Aramaic (Classical Syriac: ܐܪܡܝܐ Arāmāyā; Old Aramaic: 𐤀𐤓𐤌𐤉𐤀; Imperial Aramaic: 𐡀𐡓𐡌𐡉𐡀; square script אַרָמָיָא) is a Semitic language that originated among the Arameans in the ancient region of Syria. During its three thousand year long history, Aramaic went through several stages of development. It has served as a language of public life and administration of ancient kingdoms and empires and also as a language of divine worship and religious study. It subsequently branched into several Neo-Aramaic languages that are still spoken in modern times.
The Aramaic language belongs to the Northwest group of the Semitic language family, which also includes the Canaanite languages, such as Hebrew, Edomite, Moabite, and Phoenician, as well as Amorite and Ugaritic. Aramaic languages are written in the Aramaic alphabet, which was derived from the Phoenician alphabet. One of the most prominent variants of the Aramaic alphabet, still used in modern times, is the Syriac alphabet. The Aramaic alphabet also became a base for the creation and adaptation of specific writing systems in some other Semitic languages, thus becoming the precursor of the Hebrew alphabet and the Arabic alphabet.
Historically and originally, Aramaic was the language of the Arameans, a Semitic-speaking people of the region between the northern Levant and the northern Tigris valley. By around 1000 BC, the Arameans had a string of kingdoms in what is now part of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the fringes of southern Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Aramaic rose to prominence under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC), under whose influence Aramaic became a prestige language after being adopted as a lingua franca of the empire, and its use spread throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant and parts of Asia Minor. At its height, Aramaic, having gradually replaced earlier Semitic languages, was spoken in several variants all over what is today Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Eastern Arabia, Bahrain, Sinai, parts of southeast and south central Turkey, and parts of northwest Iran.
Aramaic was the language of Jesus, who spoke the Galilean dialect during his public ministry, as well as the language of several sections of the Hebrew Bible, including parts of the books of Daniel and Ezra, and also the language of the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible.
The scribes of the Neo-Assyrian bureaucracy had also used Aramaic, and this practice was subsequently inherited by the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire (605–539 BC), and later by the Achaemenid Empire (539–330 BC). Mediated by scribes that had been trained in the language, highly standardized written Aramaic (named by scholars as Imperial Aramaic) progressively also become the lingua franca of public life, trade and commerce throughout the Achaemenid territories. Wide use of written Aramaic subsequently led to the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet and (as logograms) some Aramaic vocabulary in the Pahlavi scripts, which were used by several Middle Iranian languages (including Parthian, Middle Persian, Sogdian, and Khwarazmian).
Some variants of Aramaic are also retained as sacred languages by certain religious communities. Most notable among them is Classical Syriac, the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity. It is used by several communities, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, and also the Saint Thomas Christians (Native Christians) and Syrian Christians (K[Q]naya) of Kerala, India. One of Aramaic liturgical dialects was Mandaic, which besides becoming a vernacular (Neo-Mandaic) also remained the liturgical language of Mandaeism. Syriac was also the liturgical language of several now-extinct gnostic faiths, such as Manichaeism. Neo-Aramaic languages are still spoken today as a first language by many communities of Syriac Christians, Jews (in particular, the Jews of Kurdistan), and Mandaeans of the Near East, most numerously by Christian Syriacs (Syriac-speakers: ethnic Arameans, Assyrians and Chaldeans), and with numbers of fluent speakers ranging approximately from 1 million to 2 million, with the main languages among Assyrians being Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (590,000 speakers), Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (240,000 speakers) and Turoyo (100,000 speakers); in addition to Western Neo-Aramaic (21,700) which persists in only three villages in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains region in western Syria. They have retained use of the once dominant lingua franca despite subsequent language shifts experienced throughout the Middle East. However, the Aramaic languages are now considered endangered, since several dialects are used mainly by the older generations, and therefore could go extinct in the near future. However, researchers are working to record and analyze all of the remaining dialects of Neo-Aramaic languages before they are extinguished as spoken languages. Royal Aramaic inscriptions from the Aramean city-states date from 10th century BC, making Aramaic one of the world's oldest recorded living languages.
In historical sources, Aramaic language is designated by two distinctive groups of terms, first of them represented by endonymic (native) names, and the other one represented by various exonymic (foreign in origin) names.
