Saturday, December 23, 2006

Aramaic, Jesus' Mother Tongue, is Still Spoken, Even in the Twin Cities

The Rev. Rodrigue Constantin belongs to a rare group of Minnesotans who can carry on a conversation in Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago.

When he consecrates the bread during his Christmas services, Constantin's words, "Ho no den ee tow faghro deel," will carry an added authenticity, because this is how Jesus would have told his disciples: "This is my body."I find that people are really fascinated by the language; there's a mysterious aspect to it," said Constantin, of Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church in St. Paul. "There's a historic thread starting 2,000 years ago that has reached me."

He is among roughly 100 people in Minnesota who can order loaves and fishes -- or lefse and lutefisk -- in Aramaic. They are mainly immigrants from small Christian communities in southeastern Turkey, one of a few pockets of the Middle East where a dialect of Aramaic remains a living language.

Aramaic also lives on in Minnesota as a liturgical language, used during church services at Holy Family and St. Maron Catholic Church in Minneapolis.

"We're a small minority of people who speak this language, and we don't want it to die," said Zahura Can, one of about 80 Turkish immigrants in the Lakeville area whose everyday language is the Aramaic dialect called Syriac.

"It's a very, very old language, and we are proud to speak it," Can said. " We speak it to our children. All four of my children understand it well."

Sunday service

The power and longevity of the language was evident during a recent visit to Holy Family, the oldest Maronite church in Minnesota. It's a small church on St. Paul's West Side, where visitors are greeted by a sweet scent of incense and the warmth of candles flickering in front of statues of Mary and Joseph.

Standing at the altar, Constantin shifted from English to Arabic to Aramaic throughout the service. For centuries, Aramaic was used through the entire service, just as Latin was the liturgical language of Roman Catholics. Now about a quarter of the service is in Aramaic. [...Snip] Star Tribune

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