Aramaic is a Semitic language with a 3,000-year history. It has been the language of administration of empires and the language of divine worship. It is the original language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, and is the main language of the Talmud. Aramaic was the native language of Jesus (see Aramaic of Jesus). Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by numerous, scattered communities, most significantly by the Assyrians. The language is considered to be endangered.
Aramaic's long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties, or dialects, of the language. Thus, there is no one Aramaic language, but each time and place has had its own variety.
Aramaic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family. Within that diverse family, it belongs to the Semitic subfamily. Aramaic is a part of the Northwest Semitic group of languages, which also includes the Canaanite languages (such as Hebrew). It is also related to Arabic, being part of the more diverse Central Semitic languages; one possible source for the Arabic alphabet is Nabataean Aramaic script.
The earliest Aramaic alphabet was based on the Phoenician script. In time, Aramaic developed its distinctive 'square' style. The ancient Israelites and other peoples of Canaan adopted this alphabet for writing their own languages. Thus, it is better known as the Hebrew alphabet today. This is the writing system used in Biblical Aramaic and other Jewish writing in Aramaic.
The other main writing system used for Aramaic was developed by Christian communities: a cursive form known as the Syriac alphabet (one of the varieties of the Syriac alphabet, Serto, is shown to the left).
In addition to these writing systems, certain derivatives of the Aramaic alphabet were used in ancient times by particular groups: Nabataean in Petra, for instance, or Palmyrenean in Palmyra. In modern times, Turoyo (see below) has sometimes been written in an adapted Latin alphabet.
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bar:test from:-1200 till:200 # Old AramaicPlotData =
bar:test from:200 till:1200 # Middle AramaicPlotData =
bar:test from:1200 till:2005 # Modern AramaicPlotData =
bar:test at:-1200 mark:(line,white)
at:-1200 shift:(10,0) text:12th c. BCE Aramaeans settle in Aram
bar:test at:-1000 mark:(line,white)
at:-1000 shift:(10,0) text:10th c. BCE early written Aramaic
bar:test at:-740 mark:(line,white)
at:-740 shift:(10,0) text:740s BCE Aramaic official in Assyria
bar:test at:-500 mark:(line,white)
at:-500 shift:(10,0) text:c.500 BCE Darius I makes Aramaic official
bar:test at:-425 mark:(line,white)
at:-425 shift:(10,0) text:5th c. BCE Elephantine papyri composed
bar:test at:-330 mark:(line,white)
at:-331 shift:(10,0) text:331 BCE Greek ascendancy
bar:test at:-246 mark:(line,white)
at:-246 shift:(10,0) text:247 BCE Aramaic official in Arsacid Empire
bar:test at:-169 mark:(line,white)
at:-169 shift:(10,5) text:c. 170 BCE Book of Daniel probably composed
bar:test at:-141 mark:(line,white)
at:-141 shift:(10,0) text:142 BCE Aramaic official in Hasmonaean Judah
bar:test at:-49 mark:(line,white)
at:-40 shift:(10,0) text:1st c. BCE Aramaic Palmyra, Petra & Osrhoene
bar:test at:45 mark:(line,white)
at:45 shift:(10,0) text:1st c. New Testament records some Aramaic
bar:test at:135 mark:(line,white)
at:135 shift:(10,4) text:135 Galilean Aramaic becomes prominent
bar:test at:172 mark:(line,white)
at:172 shift:(10,1) text:172 Tatian's Diatessaron produced
bar:test at:200 mark:(line,white)
at:200 shift:(10,-3) text:3rd c. Targum composition
bar:test at:224 mark:(line,white)
at:224 shift:(10,-8) text:224 Classical Mandaic emerges
bar:test at:306 mark:(line,white)
at:306 shift:(10,-1) text:c. 306 Ephrem born, Syriac golden age
bar:test at:431 mark:(line,white)
at:431 shift:(10,0) text:431 Nestorian schism of Aramaic Christians
bar:test at:435 mark:(line,white)
at:435 shift:(10,-9) text:c. 435 Peshitta Syriac Bible produced
bar:test at:637 mark:(line,white)
at:637 shift:(10,0) text:637 Arabic ascendancy
bar:test at:700 mark:(line,white)
at:700 shift:(10,0) text:700 Talmud completed
bar:test at:1258 mark:(line,black)
at:1258 shift:(10,0) text:1258 Mongols sack Baghdad
bar:test at:1290 mark:(line,black)
at:1290 shift:(10,-5) text:13th c. Zohar published in Spain
bar:test at:1650 mark:(line,black)
at:1650 shift:(10,0) text:17th c. School of Alqosh flourishes
bar:test at:1836 mark:(line,black)
at:1836 shift:(10,0) text:1836 Assyrian Neo-Aramaic first in print
bar:test at:1915 mark:(line,black)
at:1915 shift:(10,4) text:1915 Persecution in Turkey
bar:test at:1951 mark:(line,black)
at:1951 shift:(10,2) text:1951 Aramaic Jews move to Israel
bar:test at:1998 mark:(line,black)
at:1998 shift:(10,0) text:1998 last speakers of Mlahsô & Bijil die
This classification is based on that used by Klaus Beyer*.