Native (endonymic) terms for Aramaic language were derived from the same word root as the name of its original speakers, the ancient Arameans. Endonymic forms were also adopted in some other languages, like ancient Hebrew. In the Torah (Hebrew Bible), "Aram" is used as a proper name of several people including descendants of Shem, Nahor, and Jacob.
Unlike in Hebrew, designations for Aramaic language in some other ancient languages were mostly exonymic. In ancient Greek, Aramaic language was most commonly known as the “Syrian language”, in relation to the native (non-Greek) inhabitants of the historical region of Syria. Since the name of Syria itself emerged as a variant of Assyria, the biblical Ashur, and Akkadian Ashuru, a complex set of semantic phenomena was created, becoming a subject of interest both among ancient writers and modern scholars.
Josephus and Strabo (the latter citing Posidonius) both stated that the “Syrians” called themselves “Arameans”. The Septuagint, the earliest extant full copy of the Hebrew Bible, a Greek translation, used the terms Syria and Syrian where the Masoretic Text, the earliest extant Hebrew copy of the Bible, uses the terms Aramean and Aramaic; numerous later bibles followed the Septuagint's usage, including the King James Version.
The connection between Chaldean, Syriac, and Samaritan as "Aramaic" was first identified in 1679 by German theologian Johann Wilhelm Hilliger. The connection between the names Syrian and Aramaic was made in 1835 by Étienne Marc Quatremère. Ancient Aram, bordering northern Israel and what is now called Syria, is considered the linguistic center of Aramaic, the language of the Arameans who settled the area during the Bronze Age c. 3500 BC. The language is often mistakenly considered to have originated within Assyria (Iraq). In fact, Arameans carried their language and writing into Mesopotamia by voluntary migration, by forced exile of conquering armies, and by nomadic Chaldean invasions of Babylonia during the period from 1200 to 1000 BC.
The Christian New Testament uses the Koine Greek phrase Ἑβραϊστί Hebraïstí to denote "Aramaic", as Aramaic was at that time the language commonly spoken by the Jews. The Hellenized Jewish community of Alexandria instead translated "Aramaic" to "the Syrian tongue".
During the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, Arameans, the native speakers of Aramaic, began to settle in greater numbers, at first in Babylonia, and later in Assyria (Upper Mesopotamia, modern-day northern Iraq, northeast Syria, northwest Iran, and south eastern Turkey (what was Armenia at the time). The influx eventually resulted in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC) adopting an Akkadian-influenced Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca of its empire. This policy was continued by the short-lived Neo-Babylonian Empire and Medes, and all three empires became operationally bilingual in written sources, with Aramaic used alongside Akkadian. The Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC) continued this tradition, and the extensive influence of these empires led to Aramaic gradually becoming the lingua franca of most of western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Egypt.
Beginning with the rise of the Rashidun Caliphate in the late 7th century, Arabic gradually replaced Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Near East. However, Aramaic remains a spoken, literary, and liturgical language for local Christians and also some Jews. Aramaic also continues to be spoken by the Assyrians of Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwest Iran, with diaspora communities in Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and southern Russia. The Mandaeans also continue to use Mandaic Aramaic as a liturgical language, although most now speak Arabic as their first language. There are still also a small number of first-language speakers of Western Aramaic varieties in isolated villages in western Syria.
The turbulence of the last two centuries (particularly the Assyrian genocide) has seen speakers of first-language and literary Aramaic dispersed throughout the world. However, there are a number of sizable Assyrian towns in northern Iraq such as Alqosh, Bakhdida, Bartella, Tesqopa, and Tel Keppe, and numerous small villages, where Aramaic is still the main spoken language, and many large cities in this region also have Assyrian Aramaic-speaking communities, particularly Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, Dohuk, and al-Hasakah. In Modern Israel, the only native Aramaic speaking population are the Jews of Kurdistan, although the language is dying out. However, Aramaic is also experiencing a revival among Maronites in Israel in Jish.
Aramaic is often spoken of as a single language, but is in reality a group of related languages. Some Aramaic languages differ more from each other than the Romance languages do among themselves. Its long history, extensive literature, and use by different religious communities are all factors in the diversification of the language. Some Aramaic dialects are mutually intelligible, whereas others are not, not unlike the situation with modern varieties of Arabic. Some Aramaic languages are known under different names; for example, Syriac is particularly used to describe the Eastern Aramaic variety used in Christian ethnic communities in Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and northwestern Iran, and Saint Thomas Christians in India. 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 alphabet. 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. 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: the Nabataean alphabet in Petra and the Palmyrene alphabet in Palmyra. In modern times, Turoyo (see below) has sometimes been written in a Latin script.
