Xëzne d xabre Ordlista: Şurayt-Swedi [mëḏyoyo]

The language spoken by the Christians of Ţurcabdin, Ţuroyo or Şurayt, is an independent language, quite different from the kind of Aramaic which is spoken east of the river Tigris. It has a beautiful sound which is due to the preservation of the old consonants and c – thus, e.g., cayno “eye”, ẖoṯo “sister” – but also to the word-final vowel -o which makes the language sound like Italian. The most characteristic and unique feature of Şurayt is the existence of a definite article like in German, Italian or other European languages. This can be shown by the following examples:


masculine bayto “house” u=bayto “the house”
feminine qriṯo “village” i=qriṯo “the village”
plural kṯowe “books” a=kṯowe “the books”


Şurayt is, however, not only different from the other living Aramaic languages of today, it is also different from the language of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Classical Syriac, which in Ţurcabdin is called Kṯobonoyo. The relationship between Şurayt and Kṯobonoyo is the same as between Italian and Latin: Italian is the language of the Italian people whereas Latin is the language of the church which is used in religious ceremonies – but no longer in sermons because nobody would understand. This is due to the great grammatical differences between the two languages – exactly the same situation as between Kṯobonoyo and Şurayt.

When the people of Ţurcabdin were still living in their homeland they used Şurayt only as a spoken language but they did not write it. One reason for this was the repressive system of the Turkish state which did not allow the minorities to use their own languages, especially in writing. Another reason was the attitude of the Church which considered only the church language – Kṯobonoyo – as worthy to be written. This situation changed when the great majority of the Christians took refuge to the West where, for the first time, they had complete political freedom, which also included the freedom to practice their religion and to express their own culture in their own language. There was no longer a government which would prevent the people of Ţurcabdin from using their own language – on the contrary, the Swedish government even encouraged them to start writing their language so that it could also be used in school. Unfortunately, however, the Church remained hostile to the idea of developing Şurayt into a written language, and this proved a major obstacle. The negative attitude of the church led to a division of the people which continues to this day and which has prevented Şurayt from becoming the written language of the whole people.

In our time, however, a language which has no written form but is only spoken, has no chance of survival. This is especially true for Şurayt because almost all its speakers live in exile and have to use different languages – Swedish, German, Dutch etc. – in their daily lives. Therefore it is very important for them to have a written language which can be taught to the children, and to have books which they can read in order to improve their knowledge of the mother tongue.

Today I am happy to say that despite all obstacles the written form of Şurayt is gradually gaining ground. This, to a large extent, is due to the untiring efforts of Jan Beth-Şawo’e who over the years has published a large number of books, booklets and articles in his native Şurayt language. The importance of these publications lies not only in their great number but also in their different styles, or to say it otherwise, in their different literary genres. Jan has published many interviews with older members of the community which had important things to tell – memories worth to be preserved for coming generations. He has also written political articles and, finally, he has started to write down his own memories of the life in Midyat. In these memories, Jan has found a style which goes beyond the simple language of storytelling and acquires a literary quality. This is even more evident in another work, his translation of contemporary Turkish poems into Şurayt. Here Jan has been able to create a poetic language which did not exist before. He has given us a glimpse into a possible future where there could be a true Şurayt literature.

Now Jan has crowned his untiring work for Şurayt by giving the language its first dictionary, the Xëzne. This is a dictionary which contains a great wealth of Şurayt vocabulary with translations into Swedish. It is the largest documentation so far of the Şurayt language, an inventory of all the words and expressions which are used by the native speakers. It will be of great importance for scholars who do research in Aramaic but also for the native speakers themselves. In this dictionary they can look up words and check their correct meaning and thus enrich their own personal style. This is an important help for developing the language and encouraging people to write.

For the speakers of Şurayt the publishing of the Xëzne is an important day also for another reason. They can show this book to the world: Look, we have a language, a language of our own, and we are willing to defend it and to go on using it in the future.

As a person who has devoted much of his academic work to Şurayt I am very happy to see this day. May this beautiful language live on for many years to come!

Prof. Dr. Otto Jastrow

Tallinn University

Estonia, December 11th, 2011

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