Cypriot Maronites and their unique dialect of Arabic

One of the unique and interesting endangered minority languages in Europe is Cypriot Arabic also called Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA) or Sanaa. The language first came to the island of Cyprus in the ninth or tenth centuries CE and some say as early as the seventh. While it is uncertain why these Maronites came and continued to migrate it is clear that their dialect of Arabic is related to the Levantine dialect of modern Lebanon and Syria also home to Maronites today.

The 2011 census of Cyprus only identified 3,656 speakers of a Maronite population of about 6000, all over thirty, and none speaking it as a first language. However one NGO puts the figure at only 1000 people. According to the EGIDS level of 8a it is a dying language so “so it is too late to restore natural intergenerational transmission through the home; a mechanism outside the home would need to be developed.” UNESCO designated it as a severely endangered language and received official minority status in Cyprus in 2008.

The unfortunate status of the language is due to the very few number of speakers as well as the Greek-Turkish conflict on Cyprus where about 80% of the population was uprooted from their ancestral homes aside from Kormakitis where only about 120 people remain though it was home to about half of the Cypriot Maronites before the conflict. Otherwise most others reside on Nicosia on the Greek side of the island.

The language is no longer written with the Arabic alphabet. It was written in Greek and is now written in both Greek and Latin letters though the initiative for the Latin version may be stronger. It may be one of the early dialects of Arabic and some claim it also has roots in Aramaic. It has a mixed vocabulary including loan words from Greek, Syriac, Latin and Turkish. It has been heavily influenced by Greek, and like other Semitic languages influenced by Indo-European languages, it has lost emphatic consonants as in modern Hebrew and Maltese. Several other letters changed over time such as the Arabic “qaf” (similar to a /q/) becoming a /k/, the Semitic /b/ becoming and Indo-European /p/, and the /d/ merging with the /t/.

There have been efforts to maintain or revitalize the language including a proposal to codify the modern version of the language, developing a Cypriot Arabic-Greek dictionary, and promoting CMA to the younger generation through summer camps, lessons and cultural activities. Unfortunately this unique language seems doomed with about nine out of ten young Cypriot Maronites marrying outside their ethnic group and no remaining young native speakers.

The photo is of the village of Kormakitis in Northern Cyprus and is courtesy of Flickr user muffinn and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

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