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 is believed to have been the language spoken by Jesus, and it is still spoken today as a first language by numerous small communities.
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 (including Hebrew).
During the twelfth century BCE, Aramaeans, the native speakers of Aramaic, began to settle in great numbers in modern-day Syria, Iraq and eastern Turkey. As the language grew in importance, it came to be spoken throughout the Mediterranean coastal area of the Levant, and spread east of the Tigris. Jewish settlers took the language with them into north Africa and Europe, and Christian missionaries brought Aramaic into Persia, India and even China. From the seventh century CE onwards, Aramaic was replaced as the lingua franca of the Middle East by Arabic. However, Aramaic remains a literary and liturgical language among Jews, Mandaeans and some Christians, and is still spoken by small isolated communities throughout its original area of influence. The turbulence of the last two centuries has seen speakers of first-language and literary Aramaic dispersed throughout the world.
Aramaic languages and dialects
Aramaic is really a group of related languages, rather than a single monolithic language. The long history of Aramaic, its extensive literature and its use by different religious communities are all factors in the diversification of the language. Some Aramaic dialects are mutually intelligible, whereas others are not. Some Aramaic languages are known under different names; for example, Syriac is particularly used to describe the Eastern Aramaic of Christian communities. Most dialects can be described as either "Eastern"' or "Western," the dividing line being roughly the Euphrates, or slightly west of it. It is also helpful to draw a distinction between those Aramaic languages that are modern living languages (often called Neo-Aramaic), those that are still in use as literary languages, and those that are extinct and are only of interest to scholars. Although there are some exceptions to this rule, this classification gives "Modern," "Middle" and "Old" periods, alongside "Eastern" and "Western" areas, to distinguish between the various languages and dialects that are Aramaic.
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).
A highly modified form of the Aramaic alphabet, the Mandaic alphabet, is used by the Mandaeans.
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.
ImageSize = width:320 height:700 PlotArea = right:40 top:10 left:40 bottom:10 DateFormat = yyyy TimeAxis = orientation:vertical order:reverse Period = from:-1200 till:2005 AlignBars = early ScaleMajor = unit:year increment:200 start:-1200 Colors =
BackgroundColors = canvas:canvas PlotData =
bar:test from:-1200 till:200 # Old Aramaic
bar:test from:200 till:1200 # Middle Aramaic
bar:test from:1200 till:2005 # Modern Aramaic
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 decrees 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,-8) 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 Mlahso & Bijil die
Here follows a comprehensive history of Aramaic. The history is broken down into three broad periods:
This classification is based on that used by Klaus Beyer*.
Old Aramaic covers over thirteen centuries of the language. This vast time span is chosen as it includes all Aramaic that is now effectively extinct. The main turning point for Old Aramaic is around 500 BCE, when the Ancient Aramaic (the language of Aramaeans) moves into Imperial Aramaic (the language of powerful empires). The various spoken dialects of Old Aramaic come to prominence when Greek replaces Aramaic as the language of power in the region.
Ancient Aramaic refers to the Aramaic of the Aramaeans from its origin until it becomes the official 'lingua franca' of the Fertile Crescent. It is the language of the city-states of Damascus, Hamath and Arpad.
Early Ancient Aramaic
There are quite extensive inscriptions that evidence the earliest use of the language, dating from the tenth century BCE. These inscriptions are mostly diplomatic documents between Aramaean city-states. The orthography of Aramaic at this early period seems to be based on Phoenician, and there is a unity in the written language. It seems that, in time, a more refined orthography, suited to the needs of the language, began to develop from this in the eastern regions of Aram. Oddly, the dominance of Assyrian Empire of Tiglath-Pileser III over Aram in the middle of the eighth century led to the establishment of Aramaic as a lingua franca.
Late Ancient Aramaic
From 700 BCE, the language began to spread in all directions, but lost much of its homogeneity. Different dialects began to emerge 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.
Around 500 BCE, Darius I made Aramaic the official language of the western half of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The bureaucrats in Babylon were already using the local dialect of Eastern Aramaic for most of their work, but Darius's edict put Aramaic on firm, united foundations. The new, 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. Imperial Aramaic is sometimes called Official Aramaic or Biblical Aramaic. For centuries after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire (in 331 BCE), Imperial Aramaic as prescribed by Darius, or near enough for it to be recognisable, remained the dominant language of the region.
