EPIA Seminars

Surayt as Mother Tongue Education in the European Diaspora
(3 August 2013, Liege)

Within the framework of the European project "Exchanging Best Practices in the Integration of Assyrians in Europe" (EPIA), the seminar Surayt1 as Mother Tongue Education in the European Diaspora was organized in Liége (Belgium) on 3 August 2013 by the Syriac Institute of Belgium in collaboration with other project partners: Stichting Inanna Foundation (Netherlands), Stiftung Yoken-Bar-Yoken (Germany), Assyriska Föreningen i Göteborg (Sweden). About 100 people from various corners of Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Poland) attended the event.

Symbolically and to demonstrate the importance of teaching the mother tongue to the new generations born in the diaspora, the organizers gave opportunity to a young girl of 15 years (born in Belgium) to moderate the seminar in the Surayt language. The seminar was opened by Marie Gabriel who briefly introduced the agenda for the day. She explained the importance of the seminar for the Syriac Institute of Belgium, which gives weight to the learning of the Syriac language and Surayt. After a brief presentation of the EPIA project, four speakers presented their experience on the subject of the seminar.

The first speaker, Fikri Gabriel, (Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium) teacher of Catholic religion for twenty years, introduced new teaching methods used today in Belgian schools. He explained how these new methods directly relate to the learning of the mother tongue and promote students' development. Based on several observations and findings, it appears that students who know their mother tongue have more success in high schools. Finally, he emphasized the importance of learning the mother tongue as a means for the harmonious integration of new generations who were born in Europe while avoiding rapid assimilation.

The second speaker, Monseigneur Polycarpus Augin Aydin, Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the Netherlands, spoke on the role of the Church with respect to Surayt, parallel to the learning process taking place at home and in today's media. From the beginning of Christianity, the Church adopted the Syriac language, an Aramaic dialect used in the city of Edessa (Urfa present), as its liturgical language. The people of Tur Abdin continued to speak in their local dialect, Surayt, which is another Aramaic dialect. However, contrary to Syriac, Surayt has mainly remained a vernacular language, not written and therefore has not developed and had its own literature. Set aside for several centuries, nowadays some clergymen occasionally introduce it into the liturgy and certain prayers are being sung in Surayt. Various translations of liturgical books from Syriac to Surayt exist, so that it can grow in importance in the liturgy. Most translations use the characters of the Syriac alphabet. But meanwhile, few Assyrians are familiar with this alphabet; this is true particularly for the generations born in the diaspora who prefer to use the Latin alphabet to read or write Surayt. So in conclusion, Archbishop Polycarpus spoke of the advantage of working with new media, especially the Internet. A project is underway to create a computer program which will allow, with one click, to convert a text written in the Syriac alphabet into the Latin alphabet and vice versa.

Thereafter, Chorbishop Abrohom Garis, priest in the Syriac Orthodox Church in Gothenburg (Sweden), delivered a speech about the mother tongue issue. He did some research on the peoples of the Middle East, especially on "Mhalmoye" in the region of Tur Abdin. According to him, to know well a language, you must know its history. Therefore, he focused in his presentation on the origins of Surayt, which dates back to the ancient Assyrians, Arameans and other peoples that have dominated the region of Tur Abdin (Akkadian: Kashyari). Since the Assyrians fled this region in recent decades, Surayt is in danger of extinction. Father Garis stressed that we must do everything to transmit this language to future generations so that Surayt survives.

The last speaker was Jan Beth Sawoce (University of Södertörn, Sweden) who is one of the prominent figures who has been working on Surayt and who has made the language his "battle horse". He explained the political pressure which Surayt has undergone since the late 19th century. Based on his experiences and the various interviews he conducted with the Assyrians (mostly elderly people) around the world, he pointed out four main factors that have weakened the Surayt:

  • As an impact of the Seyfo (genocide) perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Assyrian people during the World War I, Surayt lost its importance and influence in the region of Tur Abdin mainly in favor of the Kurdish and Arabic language.
  • Due to the emigration of people from rural areas to urban areas and the ban on teaching (and even using) languages other than Turkish, in many families Turkish became the first language (or the language spoken at home, such as in big cities in Turkey).
  • In the first phase of the migration of Assyrians from Tur Abdin to Syria in the 1940s, many Assyrians began to use Arabic as their mother tongue.
  • In the second phase of migration to European countries from the 1960s, Surayt has been influenced by Western languages and cultural codes.

According to Jan BethSawoce, if the generations that grew up in the diaspora no longer speak their mother tongue, it may gradually lead to the assimilation of Assyrians in Europe and the death of Surayt as a living language. Furthermore, Jan Beth Sawoce stressed that Surayt as the language used among our people should not be relegated to a second place behind Syriac and other languages that the Assyrian people use.

Finally, as a surprise guest, Michael Abdallah, orientalist and professor at the University of Agriculture in Poznan (Poland), gave a short presentation about his experience for using and teaching the language. He had personally promoted the Syriac language in Poland, where about twenty Polish learned Syriac. He then wanted to show that it is possible to revive Surayt when you want to do all you can. In fact, many Assyrians in Syria were speaking Arabic and using for example Kurdish songs at weddings and other festivities. Despite the obstacles and the political oppressions in Syria, a youth group he was part of under the guidance of the ADO worked to give importance to Surayt. Gradually, Surayt re-emerged again as the mother tongue at home and Surayt songs began to be developed and performed. The impact of this "small" movement was coupled worldwide with immigration in the 1960s and 1970s. Currently, it seems natural and logical to speak Surayt at home and to hear only Surayt songs at Assyrian weddings.

Finally, the public was able to interact by asking questions or clarifying certain topics. As concluding remarks, we can mention the following points:

  • Surayt is entitled as a "severely endangered" language by UNESCO. It is spoken all around the world by about 500,000 people scattered mainly in European countries and in their homeland. In recent years, we see that researchers and teachers are interested in producing more in Surayt and are promoting the wide use of this endangered language.
  • The community approach is vital for the revitalization of an endangered language. Almost all participants underline the importance of teaching the language at home. This is the most essential step for the protection of this language: parents should be aware of using this language at home in order to have a harmonious integration into the broader society. In addition, it has shown that children who can speak their mother tongue become more successful in school where their mother tongue functions as an asset for their personal and cultural development. All speakers emphasized the fact that the learning of the mother tongue is one of the most important points for successful integration.
  • Originally ignored by the Church, Surayt begins to take some place in the liturgy. Some clergymen have become aware of the importance and usefulness of using the mother tongue of its members in church ceremonies.
  • All participants state the urgent need of serious efforts and professional projects for the protection of Surayt.

Institut Syriaque de Belgique
September 2013

Click here for the pictures of the seminar.
Watch the seminar on Assyria TV.

1. Surayt is an Aramaic dialect that is mainly spoken by the Assyrians living in the area of Tur Abdin (southeastern Turkey). It is sometimes called "Turoyo" that is to say language of the mountain (Tur Abdin) versus "Suryoyo Kthobonoyo" which is the literary Syriac that is mainly used by the Syriac Churches.

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