Sunday, February 14, 2010

Preserving Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA)

From the
Bringing back to life an ancient language
February 07, 2010
By Sebastian Heller

A COMMUNITY living in northern Scandinavia may hold the key to how the Maronites can save their ancient language which dates back to biblical times.

Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA) is a distinct language composed of a mixture of Arabic and Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ and his disciples, but its use has been in decline for more than 30 years.

A seminar in Nicosia this weekend will look at ways to reverse this trend by focusing on the lessons learnt from the Sami community in far northern Scandinavia.

“The situation of the Maronite community in Cyprus is very similar to the situation of the Sami 30 years ago, where they were being assimilated by the dominant Norwegian group,” said Costas Costantinou, a professor from the University of Keele who has helped organise the workshop.

The S├ími, more commonly known as Lapps, initially faced conditions and challenges very similar to those of the Maronite community in Cyprus. Consequently the workshop is intended “To see what wisdom, what good practice can be taken from their case, as their example is very successful,” said Costantinou.

The total size of the Maronite community in Cyprus numbers around 5,500, and around 1,000 of them speak CMA. Traditionally, only the Maronites from the occupied village of Kormakitis spoke the language. Members of the community from the other Maronite villages - Asomatos, Karpasia and Ayia Marina - are all Greek speakers. Following the 1974 invasion, the majority of the Maronites from Kormakitis moved south and the language went into sharp decline.

“Up until the present day, it was exclusively from the home that we would learn the language. In the past, when we were in our villages, the whole context supported it, it was easy to speak our language,” said Peppinos Moussas, a Maronite currently living in Nicosia, “Afterwards, once we were scattered, it was difficult.”

Nowadays, large efforts are being made on a social level, and in an organised way, to rejuvenate the language and culture particularly for those under the age of 30.

Following a number of Council of Europe resolutions and recommendations, in November 2008 the Republic of Cyprus formally declared to the Council of Europe that it recognises CMA as a minority language. As a result “the state has various legal responsibilities from now on to protect the language,” said Moussas.

Like the Sami, who 30 years ago were in the position where the dominant Norweigian majority was trying to assimilate them into their culture, language and society, the Maronites do not want to be viewed as a “religious group” but as a “community”.

“There have been repeated calls from our representative, Mr Hadjiroussos, for us to recognised as such,” said Giorgos Skordis, a Maronite who co-ordinates the Xki Fi Sanna (Speak Our Language) educational programme involving approximately 30 students. He emphasised that the Maronites, though they have developed alongside the mainstream population for centuries (since the 7th century AD) have a different history, different heritage, religion and, of course, a distinct language.

“The existence of CMA provides the ‘hard fact’ that Maronites are a national minority with a distinct ethnic identity, not merely a ‘religious group’ that is compelled to affiliate to either the Greek or Turkish Cypriot community as provided by Article 2 of the 1960 Cypriot Constitution,” noted Costantinou in his article “The Protection and Revival of Cypriot Maronite Arabic” produced for the Peace Research Institute Oslo centre which is organising this weekend’s workshop.

The Xki Fi Sanna initiative is co-funded by the European Economic Area countries of Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland (90 per cent of the cost) and the Republic of Cyprus (10 per cent).

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