'Achaemenid Aramaic' is used to describe the Imperial Aramaic of the Achaemenid Empire. This period of Aramaic is usually dated from the proclamation of Darius (c. 500 BCE) to about a century after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 331 BCE. Many of the extant documents witnessing to this form of Aramaic come from Egypt, and Elephantine in particular. Of them, the most well 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.
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. The Seleucids imposed Greek in the administration of Syria and Mesopotamia from the start of their rule. In the third century, Greek overtook Aramaic as the common language in Egypt and northern Palestine. However, a post-Achaemenid Aramaic continued to flourish from Judaea, through the Syrian Desert, and into Arabia and Parthia. This continuation of Imperial Aramaic was a subversive, anti-Hellenistic statement of independence.
Biblical Aramaic is the Aramaic found in four discrete sections of the Hebrew Bible:
Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 — documents from the Achaemenid period (fourth century BCE) concerning the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem.
Daniel 2:4b–7:28 — five subversive tales and an apocalyptic vision.
Jeremiah 10:11 — a single sentence in the middle of a Hebrew text denouncing idolatry.
Genesis 31:47 — translation of a Hebrew place-name.
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 never considered an authoritative work, and documentary evidence shows that its text was amended wherever and whenever 'improvement' was needed. 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.
Late Old Eastern Aramaic
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 Palestine 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.
Late Old Western Aramaic
The western regional dialects of Aramaic followed a similar course to those of the east. They are quite distinct from the eastern dialects and Imperial Aramaic. The Semitic languages of Palestine gave way to Aramaic during fourth century BCE; Phoenician, however, continued into the first century BCE.
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 language 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).
The spoken dialects of Jesus' time
- See the Aramaic of Jesus for more information.
Seven dialects of Western Aramaic were spoken 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', 'heth' and '`ayin' all became pronounced as 'aleph'. Galilean Aramaic, the language 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 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.
Besides these dialects of Aramaic, Greek was used extensively in urban centres. There is very little evidence for the use of Hebrew during this period. The various words in the Greek context of the New Testament that are untranslated are clearly Aramaic rather than Hebrew. From the little evidence there is, this Aramaic is not Galilean Aramaic but Old Judaean. This suggests that the words of Jesus were transmitted in the dialect of Judaea and Jerusalem rather than that of his hometown.
The 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is notable for its use of much dialogue in an Aramaic specially reconstructed by a lone scholar, William Fulco. However, modern Aramaic speakers found the language stilted and unfamiliar.
The third century CE is taken as the threshold between Old and Middle Aramaic. During that century, the nature of the various Aramaic languages and dialects begins to change. The descendents of Imperial Aramaic ceased to be living languages, and the eastern and western regional languages began to form vital, new literatures. Unlike many of the dialects of Old Aramaic, much is known about the vocabulary and grammar of Middle Aramaic.
Eastern Middle Aramaic
Only two of the Old Eastern Aramaic languages continued into this period. In the north of the region, Old Syriac moved into Middle Syriac. In the south, Jewish Old Babylonian became Jewish Middle Babylonian. The post-Achaemenid, Arsacid dialect became the background of the new Mandaic language.
- See Syriac language for more information.
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.
Jewish Middle Babylonian Aramaic
Jewish Middle Babylonian is the language of the Babylonian Talmud (which was completed in the seventh century). Although it is the main language of the Talmud, in its setting, many works in (reconstructed) Hebrew and earlier dialects of Aramaic are carefully marshalled. Jewish Middle Babylonian is also the language behind the Babylonian system of pointing (marking of vowels in an otherwise mainly consonantal text) of the Hebrew Bible and its Targum.
- See Mandaic language for more information.
Mandaic is essentially the same language as Middle Babylonian in a different script. The earliest Mandaean literature is in Arsacid Aramaic. From 224 CE, Mandaean writings were increasingly put in the more colloquial Middle Babylonian, or Mandaic.
Western Middle Aramaic
The dialects of Old Western Aramaic continued with Jewish Middle Palestinian (in Hebrew 'square script'), Samaritan Aramaic (in the old Hebrew script) and Christian Palestinian (in cursive Syriac script). Of these three, only Jewish Middle Palestinian continued as a written language.
Jewish Middle Palestinian Aramaic
In 135, after Bar Kokhba's revolt, many Jewish leaders, expelled from Jerusalem, moved to Galilee. The Galilean dialect thus rose from obscurity to become the standard among Jews in the west. This dialect was spoken not only in Galilee, but also in the surrounding parts. It is the linguistic setting for the Palestinian Talmud (completed in the fifth century) and midrashim (biblical commentaries and teaching). The modern standard of vowel pointing for the Hebrew Bible, the Tiberian system (tenth century), was most probably based on the pronunciation of the Galilean dialect of Jewish Middle Palestinian. The inscription in the synagogue at Dura-Europos are either in Middle East Jordanian or Middle Judaean.