Periodization of historical development of Aramaic language has been the subject of particular interest for scholars, who proposed several types of periodization, based on linguistic, chronological and territorial criteria. Overlapping terminology, used in different periodizations, led to the creation of several polysemic terms, that are used differently among scholars. Terms like: Old Aramaic, Ancient Aramaic, Early Aramaic, Middle Aramaic, Late Aramaic (and some others, like Paleo-Aramaic), were used in various meanings, thus referring (in scope or substance) to different stages in historical development of Aramaic language.
Most commonly used types of periodization are those of Klaus Beyer and Joseph Fitzmyer.
Aramaic's long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties, which are sometimes considered dialects, though they have become distinct enough over time that they are now sometimes considered separate languages. Therefore, there is not one singular, static Aramaic language; each time and place rather has had its own variation. The more widely spoken Eastern Aramaic and Mandaic forms are today largely restricted to Assyrian Christian and Mandean gnostic communities in Iraq, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey, whilst the severely endangered Western Neo-Aramaic is spoken by small communities of Arameans in western Syria, and persisted in Mount Lebanon until as late as the 17th century. The term "Old Aramaic" is used to describe the varieties of the language from its first known use, until the point roughly marked by the rise of the Sasanian Empire (224 AD), dominating the influential, eastern dialect region. As such, the term covers over thirteen centuries of the development of Aramaic. This vast time span includes all Aramaic that is now effectively extinct. Regarding the earliest forms, Beyer suggests that written Aramaic probably dates from the 11th century BCE, as it is established by the 10th century, to which he dates the oldest inscriptions of northern Syria. Heinrichs uses the less controversial date of the 9th century, for which there is clear and widespread attestation.
The central phase in the development of Old Aramaic was its official use by the Achaemenid Empire (500–330 BC). The period before this, dubbed "Ancient Aramaic", saw the development of the language from being spoken in Aramaean city-states to become a major means of communication in diplomacy and trade throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt. After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, local vernaculars became increasingly prominent, fanning the divergence of an Aramaic dialect continuum and the development of differing written standards.
"Ancient Aramaic" refers to the earliest known period of the language, from its origin until it becomes the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent. It was the language of the Aramean city-states of Damascus, Hamath and Arpad.
There are inscriptions that evidence the earliest use of the language, dating from the 10th century BC. These inscriptions are mostly diplomatic documents between Aramaean city-states. The alphabet of Aramaic at this early period seems to be based on the Phoenician alphabet, and there is a unity in the written language. It seems that, in time, a more refined alphabet, suited to the needs of the language, began to develop from this in the eastern regions of Aram. Due to increasing Aramean migration eastward, the Western periphery of Assyria became bilingual in Akkadian and Aramean at least as early as the mid-9th century BC. As the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered Aramean lands west of the Euphrates, Tiglath-Pileser III made Aramaic the Empire's second official language, and it eventually supplanted Akkadian completely.
From 700 BC, the language began to spread in all directions, but lost much of its unity. Different dialects emerged in Assyria, Babylonia, the Levant and Egypt. Around 600 BC, Adon, a Canaanite king, used Aramaic to write to an Egyptian Pharaoh.
Around 500 BC, following the Achaemenid (Persian) conquest of Mesopotamia under Darius I, Aramaic (as had been used in that region) was adopted by the conquerors as the "vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. The use of a single official language, which modern scholarship has dubbed Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic, can be assumed to have greatly contributed to the astonishing success of the Achaemenids in holding their far-flung empire together for as long as they did". In 1955, Richard Frye questioned the classification of Imperial Aramaic as an "official language", noting that no surviving edict expressly and unambiguously accorded that status to any particular language. Frye reclassifies Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Achaemenid territories, suggesting then that the Achaemenid-era use of Aramaic was more pervasive than generally thought.
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 330 BC), Imperial Aramaic – or a version thereof 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 scripts.
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 (see Elephantine papyri). Of them, the best known is the Story of Ahikar, a book of instructive aphorisms quite similar in style to the biblical Book of Proverbs. In addition, current consensus regards the Aramaic portion of the Biblical book of Daniel (i.e., 2:4b–7:28) as an example of Imperial (Official) Aramaic.
