The Aramaic language belongs to the Northwest Semitic subfamily within the larger family of Semitic languages. To the same subfamily belong among others Hebrew, Phoenician, and Ugaritic. Aramaic itself consists of a great number of language forms (and indeed languages), spoken and written in many different scripts over a period of 3000 years. Aramaic always co-existed and interacted with other, related or non-related, languages. Among the Aramaic languages Syriac is by far the best documented language. Geographically, Aramaic first was used in various locations of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, in Syria and Mesopotamia. It later spread all over the Middle East and well into Central Asia. From the 6th cent. BC to the 7th cent. AD, Aramaic, in a variety of interrelated language forms, or ‘dialects’, was the most widespread language of the Middle East, co-existing first with Old Persian (6th–4th cent. BC), and then with Greek (3rd cent. BC – 7th cent. AD), and Middle Persian (3rd– 7th cent. AD). Under the dominance of Arabic and Islam, Aramaic lived on among various religious minorities, Syriac Christianity being the most important among them. In the third millennium AD, Aramaic and Syriac are used by a few million people — Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and Mandaeans — in liturgy, literature, and/or in spoken dialects in the Middle East, Southern India, and the worldwide diasporas.
Various scholarly attempts have been made at classifying the Aramaic languages. One among them, first proposed by J. Fitzmyer, and slightly adapted by S. Kaufman among others, has become widely used. It is based on a five-fold division of Aramaic linguistic history.
1. Old Aramaic (ca. 900 – ca. 600 BC). Aramaic was used by semi-autonomous Aramean tribes in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Royal and funerary inscriptions of the Aleppo region exhibit a relatively, but not entirely, unified language in the Phoenician sphere of influence, while the bilingual inscription of the Tell Fakhariyya statue (northeast Syria) points to an Akkadian linguistic and cultural context. The script is nearly identical to the one found in the Phoenician inscriptions, from which it was borrowed.
2. Imperial, or Official Aramaic (ca. 600 – ca. 200 BC). Already in the later days of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (following the loss of independence of the Aramean city states), Aramaic began to be used for trade and communication. The expansion of Aramaic went on in the Neo-Babylonian Empire and culminated in the ‘official’ status that Aramaic achieved (along with Persian and Elamite) in the Achaemenid Persian Empire (mid-6th cent. – 330 BC). Along with inscriptions, a great number of texts on papyrus, parchment, and ostraca have been unearthed in Egypt. They evidence the use of Aramaic in official documents issued by, and addressed to, the Persian administration, in correspondence of a more private character, and in literary compositions. The Aramaic documents in the biblical book of Ezra and their narrative framework represent the same type of language. The official use of Aramaic implied that there was a certain linguistic and orthographical standard, even if individual texts often deviated from it. This standard remained authoritative for several centuries after the fall of the Persian Empire. Its literary variant has been called ‘Standard Literary Aramaic’.
3. Middle Aramaic (ca. 200 BC – ca. 250 AD). First, there is the continued use of the earlier standardized language, in such texts as the Aramaic chapters of the biblical book of Daniel, the Aramaic portions of the Dead Sea documents, and the earliest layer of the Jewish Targumim, or translations of the Hebrew Bible (Targum Onkelos for the Pentateuch and Targum Jonathan for the Prophets). Second, there are corpora of Aramaic inscriptions, produced in the Nabataean Empire (which had Petra as its capital), and in the city states of Ḥaṭra, Palmyra, and Edessa. These lost their independence in the 2nd and 3rd cent. AD. The languages of these places each slightly differ from one another and they are written in slightly different scripts, derived from the script used in the Persian period. Nabataean Aramaic exhibits features that are due to contact with Old North Arabian, which was widely spoken throughout the Nabatean Empire.
4. Late Aramaic (3rd cent. to ca. 1200 AD). From this period literary texts are preserved which received classical status in at least four different religious communities. At the same time, a clear distinction emerges between West-Aramaic and East-Aramaic dialects.
