Dakhil Shooshtary closes the door and steps into the past. He is standing in the middle of his study, staring at a photo. “He’s gone…” says Dakhil, pointing to a man wearing robes and a long white beard. His finger works its way down the line of men in the frame and he recites morbidly: “He’s dead… he’s dead… I’m not sure, but probably dead.” Of the 22 men and children in the photo, Dakhil thinks only a handful are still alive.
This photo marks an end. Dakhil says it was taken in the early 1930s. Most of the people are gone and so is their world. They are Mandean, members of a 1,800 year-old religion that believes running water is a connection to heaven and that Adam was the first prophet. It was taken in a city along the Iran-Iraq border where Dakhil, now almost 80, grew up. He says it was the last time they were allowed to wear the robes and headdresses that made them distinct. The next day the Persian authorities forbade it.
Today Dakhil lives in Long Island, and his study is a salvage shop of artifacts. Memory after memory line the wall. There are photos of men in white robes and headdresses standing by a river. There are sketches of crosses with white cloth draped over them and running water in almost every photo. To the untrained eye, each photo resembles the next, but these are symbols of Mandeism.
Dakhil reaches over to the bookshelf. He brings down a door-stop-sized book. It’s one of three dictionaries he’s written in 20 years. For Dakhil, it’s more than a collection of words. It’s a repository of a civilization and a language that may soon cease to be. Mandaic scholars like Charles Häberl estimate that Dakhil is one of 300-500 remaining speakers left in the world. When you’re talking these numbers, each speaker silenced by death brings the language closer to the brink. “It’s tough,” Dakhils says. “I feel lonely.” His voice slows down. “When you speak it, you definitely feel you are Mandean.”
He started to copy down religious texts when he opened his first jewelry shop in Port Jefferson, on Long Island. Twenty-two religious texts and three dictionaries later, he admits that few, if any, people take an interest in his work. “They don’t ask,” he says. “They don’t care all that much.”
Dakhil’s grandson walks in. He doesn’t speak Mandaic, which is thought to be similar to Babylonian Hebrew. Nor do Dakhil’s wife or children. Dakhil can go about his business in English, Persian and Arabic, which he speaks fluently. But as for the language that animates him, the one that lets him feel he is Mandean, there are only a handful of people he can talk to. There’s his older brother who lives in Queens. There’s another Mandaic speaker in Idaho whom Dakhil phones occasionally. He also calls his priest in Australia.
What makes a language endangered is not so much the number of speakers, although that’s important, but whether or not it’s being passed onto children. Häberl says that few Mandaic speakers, if any, are under thirty.
Dakhil wishes he had more speakers on that list. He wants his children and grandchildren to know his language. “It’s very important to me,” he says. Then, almost in a reverie, he adds that he’d feel proud, that he’d love it if they could talk and write Mandaic. And he’s tried to teach them. Nine grand-children came to class on and off for three years. “They didn’t learn too much,” says Dakhil. Eventually he was left with a class of two. But after the death of his younger brother four months ago, Dakhil ran out of patience. “Maybe I’m a bad teacher,” he jokes. But the joke stings. “I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for myself too.”
Some languages die brutally and suddenly, others fade gradually and slowly. All language deaths are painful, especially to the last speakers like Dakhil, who bear witness at their funerals. Few can be brought back from extinction. If nobody uses their songs, metaphors and lullabies, these languages can only exist frozen as mp3 recordings and notes in a linguist’s shorthand.
For people who used those words to tell their parents they loved them, who prayed in them, who cursed and dreamed in them, the demise of a language is a double death. If a language is in danger, so is the world its words served.
Then there’s the idiom, the word or phrase that cannot be translated. They are the hand made, once in a lifetime creations of culture, sound and circumstance, a product that hasn’t been replicated anywhere else. They will literally be lost in translation.
According to linguist Michael Krauss, 90 percent of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world today could become extinct by the end of the century.
It’s snowing, it’s March and two men dressed like Medieval courtiers stand outside New York’s Bowery Poetry Club. Step inside and the scene changes again. The man on the door asks for $10, New Yorkers take drinks to tables and three men are reading on stage.
James Lovell rocks, sways and flows to words spoken on a Caribbean island almost 300 years ago, up until the British banned its consonants, vowels and the rebellion they stood for. His is a song of exile. One that laments the fall of a hero and his last stand against the British.
