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Hollywood moment for ancient language

The film is unprecedented in its use of Aramaic


Among the many controversies surrounding Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ, is the use of two ancient languages - Aramaic and Latin - throughout. Some believe audiences may be put off by having to read so many subtitles, but for George Kiraz the language was the highlight.

For Dr Kiraz, who lives in New Jersey, this was the first time he could hear his own language in a Hollywood blockbuster.

"From a language point of view, they did a good job," the Aramaic-speaker told BBC News Online after being one of the first to see the film when it opened on Wednesday.

"I understood 60% or more of the Aramaic - not bad considering I wasn't used to the particular dialect they used."

Dr Kiraz is founder and president of the Beth Mardutho Syriac Institute in Piscataway, New Jersey. The organisation promotes the study of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect.

He was brought up with the language as a child living in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, through his church, the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Now, it is the language he uses to speak to his three-year-old daughter Tabetha.

"It's our only form of communication," he said. "My wife speaks to her in Turkish and the babysitter uses English.

"She switches from one to the other with no problem."

Modern challenges

Aramaic is spoken by about one million people worldwide, Dr Kiraz said.

It is used by a handful of Christian groups in northern Iraq and other parts of the Middle East including Turkey and Iran. The language has been around for at least 2,500 years, and has links to both Hebrew and Arabic.

"What I speak with my daughter is a kind of classical Aramaic, mostly a language used in churches, like Latin," Dr Kiraz said.

Sometimes, Dr Kiraz finds he has to adapt the language to describe things in the modern world.

After all, no-one was watching television or using mobile phones 2,000 years ago.

"The word we use for 'television' is 'surqolo'," Dr Kiraz explained. "It's made up from the words for 'vision' and 'voice'."

For Aramaic speakers, The Passion of the Christ is their first chance to hear their language on the big screen. It remains to be seen whether other directors will follow Mel Gibson's lead.

The film is opening at 2,800 cinemas in the US - and is released in the UK on 26 March.

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