Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Pick up any of the complimentary guides to Syria at the tourist offices in the Old City, and you will find the following passage:

“The official language is Arabic. Most Syrians also speak another language, which, most often, is French or English.”

This impossibly lame paragraph doesn’t even come close to capturing the true linguistic diversity of Syria. Yes, almost everyone speaks Arabic, and yes, many people speak French and English. But there’s far more to language in Syria than these three, the languages they teach in schools. In recent weeks, I’ve begun to realize that many of the people I take for granted – my students, friends, parents of friends – are, in fact, bilingual geniuses. It’s taken me a while to find this out, because it never comes up in conversation. They don’t see it as a big deal.
Here’s a sampling of the languages I’ve found in Syria.


In many ways, this is the indigenous language of Syria. It far predates the introduction of Arabic (which was basically imported with Islam) and is still spoken in many villages in central Syria. It’s a Semitic language, like Arabic, but it has its own alphabet. It’s also the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the biggest Christian denominations here. Like the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, which uses the ancient Egyptian language in its services, the Syriac Orthodox Church holds on to Syriac. It is a intriguing reminder of Syria’s pre-Islamic past. I was at a Christmas party a few weeks ago with two priests from the Syriac Orthodox Church in attendance. The host asked them to bless the food before the dinner was served. Their reply was a stunning, multi-verse, multi-part chant-and-response in Syriac. It was awesome.

Fun fact: Most of the language spoken in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is Syriac.


“Then Eliakim, Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, ‘Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.’”
- Isaiah 36:11

“Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’)”
- Mark 5:41

Aramaic, or “the language of Christ” as its speakers proudly label it, is spoken as a first language in three villages in Syria, most prominently in Maalula, a Christian holy city about an hour north of Damascus. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East for several centuries, from at least the time of the Assyrian Empire until the time of Jesus. Chapters 2 through 7 in the book of Daniel – the chapters that deal with the Gentile world, instead of Daniel’s people – are written in Aramaic.

From what I understand, biblical Aramaic is probably as close to Syriac as to the language that Maalulans call “Aramaic.” (Hence Syriac’s use in The Passion of the Christ.) But the Maalulan dialect is unique, and its speakers proudly hold it up as the genuine article. Kids in Maalula grow up speaking Aramaic, and learn Arabic in school. One of the brothers and one of the students at the seminary are from Maalula, and speak Aramaic as a first language. They’re happy to demonstrate the language for me, but neither of them speak very good English, so usually we end up meeting in the middle with Arabic.

I bought an introduction to spoken Aramaic in Maalula on my first visit there. My goal is to have a partial conversation with one of my Maalulan friends in Aramaic before I leave here. (I’m looking at you, Brian Cassels.)


There’s a surprisingly large population of Armenians living in Syria, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo. Most of them came here as refugees after the Ottoman Empire tried to wipe them out in Asia Minor during World War I. The Armenian Orthodox Church is one of seven officially recognized churches in Syria, and it’s not uncommon to see the Armenian flag in decal form on cars in Damascus. Many of these Armenians still speak Armenian in the home, along with Arabic. But some of my Arab Syrian friends speak it to, for a variety of reasons – they went to an Armenian Christian school as a child, their mom spoke it and taught it to them in the home, etc. The picture at the top of this post shows the sign in front of the Armenian Orthodox Patriachate in Damascus. It's written in three languages, from top to bottom: Armenian, Arabic and English.


About 10% of Syrians are Kurdish, meaning they hail from the region where Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria meet, and speak Kurdish, rather than Arabic as their first language. Their very existence in Syria is something of a sensitive subject. But it’s happened several times in Damascus that I’ve introduced myself as an American, and the Syrian I’m speaking with says, “Oh, I’m Kurdish!” (Ever since 1991, we’ve had something of a rapport.)

I have a friend working in Hesseke, a town in northeastern Syria There, almost everyone speaks both Kurdish and Arabic. He’s even started to pick up on the Kurdish, to the delight of the kids he teaches. How sick is that?


You knew this one, right? Maybe not.

When I visited my friend George for Christmas, he and his friends showed me a video of his sister’s wedding. The men from the groom’s family danced into the church, chanting vigorously. I asked George and his friends what the men were chanting. They looked at each other and laughed. “We don’t know,” one of them said. “It’s Horani.” (Horan is the region where George lives.)

“Really? It’s not Arabic?” I asked.

“No, no, it’s Arabic, but it’s Horani Arabic, very Horani.”

Arabic is an extremely complex language. It exists at three levels: classical, which has remained basically unchanged since 700 AD, and which is used in the Qur’an, Islamic prayer, and classical literature; modern standard, which is used in school, books, newspapers, signs, speeches – basically any formal occasion; and spoken, which is far simpler than the first two and vastly different from the first two, in both grammar and vocabulary. Kids learn spoken Arabic in the home, and written Arabic in school. This is by no means as simple a task as learning written English in school. The high schoolers I work with regularly stumble over the rotating after-dinner Bible readings, to the point where the priest has to take the Bible from their hands and finish it for them. On the day when it’s their turn to read, many of them spend dinnertime practicing the passage beforehand at the table instead of eating.

In this sense, educated Syrians are automatically bilingual – they know spoken and written Arabic. (It’s possible to speak and write in both spoken and written Arabic, by the way. "Written" is simply more complicated and formal.) If they’re from Hesseke, Maalula or Armenia, they’re probably trilingual, without ever stepping foot in an English class.

Spoken Arabic also varies widely from region to region. I am only vaguely familiar with two forms of spoken Arabic – the spoken Arabic of Cairo and of Damascus. These two, I know, differ significantly in vocabulary and pronunciation. From what I’ve told, Gulf Arabic and Moroccan Arabic aren’t even mutually intelligible. Within Syria, the dialect changes after about an hour of driving time. Not exaggerating. Horan is forty-five minutes from Damascus, depending on the traffic, and once you get there, you find that the glottal stop is now a “g,” the “z” is now a “th,” “ee” is now “ai,” and “your father” is “abook,” instead of “abak.” On my visits to Horan, I often whip out my Arabic notebook to write down a new word I hear, only to be chided, “No, no, that’s Horani. Don’t write it down.” My old Arabic teacher told me he would have to spend a month living in Lattakia, a city on the coast, before he could understand the speech there. Syria is slightly bigger than Iowa, and there are at least five dialects or sub-dialects of Arabic here.

In short, as my Syrian friend Qosi has told me, “Arabic is an ocean. Not even Arabs know Arabic.”

People here have a hard time understanding why I’m trying to learn spoken Arabic here, instead of written Arabic. In the minds of most Syrians, written Arabic is the real thing, the “correct” way to speak. The fact that no one speaks “correctly” does not deter them from trying to adjust my quest for me. “I want to talk with people,” I say. “Everyone here knows proper Arabic,” the reply comes. A) That’s just not true, especially with children and the less-educated, and B) Nobody speaks it in everyday life, even if they know it. It’d be like quoting Shakespeare over burgers. It’s simply not done. I do want to learn written Arabic someday (God have mercy on me), but I can learn written Arabic from a book. While I’m here, I want to be a part of the life of Syria. That means speaking, for lack of a better term, Syrian.

So. Now you know!


  1. That's awesome! I love hearing about this stuff.

  2. Joel, Glad to hear from you. Have fun exploring on your day off. :)