West-Aramaic texts were produced by Jews (Palestinian Targumim, Aramaic portions in the Palestinian Talmud and in the Midrashim, Aramaic compositions preserved among the Cairo Genizah documents — many of the texts mentioned represent the Galilean Aramaic dialect), Samaritans (Targumim, hymns, and prose compositions); and Christians of the Jerusalem area (Christian Palestinian Aramaic).
East-Aramaic texts were produced by Jews (parts of the Babylonian Talmud and Gaonic literature), Mandaeans (classical Mandaic literature), and Christians (Syriac). The status of Syriac has been somewhat disputed. While Syriac traditionally has been considered the westernmost of the East-Aramaic languages, some scholars now tend to classify it as a separate branch of late Aramaic. The language of Mani and of the early Manicheans must have been close to Syriac, but next to nothing has survived.
Jewish Aramaic texts are written in the Hebrew square script, which itself is an adaptation of the earlier Aramaic script. Samaritan Aramaic is written in a separate script, which derives from the earlier Hebrew script. Christian Palestinian Aramaic is written in a script that is related to Esṭrangela, and Mandaic has its own script, likely derived from the Parthian/Late Iranian scripts. An interesting genre that existed across religious borders is that of the incantations written on ‘magic bowls’: texts that are very similar exist in Jewish (Babylonian) Aramaic, Mandaic, and Syriac (written either in Esṭrangela or in a different script, which has been called ‘Proto-Manichean’).
Each of these languages had its heyday in the pre-Islamic period, when the literary languages to a large extent reflected, and were nourished by, the spoken languages. In the Islamic period, when Arabic became more prominent, the literary languages gradually became disconnected from the waning spoken dialects, which survived in geographical and social isolation.
5. Modern Aramaic, or Neo-Aramaic (to the present day). While the classical languages, shaped and standardized in the previous period, continued to be transmitted and written — and do so up to the present day — the spoken variants started having their own history, much of which went unrecorded. It is only in the 17th cent. that some dialects began to be written for the first time. This happened in Northern Iraq with Modern Jewish Aramaic and with Modern Syriac (see Sureth), which was written in and around Alqosh. In the 19th cent., under the impulse of American missionaries, a new literary language was created for the Christians of Urmia and its surroundings. First used for a new translation of the Bible, Literary Urmia Aramaic later was adapted and upgraded to serve as the vehicle of the Assyrian identity. As such it is still used today among E.-Syr. Christians in the Middle East and in the worldwide diaspora.
The modern spoken dialects are generally subdivided as follows:
a. West-Neo-Aramaic, spoken in Maʿlula and in a few neighboring villages to the north of Damascus by Christians (Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic) and by some Muslims. This language may be seen as an offshoot of West-Aramaic, described under 4. Some texts are available in contemporary scholarly transliterations.
b. Central-Neo-Aramaic, of which the main dialect is Ṭuroyo, spoken in Ṭur ʿAbdin, mainly by Syr. Orth. Christians. The language is now widespread among the Syr. Orth diaspora. There have been a few attempts to write it down, most successfully among the Swedish communities (in Latin script).
c. North-East-Neo-Aramaic, spoken to the east of the Tigris, in Eastern Turkey, Persian Kurdistan, and Northern Iraq (north of Mosul) by both Christians and Jews. Due to massive relocation throughout the 20th cent., originally distinct languages have been mixed and cases of Koine formation have emerged. Here again, many speakers live in the diaspora; Jewish Aramaic lives on in Israel.
d. South-East-Neo-Aramaic, represented by much endangered Mandaic dialects, spoken in southern Iraq and western Iran.
Each of these many modern dialects carries its own cultural and religious tradition. Linguistically they share a number of features, particularly in the radical transformation of the verbal system. In the lexicon, many loanwords were borrowed from the surrounding languages along with phonetic, morphological, and syntactical features.