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 discovered, and an analysis was published in November 2006. The texts, which were rendered on leather, reflect the use of Aramaic in the 4th century BC Achaemenid administration of Bactria and Sogdia.
Biblical Aramaic is a somewhat hybrid dialect. It is theorized that some Biblical Aramaic material originated in both Babylonia and Judaea before the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty.
Biblical Aramaic presented various challenges for writers who were engaged in early Biblical studies. Since the time of Jerome of Stridon (d. 420), Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible was misnamed as "Chaldean" (Chaldaic, Chaldee). That label remained common in early Aramaic studies, and persisted up into the nineteenth century. The "Chaldean misnomer" was eventually abandoned, when modern scholarly analyses showed that Aramaic dialect used in Hebrew Bible was not related to ancient Chaldeans and their language.
The fall of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 334–330 BC), and its replacement with the newly created political order, imposed by Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) and his Hellenistic successors, marked an important turning point in the history of Aramaic language. During the early stages of the post-Achaemenid era, public use of Aramaic language was continued, but shared with the newly introduced Greek language. By the year 300 BC, all of the main Aramaic-speaking regions came under political rule of the newly created Seleucid Empire that promoted Hellenistic culture, and favored Greek language as the main language of public life and administration. During the 3rd century BCE, Greek overtook Aramaic in many spheres of public communication, particularly in highly Hellenized cities throughout the Seleucid domains. However, Aramaic continued to be used, in its post-Achaemenid form, among upper and literate classes of native Aramaic-speaking communities, and also by local authorities (along with the newly introduced Greek). Post-Achaemenid Aramaic, that bears a relatively close resemblance to that of the Achaemenid period, continued to be used up to the 2nd century BCE.
By the end of the 2nd century BC, several variants of Post-Achaemenid Aramaic emerged, bearing regional characteristics. One of them was Hasmonaean Aramaic, the official administrative language of Hasmonaean Judaea (142–37 BC), alongside Hebrew which was the language preferred in religious and some other public uses (coinage). 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 Aramaic. It 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 targums had reached Babylon sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. 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 targums reached Galilee in the 2nd century AD, 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 11th century AD 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 3rd century AD onwards. It is the dialect of Babylonian private documents, and, from the 12th century, all Jewish private documents are in Aramaic. It is based on Hasmonaean with very few changes. This was perhaps because 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 was the written language of the Arab kingdom of Nabataea, whose capital was Petra. The kingdom (c. 200 BC – 106 AD) controlled the region to the east of the Jordan River, the Negev, the Sinai Peninsula and the northern Hijaz, and supported a wide-ranging trade network. The Nabataeans used imperial Aramaic for written communications, rather than their native Arabic. Nabataean Aramaic developed from Imperial Aramaic, with some influence from Arabic: "l" is often turned into "n", and there are some Arabic loanwords. Arabic influence on Nabataean Aramaic increased over time. Some Nabataean Aramaic inscriptions date from the early days of the kingdom, but most datable inscriptions are from the first four centuries AD. The language is written in a cursive script which was the precursor to the Arabic alphabet. After annexation by the Romans in 106 AD, most of Nabataea was subsumed into the province of Arabia Petraea, the Nabataeans turned to Greek for written communications, and the use of Aramaic declined.
Palmyrene Aramaic is the dialect that was in use in the Syriac city state of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert from 44 BC to 274 AD. It was written in a rounded script, which later gave way to cursive Estrangela. Like Nabataean, Palmyrene was influenced by Arabic, but to a much lesser degree.
The use of written Aramaic in the Achaemenid bureaucracy also precipitated the adoption of Aramaic(-derived) scripts to render a number of Middle Iranian languages. Moreover, many common words, including even pronouns, particles, numerals, and auxiliaries, continued to written as Aramaic "words" even when writing Middle Iranian languages. In time, in Iranian usage, these Aramaic "words" became disassociated from the Aramaic language and came to be understood as signs (i.e. logograms), much like the symbol '&' is read as "and" in English and the original Latin et is now no longer obvious. Under the early 3rd-century BC Parthians Arsacids, whose government used Greek but whose native language was Parthian, the Parthian language and its Aramaic-derived writing system both gained prestige. This in turn also led to the adoption of the name 'pahlavi' (< parthawi, "of the Parthians") for that writing system. The Persian Sassanids, who succeeded the Parthian Arsacids in the mid-3rd century AD, subsequently inherited/adopted the Parthian-mediated Aramaic-derived writing system for their own Middle Iranian ethnolect as well. That particular Middle Iranian dialect, Middle Persian, i.e. the language of Persia proper, subsequently also became a prestige language. Following the conquest of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the 7th-century, the Aramaic-derived writing system was replaced by Arabic script in all but Zoroastrian usage, which continued to use the name 'pahlavi' for the Aramaic-derived writing system and went on to create the bulk of all Middle Iranian literature in that writing system.
