UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
These young people learning their communion prayers are singing in Aramaic, the language of Christ. They're singing at a church in Zakho, Iraq, a city on the Turkish border. Aramaic today is mostly spoken in small villages across northern Iraq, Syria, southern Turkey, and it's a haunting experience to hear it in remote places.
I first encountered it with Esho Joseph, once a former translator for the Iraqi regime who is from Zakho and who grew up speaking Aramaic.
ESHO JOSEPH: This language - I mean, all languages are important obviously for their speakers, but this language specifically has its historical importance. It was the language of great empires - lingua franca of the entire Middle East for once. And now, it has, you know, dying. It is really painful. And it was also the language of Jesus. And that matters for, I think, human culture, human heritage. It is one of the old, you know, languages that I think should - something should be done to preserve it.
LYDEN: This month, writer Ariel Sabar has a piece in February's Smithsonian magazine about attempts to do exactly that - to preserve what many say is a dying language. It's astonishing to think that it could be, he says. It was once as common as English, spoken by Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians. At its height, Aramaic could be heard from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Now, it may be one or two generations away from vanishing.
ARIEL SABAR: And that led me to this wonderful, you know, scrappy, adventure-seeking group of linguists who have literally crisscrossed the globe in search of these remaining pockets of Aramaic speakers.
LYDEN: That's Ariel Sabar. His own father, Yona, happens to be from the same city as Esho, and he was the last Jewish boy to be bar mitzvahed there in Zakho, now an important and large border city. But most of the towns where Aramaic is spoken are far smaller: mountain hamlets or farming villages. For research on his piece in Smithsonian magazine, Ariel interviewed five linguists, including a scholar at Tel Aviv University, Hezi Mutzafi.
SABAR: Literally, he would get a phone call from, you know, Finland, and someone saying, you know, a priest - an Assyrian priest saying, I've got a guy here who speaks this dialect that's never been documented. And Hezi would sort of drop everything, get on the first plane and go out there because he was worried this guy might not live another week. And he - Hezi described it to me as - and I said, you know, what is that thrill like? And he said, remember the scene in "Jurassic Park" where the scientists come across, you know, a living dinosaur?
LYDEN: War and migration have taken a heavy toll on the village cultures whose very isolation preserved Aramaic over the centuries. In the last decade alone, it's estimated that nearly half of all Christians who speak Aramaic have fled Iraq.
In his piece, Ariel Sabar writes about the search for people from those villages who speak what linguists call a pure dialect. Surprisingly, perhaps, many are now living in the Chicago suburbs.
SABAR: Typically, elderly people who had spent their entire lives in sort of small, isolated villages and whose dialects had not been diluted either by, you know, moving to bigger cities where a bunch of different dialects would converge or even had married someone from a different village.
LYDEN: Esho Joseph has lived in America now since 1991, and his own children don't speak Aramaic. And yet, his cultural memories of his father, their grandfather, riding his horse through the fields, chanting the Song of Solomon each and every day of his life. Esho translated some of the song for us.
JOSEPH: (Foreign language spoken)
LYDEN: But for me, the most beautiful depiction of this language comes not from the Torah or the Bible, but from a folk song, sung for many centuries in Zakho about its famous Roman-era bridge. It's called the Delale Bridge. And the legend goes that the bridge builder's daughter-in-law, Nemo Delale, had to be walled into the foundation to make the bridge stand. One day, back in 2003, Esho Joseph stood on the bridge and sang the song for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGE SONG 2")
JOSEPH: (Singing in foreign language)
LYDEN: There is some effort to preserve Aramaic today in northern Iraq. Schools do teach it. But linguists are right to scour the globe searching for the last links to the oldest, purest form of an ancient spoken language.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.