By Angelos Anastasiou
AS YOU read these lines, a small team of researchers at the University of Cyprus are working on a project of dazzling complexity to save a language from extinction. By their calculations, it will be eradicated by 2075, but they have undertaken to preserve it, and if possible reverse its slow death. Success is not guaranteed and their work may well prove futile, but if the amount of work that goes into the project is any indication of their chances, one might do well not to write them off just yet.
The moribund language in question is Cypriot Maronite Arabic – CMA for short, or Sanna as its speakers call it. It has been spoken in Cyprus since the 8th century by Maronites who lived mainly in Kormakitis, a village near the island’s north-west horn. A host of linguistic influences, ranging from Greek to Aramaic, have been incorporated into the northern-Syrian Arabic that was brought to Cyprus by Levantine migrants.
CMA was preserved among the exceptionally close-knit Maronite community in Cyprus for centuries, but the political events of 1974 culminating in the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island struck it a major blow. Most of its speakers, previously residing close to each other in Maronite villages, were displaced and had to seek refuge in the south. Proximity between CMA speakers could no longer be sustained, and Maronites now finding themselves isolated in a Greek-speaking environment were forced to adapt. In everyday life, CMA gave way to the Greek-Cypriot dialect, and went on a path to extinction.
“Most people are not aware of this, but today when you follow what’s happening in Iraq, which has been restructured – not to say destroyed – people in my profession can’t help following the fate of these small minorities whose identity was actually defined by their language and religion together,” said linguist Alexander Borg, retired Professor at Ben Gurion University, by way of offering an analogy with the CMA’s decline. “In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein there were something like 300,000 speakers of Aramaic – only God knows where these people are now. Heritage is being uprooted in a very, very brutal manner, which should really concern us.”
But, to quote Borg quoting philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “a language is a life,” and linguistic death has thus far been slowed down only by the fervent – if somewhat erratic – efforts of individual community members to keep their cultural identity alive, including an annual summer camp for Maronite children where they learn Sanna, or the operation of the Ayios Maronas primary school.
“Most CMA speakers are at the present time fluent bilinguals in their native idiom and Greek, with the result that cross-generational transmission of their native rural idiom is proving to be highly precarious,” said Borg.
Since 2002, CMA has been included in UNESCO’s list of severely endangered languages. It was recognised as an official language by the Republic of Cyprus in 2008, and the Education Ministry has been an active contributor to its salvation. Among other things, it has instituted a Committee of Experts for the codification of the language, and introduced a CMA teaching course in its Adult Education Centres.
The Committee, which includes renowned linguist Borg, devised a strategy to preserve the language, the first phase of which was to crystallise the language’s voice. Because no written form of the language exists, its oral patterns and traits had to be studied to create one. Borg has created a Sanna-Greek dictionary, which sold out in two years, and a Sanna alphabet comprising 27 letters, in which 23 are loans from the Latin alphabet, three are Greek letters, and one Turkish. At the same time, a team of University of Cyprus researchers has undertaken the daunting task of creating the language’s written form – and phonological particularities – in an Oral Tradition Archive out of nothing but interviews with the few remaining native speakers.
The project is spearheaded by University of Cyprus Associate Professor Marilena Karyolemou, who presented the results of phase one in an open discussion on Friday at the European Union House.
“Native CMA speakers currently number no more than a few hundred,” Karyolemou said. “We interviewed 30 native speakers, all aged over 60, so as to ensure we tap the purest form of the language, and recorded and analysed their speech patterns.”
The interviewers faced a number of obstacles, including the systematic – and possibly unconscious – transposition of Greek words while speaking in Sanna, or code switching. The researchers had to devise ingenious strategies aimed at weeding out corrupt elements of the spoken language.
“Because the Archive’s main goal is linguistic, we had to face the problem of the – otherwise fluent – speakers’ tendency to systematically alternate with the Greek-Cypriot dialect, either through code switching, or through spontaneously borrowing words,” said Karyolemou. “During the interviews, our researchers had to employ certain techniques to lead speakers back to CMA.”