Monday, April 29, 2019
Title: The Role of Aramaic in the Ethnic and Linguistic Identity of the Syrian Orthodox
Abstract: Aramaic, once a lingua franca throughout the Middle East, has dwindled down to several varieties that exist largely in diaspora with no official state backing. Based on 20 months of ethnographic research in Istanbul and Berlin, this dissertation focuses on how one specific multilingual speech community – the Syrian Orthodox Christians (Suryoye) – incorporate Aramaic into their identity. I explore the factors that motivate Suryoye to maintain living Aramaic, particularly aspects related to ideas of authenticity, authority, and agency. Widespread dispersal of the Suryoye from Mesopotamia creates the challenge: Who possesses the authority to determine authentic speech and writing? Who can aspire to linguistic authority and how will they be accepted by others? How might shifts in ideological frameworks enable or inhibit expressions of linguistic agency? Mass and social media offer potential means to bridge the linguistic rifts of the diaspora, but efforts to accomplish this goal are hindered by conflicting temporality and locality-based narratives integrally linked to both language and group identity. I examine linguistic agency at three levels of scale: individual interactions, communities of practice, and institutional agency, suggesting that at each level agentive potential (i.e. potential to create desired effects in the world) articulates differently. The current situation exists in an energetic, polarized tension between two envisioned outcomes. Can the Suryoye find common ground in recognizing a daily language authentic enough to teach, and to authorize and motivate teachers to pass it on to future generations who find it relevant and enticing to learn? Or will further dispersion from traditional locations, accommodation to other cultures, and ideological disunity lead to a sense of ennui in the youth, and the perception of Aramaic as a relic of the past?
Committee: Dr. Qing Zhang and Dr. Samira Farwaneh are co-chairs. Dr. Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Dr. Anne Betteridge and Dr. Edward Wright