter, on the other hand, is critically endangered since the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. The ELP, however, groups them under the one category of Bohtan Neo-Aramaic with 500-2,000 speakers, and classifies it as threatened to severely endangered, since many of the grandparents’ generation speak the language, but the younger generations speak the language less, and less proficiently. Speaker numbers are decreasing because the dialect is used mainly just in the home and/or with family, and may not be the primary language even in these domains for many community members.
According to UNESCO, Senaya (also called Shan Sray) is critically endangered with only 60 speakers, the youngest of whom are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. This dialect was originally spoken in the city of Sanandaj, or Sena, in western Iran, which was gradually abandoned by its Assyrian inhabitants between the 1950s and 1980s. The ELP is a little more optimistic and lists as many as 460 speakers, but still classifies it as endangered to severely endangered. This is because some adults in the community are speakers, none of whom younger than their 20s, and most children are no longer learning the dialect. Speaker numbers are decreasing because it is used mainly just in the home and/or with family, and may not be the primary language even in these domains for many community members. In many cases, it has already been replaced by Urmia Northeastern Neo-Aramaic or other languages, such as Persian or English, which are seen to be more useful. It is estimated that this dialect will be lost forever in less than 100 years.
Both UNESCO and the ELP list only two Western Assyrian dialects, both of which are largely unwritten vernaculars, with often solely oral transmission (the ELP and Glottolog both list 6 sub-dialects, however more are known to have existed):
UNESCO classifies Turoyo (also called Surayt), the dialect of Tur-‘Abdin with around 50,000 to 84,000 speakers, as severely endangered since, in many cases, it is spoken by grandparents and older generations and, while the parents’ generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves. The ELP is a little more optimistic and classifies Turoyo as vulnerable to endangered. A majority of community members, including most adults and some children, speak the dialect. Speaker numbers, however, are gradually decreasing because it is used in most domains except for official ones such as government, mass media, education etc., and many people who move to cities typically no longer speak it. In recent years, European diaspora communities have made attempts to standardise Turoyo, eliminating Arabic and Kurdish loanwords, and to write it either in Syriac or in Latin characters. Only a few hundred speakers remain in its original homeland.
While UNESCO classifies Mlahso as extinct, the ELP classifies it as critically endangered to dormant with between 0 and 9 speakers. A small percentage of the community, all elderly, speaks the dialect, and their numbers are decreasing very rapidly and it is used only in a few very specific domains, such as in ceremonies, songs, prayer, proverbs, or certain limited domestic activities. It was originally spoken in the villages of Mlahso and ‘Ayn-Shah in Turkey’s Diyarbakir province. The population was mostly wiped out during the Assyrian Genocide, and most of the few individuals who had escaped the massacres have since died.
In addition to the Christian dialects of Eastern Assyrian, there are also Jewish dialects which are now spoken almost exclusively in Israel since the mass-migration of Assyrian Jews there since the 1950s ended their presence in their original lands. The North Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project at the University of Cambridge has documented 31 sub-dialects and varieties, and another 12 are known from information provided by the ELP and Glottolog, leading to a total of 43. Of the estimated 250,000 Assyrian Jews around the world, only between 22,020 and 34,431 (9 to 14%) can still speak their original Aramaic dialects. As a result, UNESCO classifies the majority of these dialects as severely endangered. Knowledge of these dialects is quickly fading in these immigrant communities and they have been widely supplanted by Israeli Modern Hebrew, especially among the youngest generations (the grandchildren of those who originally moved there from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey), who may understand the dialects but are generally unable to speak them at all. Some young adults speak Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects only to their elders from there but they do not speak it to children or among themselves. A factor that probably sped this decrease of speakers even more has been the lack of contact they have had with Christian Assyrians from the areas they left behind, due to the religious divide. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects, therefore, are approaching extinction to such an extent that in half a generation from now many of these dialects will be gone forever. These include the following:
Hulaula (from Hudayuta) with between 9,500 and 10,350 speakers, originally from Western Iran. The ELP classifies this dialect as vulnerable to endangered.
Lishana Deni with between 7,500 and 9,061 speakers, originally from the Dohuk province of north Iraq. The ELP classifies this dialect as threatened to endangered.
Lishan Didan (also called Jewish Azerbaijani Neo-Aramaic) with between 4,000 and 5,000 speakers, originally from the Urmia region of Iran, and adjoining parts of Turkey. The ELP classifies this dialect as threatened to endangered.