The dialects mentioned in the previous section were all descended from Achaemenid Aramaic. However, some other regional dialects also continued to exist alongside these, often as simple, spoken variants of Aramaic. Early evidence for these vernacular dialects is known only through their influence on words and names in a more standard dialect. However, some of those regional dialects became written languages by the 2nd century BC. These dialects reflect a stream of Aramaic that is not directly dependent on Achaemenid Aramaic, and they also show a clear linguistic diversity between eastern and western regions.
In the eastern regions (from Mesopotamia to Persia), dialects like Palmyrene Aramaic and Arsacid Aramaic gradually merged with the regional vernacular dialects, thus creating languages with a foot in Achaemenid and a foot in regional Aramaic.
In the Kingdom of Osroene, founded in 132 BCE and centred in Edessa (Urhay), the regional dialect became the official language: Edessan Aramaic (Urhaya), that later came to be known as Classical Syriac. On the upper reaches of the Tigris, East Mesopotamian Aramaic flourished, with evidence from the regions of Hatra (Hatran Aramaic) and Assur (Assurian Aramaic).
Tatian, the author of the gospel harmony the Diatessaron came from Assyria, and perhaps wrote his work (172 AD) 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 AD). This everyday language increasingly came under the influence of Biblical Aramaic and Babylonian Targumic.
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. Aramaic came to coexist with Canaanite dialects, eventually completely displacing Phoenician in the first century BC and Hebrew around the turn of the fourth century AD.
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 the Book of Enoch (c. 170 BC). The next distinct phase of the language is called Old Judaean lasting into the second century AD. Old Judean 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 The Jewish War was written in Old Judean.
The Old East Jordanian dialect continued to be used into the first century AD 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).
It is generally believed by Christian scholars that in the first century, Jews in Judea primarily spoke Aramaic with a decreasing number using Hebrew as their first language, though many learned Hebrew as a liturgical language. Additionally, Koine Greek was the lingua franca of the Near East in trade, among the Hellenized classes (much like French in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in Europe), and in the Roman administration. Latin, the language of the Roman army and higher levels of administration, had almost no impact on the linguistic landscape.
In addition to the formal, literary dialects of Aramaic based on Hasmonean and Babylonian, there were a number of colloquial Aramaic dialects. Seven Western Aramaic varieties were spoken in the vicinity of Judea in Jesus' time. They were probably distinctive yet mutually intelligible. Old Judean was the prominent dialect of Jerusalem and Judaea. The region of Ein Gedi spoke the Southeast Judaean dialect. Samaria had its distinctive Samaritan Aramaic, where the consonants "he", "heth" 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 Anti-Lebanon Mountains, 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, especially Hebrew and Aramaic, influenced one another through loanwords and semantic loans. Hebrew words entered Jewish Aramaic. Most were mostly technical religious words, but a few were everyday words like עץ ʿēṣ "wood". Conversely, Aramaic words, such as māmmôn "wealth", were borrowed into Hebrew, and Hebrew words acquired additional senses from Aramaic. For instance, Hebrew ראוי rā’ûi "seen" borrowed the sense "worthy, seemly" from the Aramaic ḥzî meaning "seen" and "worthy".
The Greek of the New Testament preserves some semiticisms, including transliterations of Semitic words. Some are Aramaic, like talitha (ταλιθα), which represents the noun טליתא ṭalīṯā, and others may be either Hebrew or Aramaic like רבוני Rabbounei (Ραββουνει), which means "my master/great one/teacher" in both languages. Other examples:
The 2004 film The Passion of the Christ used Aramaic for much of its dialogue, specially reconstructed by a scholar, William Fulco, S.J. Where the appropriate words (in first-century Aramaic) were no longer known, he used the Aramaic of Daniel and fourth-century Syriac and Hebrew as the basis for his work.