Middle Judaean, the descendent 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 Aramaic dialect of the Samaritan community is earliest attested by a documentary tradition that can be dated back to the fourth century. Its modern pronunciation is based on the form used in the tenth century.
Christian Palestinian Aramaic
The language of Western-Aramaic-speaking Christians is evidenced from the sixth century, but probably existed two centuries earlier. The language itself comes from Christian Old Palestinian, but its writing conventions were based on early Middle Syriac, and it was heavily influenced by Greek. The name Jesus, although YešŻ` in Aramaic, is written YesŻs in Christian Palestinian.
Over four hundred thousand people speak Aramaic to this day. They are Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Mandaeans, living in remote areas and preserving their traditions with printing presses, and now electronic media. The Modern Aramaic (or 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 lead to a worldwide diaspora of Aramaic speakers. The year 1915 is especially prominent for Aramaic-speaking Christians: called Shaypā, or the Sword, many Christian groups living in eastern Turkey were the subject of the persecutions that marked the end of the Ottoman Empire. For Aramaic-speaking Jews 1950 is a watershed year: the newly founded state of Israel led most Aramaic-speaking Jews to emigrate there. However, removal to Israel has led to Jewish Neo-Aramaic being swamped in a sea of Modern Hebrew, and the practical extinction of many Jewish dialects is imminent.
Modern Eastern Aramaic
Modern Eastern Aramaic exists in a wide variety of dialects and languages. There is significant difference between the Aramaic spoken by Jews, Christians and Mandaeans.
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, Mlahsö, 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 either Chaldean Catholics or Assyrians.
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.
A few Mandaeans living in the province of Khuzestan in Iran speak Modern Mandaic. It is quite distinct from any other Aramaic dialect.
Modern Western Aramaic
- For more information see Western Neo-Aramaic.
Very little remains of Western Aramaic. It is still spoken in the Christian village of Ma`loula in Syria and the Muslim villages of Bakh`a and Jubb`adin in Syria's Anti-Lebanon, as well as by some people who migrated from these villages to Damascus and other larger towns of Syria. All these speakers of Modern Western Aramaic are fluent in Arabic, which has now become the main language in these villages.
Each dialect of Aramaic has its own distinctive pronunciation, and it would not be possible here to go into all these properties. Aramaic has a phonological palette of 25 to 40 distinct phonemes. In general, older dialects tended to have a richer phonology than more modern ones. In particular, some modern Jewish Aramaic pronunciations lack the series of 'emphatic' consonants. Other dialects have borrowed from the inventories of surrounding languages, particularly Arabic, Azeri, Kurdish, Persian and Turkish.
As with most Semitic languages, Aramaic can be thought of as having three basic sets of vowels:
- Open a-vowels
- Close front i-vowels
- Close back u-vowels
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, like the first vowel in the English 'batter', IPA: ). It usually has a back counterpart ('long' a, like the a in 'father', IPA: /ɑ/, or even tending to the vowel in 'caught', IPA: /ɔ/), and a front counterpart ('short' e, like the vowel in 'head', IPA: /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', IPA: /i/). It has a slightly more open counterpart, the 'long' e, as in the final vowel of 'cafť' (IPA: /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', IPA: /u/). It has a more open counterpart, the 'long' o, like the vowel in 'low' (IPA: /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.
The various alphabets used for writing Aramaic languages have twenty-two letters (all of which are consonants). Some of these letters, though, can stand for two or three different sounds (usually a plosive and a fricative at the same point of articulation). Aramaic classically uses a series of lightly contrasted plosives and fricatives:
- Labial set: p/f and b/v,
- Dental set: t/θ and d/ð,
- Velar set: k/x and g/ɣ.
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:
- 'Heth', a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, IPA: /ħ/ (like the sound made breathing on glass),
- 'Teth', a pharyngealized t, IPA: /tˁ/,
- 'Ayn', a pharyngealized glottal stop (sometimes considered to be a voiced pharyngeal fricative), IPA: /ʕ/ or /ʔˁ,
- 'Sadhe', a pharyngealized s, IPA: /sˁ/,
- 'Qoph', an uvular k (a voiceless uvular plosive), IPA: /q/.
