Saturday, August 09, 2014

Some minority languages of the Mosul Plain

For most of the past decade, while first the rest of Iraq and then Syria (150,000 dead, 2.5 million refugees) have burned, Northern Iraq has seemed like a relative oasis of calm. That has changed rather suddenly: with ISIS' religious persecution, and now American airstrikes, Northern Iraq and its minorities are suddenly prominent in the headlines. The headlines throw into sharp relief the region's status as perhaps the most religiously diverse place in the Middle East - but what they may not show is that this region is also a small-scale "residual zone" preserving rather more linguistic diversity than is typical for such a small area in the modern Fertile Crescent (not just Arabic and Kurdish!)

The most endangered language of the region is certainly Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA), or Sûreth (ܣܘܪܝܬ). Once, Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East, spoken in various dialects from Gaza to Basra, and written as far afield as China and India. By the early 20th century, it was restricted to a few hundred far-flung mountain villages; the largest dialect group, NENA, was centered on the Christian (Assyrian and Chaldean) villages of the Mosul Plain, such as Tel Kef (Telkepe) and Qaraqosh, and across the border in Iran and Turkey; a detailed map is available at Cambridge's NENA Database. Today, those who have stayed behind in ever harder conditions are substantially outnumbered by their diaspora in cities such as Detroit or Sydney, whose children increasingly just speak English - and, as of the past couple of days, media accounts suggest that fleeing refugees have left the Mosul Plain villages practically empty. Their exodus is rather reminiscent of what happened about a century ago: during the Armenian/Assyrian Genocide, the NENA-speaking Assyrians of Hakkari fled from Turkey never to return, taking refuge in Iraq and finally in Syria. It remains to be seen whether this exile will be as lasting as the previous one. If you're wondering how the language sounds, the NENA Database site has a number of recordings, some transcribed, such as The Story of the Cobbler; others can be heard at Semitisches Tonarchiv.

While Kurds prefer to consider Kurdish as one language, the two main Kurdish varieties of northern Iraq - Sorani and Kurmanji - are strikingly different from one another, and are usually considered as separate languages by academics. The smaller Gurani language, (see DOBES), spoken in northwestern Iraq and also commonly labelled Kurdish, doesn't even belong to the same branch of Iranian as Sorani and Kurmanji. Many of its speakers belong to loosely Shia-affiliated minority religions, such as the Ahl-i Haqq and the Shabak, considered by ISIS as beyond the pale.

The other minority group unfortunate enough to have been pitched into the headlines, Yezidis, do not have a language of their own; they speak Kurmanji Kurdish. However, the Yezidis are associated with a unique writing system. In the early 20th century, manuscripts summarising Yezidi beliefs written in a unique alphabet (such as the Meshefa Resh "Black Scripture") came into the possession of Western researchers, and the alphabet in question duly found its way into compendia such as Diringer (1968). Later research, though, suggests that both these manuscripts and the alphabet they were written in were created for Western consumption, likely by a non-Yezidi bookseller, rather than representing a Yezidi tradition (Kreyenbrook and Rashow 2005, EI).

The region's Turkmen, many of whom have also apparently been persecuted by ISIS for their Shiism, speak a Turkic variety close to Turkish and Azeri. From what little information I've seen, it seems unlikely to qualify as a separate language, but does not seem to have attracted much research.

The Arabic dialects of northern Iraq - the so-called qeltu dialects, for their unique pronunciation of the word "I said" - are also quite interesting in their own right; the spoken Arabic dialect of Abbasid Baghdad seems likely to have belonged to this group. However, that is another story for another day...

3 comments:

Buzedjif said...

Mendaic is spoken by 5000 in northern Iraq. Armenian is also present there in Iraq and Syria. There are thousands of Persian-speaking Iraqis.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The Mandaeans' home is in southern Iraq, although there are no doubt a few refugees in the north (there are even in Australia). Their traditional language, however, is no longer spoken in Iraq - the last speakers were born in Iran. I assume there must be some Armenians and Persians in the north, but I haven't seen any mention of them...

lethargic-man said...

Interesting.