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Saving Endangered Languages

As part of the Spring 2012 World Policy Journal issue “Speaking in Tongues, we invited acclaimed Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir to write for The Big Question about the importance of keeping endangered languages alive. Shbeir writes and sings in the ancient language of Syriac, drawing attention to the beauty of the endangered Aramaic dialect that originated in the Mesopotamian city of Edessa, which now lies in Turkey. Syriac was the lingua franca of much of the Middle East from about the 7th century BC until the 7th century AD, when Arabic pushed the language to obscurity. After persecution of Syriac speakers in Ottoman Turkey during the 1890s and in the period of 1922-1925, the cities of Edessa and Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, home to major Syriac populations, were abandoned. Some Syriacs stayed in the region of Tur Abdin, while many fled to neighboring countries like Syria and Lebanon in the late 19th and early 20th century or later immigrated to the West. Shbier is one of the last artists innovating and pushing the rich Syriac language forward, creating new and beautiful language in Christianity’s ancient tongue. Shbier’s short piece is a call to arms to preserve languages on the brink of disappearing.

By Ghada Shbeir

Language embodies the culture and religion of a population, the history of a land, and creates the frame of reference of a community. Throughout history, societies have faded and been replaced by other populations with new languages and cultures. When nations move on and languages are forgotten, chapters of history, science, and culture are closed to future generations.

The Syriac language serves as a good example. It used to be the musical vernacular of cultural and scientific communication for religious and educated people of Middle Eastern societies. The alphabets of many languages originated from Syriac, including Arabic. With the rise of Islam in the 8th century, the Syriac language began its long decline as a commercial and everyday-use language.

Today, Syriac is primarily regarded as the language of Christianity, spoken by priests in churches and monasteries. But to me, it should still be considered a major literary language that produced the religious writings at the beginnings of Christianity.

I am fascinated by the wonderful images of Christian religion that Syriac conveys. Every time I study and get deeper into the texts and the images that reached civilizations at that time, I discover that their translations never do them justice. Keeping the Syriac language alive is therefore of utmost importance to me. Unfortunately, the number of researchers of the language has dwindled, creating a lack of awareness even to its existence. The number of books, articles, and magazines have declined, which only contributes to the popularity of other languages.

What is being done to sustain the remains of a language that has made such tremendous contributions to world literature? After hundreds of years with fewer and fewer speakers, those familiar with the Syriac language are still fighting to keep it alive by preserving and expanding its dictionaries and grammar books. And, as one of the few remaining believers in Syriac, I am contributing to the spread of this historical language in every possible way by writing texts and manuscripts that I record on CD. As a musician, I use Syriac's unique and complex sounds to create a new way of singing in Arabic. In order to do so, I drew from famous and great works of ancient Syriac writers, such as father Mar Evram. All these efforts seek to ensure that Syriac is passed on from one generation to the other in a truthful and authentic way.



Ghada Shbeir is a world-acclaimed Lebanese singer.

[Picture courtesy of Groume]

[Translated from Arabic by Taymour El Gamal]


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