From 700 BCE, the language began to spread in all directions, but lost much of its homogeneity. Different dialects emerged in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the Levant and Egypt. However, the Akkadian-influenced Aramaic of Assyria, and then Babylon, started to come to the fore. As described in 2 Kings 18:26, Hezekiah, king of Judah, negotiates with Assyrian ambassadors in Aramaic so that the common people would not understand. Around 600 BCE, Adon, a Canaanite king, uses Aramaic to write to the Egyptian Pharaoh.
'Chaldee' or 'Chaldean Aramaic' used to be common terms for the Aramaic of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylonia. It was used to describe Biblical Aramaic, which was, however, written in a later style. It is not to be confused with the modern language Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.
Imperial Aramaic was highly standardised; its orthography was based more on historical roots than any spoken dialect, and the inevitable influence of Persian gave the language a new clarity and robust flexibility. For centuries after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire (in 331 BCE), Imperial Aramaic or near enough for it to be recognisable would remain an influence on the various native Iranian languages. Aramaic script and as ideograms Aramaic vocabulary would survive as the essential characteristics of the Pahlavi writing system.
One of the largest collections of Imperial Aramaic texts is that of the Persepolis fortification tablets, which number about five hundred. Many of the extant documents witnessing to this form of Aramaic come from Egypt, and Elephantine in particular. Of them, the best known is the Wisdom of Ahiqar, a book of instructive aphorisms quite similar in style to the biblical book of Proverbs. Achaemenid Aramaic is sufficiently uniform that it is often difficult to know where any particular example of the language was written. Only careful examination reveals the occasional loan word from a local language.
A group of thirty Aramaic documents from Bactria have been recently discovered. An analysis was published in November 2006. The texts, which were rendered on leather, reflect the use of Aramaic in the fourth-century-BCE Achaemenid administration of Bactria and Sogdiana.
The conquest by Alexander the Great did not destroy the unity of Aramaic language and literature immediately. Aramaic that bears a relatively close resemblance to that of the fifth century BCE can be found right up to the early second century BCE. The Seleucids imposed Greek in the administration of Syria and Mesopotamia from the start of their rule. In the third century BCE, Greek overtook Aramaic as the common language in Egypt and Syria. However, a post-Achaemenid Aramaic continued to flourish from Judaea, through the Syrian Desert, and into Arabia and Parthia.
Biblical Aramaic is a somewhat hybrid dialect. Some Biblical Aramaic material probably originated in both Babylonia and Judaea before the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty. During Seleucid rule, defiant Jewish propaganda shaped Aramaic Daniel. These stories probably existed as oral traditions at their earliest stage. This might be one factor that led to differing collections of Daniel in the Greek Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which presents a lightly Hebrew-influenced Aramaic.
Under the category of post-Achaemenid is Hasmonaean Aramaic, the official language of Hasmonaean Judaea (142–37 BCE). It influenced the Biblical Aramaic of the Qumran texts, and was the main language of non-biblical theological texts of that community. The major Targums, translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, were originally composed in Hasmonaean. Hasmonaean also appears in quotations in the Mishnah and Tosefta, although smoothed into its later context. It is written quite differently from Achaemenid Aramaic; there is an emphasis on writing as words are pronounced rather than using etymological forms.
Babylonian Targumic is the later post-Achaemenid dialect found in the Targum Onqelos and Targum Jonathan, the 'official' targums. The original, Hasmonaean targum had reached Babylon sometime in the second or third centuries CE. They were then reworked according to the contemporary dialect of Babylon to create the language of the standard targums. This combination formed the basis of Babylonian Jewish literature for centuries to follow.
Galilean Targumic is similar to Babylonian Targumic. It is the mixing of literary Hasmonaean with the dialect of Galilee. The Hasmonaean targum reached Galilee in the second century CE, and were reworked into this Galilean dialect for local use. The Galilean Targum was not considered an authoritative work by other communities, and documentary evidence shows that its text was amended. From the eleventh century CE onwards, once the Babylonian Targum had become normative, the Galilean version became heavily influenced by it.
