Endangered Language Alliance



Neo-Mandaic

a Northwest Semitic language of Mandaeans in Iran and Iraq

Background

Neo-Mandaic, also called modern Mandaic, is the contemporary form of Mandaic, the language of the Mandæan religious community of Iraq and Iran. Although there are some 60,000 members of the greater Mandæan community around the world, who are generally familiar with the classical dialect through their sacred literature and liturgy, only several hundred people speak the contemporary language. Most live in Iran. Many have fled Iraq in the decade since the American invasion–formerly they had been free to practice their religion but in recent years the security situation had deteriorated, and only a fraction of the population remains.

Affiliation

Neo-Mandaic can be considered a dialect of Aramaic, a Northwest Semitic language which was once widespread across the Middle East. As such, it is the only known form of any of the classical literary dialects of Aramaic to survive down to the present day. Two surviving dialects of Neo-Mandaic have thus far been documented, that of Ahvāz (in Macuch, 1965a, 1965b, 1989, and 1993), and Khorramshahr (in Häberl, 2009). These dialects are mutually intelligible to the extent that speakers of either dialect will deny that there are any substantive differences between the two.

Endangerment

Neo-Mandaic is severely endangered today, with few young speakers and few communities or households where it is in daily use. Almost all Mandæans are fluent in Arabic and Persian, the important contact languages where most of them live. Yet as recently as the 19th century, the language was still spoken by the Mandæans in several cities across northern Khuzestan (Iran), including Šuštar, Dezful, and Šāh Wali. It was during the reign of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (1848-96) that these communities departed for Khorramshahr (Ḵorram-šahr) and Ahvāz in southern Khuzestan, as well as the cities of southern Iraq, then under Ottoman rule. Neo-Mandaic is generally unwritten. On the rare occasions on which it is written, in personal letters and in the colophons attached to manuscripts, it is rendered using a modified version of the classical script.

Academic Work

The first attempt to document Neo-Mandaic, a polyglot glossary including a column of lexical items from the now extinct Neo-Mandaic dialect of Basra, was produced in the mid-17th century by a Carmelite missionary whom Roberta Borghero (2000, p. 318) has identified as Matteo di San Giuseppe. This Glossarium was to have a perennial influence upon future Mandæologists; it was consulted by Theodor Nöldeke (1862, 1875) and Rudolf Macuch (1965a) in the preparation of their grammars, and the contents of its Neo-Mandaic column were incorporated into Drower and Macuch’s dictionary (1963). No complete Neo-Mandaic text was published until the beginning of the twentieth century, when Jacques de Morgan published facsimiles of five such texts in the fifth volume of his Mission scientifique en Perse (which were subsequently transliterated and translated in Macuch, 1989). The last few decades have seen a marked increase in the number of Neo-Mandaic texts available to scholarship (Macuch, 1965b, 1989, 1993) and a descriptive grammar (Häberl, 2009). For more information, see ELA collaborator Charles Häberl’s entry “The Neo-Mandaic Language” at the Encyclopedia Iranica.

See the Glottolog entry on Iraqi Neo-Mandaic (Neo-Mandaic)

ELA’s Work

Charles Häberl, a linguist who directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, has been documenting Mandaic for several years and recently published his exhaustive grammar, The Neo-Mandaic Dialect of Khorramshahr. There are over a thousand Mandæan adherents now living in the United States, including some recent arrivals, concentrated in the New York area, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Häberl and ELA have connected with Mandaic speakers in both New Jersey and Long Island, recording stories and other texts.

(adapted from the Encyclopedia Iranica)