Lishanid Noshan (also called Inter-Zab Jewish Neo-Aramaic) with between 1,000 and 10,000 speakers, originally from the Erbil province of north Iraq. The ELP classifies this dialect as threatened to critically endangered
Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic (also called Central Jewish Neo-Aramaic) with less than 20 speakers, all over the age of 70, and originally from the borderlands between Iraq’s Dohuk and Erbil provinces. This dialect is classified by both UNESCO and the ELP as critically endangered.
UNESCO and the ELP additionally list two more extant Aramaic languages that are similarly endangered. These are the following:
Western Neo-Aramaic with between 15,000 and 20,000 Christian and Muslim speakers from the villages of Ma‘lula Bakh‘a and Jub‘addin in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains north of Damascus, Syria. These three villages each have their own dialects. UNESCO classifies this language as definitely endangered since, although it has been extremely active in the three villages, many children no longer learn it as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home and Arabic is often used as a prestige language. This is especially the case now, since many abandoned their homes during the recent Syrian Civil War. The ELP classifies it as vulnerable to severely endangered because, while a majority of the community members (including most adults and some children) speak the language, numbers are gradually decreasing. This is because it is used mainly just in the home and/or with family, but it still remains the primary language of these domains for many community members.
Neo-Mandaic with between 100 and 5,500 speakers out of a total Sabean Mandaean ethnic population of 60,000 worldwide (between 0.2 and 9%), with most of them in Iran. UNESCO classifies the language as critically endangered, since many of the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. The ELP, on the other hand, classifies it as vulnerable to critically endangered. There are few young speakers with practically none under the age of 30, almost all of them are fifty and older, and speaker numbers are decreasing at an accelerated pace. Additionally, there are few communities or households where it is in daily use, while almost all Mandaeans are fluent in Arabic and Persian – the important contact languages where most of them live. All signs indicate that it will become extinct with the current generation of speakers.
Three Neo-Mandaic dialects are known to have existed in the southwest Iranian cities of Shushtar, Ahvaz and Khorramshahr. There was also an Iraqi dialect which is now largely believed to be extinct. In 1894, Vital Cuinet reported 3,000 Mandaeans in ‘Amarah, Shatrah, Qal‘at Salih, al-Nasiriyah and Suq al-Shuyukh – all in what is now southern Iraq – and that they possessed 4 schools with 65 students (representing, at best, only 14% of the male school-age population). These schools did not survive into the 20th century, when most Iraqi Mandaeans were first urbanised then Arabised. The Mandaean community in Ahvaz established a Mandaic-language school for children around 2008, and there is also an effort to teach the language at a community level in Australia.
Why should any of us Care?
Language is one of the most important components of an ethnic, cultural or national identity, since it provides any given group with a major characteristic that defines it as separate to those surrounding it. The disappearance of an individual language, however, may not only herald the extinction of an entire people, but it also constitutes a monumental loss of scientific information and cultural knowledge, comparable in gravity to the loss of a species. On the other hand, the extinction of whole language families – such as what is possible in case of all Neo-Aramaic dialects – is a tragedy comparable in magnitude to the loss of whole branches of the animal kingdom (eg. classes, orders, families). Just as it would be difficult to understand the animal kingdom with major branches missing, it is impossible to understand the history and classification of human languages with the loss of entire families of languages. This, however, is what confronts us: already all the languages belonging to more than 100 of the 420 known independent language families (including isolates) of the world no longer have native speakers and are extinct—a staggering 24 to 25% of the linguistic diversity of the world, gone forever. Worse, this number will change radically and rapidly.
We should all be concerned over the crisis of language loss, for the following compelling reasons, based on those provided by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity:
Human concerns: Languages are treasure houses of information on literature, history, philosophy, and art. Their stories, ideas, and words help us make sense of our lives and the world around us. For example, the life-enriching value of literature is well-understood, and is true also of the oral literature of the indigenous peoples of the world – they, too, have grappled with the complexities of their world and the problems of life, and the insights and discoveries represented in their literature are of value to us all. When a language becomes extinct without documentation, taking all its oral literature, oral tradition, and oral history with it into oblivion, we are all diminished. There are also great reservoirs of historical information to be recovered from the study of languages. The classification of related languages teaches us about the history of human groups and how they are related to one another, and we gain understanding of contacts and migrations, the original homelands where languages were spoken, and past cultures from the comparison of related languages and the study of language change—all irretrievably lost when a language becomes extinct without adequate documentation.