Babylonian Documentary Aramaic is a dialect in use from the third century CE onwards. It is the dialect of Babylonian private documents, and, from the twelfth century, all Jewish private documents in Aramaic. It is based on Hasmonaean with very few changes. This was perhaps due to the fact that many of the documents in BDA are legal documents, the language in them had to be sensible throughout the Jewish community from the start, and Hasmonaean was the old standard.
Nabataean Aramaic is the language of the Arab kingdom of Petra. The kingdom (c. 200 BCE–106 CE covered the east bank of the Jordan River, the Sinai Peninsula and northern Arabia. Perhaps because of the importance of the caravan trade, the Nabataeans began to use Aramaic in preference to Old North Arabic. The dialect is based on Achaemenid with a little influence from Arabic: 'l' is often turned into 'n', and there are a few Arabic loan words. Some Nabataean Aramaic inscriptions exist from the early days of the kingdom, but most are from the first four centuries CE. The language is written in a cursive script that is the precursor to the modern Arabic alphabet. The number of Arabic loan words increases through the centuries, until, in the fourth century, Nabataean merges seamlessly with Arabic.
Palmyrene Aramaic is the dialect that was in use in the city of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert from 44 BCE to 274 CE. It was written in a rounded script, which later gave way to cursive Estrangela. Like Nabataean, Palmyrene was influenced by Arabic, but to a lesser degree.
Arsacid Aramaic was the official language of the Parthian Empire (247 BCE–224 CE). It, more than any other post-Achaemenid dialect, continues the tradition of Darius I. Over time, however, it came under the influence of contemporary, spoken Aramaic, Georgian and Persian. After the conquest of the Parthians by the Persian-speaking Sassanids, Arsacid exerted considerable influence on the new official language.
The dialects mentioned in the last section were all descended from Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic. However, the diverse regional dialects of Late Ancient Aramaic continued alongside these, often as simple, spoken languages. Early evidence for these spoken dialects is known only through their influence on words and names in a more standard dialect. However, these regional dialects became written languages in the second century BCE. These dialects reflect a stream of Aramaic that is not dependent on Imperial Aramaic, and shows a clear division between the regions of Mesopotamia, Babylon and the east, and Judah, Syria, and the west.
In the East, the dialects of Palmyrene and Arsacid Aramaic merged with the regional languages to create languages with a foot in Imperial and a foot in regional Aramaic. Much later, Arsacid became the liturgical language of the Mandaean religion, Mandaic.
In the kingdom of Osrhoene, centred on Edessa and founded in 132 BCE, the regional dialect became the official language: Old Syriac. On the upper reaches of the Tigris, East Mesopotamian Aramaic flourished, with evidence from Hatra, Assur and the Tur Abdin. Tatian, the author of the gospel harmony the Diatessaron came from Assyria, and perhaps wrote his work (172 CE) in East Mesopotamian rather than Syriac or Greek. In Babylonia, the regional dialect was used by the Jewish community, Jewish Old Babylonian (from c. 70 CE). This everyday language increasingly came under the influence of Biblical Aramaic and Babylonian Targumic.
The form of Late Old Western Aramaic used by the Jewish community is best attested, and is usually referred to as Jewish Old Palestinian. Its oldest form is Old East Jordanian, which probably comes from the region of Caesarea Philippi. This is the dialect of the oldest manuscript of Enoch (c. 170 BCE). The next distinct phase of the language is called Old Judaean into the second century CE. Old Judaean literature can be found in various inscriptions and personal letters, preserved quotations in the Talmud and receipts from Qumran. Josephus' first, non-extant edition of his Jewish War was written in Old Judaean.
The Old East Jordanian dialect continued to be used into the first century CE by pagan communities living to the east of the Jordan. Their dialect is often then called Pagan Old Palestinian, and it was written in a cursive script somewhat similar to that used for Old Syriac. A Christian Old Palestinian dialect may have arisen from the pagan one, and this dialect may be behind some of the Western Aramaic tendencies found in the otherwise eastern Old Syriac gospels (see Peshitta).
In addition to the formal, literary dialects of Aramaic based on Hasmonaean and Babylonian there were a number of colloquial Aramaic dialects. Seven dialects of Western Aramaic were spoken in the vicinity of the land of Israel in Jesus' time. They were probably distinctive yet mutually intelligible. Old Judaean was the prominent dialect of Jerusalem and Judaea. The region of Engedi had the South-east Judaean dialect. Samaria had its distinctive Samaritan Aramaic, where the consonants 'he', '' and '‘ayin' all became pronounced as 'aleph'. Galilean Aramaic, the dialect of Jesus' home region, is only known from a few place names, the influences on Galilean Targumic, some rabbinic literature and a few private letters. It seems to have a number of distinctive features: diphthongs are never simplified into monophthongs. East of the Jordan, the various dialects of East Jordanian were spoken. In the region of Damascus and the mountain range of Anti-Lebanon, Damascene Aramaic was spoken (deduced mostly from Modern Western Aramaic). Finally, as far north as Aleppo, the western dialect of Orontes Aramaic was spoken.
