If a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago found himself on his home territory in 2015, he would be shocked by the modern innovations, and not just electricity, airplanes, and iPhones. Arabic as an official language in over two dozen countries would also seem as counterintuitive to him as if people had suddenly started keeping aardvarks as pets.
In our time-traveler’s era, after all, Arabic was an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads. The probability that he even spoke it would be low. There were countless other languages in the Middle East in his time that he’d be more likely to know. His idea of a “proper” language would have been Aramaic, which ruled what he knew as the world and served, between 600 and 200 B.C.E., as the lingua franca from Greece and Egypt, across Mesopotamia and Persia, all the way through to India. Yet today the language of Jesus Christ is hardly spoken anywhere, and indeed is likely to be extinct within the next century. Young people learn it ever less. Only about half a million people now speak Aramaic—compared to, for example, the five and a half million people who speak Albanian.
How does a language go from being so big to being on the verge of dying out entirely?
One clue lies in its geographic fragmentation: Today there is no one “Aramaia” where the language is spoken. Its varieties are now used in small, obscure communities spread far apart across Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia. There are also expatriate communities of speakers scattered even further away, in Chicago, as well as Paramus and Teaneck in New Jersey. Another indicator of the language’s gradual dissolution amid political discontinuity is the number of names it goes under nowadays. In many historical sources, the language is referred to as “Chaldean,” after one of the Aramaic-speaking dynasties that ruled Babylon when it was the glittering center of Mesopotamian civilization between the seventh and the fourth centuries B.C.E. Because a Syrian dialect of Aramaic is especially well-preserved in writing and is still used for Christian liturgy in the Middle East, Turkey, and even India, one also hears often of Syriac. Some modern speakers of Aramaic call their variety Assyrian, others Mandaic.