About 90% of Syrians are Arabs and speak a modern colloquial Arabic that’s very similar to the Arabic also spoken in Lebanon and Jordan. The remaining minorities of Syrian Kurds also speak Kurdish (Kurmanji), Syrian Armenians speak Armenian and Syrian Turks also speak Turkish (the South Azeri dialect). Many educated Syrians of all ethnic groups speak French, and some speak English. For centuries before Arabic became the main language of Syria, some time around when the Umayyad’s took over in the 7th century, most people in the region spoke Aramaic. In today’s Syria villagers of Ma’loula and two nearby towns only 35 miles from Damascus still speak Aramaic–technically, Western Neo-Aramaic. (Linguists are intrigued that the Western Neo-Aramaic speakers are Muslim, even in a completely Arabized region, rather than being Christian like most Eastern Neo-Aramaic-speakers.)

(Was the world’s first alphabet written on a clay tablet in the Ugarit language on the Syrian coast in the 14th century B.C.? The next time you’re in Damascus you can visit the tablet at a museum and see for yourself.)

In class, for kicks, we’re going to say hello and goodbye in old-time Aramaic:

Hello in Aramaic: Shlomoa
Goodbye in Aramaic: Foosh beshlomo

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