The ancient language of Christ is undergoing a rebirth as Aramaic classes offered by Oxford University attract record numbers this month.
The language, regarded by experts as endangered, has gained attendance figures which may not have been seen since Jesus was speaking the language some 2,000 years ago.
Drawing students from as far as Liverpool and London, there are now 56 learning Aramaic at the university, more than the numbers studying Greek. The free lunchtime classes are taught by David Taylor, Fellow of Wolfson College, who is described by colleagues to “live and breathe Aramaic.”
Dr John Ma, an Oxford University classicist and participant in the classes, was “thrilled” by the turnout and hopes to expand the project. “We’re attempting to sew something new and create a wide community of speakers that will help us to better to understand the ‘granddaddy’ of classical languages and its significance in the ancient world.”
Having taken the lessons himself, Ma said he is now beginning to dream in Aramaic. They are very dull dreams, he admits, “mostly verb paradigms, and once saying to someone, ‘Mindeam la avdeth anah’ … I didn’t do anything.”
But pronunciation of the language is not easy to get to grips with. Quoting a fellow student on mastering a particular vowel sound, Ma said, “[it sounded like] a guttural throat sound not unlike incipient vomiting.”
However, after two lessons Ma said he could read in the original the words spoken by Christ on the cross: “My God, my God why did you forsake me.” After eight, he realised to his surprise that he could understand the Aramaic dialogue in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.
“It was very satisfying, it’s not always like that when you learn a new language,” he said.
Although dialects of Aramaic are still spoken in the Middle East, David Taylor, teacher of the new Oxford course, believes the war in Iraq has helped push the language to the verge of extinction.
The new course comes at a time when the Classics department at Oxford faces a “climate of uncertainty” due to recent government proposals for cuts to the university budget for humanities. Commenting on the situation, Ma said, “This unique course is leading the field in Aramaic research. It’s stupid that the government thinks it’s OK to cut world class projects like this.”