"The artifex verborum of the dream ... was no less adept than the waking Coleridge in the metamorphosis of words." — John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu. Observations on language (mostly ancient), religion, and culture.
By Edward M. Cook, Ph.D.
As an Aramaist, I'm always interested to see what people think about Aramaic, which seems to have become a symbol of different things in popular culture. Thanks to its usage in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, many people are now aware that it was the (or a) language used in first-century Palestine. It also has become, perhaps for the same reason, an "occult" signifier, appearing in movies or books whenever something magical-sounding is required, as for instance in the movies Constantine and Stigmata, or the book The Celestine Prophecy, about an ancient Aramaic occult manuscript found in Peru (!).
The quoted text is from Genesis 1:2 according to Targum Onkelos. I'm not sure if Quentin recited the text from right-to-left, in which case the sentence runs backward (although the words are not backwards), or left-to-right (in which case the words are backwards, but the sentence gives the correct word order). Maybe it's a Unicode thing, or just a magic thing.
I was surprised, though, to hear Aramaic used in the scripts of the series Spartacus on the Starz network. The series (now defunct, I understand) narrates the "lives and loves" of characters in an ancient gladiatorial training academy, and makes liberal use of cable TV's license to display nudity and use profanity. Interestingly, beginning in the second season, a number of foreign gladiators enter the "ludus": Ashur and Dagan, "a hulking Syrian." The Romans speak English -- the producers apparently unwilling to emulate Gibson and put Latin in their mouths -- but not these new guys. They speak potty-mouthed Aramaic.
I've not found out who did the Aramaic, but I infer from the scripts (which are available here) that the language consultant employed mainly Talmudic Aramaic, as in the following, from "Paterfamilias":
ASHUR (to Dagan, in Aramaic)
Hze aykh hane mistaklin ‘alan. Kma Had minhon. [See how they look to us. As one of their own.]
Hane (הני) "these, they" is found only in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. One could quarrel with some of the other details, but, hey, it's cable, right?
Also interesting are the "four-letter words" (obscene language). We don't have any obscene language from ancient Aramaic -- as far as I know -- and it therefore presents a vexing problem in back-translation. I'm not going to go through all of them, lest I arouse distaste in some of my readers. However, the four-letter word par excellence, the F-word, gets a thorough workout in the scripts, and the back-translation is interesting, if not historically valid. The following also is from the episode "Paterfamilias":
Ashur and Dagan, bruised from yesterday’s altercation, glare from the sidelines. Ashur eyes Auctus and Barca, spits.
ASHUR (in Aramaic)
Hare mezayyne. [Fucking shits.]
It is clear from this and other passages that the language consultant, at a loss for an Aramaic equivalent to "fucking," employs the modern Hebrew equivalent mezayyen (Piel participle from the root זין) with the Eastern Aramaic emphatic plural ending. Problem solved, and who's paying attention, anyway? (Besides me.) However, in attested ancient Aramaic, the root means "to arm, provide a weapon" and the active participle would mean "someone who is arming (e.g. a soldier)." As for the other word, Aramaic חרי does indeed mean "dung, droppings," but this is not necessarily the same register as "shit."
However, how might the equivalent concepts in the appropriate register (slang + obscenity) have been expressed in ancient Aramaic? We shall probably never know. As C. S. Lewis has argued, four-letter words are generally found only in (a) scurrilous abuse or (b) comedy. Ancient Aramaic is sadly lacking in both types of discourse.
(Apologies to Buzzfeed and that ilk for the title)
BIBLIOGRAPHY; C. S. Lewis, "Four-Letter Words," in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge, 1979).