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The Key of Language

Even more radical than speaking the language of a particular place is speaking the language of a particular past.

(Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a movement to make Syriac an official language in the government school curriculum in northeast Syria. At present, Arabic is the language of the classroom.

If the movement is successful, parents will have the option of sending their children to a school where all subjects—math, reading, science, geography, music, physics, philosophy, history—are taught in a language whose survival has so far depended on the seminary and the village.


Developing textbooks for these subjects is a project of language-building as much as one of nation-building, and it offers the chance to consider how and why it matters to preserve a classical language. This story is more than a report on education in Syria. This is a parable for the challenge of preserving languages, especially old ones. And the preservation of language, especially old ones, is, for me, one of the most concise images to consider in a restoration of education in the West.

Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. While Christ preached sermons and made his cry from the cross in a dialect spoken in Roman Palestine, another dialect of Aramaic developed further east in Edessa, a city in the south of modern-day Turkey. Edessan Syriac would eventually serve as the foundation for the writings of St. Ephrem, Isaac of Nineveh, Jacob of Serugh, and Narsai. It remains the glue connecting several church traditions together.

Today, unlike other semitic languages such as Arabic or Hebrew, Syriac is a language of the church, not of a recognized nation. But the Olaf Taw curriculum developed in Syria for the Syrian people, named for the first and last letters of the Syriac alphabet, is the latest instance of a dream now more than a century old: to raise Syriac to the level of an internationally recognized language, capable of being used for all areas of life, from the scientific to the quotidian.

In one of his many gestures to the other traditions, Pope John Paul II said that the Eastern and Western Churches are the two lungs of the church. Some scholars of Syriac Christianity say that Syriac is the third lung. As a recent poem written in Syriac reads, "Come, o brothers and sisters, let us breathe with the three lungs: along with Latin and Greek, the breath of living Syriac.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Syriac is best viewed in comparison to the other lungs, Latin and Greek. Neither are regularly spoken among the clergy. Through a slow evolution of grammar and pronunciation, modern Greek gradually replaced the older koine of the Greek church fathers. And Latin, once a shared language of Western culture, is spoken fluently by pockets of enthusiasts, if not in the seminaries.


Classical Syriac, unlike many languages from the late antique period, is not dead. It has been alive and well in both seminaries and local schools of the Syriac tradition up till today. I asked one author of the Olaf Taw curriculum about how he learned kthobonoyo. In his village he learned the local Syriac dialect. “So,” he said, “it was easy to learn kthobonoyo.”

Today, alongside classical Syriac—kthobonoyo, or literally, “the language of the book”—there exists a network of related, neo-Aramaic dialects, largely spoken by Christian and Jewish communities dispersed throughout Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere. In fact, Syriac is the language of only one Christian tradition out of many—the Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopian Churches, to name a few—that are not well known in the West.

For the Syriac churches, their language has remained the language of the liturgy, seminary instruction, even literature and poetry, despite the pressures to replace it entirely with Arabic or English. Its maintenance has proved useful during the recent fracturing of the church community across Europe. Among members of the Syriac diaspora, kthobonoyo is something of a lingua-franca in miniature. Many of the Patriarchs of the Syriac traditions regularly deliver homilies, write social media posts, answer interview questions for the local news channels—all in Syriac.

In the summer of 2022, I attended a conference on all things Syriac in Paris. The first session opened with a Syriac poem, read aloud by a number of scholars and priests, celebrating the conference’s success. I heard people switch from Arabic to Syriac in their conversations. Despite my imperfect fluency, there are some friends and many teachers of mine for whom Syriac is our preferred, if not our only, way of speaking with each other.

When I was fortunate to have a few conversations with some of the authors and organizers of the Olaf Taw curriculum, I asked them about the best way to teach Syriac. They answered with the books of Abrohom Nuro and Qarabashi. "Qarabashi is for the teachers," they said. "Nuro is for the students."

Abrohom Nuro is the fountainhead of the modern movement to make spoken Syriac great again. He developed a manner of teaching which elsewhere would be called the "direct method." He called it souloqo, "the method of ascent." The instructor speaks Syriac to the students, and they respond both in their words and actions. Within a few classes it teaches students more of the language than what graduate students understand in a semester. By the 1970s, Nuro's work was used in schools and seminaries, and he organized a committee to oversee the creation of dictionaries and invent neologisms.