The three languages mutually influenced each other, especially Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew words entered Jewish Aramaic (mostly technical religious words but also everyday words like 'wood'). Vice versa, Aramaic words entered Hebrew (not only Aramaic words like māmmôn 'wealth' but Aramaic ways of using words like making Hebrew rā’ûi, 'seen' mean 'worthy' in the sense of 'seemly', which is a loan translation of Aramaic meaning 'seen' and 'worthy').
The 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is notable for its use of much dialogue in Aramaic only, specially reconstructed by a scholar, but not an Aramaic specialist, William Fulco. However, rather than basing his reconstruction on what is known of first-century Aramaic, he used the Aramaic of Daniel, fourth-century Syriac and Hebrew as the basis for his work. Modern Aramaic speakers found the language stilted and unfamiliar.
Middle Syriac is the classical, literary and liturgical language of Syriac Christians to this day. Its golden age was the fourth to sixth centuries. This period began with the translation of the Bible into the language: the Peshitta and the masterful prose and poetry of Ephrem the Syrian. Middle Syriac, unlike its forebear, is a thoroughly Christian language, although in time it became the language of those opposed to the Byzantine leadership of the church in the east. Missionary activity led to the spread of Syriac through Persia and into India and China.
Middle Judaean, the descendant of Old Judaean, is no longer the dominant dialect, and was used only in southern Judaea (the variant Engedi dialect continued throughout this period). Likewise, Middle East Jordanian continues as a minor dialect from Old East Jordanian. The inscriptions in the synagogue at Dura-Europos are either in Middle East Jordanian or Middle Judaean.
The Neo-Aramaic languages are now farther apart in their comprehension of one another than perhaps they have ever been. The last two-hundred years have not been good to Aramaic speakers. Instability throughout the Middle East has led to a worldwide diaspora of Aramaic-speakers. The year 1915 is especially prominent for Aramaic-speaking Christians who experienced the Assyrian Genocide (Sayfo or Saypā; literally meaning sword in Syriac), and all Christian groups living in eastern Turkey in general (see also Armenian Genocide, Pontic Greek Genocide) who were the subjects of the genocide that marked the end of the Ottoman Empire. For Aramaic-speaking Jews 1950 is a watershed year: the founding of the state of Israel and consequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, including Iraq, led most Iraqi Jews, both Aramaic-speaking and Arabic-speaking Iraqi Jews, to emigrate to Israel. However, immigration to Israel has led to the Jewish Neo-Aramaic (and Jewish Iraqi Arabic) being replaced by Modern Hebrew among children of the migrants. The practical extinction of many Jewish dialects seems imminent.
The Christian languages are often called Modern Syriac (or Neo-Syriac, particularly when referring to their literature), being deeply influenced by the literary and liturgical language of Middle Syriac. However, they also have roots in numerous, previously unwritten, local Aramaic dialects, and are not purely the direct descendants of the language of Ephrem the Syrian.
Modern Western Syriac (also called Central Neo-Aramaic, being in between Western Neo-Aramaic and Eastern Neo-Syriac) is generally represented by Turoyo, the language of the Tur Abdin. A related language, Mlahsô, has recently become extinct.
The eastern Christian languages (Modern Eastern Syriac or Eastern Neo-Aramaic) are often called Sureth or Suret, from a native name. They are also sometimes called Assyrian or Chaldean, but these names are not accepted by all speakers. The dialects are not all mutually intelligible. East Syriac communities are usually members of either the Chaldean Catholic Church or Assyrian Church of the East.
The Jewish Modern Aramaic languages are now mostly spoken in Israel, and most are facing extinction (older speakers are not passing the language to younger generations). The Jewish dialects that have come from communities that once lived between Lake Urmia and Mosul are not all mutually intelligible. In some places, for example Urmia, Christians and Jews speak unintelligible dialects of Modern Eastern Aramaic in the same place. In others, the plain of Mosul for example, the dialects of the two faith communities are similar enough to allow conversation.
These vowel groups are relatively stable, but the exact articulation of any individual is most dependent on its consonantal setting.
