IN this monthly discussion we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the language Jesus and His family spoke.
At this time of the year we are surrounded by images of a baby Jesus and His parents.
Many of us watch videos about the Christmas story and go to church on the Dec 25 to listen to the story as it is recorded in the New Testament.
But just how realistic are those videos and words?
Many of the videos are produced in the United States and have American actors giving very American voices to the adult persons in the story.
For those of us who go to English-speaking church services, the nativity story is often read from the King James version of the Bible, a majestic, if difficult to understand, translation.
But Jesus was from the Middle East and came from a family whose speech and body language were very differently from what we hear and see from those American actors.
And while I would not like to disappoint those of our leaders who spent much money bringing a first edition of the King James Bible to Parliament House, the language in that book had nothing to do with Jesus’ mother tongue.
Like modern Papua New Guineans, Joseph and Mary lived in a multilingual society that was changing rapidly.
Their ancestors’ tok ples had been Hebrew, but by the time Jesus was born, most people did not use this language except for religious purposes.
Instead, most people in the Bethlehem-Nazareth area had shifted to Aramaic as an everyday language, so we can assume that this would have been the tok ples that Jesus grew up with.
Evidence for this comes from Aramaic words or phrases and place names in the New Testament, such as ‘Abba “Father” and “Golgotha” (-tha is one way of saying “the” in Aramaic).
Greek and Latin would also have been present, but Greek was not yet an important language in that region, even though generally it had already become the common language in the eastern Mediterranean area as a whole.
In the years after Jesus was on earth, stories about His life were written about or translated into Greek so that they could be understood by persons living in these other regions.
But in the actual area where Jesus grew up, it was not yet a language that many people spoke, especially simple people such as Jesus’ family.
At that time it was only slowly starting to be used as a language to speak to foreigners in, much as Papua New Guineans today use English to speak with foreigners.
Latin was an even more foreign language, used only by some of the Roman military or political leaders in the area.
We do not know for sure how many of these languages Jesus used as a child or in His everyday life as an adult.
We do know from our own experience in PNG that in multilingual societies where people speaking several languages mix together, people who speak only one language are rare.
As a carpenter, we can expect Jesus would have had a professional as well as social reason to use languages other than the one He would have grown up with.
But we can say with some certainty that whether or not He used these other languages, His first language and most commonly used everyday language would have been Aramaic.
Today only a small number of people still speak Aramaic.
There are two forms of modern Aramaic, Western Aramaic spoken by small communities in Israel and Syria and Eastern Aramaic spoken by more people in the area where Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran come close together.
Worldwide perhaps a million people speak the language.
If you want to hear how modern Aramaic sounds, search for “Assyrian Christmas Song” on Youtube.
Some Aramaic speakers today are Jewish, but most call themselves Assyrians and are Christian or Mandaean, a religion that venerates John the Baptist rather than Jesus.
Both Mandaeans and Christians in the Middle East and in refugee communities elsewhere use forms of Aramaic in worship, even if younger persons now often use other languages and no longer speak Aramaic.
The pace of this assimilation into other cultures and languages has quickened in recent years because intense fighting in the Syrian civil war and savage persecution under ISIS have destroyed or dispersed many of these communities, with many Aramaic speakers killed or fleeing as refugees to other countries, especially Germany and Australia.
With these dispersals, surviving younger persons assimilate quickly into communities speaking other languages.
There is therefore a danger that Aramaic may die out as an actively spoken language by the end of this century.
In the meantime though, Christian Assyrians will continue to greet each other this week with their traditional Christian greeting in the language of Jesus: “Eedokhon breekha” (“may your feast be blessed”).
The language first heard by Jesus from His mother over two thousand years ago continues to be spoken today.
- Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland, and Jakob Fugger Visiting Professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.