The 3rd century AD is taken as the threshold between Old and Middle Aramaic. During that century, the nature of the various Aramaic languages and dialects began to change. The descendants of Imperial Aramaic ceased to be living languages, and the eastern and western regional languages began to develop vital new literatures. Unlike many of the dialects of Old Aramaic, much is known about the vocabulary and grammar of Middle Aramaic.
Only two of the Old Eastern Aramaic languages continued into this period. In the north of the region, Old Syriac transitioned 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.
Syriac Aramaic (also "Classical Syriac") is the literary, liturgical and often spoken language of Syriac Christianity. It originated by the first century AD in the region of Osroene, centered in Edessa, but its golden age was the fourth to eight 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. Classical Syriac became the language of the Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Missionary activity led to the spread of Syriac from Mesopotamia and Persia, into Central Asia, India and China.
Jewish Middle Babylonian is the language employed by Jewish writers in Babylonia between the fourth and the eleventh century. It is most commonly identified with the language of the Babylonian Talmud (which was completed in the seventh century) and of post-Talmudic Geonic literature, which are the most important cultural products of Babylonian Judaism. The most important epigraphic sources for the dialect are the hundreds of incantation bowls written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.
The Mandaic language, spoken by the Mandaeans of Iraq, is a sister dialect to Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, though it is both linguistically and culturally distinct. Classical Mandaic is the language in which the Mandaeans' gnostic religious literature was composed. It is characterized by a highly phonetic orthography.
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.[clarification needed]
The Samaritan Aramaic is earliest attested by the documentary tradition of the Samaritans that can be dated back to the fourth century. Its modern pronunciation is based on the form used in the tenth century.
In 135, after the Bar Kokhba 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 Jerusalem Talmud (completed in the 5th century), Palestinian targumim (Jewish Aramaic versions of scripture), and midrashim (biblical commentaries and teaching). The standard vowel pointing for the Hebrew Bible, the Tiberian system (7th century), was developed by speakers of the Galilean dialect of Jewish Middle Palestinian. Classical Hebrew vocalisation, therefore, in representing the Hebrew of this period, probably reflects the contemporary pronunciation of this Aramaic dialect.
Middle Judaean Aramaic, the descendant of Old Judaean Aramaic, was no longer the dominant dialect, and was used only in southern Judaea (the variant Engedi dialect continued throughout this period). Likewise, Middle East Jordanian Aramaic continued as a minor dialect from Old East Jordanian Aramaic. The inscriptions in the synagogue at Dura-Europos are either in Middle East Jordanian or Middle Judaean.
This was the language of the Christian Melkite (Chalcedonian) community from the 5th to the 8th century. As a liturgical language, it was used up to the 13th century. It is also been called "Melkite Aramaic" and "Palestinian Syriac". The language itself comes from Old Christian Palestinian Aramaic, but its writing conventions were based on early Middle Syriac, and it was heavily influenced by Greek. For example, the name Jesus, although ישוע Yešua’ in Jewish Aramaic, and Išo in Syriac, is written Yesûs (a transliteration of the Greek form) in Christian Palestinian.
As the Western Aramaic languages of the Levant and Lebanon have become nearly extinct in non-liturgical usage, the most prolific speakers of Aramaic dialects today are predominantly ethnic Assyrian Eastern Neo-Aramaic speakers, the most numerous being the Northeastern Neo-Aramaic speakers of Mesopotamia. This includes speakers of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (235,000 speakers), Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (216,000 speakers), and Turoyo (Surayt) (112,000 to 450,000 speakers). Having largely lived in remote areas as insulated communities for over a millennium, the remaining speakers of modern Aramaic dialects, such as the Assyrians, and the Arameans, escaped the linguistic pressures experienced by others during the large-scale language shifts that saw the proliferation of other tongues among those who previously did not speak them, most recently the Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa by Arabs beginning with the early Muslim conquests of the seventh century.
Modern Eastern Aramaic exists in a wide variety of dialects and languages. There is significant difference between the Aramaic spoken by Christians, Jews, and Mandaeans.
The Christian varieties are often called Modern Syriac (or Neo-Syriac, particularly when referring to their literature), being deeply influenced by the old literary and liturgical language, the Classical Syriac. However, they also have roots in numerous, previously unwritten, local Aramaic varieties, and are not purely the direct descendants of the language of Ephrem the Syrian. The varieties are not all mutually intelligible. The principal Christian varieties are Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, both belonging to the group of Northeastern Neo-Aramaic languages.