“Their children are trying to resuscitate them,” goes the refrain. Two hundred years after the song was written, it’s now their great-great-great-grand-children, trying to resuscitate them. The island of St. Vincent, where James’ ancestors are from, is a long way away, in time and space. But he is the keeper of their memory and avenger of their fate. His weapon? Words. Their mother tongue, Garifuna.
The second man stands straight. His words are rigid, they march along, occasionally stopping to salute and get higher in pitch, before marching onto the next phrase. This is Breton, spoken by kings and princes from northwestern France. Its family tree includes Welsh and Irish, Celtic languages that also survived persecution.
Bob Holman is just to the left of the stage. Poet and a patron saint of endangered tongues, he travels the world, searching for languages on the brink of no-return. He preaches revival, takes exotic words and uses them in his work.
These three aren’t just here to entertain. They’re here to untie tongues that conquerors and colonists tried to oppress. They are defending a way of life they didn’t live, but whose memory is strong.
This is just one event put on by the Endangered Language Alliance in New York. Founded by linguists Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and poet Bob Holman, their “urban field-station” in downtown Manhattan is a place dedicated to recording, documenting and sometimes re-introducing languages to places where they were once lost.
But there is only so much help for an endangered language. Linguists like Kaufman can film them being spoken, transcribe and document them for posterity. But those who still speak the language have to want to save it, and this isn’t always a given. Some view the vernacular as a patois best forgotten. Their focus is on teaching themselves and their children the language of opportunity, like English.
“Optimally it’s about creating a space where the language can be spoken again, especially among younger people,” Kaufman says. “But that’s a really big undertaking because how do you create a space? It’s much more social engineering than linguistics.”
Space, then, is central to a language’s survival. It was isolation, after all, that made these languages what they were by giving them the space to evolve. But in an age of mass communication and exploding population growth, there is nowhere left to be isolated.
The Mandeans lived along the Iran-Iraq border for 2,000 years, and some say theirs is the original language of the region. But Häberl says that since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, their numbers have fallen from around 40,000 to 3,000.
They were flung into exile so suddenly that what was once a community in Iraq is now a fragmented collection of individuals spread around the world. In the past ten years, they have had to figure out how to live far from their homeland while keeping their identity and community intact, a crisis that, by comparison, Diaspora Jews had 2,000 years to resolve.
A language can take centuries to evolve, but just decades to vanish. Kaufman say it usually takes only two generations in the diaspora for a language to melt away.
Mandaic itself traces its roots back to Aramaic, an ancient language that predates Jesus Christ, its most famous speaker, by 1,200 years. During its reign as the lingua franca of the Middle East from the sixth century B.C. until the Arab conquest of the seventh century A.D., Aramaic melded with other dialects in pockets of the Middle East and spawned new ones.
Sarah Bakir grew up speaking one of them.The 24 year-old sits towards the front of a packed Syrian Orthodox church in New Jersey. She listens to a sermon in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect that is one of Mandaic’s siblings. Despite their shared origins, Mandaic and Syriac have different destinies and prognoses. Syriac may yet survive.
The priest reads from right to left, attributing sounds to words shaped like blocks. The ceremony builds in waves. He sings alone, his prayer like a lamentation, surrounding the audience with pathos. When he holds a note, he holds the congregation with him.
If music could transport, this diaspora community would be taken back to the Tur Abdin region in southeastern Turkey. The area’s mountain ranges created a natural buffer against the violence of conquerors and the influence of foreign tongues. It was here that the Syriac language and a sister dialect — a form of Neo-Aramaic that Sarah speaks — evolved.
Syriac was originally a dialect spoken in Edessa, today called Urfa, also in southeastern Turkey. It was elevated to a language of prayer because Edessa was a center of early Christian learning.
The difference between a language and a dialect is hard to pinpoint. Some say that a language is a dialect with an army, which speaks to the main difference: status. After all, they serve the same purpose–communication—but if no state has made them an official language or if no religion has made them holy, dialects remain inferior things unworthy of preservation. Which is one of the reasons why the Neo-Aramaic dialect that Sarah speaks is in danger.
There are other factors too. In the midst of the rise of nationalism in the region, World War I and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, massacres and sectarian violence were committed against ethnic and religious minorities, like the Syriac people.
Many Syriacs moved to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and when those places became unsafe, they went to Germany, Sweden, Holland, the Unites States and Australia. Sarah is Dutch born and, even among other devout members of the Syrian Orthodox church, she is something of a rarity. Sarah, who is 24, grew up speaking this form of Neo-Aramaic with her grandparents. Holland’s liberal policies encouraged minorities to keep hold of their ethnic identities and an hour of Neo-Aramaic was taught in her elementary school.
