Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Project Profile: Documentation of the Beth Qustan Dialect of the Central Neo-Aramaic language, Turoyo

This week on the ELAR blog, Mikael Oez writes about his ELDP project on Turoyo, a Neo-Aramaic language spoken in south eastern Turkey.

 Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

The Turoyo language of the mountainous region of Tur ‘Abdin (the mountain of worshippers), south eastern Turkey, is known to its indigenous speakers as ‘Surayt’ or ‘Turoyo’, that is, ‘the language of the Tur ‘Abdin’. It belongs to the Central Neo-Aramaic (CNA) language group. This group of languages is sometimes also referred to as North Western Neo-Aramaic (NWNA).

The Turoyo dialect of CNA was originally spoken by indigenous Christians who have lived in Tur ‘Abdin and the surrounding areas since the first centuries of the Christian era. By definition, as spoken or vernacular dialects they were not written down (until modern times), but conveyed orally from one generation to the next. Without written records, it is rather difficult to ascertain precisely how far back Turoyo has been spoken as a distinct language. With the recent recognition of the importance of oral dialects, scholars have now started to look for evidence of its chronicle use and the interaction and borrowing from other languages in its milieu, such as Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Persian.

What is your research question and why did you choose it?

The project is designed to shed some light on establishing more precise boundaries between the dialects and on the dynamics of feature transition. This will introduce much needed fresh material to boost discussion about the mechanisms of interaction between languages, such as lexical borrowing and externally induced grammar. For instance, villages with better links and nearer to the city of Midyat, the main urban centre, are often more influenced by the Arabic language, and Arabic words are often Aramaicised in Turoyo, i.e. they take an Aramaic pattern when they are conjugated, whereas villages borrow from their neighbouring Kurds, and hence Aramaicise Kurdish words. The Aramaicising of loan words is particularly interesting when they are verbs as they match the endings of the native words when they are conjugated.

Can you tell us more about the content of your deposit?

This project aims to record tales about Muslim visitations to the shrines of Christian saints, old wives’ tales and supernatural legends, such as the telling of djinn stories amongst Christians, and stories of magical practices. In doing so, this project will provide records of interaction between Muslim and Christian communities, and record invaluable vernacular data for which there are no written material. The recordings will also address aspects of daily life such as procedural texts, instructions, directions, interactions, discussion, negotiations, and informal talks.

I was slightly concerned about these topics, as people often shy away from these topics since they mostly fall into mysticism. However, I was very surprised about the hospitality and the openness of my consultants. They were very happy to pass on their invaluable experience, which I believe would have been lost if it were not recorded.

One of the recordings I thoroughly enjoyed was when I requested three generous ladies to cook cultural food, to be part of my procedural texts. To my surprise I realised how sophisticated the culinary art is in daily foods in Tur ‘Abdin. I can still feel the delicious taste of that original food in my taste buds.

What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

I originally intended to travel to the Beth Qustan village in Tur ‘Abdin to conduct my fieldwork. However, due to the unstable political situation, I decided to change my location, and instead conducted my project in Germany within a diaspora speaker community. This meant I had to conduct much searching, coordination, and a careful selection of the displaced native speakers. I initially began working with people in their 80s. This made me realise that we had already lost the knowledge accumulated by octogenarians, as they found it much harder to remember things, and to talk in details about their culture. I immediately changed the focus of the project to a later generation, (speakers aged 55-65).

What still needs to be done?

There are at least a couple of dozen Neo-Aramaic dialects originated from Tur ‘Abdin, which have not yet been documented. I realised during my fieldwork that if these are not documented before losing the generation of native speakers I worked with, this is to say, in five to ten years, we will also lose all invaluable knowledge about their culture and traditions. The Aramaic civilisation goes back more than 3000 years, which we have not preserved. We have the technology and equipment today to capture this fascinating civilisation at a very low cost. The only thing we don’t have on our side is time.

Thank you, Mikael!

You can see Mikael’s deposit here

Blog post by Mikael Oez