The Judeo-Aramaic languages are now mostly spoken in Israel, and most are facing extinction. The Jewish varieties that have come from communities that once lived between Lake Urmia and Mosul are not all mutually intelligible. In some places, for example Urmia, Assyrian Christians and Jews speak mutually unintelligible varieties of Modern Eastern Aramaic in the same place. In others, the Nineveh Plains around Mosul for example, the varieties of these two ethnic communities are similar enough to allow conversation.
Modern Central Neo-Aramaic, being in between Western Neo-Aramaic and Eastern Neo-Aramaic) is generally represented by Turoyo, the language of the Assyrians of Tur Abdin. A related language, Mlahsô, has recently become extinct.
Mandaeans living in the Khuzestan Province of Iran and scattered throughout Iraq, speak Modern Mandaic. It is quite distinct from any other Aramaic variety. Mandaic numbers some 50,000–75,000 people, but it is believed the Mandaic language may now be spoken fluently by as few as 5,000 people, with other Mandaeans having varying degrees of knowledge.
Very little remains of Western Aramaic. Its only remaining vernacular is the Western Neo-Aramaic language, that is still spoken in the villages of Maaloula, al-Sarkha (Bakhah), and Jubb'adin on Syria's side of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, 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 as well.
Each dialect of Aramaic has its own distinctive pronunciation, and it would not be feasible here to go into all these properties. Aramaic has a phonological palette of 25 to 40 distinct phonemes. Some modern Aramaic pronunciations lack the series of "emphatic" consonants, and some have borrowed from the inventories of surrounding languages, particularly Arabic, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Persian and Turkish.
As with most Semitic languages, Aramaic can be thought of as having three basic sets of vowels:
These vowel groups are relatively stable, but the exact articulation of any individual is most dependent on its consonantal setting.
The 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 א "alaph" (a glottal stop) or ה "he" (like the English h).
The 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 י y as a mater lectionis.
The 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 "show" ([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 ו w to indicate their quality.
Two basic diphthongs exist: an open vowel followed by י y (ay), and an open vowel followed by ו 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 stop and a fricative at the same point of articulation). Aramaic classically uses a series of lightly contrasted plosives and fricatives:
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 velarization. Using their alphabetic names, these emphatics are:
Ancient Aramaic may have had a larger series of emphatics, and some Neo-Aramaic languages definitely do. Not all dialects of Aramaic give these consonants their historic values.
Overlapping with the set of emphatics are the "guttural" consonants. They include ח Ḥêṯ and ע ʽAyn from the emphatic set, and add א ʼĀlap̄ (a glottal stop) and ה Hê (as the English "h").
Aramaic classically has a set of four sibilants (ancient Aramaic may have had six):
Six broad features of sound change can be seen as dialect differentials:
As with other Semitic languages, Aramaic morphology (the way words are formed) is based on the consonantal root. The root generally consists of two or three consonants and has a basic meaning, for example, כת״ב 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:
Aramaic nouns and adjectives are inflected to show gender, number and state.
Aramaic has two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. The feminine absolute singular is often marked by the ending ה- -â.
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. To a certain extent, these states correspond to the role of articles and cases in the Indo-European languages:
Whereas other Northwest Semitic languages, like Hebrew, have the absolute and construct states, the emphatic/determined state is a unique feature to Aramaic. Case endings, as in Ugaritic, probably existed in a very early stage of the language, and glimpses of them can be seen in a few compound proper names. However, as most of those cases were expressed by short final vowels, they were never written, and the few characteristic long vowels of the masculine plural accusative and genitive are not clearly evidenced in inscriptions. Often, the direct object is marked by a prefixed -ל l- (the preposition "to") if it is definite.
Adjectives agree with their nouns in number and gender but agree in state only if used attributively. Predicative adjectives are in the absolute state regardless of the state of their noun (a copula may or may not be written). Thus, an attributive adjective to an emphatic noun, as in the phrase "the good king", is written also in the emphatic state מלכא טבא malkâ ṭāḇâ – king[emph.] good[emph.]. In comparison, the predicative adjective, as in the phrase "the king is good", is written in the absolute state מלכא טב malkâ ṭāḇ – king[emph.] good[abs.].