Qarabashi was an older contemporary of Nuro, who wrote hundreds of graded readers, in which all the features of grammar and vocabulary are slowly built on each other. These stories were designed to be read in a classroom, under the guidance of a master teacher who would ask comprehension questions and review grammar. The work of these authors is the backbone of Olaf Taw.

Since Syriac Christians were dispersed across Europe and America during the twentieth century, the number of teachers who wrote books for students grew. Barsaum Dogan wrote easy short stories, imitating the method he discovered while learning Dutch; to this he also added a series of picture dictionaries. Murat Gan wrote a number of stories involving modern vehicles and technologies such as airplanes and computers. More recently, after decades of work, a compendious dictionary of the language, written entirely in Syriac, was published under the title, The Key of Language.

Why do the organizers of Olaf Taw believe people should learn Syriac? One of them told me, "We are proposing that the language is our duty [hnan dorshinan leshono ithaw zedqtho 'alayn].” He went on, "It is the mother tongue, the language of Jesus Christ; it is a national language." The others could not agree quickly enough, bursting into a homily of beautiful, lightning-fast Syriac.

Nuro had no interest in a nationalist movement. His goal was the preservation of the Syriac spiritual heritage, a goal for which current church leaders have shown warm support. The same leadership has yet, however, to openly endorse Olaf Taw.

Support for a merely spiritual heritage notwithstanding, there are obvious parallels between the work of Nuro and that of Ben Yehuda and the other families and scholars who pioneered Modern Hebrew.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Hebrew had not been spoken for centuries. It did not exist in the international conversation. Mothers did not speak it to their children. Students did not scribble in it. In the eyes of many Jewish leaders, the better options for a national language were either Yiddish or German. Yiddish, after all, was a language peculiar to the Jewish community; German was the other, more respectable choice.

Yet for Ben Yehuda, Modern Hebrew was most fitting to the land of Israel, to its people, to their spiritual heritage. Despite resistance on all fronts, he began speaking it to his son at home. He went on to teach students in schools. The students in turn brought it into their own homes, until it was used to barter in the market-square and to train soldiers in the military bases.

The success of Ben Yehuda's vision stands as a modern counterexample to the claim that a language, once dead, must remain so. It also reveals the mutually beneficial connection between a language and a people. A language is more likely to thrive the more political life it in turn supports.

Political recognition is precisely what the authors of the Olaf Taw curriculum await. They have steadily developed textbooks for K-12, and late last year they trained their first cadre of teachers to use the curriculum. Still, they look for broader acceptance. Church leadership is especially concerned, it seems, about openly supporting a nationalist program. Parents and communities are concerned, among other things, about the usefulness of the language.

A non-technical definition of an endangered language might be one whose usefulness is not obvious to parents. What, after all, does Syriac have to offer in the way of economic opportunity or international advantage?

Nowadays, the usefulness of nearly everything is measured on the balance of commercial value. You know English? That is worth 100 points. French? 86. You want to learn Latin? I suppose it helps your critical thinking skills. 70 points. The coding language Python? 95 points. Thinking down this path for long enough and it seems the best economic situation would be for everyone to speak a single language—preferably one computers understand, too.

Still, there seems to be something irreducibly political about learning to speak a language. The older and more local, the better. However many speakers of a language there are globally, a language, or set of languages, is first and foremost considered useful because it is spoken by the citizens of the same place. The value is primarily internal, not global. From a globalist perspective, even more inefficient than speaking the language of a particular place is speaking the language of a particular past.

In the United States, the classical education movement is nothing if not focused on giving to the next generation the corpus of a particular tradition. In many schools, this includes passing on the actual languages of that tradition. Those languages are even, in some cases, taught in an active manner. To this movement, the case of Olaf Taw seems to offer at least this much: Speaking the language of one’s tradition is a form of political formation, and therefore political resistance.

The political situation in Syria and its neighbors, covered so well by others, is far from settled. The work of Olaf Taw seems at times to require the very thing it hopes to nurture: an organized polis. Language, after all, is fundamental, at once the means for and one of the goods of communal life. Up till now, Syriac has survived, even thrived, through the love and labor of school instructors, church patriarchs, and small villages. This alone marks an incredible achievement. Olaf Taw hopes to give it something it has not had for a long time: national sanctuary. As one of the authors told me, "This language is our inheritance."