The cardinal open vowel is an open near-front unrounded vowel ('short' a, somewhat like the first vowel in the English 'batter', a). It usually has a back counterpart ('long' a, like the a in 'father', [ɑ], or even tending to the vowel in 'caught', [ɔ]), and a front counterpart ('short' e, like the vowel in 'head', [ɛ]). There is much correspondence between these vowels between dialects. There is some evidence that Middle Babylonian dialects did not distinguish between the short a and short e. In West Syriac dialects, and possibly Middle Galilean, the long a became the o sound. The open e and back a are often indicated in writing by the use of the letters 'alaph' (a glottal stop) or 'he' (like the English h).
The cardinal close front vowel is the 'long' i (like the vowel in 'need', [i]). It has a slightly more open counterpart, the 'long' e, as in the final vowel of 'café' ([e]). Both of these have shorter counterparts, which tend to be pronounced slightly more open. Thus, the short close e corresponds with the open e in some dialects. The close front vowels usually use the consonant y as a mater lectionis.
The cardinal close back vowel is the 'long' u (like the vowel in 'school', [u]). It has a more open counterpart, the 'long' o, like the vowel in 'low' ([o]). There are shorter, and thus more open, counterparts to each of these, with the short close o sometimes corresponding with the long open a. The close back vowels often use the consonant w to indicate their quality.
Two basic diphthongs exist: an open vowel followed by y (ay), and an open vowel followed by w (aw). These were originally full diphthongs, but many dialects have converted them to e and o respectively.
The so-called 'emphatic' consonants (see the next section) cause all vowels to become mid-centralised.
Each member of a certain pair is written with the same letter of the alphabet in most writing systems (that is, p and f are written with the same letter), and are near allophones.
A distinguishing feature of Aramaic phonology (and that of Semitic languages in general) is the presence of 'emphatic' consonants. These are consonants that are pronounced with the root of the tongue retracted, with varying degrees of pharyngealization and velarisation. Using their alphabetic names, these emphatics are:
Ancient Aramaic may have had a larger series of emphatics. Not all dialects of Aramaic give these consonants their historic values.
Overlapping with the set of emphatics are the 'guttural' consonants. They include Ḥêṯ and ʽAyn from the emphatic set, and add ʼĀlap̄ (a glottal stop) and Hê (as the English 'h').
Aramaic classically has a set of four sibilants (Ancient Aramaic may have had six):
Aramaic has two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. Nouns can be either singular or plural, but an additional 'dual' number exists for nouns that usually come in pairs. The dual number gradually disappeared from Aramaic over time and has little influence in Middle and Modern Aramaic.
Aramaic nouns and adjectives can exist in one of three states; these states correspond in part to the role of cases in other languages. The 'absolute' state is the basic form of a noun (for example, kṯâḇâ, 'handwriting'). The 'construct' state is a truncated form of the noun used to make possessive phrases (for example, kṯāḇaṯ malkṯâ, 'the handwriting of the queen). The 'emphatic' or 'determined' state is an extended form of the noun that functions a bit like a definite article (which Aramaic lacks; for example, kṯāḇtâ, 'the handwriting'). In time, the construct state began to be replaced by other possessive phrases, and the emphatic state became the norm in most dialects. Most dialects of Modern Aramaic use only the emphatic state.
The various forms of possessive phrases (for 'the handwriting of the queen') are:
In Modern Aramaic, the last form is by far the most common. In Biblical Aramaic, the last form is virtually absent.
The Aramaic verb has six 'conjugations' or stems: alterations to the verbal root that can mark the passive voice (eṯkṯeḇ, 'it was written'), intensive (katteḇ, 'he decreed (in writing)'), the extensive (aḵteḇ, 'he composed') or a combination of these. Aramaic also has two proper tenses: the perfect and the imperfect. In Imperial Aramaic, the participle began to be used for a historic present. Perhaps under influence from other languages, Middle Aramaic developed a system of composite tenses (combinations of forms of the verb with pronouns or an auxiliary verb), allowing for narrative that is more vivid.
The syntax of Aramaic (the way sentences are put together) usually follows the order verb-subject-object (VSO). Imperial (Persian) Aramaic, however, tended to follow a S-O-V pattern (similar to Akkadian), which was the result of Persian syntactic influence.
The World's first Aramaic language word processing software was developed in 1986–1987 in Kuwait by a young information technology professional named Sunil Sivanand, who is now Managing Director and Chief Technology Architect at Acette. Sunil Sivanand did most of the character generation and programming work on a first generation twin disk drive IBM PC. The project was sponsored by Daniel Benjamin, who was a patron of a group of individuals working worldwide to preserve and revive the Aramaic language.
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