In the Syriac tradition the term ārāmāyā (oromoyo) is often used, along with suryāyā (suryoyo), to denote the Syriac language. Syriac rewriting of texts originally composed in other Aramaic languages may be found in the Aramaic sections of the Old Testament and in such texts as the story of Aḥiqar. An awareness of an Aramean unity, based on the language (leššānā / lešono) and the written tradition (seprā / sepro), extending from the first Chaldean and Assyrian kings to the Christian Syrians, can be found in the second Appendix added to the Chronicle of Michael Rabo, which deals with ‘the kingdoms that have been established in Antiquity by our race, (that of) the Arameans, namely the descendants of Aram, who were called Syrians or inhabitants of Syria’ (ed. J. B. Chabot, text in vol. 4, 748–51; FT in vol. 3, 442–7). Among the present-day Syr. Christians the Aramaic heritage is particularly emphasized by the Syr. Orth.
- K. Beyer, Die aramäischen Texte vom Toten Meer (1984); Ergänzungsband (1994).
- K. Beyer, The Aramaic language (1986). (= ET by J. F. Healey of p. 23–76 of Beyer’s 1984 publication)
- D. Boyarin, ‘An Inquiry into the formation of the Middle Aramaic dialects’, in Bono homini donum. Essays in historical linguistics in memory of J. A. Kerns, ed. Y. L. Arbeitman and A. R. Bomhard, vol. 2 (1981), 613–49.
- S. P. Brock, ‘Three thousand years of Aramaic literature’, ARAM 1 (1989), 11–23.
- Brock and Taylor, Hidden Pearl, esp. vol. 1. The ancient Aramaic heritage; vol. 2. (with W. Balicka-Witakowski and W. Witakowski) The heirs of the ancient Aramaic heritage.
- R. Contini, ‘Hypothèses sur l’araméen manichéen’, Annali di Ca’ Foscari 34 (1995), 65–107.
- R. Contini, ‘L’orizzonte linguistico della Chiesa di Persia: considerazioni preliminari’, in Storia, cristologia e tradizioni della Chiesa Siro-orientale, ed. E. Vergani and S. Chialà (2006), 47–77.
- J. A. Fitzmyer, ‘The phases of the Aramaic Language’, in A Wandering Aramean. Collected Aramaic Essays (SBL Monographs 25; 1979), 57–84.
- J. C. Greenfield, ‘Standard Literary Aramaic’, in Actes du premier congrès international de linguistique sémitique et chamito-sémitique, ed. A. Caquot and D. Cohen (1974), 280–89.
- H. Gzella and M. L. Folmer (ed.), Aramaic in its historical and linguistic setting (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz. Veröffentlichungen der Orientalischen Kommission 50; 2008).
- J. F. Healey, Aramaic inscriptions and documents of the Roman period (Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions 4; 2009).
- W. Heinrichs (ed.), Studies in Neo-Aramaic (Harvard Semitic Studies 36; 1990).
- J. Huehnergard, ‘What is Aramaic?’, ARAM 7 (1995), 261–282.
- O. Jastrow, ‘Neo-Aramaic Dialectology. The state of the art’, Israel Oriental Studies 20 (2002), 365–77.
- S. A. Kaufman, ‘Aramaic’, in ABD, vol. 4 (1992), 173–8.
- E. Lipiński, The Arameans. Their ancient history, culture, religion (OLA 100; 2000).
- A. Mengozzi, Israel of Alqosh and Joseph of Telkepe. A story in a truthful language. Religious poems in vernacular Syriac (North Iraq, 17th century) (CSCO 589–90; 2002).
- H. L. Murre-van den Berg, From a spoken to a written language. The introduction and development of Literary Urmia Aramaic in the nineteenth century (Publications of the De Goeje Fund 28; 1999).
- F. Rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldeke’s Veröffentlichungen (1939).
- Weltecke, Die «Beschreibung der Zeiten», 222–32.
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
Lucas Van Rompay , “Aramaic,” in Aramaic, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Aramaic.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Van Rompay, Lucas. “Aramaic.” In Aramaic. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Aramaic.
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