The sound of Christmas: Lost language in a little town

St. Maroun Church: A citadel for a lost language

In the far north of Israel, in a stone church tucked onto a remote hillside, Christmas Mass will be recited, as it is every year, in the language Jesus Christ spoke. Aramaic remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Christians in the Galilee, where Christ grew up and a resilient congregation struggles to revive the language in everyday life.

“Two thousand years ago it was very known,” says Father Bshara Suleiman, pastor of the St. Maroun Church, named for the 5th century monk who inspired the movement in the Aramean region in what is today Syria. By then Aramaic had been the lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan for perhaps 1,000 years, though few Americans had heard of it before The Passion of the Christ. The controversial 2004 feature directed by Mel Gibson was the top-grossing non-English film in history.

I spent some time in Los Angeles, oh, about eight years ago, trying to find William Fulco, the Loyola Marymount professor who translated Gibson’s script. I had in mind an article exploring the controversy surrounding the Aramaic used in the film – how much is guesswork, and how much of a dying, boutique language can be reasonably reconstructed.  Never found him, never happened.

Clearly, I was in the wrong place.  I should have headed for the town of Jish in Israel, where the language is still spoken.  I’m fascinated by these dead and dying languages – you might have guessed that from my post here from David Harrison‘s talk at the Modern Language Association convention in Scottsdale last fall – and Christmas brings thoughts of Aramaic, the tongue that first described it.

So read Karl Vick‘s Time Magazine article on the Aramaic here.

As for Gibson’s movie?  “It was very easy to understand, for me,” says Shadi Khalloul, who saw the movie in the U.S. and promotes Aramaic education at the Aramean Center in the town of Jish. “It was almost correct. They tried.”
(Over lunch in a private home, eight schoolchildren serenade visiting Time Magazine reporters. Sorry for the short commercial.)

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3 Responses to “The sound of Christmas: Lost language in a little town”

  1. thebeadqueen Says:

    you should go to Jish, fascinating place, and yes indeed you will find fascinating aramaic speakers

  2. Deon Says:


    I find it interesting that Aramaic is thought of as a single language while it is in fact a group of closely related languages known as Modern Aramaic or Neo Aramaic.

    The “liturgical” dialects of Aramaic that has survived the ravages of time are nowadays primarily used for religious purposes such as Samaritan Aramaic and several Jewish Aramaic dialects. These dialects are found wherever their religious communities now live throughout the world.

    The Aramaic spoken in Jish is a prime example of this.


  3. tetsuo Says:

    It would be interesting to hear such mass anyway, even if that was not the ‘right’ Aramic.