On the occasion of International Mother Language Day 2018, WCA President, Mr. Johny Messo, addressed UNESCO’s Director-General H.E. Ms. Audrey Azoulay. In the following letter, WCA calls upon UNESCO to help preserve the endangered Aramaic language.
H.E. Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO. (Photo credit: Philip Wojazer/Reuters)
On behalf of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) (“WCA”), we convey our heartiest congratulations on your recent appointment as UNESCO’s new Director-General and wish you a Happy International Mother Language Day. We also would like to request a meeting with you at your convenience to discuss critical matters and explore common ground for cooperation between UNESCO and WCA.
Honoring this day to raise awareness of preserving linguistic diversity and promoting mother tongue-based multilingual education is imperative. However, this does not come without agony for people who speak a threatened language and struggle for survival. In our case, we have inherited an ancient Aramaic dialect that is used as a literary language in learned circles and a number of modern Aramaic vernaculars. Scholars classify the latter as endangered and call for help to save them from assimilation and extinction.
In the enclosed response (dated 6 November 2002) to my forerunner, who sought cooperative relations with UNESCO, the then Assistant Director-General, H.E. Mr. Ahmed Sayyad, informed us:
Indeed, we are aware of the Aramean people’s ancient and rich history and of your organization’s cooperation with other confessional groups of the Middle East region in joint projects aimed at promoting better reciprocal knowledge and mutual respect between different traditions and cultures.
We are pleased that UNESCO values the Aramean people, civilization and culture that emanated from ancient Mesopotamia. As the indigenous people of Southeast Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, with a documented history of more than 3,000 years in this region, the Arameans can proudly claim one of the great heritages of the Middle East. Their Aramaic language and literature have particularly had a substantial impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and on their respective holy books.
The Arameans have preserved their mother tongue, Aramaic, which is known as the ‘language of Jesus’. They have always been conscious of their rich legacy, especially of their language, people and churches, which are ranked among the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. The following Aramaic text, which was finalized in the sixth century A.D. or before, reflects their strong self-perception:
And from Adam until this time, they were all of one speech and one language. They all spoke this language, namely Syriac, which is Aramaic, and this is the king of all languages.
With respect to their self-understanding as a people, one might quote the prominent church historian and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Michael the Elder (†1199), who recorded in his voluminous chronicle:
With the help of God, we proceed with chronicling the kingdoms which have been established in Antiquity by our nation, (i.e.) the Arameans, i.e. the children of Aram, who were called Syriacs.
Today, the Arameans are a stateless people who have seen little appreciation and support in their home countries. In the preceding century, and again in the last decade, most of them have fled their homeland. With profound sadness, they have been witnessing either at home or abroad the destruction of much of their cultural heritage and the disappearance of some Aramaic dialects. Alone, without structural support from UNESCO or governments, they are not able to safeguard their endangered cultural heritage.
Your Excellency, we are confident that, in your capacity as the Director-General of UNESCO, you will assess the riches of the Aramaic legacy as a world heritage that deserves to be safeguarded, promoted and developed so that we can pass it on to the younger generation.
Therefore, on this blessed day on which we all honor the importance of mother languages, and on which you recalled UNESCO’s particular “commitment to defending and promoting languages,” we seek your and UNESCO’s appreciation and support to help us preserve our dying Aramaic mother tongue. Again, we request to meet and cooperate with Your Excellency and UNESCO to ensure the survival of Aramaic, which is assimilating in the diaspora countries and silently dying out even faster in our native homeland.
Finally, I reiterate my best wishes for a Blessed International Mother Language Day, and wish you all the best of success in your honorable mission as the Director-General of UNESCO.