Despite U.S. airstrikes in recent days, IS still holds the heartland of Aramaic, now emptied of its original inhabitants. “The threat to the Christian Neo-Aramaic-speaking population of northern Iraq is very great,” says linguist Geoffrey Khan, adding that the region has dozens of Aramaic-speaking villages and that “each village has a slightly different dialect.” Khan’s full-length study of the Neo-Aramaic spoken in Qaraqosh, and similar studies undertaken in neighboring towns, may now stand as monuments rather than descriptions of living communities. “Since each village has a different dialect,” says Khan, “if the inhabitants of the villages are uprooted and thrown together in refugee camps or scattered in diaspora communities around the world, the dialects will inevitably die.” The unfolding tragedy “is reminiscent of the terrible events in the First World War,” adds Khan, which “led to the death of scores of Neo-Aramaic dialects of south-eastern Turkey.”
Aramaic has been dying a slow death for a long time now; most recent estimates put the worldwide population of Aramaic speakers at only about 500,000 people, and many of its dialects have already vanished. And it’s true that languages die out all the time, something that’s unfortunately happening more frequently today than ever before. Still, there’s something especially tragic about what’s happening to Aramaic. For one thing, as Pelin notes, aside from Greek, Chinese, and Hebrew, Aramaic is the oldest surviving linguistic group on the planet. For another, the language is so closely tied to non-Arab, Christian communities in Iraq (particularly the Assyrians) that it is effectively being exterminated by IS rather than being allowed to die a natural death or even possibly be revived.
Pelin also says that a different Aramaic dialect, Western Neo-Aramaic, is probably on its last legs in Syria, because some of our friends in the Free Syrian Army joined up with Jabhat al-Nusra to destroy the town of Maaloula, the only place where it was still spoken. It’s worth asking why we’re fighting to protect Christians in Iraq while helping rebel groups in Syria who tend to treat Christians pretty badly.