Lost knowledge: Specific knowledge is often held by the smaller speech communities of the world—knowledge of medicinal plants and cures, identification of plants and animals yet unknown scientifically, new crops, etc. When the language is not learned by the next generation, the knowledge of the natural and cultural world encoded in the language typically fails to be transmitted. Loss of such knowledge could have devastating consequences for humanity. Medicines provide similar examples; 75% of plant derived pharmaceuticals were discovered by examining traditional medicines, and the languages of curers often played a key role. If these languages had become extinct and knowledge of the medicinal plants and associated cures had been lost in the process, all of humanity would have been impoverished and our survival as a species left more precarious.
Scientific understanding of human language: Linguists have the goal of understanding what is possible and impossible in human languages, and through the study of human language capacity, of advancing knowledge of how the human mind works. For these goals, language extinction is a disaster. The discovery of previously unknown features and traits in undescribed languages contributes to this goal. The discovery of a new speech sound is to linguists like the discovery of a new species to biologists. Recent discoveries of a new speech sound in threatened languages have led to testing scientific claims about sound systems and to refining our knowledge. Linguists document endangered languages to discover information of this sort, and to determine the full range of what is possible in human languages.
Human rights: Language loss is often not voluntary; it frequently involves violations of human rights, with oppression or repression of speakers of minority languages. It is a matter of injustice when people are forced to give up their languages by repressive regimes or prejudiced dominant societies. Related to this is the personal loss associated with the death of one’s heritage language. Language loss is often experienced as a crisis of social identity. Our psychological, social, and physical wellbeing is connected with our native language; it shapes our values, self-image, identity, relationships, and ultimately success in life. For many communities, work towards language revitalisation is not about language alone, but is part of a larger effort to restore personal and societal wellness. Language loss does not promote peace. It is often claimed that there would be more harmony if there were just one or only a few languages in the world. Some see language loss as promoting greater understanding and fostering world peace. This is wrong. Having only one language is no guarantee of “understanding.” National unity is not fostered by monolingualism; rather, recognition of minority languages’ rights may be a better way of bringing about peace, understanding, and ultimately national unity.
Multiple factors influence the vitality of a language. A language starts to become endangered when intergenerational transmission begins to decrease (i.e. the language ceases to be passed on to children as a first language). As older generations of speakers pass away, fewer and fewer people are left who speak the language. Languages not being learned by children, therefore, are not just endangered, they are doomed. Most of our dialects and their variants will become extinct in our lifetime, and our language as a whole could follow suit if revitalisation programs are not successfully implemented in a coordinated manner across the diaspora.
Linguistic diversity constitutes one of the great treasures of humanity, to which our language (with its many dialects and variants) contributes greatly. As such, it is an enormous collection of expressive possibility and provides a profound understanding of the world around us. In this regard, therefore, the loss of hundreds of languages that have already become extinct or dormant is, in every way, an intellectual catastrophe and we do not want ours to share the same fate. Our language is fundamental to our personal, social, cultural and ethnic identity as Assyrians. Consequently, retaining it is vitally important when it comes to our people’s core relevance or existence. If we lose our language, then we lose a piece of our innermost being, a part of our soul as a people or a part of our national spirit. Hence, when it comes to our language, the situation is simple: We either use it or we lose it!
In order to ensure that our language survives the next century, we need to aim at getting it to a level that can be considered “safe.” This means that almost all self-identifying Assyrians, from all generations including children, should at least speak our language fluently as their mother tongue. In the best case, this requires a compact or close-knit community of 100,000 or more speakers, where the language is used in most domains, including official ones such as government, mass media, education, etc. Such a situation will allow the number of people who speak our language to stabilise or increase, thereby ensuring that its intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted. The best possibility for this to occur is if a critical mass of Assyrians remain in the homeland, and an autonomous province in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain would greatly aid in this effort.
In the diaspora, however, Assyrians need to be more proactive in uniting their efforts and “putting their money where their mouth is” in order not only to establish more day schools where a single standardised language curriculum is developed taught the world over, for both main dialects of Modern Assyrian, but also domains where the language can be utilised in a useful and effective manner, including various forms of mass media (television, radio, internet and print). Nobody else is going to do this for us. If we don’t use and transmit our language to coming generations in the diaspora, it will be lost forever, and with it also our ethnic and national identity as Assyrians. This would be an unfathomable tragedy and would also lead, inevitably, to our extinction as a people. Hopefully, there are enough Assyrians that will care enough for this not to be the case. As the words of a brief poem I was taught in 1988, as a child at the Assyrian Australian Association’s Saturday school in Sydney (now the Diqlat Assyrian School, established in 1975), say: