There is much at stake with the Cyprus Talks, aimed at reunifying the divided island. The Maronite minority in particular is facing the possibility of the extinction of their language, Cyprus Maronite Arabic (CMA) or Sanna, according to UNESCO which has designated it a severely endangered language since 2002.
Who Are the Maronites?
The Maronites are descendants of Syrian and Lebanese Christians and their language, Sanna, is a unique dialect of Arabic influenced by the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. They first came to Cyprus in the 12th century and once flourished in Kormakitis, the largest of four Maronite villages in the northern part of the island.
Nowadays, with fewer than 150 elderly who still reside in the north and speak the language, the situation is dire, explains George Skordis, an activist from Kormakitis trying to preserve the Sanna language.
“The situation is urgent because people are dying every day, and some of the words are only known to a few of them,” he told the AFP. Skordis runs an NGO called “Hki Fi Sanna,” meaning “Speak our language” in Sanna.
Reunification: A Last Chance to Save the Sanna Language
During the Turkish military invasion of the northern third of Cyprus in 1974, the great majority of the Maronites were forced to relocate south to the Greek-Cypriot controlled part of the island.
As of 2000, all remaining speakers of Sanna were 30 years of age and older, and in 2011 a census revealed that of the nearly 5,000 Maronites living on Cyprus today only 900 people “spoke the language at different levels.”
Now the latest round of Cyprus Talks have brought some hope to the remaining Maronites on the island that maybe they could reunify their minority community as well and keep their ancient language and culture alive.
“The problem is that because we have lost our village it’s very difficult to keep our language,” Katy Foradari, who teaches Sanna in Kormakitis explained to AFP.
Despite living in the Greek-Cypriot section of the island, since 2008 many young Maronites have been able to visit the northern Turkish-occupied sector and attend summer classes learning Sanna and participate in a summer camp. Around 100 students from the age of 5 to 17 attended this past summer, learning the alphabet, grammar, and songs in the native, and almost forgotten language.
Yiannakis Mousas, represents the Maronite minority community in Parliament in Nicosia, and says that the only way to save the ancient Sanna language and culture is a solution to the Cyprus dispute.
“Only through the return of the Maronite people, of their property, of their schools, of their churches, only in this way do we have a good chance to revive the language,” he told AFP.