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 'heth' and 'ayn' from the emphatic set, and add 'alaph' (a glottal stop) and 'he' (as the English 'h').
Aramaic classically has a set of four sibilants (Ancient Aramaic may have had six):
- /s/ (as in English 'sea'),
- /z/ (as in English 'zero'),
- /ʃ/ (as in English 'ship'),
- /sˁ/ (the emphatic 'sadhe' listed above).
In addition to these sets, Aramaic has the nasal consonants m and n, and the approximants r (usually an alveolar trill), l, y and w.
Historical sound changes
Six broad features of sound change can be seen as dialect differentials:
- Vowel change — This occurs almost too frequently to document fully, but is a major distinctive feature of different dialects.
- Plosive/fricative pair reduction — Originally, Aramaic, like Tiberian Hebrew, had fricatives as conditioned allophones for each plosive. In the wake of vowel changes, the distinction eventually became phonemic; still later, it was often lost in certain dialects. For example, Turoyo has mostly lost /p/, using /f/ instead; other dialects (for instance, standard Assyrian Neo-Aramaic) have lost /θ/ and /ð/ and replaced them with /t/ and /d/. In most dialects of Modern Syriac, /f/ and /v/ become /w/ after a vowel.
- Loss of emphatics — Some dialects have replaced emphatic consonants with non-emphatic counterparts, while those spoken in the Caucasus often have glottalized rather than pharyngealized emphatics.
- Guttural assimilation — This is the main feature of Samaritan pronunciation, also found in Samaritan Hebrew: all the gutturals are reduced to a simple glottal stop. Some Modern Aramaic dialects do not pronounce h in all words (the third person masculine pronoun 'hu' becomes 'ow').
- Proto-Semitic */θ/ */ð/ are reflected in Aramaic as */t/, */d/, whereas they become sibilants in Hebrew (the number three in Hebrew is 'shalosh', but 'tlath' in Aramaic). Dental/sibilant shifts are still happening in the modern dialects.
- New phonetic inventory — Modern dialects have borrowed sounds from the surrounding, dominant languages. The usual inventory is /ʒ/ (as the first consonant in 'azure'), /ʤ/ (as in 'jam') and /ʧ/ (as in 'church'). The Syriac alphabet has been adapted for writing these new sounds.
As with other Semitic languages, Aramaic morphology (the way words are put together) is based on the triliteral root. The root consists of three consonants and has a basic meaning, for example, k-t-b has the meaning of 'writing'. This is then modified by the addition of vowels and other consonants to create different nuances of the basic meaning:
- Kth‚v‚, handwriting, inscription, script, book.
- Kth‚vÍ, the Scriptures.
- K‚thŻv‚, secretary, scribe.
- Kth‚veth, I wrote.
- EkhtŻv, I shall write.
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, kth‚v‚, 'handwriting'). The 'construct' state is a truncated form of the noun used to make possessive phrases (for example, kth‚vath malkth‚, '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, kth‚vt‚, '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:
- Kth‚vath malkth‚ — The oldest construction: the possessed object is in the construct state.
- Kth‚vt‚ d(Ó)-malkth‚ — Both words are in the emphatic state and the relative particle d(Ó)- is used to mark the relationship.
- Kth‚vt‚h d(Ó)-malkth‚ — Both words are in the emphatic state, and the relative particle is used, but the possessed is given an anticipatory, pronominal ending (literally, 'her writing, that (of) the queen').
In Modern Aramaic, the last form is by far the most common. In Biblical Aramaic, the last form is virtually absent.
The Aramaic verb knows six 'conjugations': alterations to the verbal root than can imply the passive voice (ethkthev, 'it was written'), intensive (kattev, 'he decreed (in writing)') and the extensive (akhtev, 'he composed'). 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).
Modern Aramaic languages
- Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic language: its distribution and subdivisions. GŲttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53573-2.
- Casey, Maurice (1998). Aramaic sources of Mark's Gospel. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-633141-1.
- Frank, Yitzchak (2003). Grammar for Gemara & Targum Onkelos (expanded edition). Feldheim Publishers / Ariel Institute. ISBN 1-58330-606-4.
- Heinrichs, Wolfhart (ed.) (1990). Studies in Neo-Aramaic. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press. ISBN 1-55540-430-8.
- Rosenthal, Franz (1961). A grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
- Stevenson, William B. (1962). Grammar of Palestinian Jewish Aramaic (2nd ed.). Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-815419-4.
Last updated: 10-25-2005 10:57:26