'Passion' Stirs Interest in Aramaic

Film Features Language that Began to Fade 2,000 Years Ago

Listen: Professor Joseph Amar Reads the Beginning of the Lord's Prayer in Syriac, a Form of Aramaic

A fragment in Aramaic from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Library of Congress hide caption

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Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of the Christ features two languages that haven't been used in common speech for centuries — Latin and the even less familiar Aramaic. NPR's Renee Montagne talks to Joseph Amar, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Notre Dame, about the ancient Middle Eastern language.

Jesus would have spoken the local dialect, referred to by scholars as Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, which was the form common to that region, Amar says. Aramaic began to die out in the 7th century, when Arabic displaced it as the everyday language of the region, Amar says.

To demonstrate the sound of Aramaic, Amar reads the opening lines of the Lord's Prayer in Syriac, a late form from the 2nd century A.D. that was spoken by Christians.

"Aramaic hasn't completely died out, but it continues to survive... these days by a shoestring," used mostly in Christian and Jewish religious ceremonies, he says.

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