The final א- -â in a number of these suffixes is written with the letter aleph. However, some Jewish Aramaic texts employ the letter he for the feminine absolute singular. Likewise, some Jewish Aramaic texts employ the Hebrew masculine absolute singular suffix ים- -îm instead of ין- -în. The masculine determined plural suffix, יא- -ayyâ, has an alternative version, -ê. The alternative is sometimes called the "gentilic plural" for its prominent use in ethnonyms (יהודיא yəhûḏāyê, 'the Jews', for example). This alternative plural is written with the letter aleph, and came to be the only plural for nouns and adjectives of this type in Syriac and some other varieties of Aramaic. The masculine construct plural, -ê, is written with yodh. In Syriac and some other variants this ending is diphthongized to -ai.
Possessive phrases in Aramaic can either be made with the construct state or by linking two nouns with the relative particle -[ד[י d[î]-. As the use of the construct state almost disappears from the Middle Aramaic period on, the latter method became the main way of making possessive phrases.
For example, 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 gradually evolved in time and place, varying between varieties of the language. Verb forms are marked for person (first, second or third), number (singular or plural), gender (masculine or feminine), tense (perfect or imperfect), mood (indicative, imperative, jussive or infinitive) and voice (active, reflexive or passive). Aramaic also employs a system of conjugations, or verbal stems, to mark intensive and extensive developments in the lexical meaning of verbs.
Aramaic has two proper tenses: perfect and imperfect. These were originally aspectual, but developed into something more like a preterite and future. The perfect is unmarked, while the imperfect uses various preformatives that vary according to person, number and gender. In both tenses the third-person singular masculine is the unmarked form from which others are derived by addition of afformatives (and preformatives in the imperfect). In the chart below (on the root כת״ב K-T-B, meaning "to write"), the first form given is the usual form in Imperial Aramaic, while the second is Classical Syriac.
Like other Semitic languages, Aramaic employs a number of derived verb stems, to extend the lexical coverage of verbs. The basic form of the verb is called the ground stem, or G-stem. Following the tradition of mediaeval Arabic grammarians, it is more often called the Pə‘al פעל (also written Pe‘al), using the form of the Semitic root פע״ל P-‘-L, meaning "to do". This stem carries the basic lexical meaning of the verb.
By doubling of the second radical, or root letter, the D-stem or פעל Pa‘‘el is formed. This is often an intensive development of the basic lexical meaning. For example, qəṭal means "he killed", whereas qaṭṭel means "he slew". The precise relationship in meaning between the two stems differs for every verb.
A preformative, which can be -ה ha-, -א a- or -ש ša-, creates the C-stem or variously the Hap̄‘el, Ap̄‘el or Šap̄‘el (also spelt הפעל Haph‘el, אפעל Aph‘el and שפעל Shaph‘el). This is often an extensive or causative development of the basic lexical meaning. For example, טעה ṭə‘â means "he went astray", whereas אטעי aṭ‘î means "he deceived". The Šap̄‘el שפעל is the least common variant of the C-stem. Because this variant is standard in Akkadian, it is possible that its use in Aramaic represents loanwords from that language. The difference between the variants הפעל Hap̄‘el and אפעל Ap̄‘el appears to be the gradual dropping of the initial ה h sound in later Old Aramaic. This is noted by the respelling of the older he preformative with א aleph.
These three conjugations are supplemented with three further derived stems, produced by the preformative -הת hiṯ- or -את eṯ-. The loss of the initial ה h sound occurs similarly to that in the form above. These three derived stems are the Gt-stem, התפעל Hiṯpə‘el or אתפעל Eṯpə‘el (also written Hithpe‘el or Ethpe‘el), the Dt-stem, התפעּל Hiṯpa‘‘al or אתפעּל Eṯpa‘‘al (also written Hithpa‘‘al or Ethpa‘‘al), and the Ct-stem, התהפעל Hiṯhap̄‘al, אתּפעל Ettap̄‘al, השתפעל Hištap̄‘al or אשתפעל Eštap̄‘al (also written Hithhaph‘al, Ettaph‘al, Hishtaph‘al or Eshtaph‘al). Their meaning is usually reflexive, but later became passive. However, as with other stems, actual meaning differs from verb to verb.
Not all verbs use all of these conjugations, and, in some, the G-stem is not used. In the chart below (on the root כת״ב K-T-B, meaning "to write"), the first form given is the usual form in Imperial Aramaic, while the second is Classical Syriac.
In Imperial Aramaic, the participle began to be used for a historical 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.