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May 01, 2013


Photo: A Bible and St. George at a Syrian Orthodox church in Midyat, Turkey
A Bible and St. George at a Syrian Orthodox church in Midyat, Turkey
Flickr user CharlesFred

The Language Jesus Spoke

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One morning in 2008, Geoffrey Khan found himself walking up stairs and through narrow hallways of a gray Soviet-era high-rise building. He was in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, and he was in search of the three last living speakers of a dialect from Iran.

Khan is a Cambridge University professor who has specialized in Aramaic, the Semitic language that Jesus spoke and was the most common tongue of the Middle East for thousands of years. He has studied ancient manuscripts of the language, but the most exhilarating days have been while traveling -- from California, to Finland to New Zealand -- to find the last generations of the Aramaic-speaking Diaspora.

Aramaic – and up to 90 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages – are expected to go silent by the end of the century, Khan says.

“It’s an urgent task,” Khan says in this interview with host Dick Gordon. “During the period of my work, many of the speakers I’ve interviewed have passed away, and some of the dialects have become extinct. I mean, so many things in life can be put off, but this can’t.”

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