NICOSIA With his twice-weekly lessons, Elias Zonias is fighting to preserve the ancestral language of Cyprus's dwindling Maronite community, described by experts as a “treasure” but now threatened with extinction by rapid demographic change.
Every year the number of children at the island's only Maronite school has been shrinking, he says, highlighting the difficulty of keeping alive his native tongue, a unique form of Arabic that is strongly influenced by the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his followers.
“I feel that I'm lucky because I'm part of a small group of people who speaks this language well,” says Zonias, 41, a cheerful father of three with a passion for photography.
“But we see the problem here in this school. Every year the number of children goes down,” he notes, adding that he now has only 20 pupils learning Cyprus Maronite Arabic, or CMA, a language with a non-written, oral tradition.
The Maronite Christian community, inhabiting Cyprus since the 12th century, has been battling to preserve its historic identity since Turkey's 1974 intervention forcibly partitioned the island into the Greek-speaking south and the Turkish-occupied north.
Forced to take sides, the Maronites opted for the south, leaving behind their traditional agricultural heartland in the north, a move that virtually displaced the entire community.
Kormakitis, the largest of four Maronite villages in the north, is the home of CMA and now a dying community, with fewer than 150 elderly inhabitants and its only school closed for more than 10 years.
When Zonias and others like him arrived in their new schools in the south they had trouble being understood by the other Greek-speaking pupils, few of whom had even heard of their language.
Today, there are 5,000 Cyprus Maronites scattered throughout the island and only about a thousand native speakers of CMA.
Most Maronites tend to marry outside the clan now and very few speak the language to their children, eroding the most distinctive aspect of the community's identity.
Zonias is currently working on a CMA dictionary — a crucial step in rehabilitating the oral tongue — which he hopes will be ready by Easter.
In November 2008, under strong pressure from the Council of Europe, the Cyprus government agreed to officially recognize CMA as a minority language, a move that boosted the hopes of Zonias and others like him.
The language is a treasure
“The recognition of the language is a very important step, because it now gives Maronites the right to be taught in their language, to demand things for the Maronite school,” says Costas Constantinou, international relations professor at the University of Nicosia.
“This language is a treasure that is worth saving,” he says.
The Cypriot Maronites' vernacular tongue is closely linked to their religion, and like their far more numerous counterparts in Syria and Lebanon Maronite churches in Cyprus use in their liturgy the ancient Christian language Syriac, a branch of a group of Semitic tongues known as Aramaic.
George Skordis, another CMA activist from Kormakitis, said that saving the language required urgency.
“The situation is urgent because people are dying every day, and some of the words are only known to a few of them,” says Skordis, who runs the NGO Hki Fi Sanna, meaning “Speak our language” in CMA.
In August last year, his NGO organised its second week-long CMA camp in Kormakitis, which was attended by 190 students aged 6 to 18, almost twice as many as the last workshop in 2008.
“The summer camps are excellent,” says Zonias, at his office in St Maron's primary school, where framed photos of wild flowers in Kormakitis adorn the walls.
“But we need more help, and since the elementary school (in Kormakitis) has closed down we don't have a place,” he adds, complaining that summer temperatures on the island soar to around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and the classes don't have air conditioning.
The CMA activists have also been learning from the experience of other communities like their own.
In February, Skordis and Constantinou held a workshop with a group of Samis, an indigenous Norwegian minority group that succeeded in rescuing its own endangered language.
“There are languages that were in a worse state and survived,” says Constantinou. “The Samis faced very similar dilemmas 30 years ago, when they were being assimilated by the dominant Norwegian group.””There's always been a process of evolution in language, but we've seen a rapid change in the rate of loss in recent years,” says Brian Bielenberg, who teaches educational linguistics at the European University of Cyprus.
He reckons that a language dies approximately every 14 days, but that sometimes languages once considered dead — like Hebrew — are able to make a revival.
For all their efforts, those trying to revive CMA know it may be too little, too late.
“We're not 100 per cent sure that this will succeed,” admits Skordis. “But we believe that it is possible. If the Cypriot Maronites want to lose their language, then that's their decision. It's up to them. But we think we should not lose it without fighting for it.” — AFP