She is in the United States with the World Council of Arameans, a political organization that represents the rights of Syriac people. During the week of their visit, they went to the United Nations and Washington D.C. to tell politicians and diplomats about the dangers faced by their people in Syria. While the rebels fear President Bashar al-Assad, this dwindling Christian minority fears the Islamization of the rebels. But right now it’s Sunday and Sarah is sitting with the rest of the congregation.
The priest gives the crowd a blessing and a woman in the front row grabs it as if it were real. She turns around and cups the hands of the woman next to her. This woman does the same to her neighbor and within a minute the blessing has gone viral. It’s ridden a wave of hands all the way from the front of the church to the people standing at the back. Sarah’s part of the chain, passing a blessing onto the friend next to her.
At the end of the ceremony, people form a line down the aisle, take the sacrament and go downstairs. In the basement, solemnity gives way to chatter. People are animated, women are coiffed and wear heavy coats, men are in pressed suits. Sarah’s sitting with a group of girls her age. They’re sipping coffee and eating what look like oversized bagels. Their table and the table next to them are full of red flyers for Aram FM, an iPhone app that streams Neo-Aramaic music 24 hours a day.
There’s a drawing on the back wall of Mor Gabriel Monastery in Southeastern Turkey. It was built in 397 A.D. and Syriac people will proudly tell you that it’s one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the world. It symbolizes religion and home. But this is part of the problem. Home is far away. “You can’t say ‘I’m going to go home, I’m going to go to Mesopotamia,’” says Sarah. And in the diaspora, memories can only sustain you for so long.
The day before, Sarah had been speaking to about 30 Syriac youth. They’d gathered to talk about identity and history. The questions raised over and over again were who they are today and who they’d be in the future. “We don’t want to go 20 years and think we’re all that’s left and we assimilated,” Sarah told them.
Assimilation is a gradual evolution to a point where you sound and act like everyone else. Sarah is worried that assimilation will erode the difference that binds them together. To her, language is a stronghold against that. “When our language dies the whole thing dies,” she said, “because that is the only unique thing we have.”
It might seem like a bleak prognosis, but it’s the clearest and most audible sign that the Syriacs are part of a distinct ethnic group. From Sarah’s perspective, their culture and cuisine is already barely distinguishable from other cultures in the Middle East. But if you speak Neo-Aramaic, you are speaking to people who came from the same place as you.
During the same event, the organizers asked how many people in the room could read the language. Seven hands slowly went up. When asked how many people understood it, only three people raised their hands.
At the event, you heard over and over that it’s up to the younger generation to keep the language going. But this is an uphill battle, not because of a lack of good intentions, but because of a lack of need. To find a job or go to school in a new society, you need to know the right words to fill out the application or take the tests. You have to create a desire so strong that it will override necessity.
You stand a chance of keeping your language around longer if you live among many people who speak the language of home. If you’re a Mandarin speaker in New York, the population is so dense and there are enough Mandarin-speaking shops, schools and churches, that you need never learn English. But it’s likely that the second generation will, and so the slide begins.
Fay Shabo, 65, is an active member of the Syriac community. She is also trying to preserve her and Sarah’s language. “This is a place where a Soryoyo (a Syriac) gets lost so easily,” says Fay. The American melting pot both helps and hinders their cause. She describes the United States as a place where “nobody can step on you,” and the government makes new immigrants welcome. But it was surviving persecution that made this community strong. In America, the virtue of tolerance has a flipside: young people go off to college and forget their roots or marry people from different churches and trade their traditions for their spouses’.
What can people like Sarah, Fay and Dakhil do to stop the inevitable evolution of words? Dialects are in flux, constantly absorbing the characteristics of neighboring tongues. Neo-Aramaic will meld with other languages, as its ancestor before. In two generations, Neo-Aramaic spoken in Holland may be so full of Dutch influences that its speakers won’t understand the Neo-Aramaic spoken in Sweden or England.
After Fay has said her piece, she stands with Sarah and the others, and says a prayer. “Every single participant here Lord, fill his heart and mind, with your love first and then with love of his nation, with his church, with the love of his ancestors.” She then leaves it to those assembled to figure out for themselves what that future looks like.
At a party that same night Sarah sat around a table with friends. Fay and the other guests had left. People were packing up, telling them it was time to go. But they stayed and sang. “I am Aramaic, I am Aramaic, In my veins I am Aramaic, In the land of the brave, We all come from Tur Abdin.”
The future of the language may be unclear, but, at least, for that night, it was alive.