Learn About Aramaic - An Ancient Semitic Language

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The Aramaic language belongs to the Northwestern Semitic sub-group of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. This subgroup also includes the Canaanite languages, Hebrew, Phoenician and Moabite, and two other sub-groups, Northeastern Semitic, which include the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian languages, and Southwestern Semitic, which include the Arabic and Ethiopian languages. Aramaic is not a single language, but rather a group of related languages and dialects, some mutually intelligible and some not. Over the four thousand years of existence of the Aramaic languages, some have disappeared but some are still in use, mainly in the Middle East and in some other parts of the world as well.

History of the Language

The Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the Middle East used Aramaic for administrative, liturgical, literary and everyday purposes. Before the seventh century CE, when the Arabic language became prevalent in the region, Aramaic had been the lingua franca of the Assyrian, the Babylonian and the Persian Empires, replacing the existing Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian languages. Certain portions of the Jewish and the Christian religious books, the Talmud and the Bible, were written in Aramaic and it is a possibility that many of the characters in the Bible, including Jesus himself, spoke the language too.

Aramaic Dialects

The Aramaic language is usually classified according to the periods of its development and these periods in turn are classified according to which side of the Euphrates river the dialects developed, usually on Western and Eastern lines, but also, in Modern Aramaic, along Central lines. Therefore, we have -

  • Ancient Aramaic - Was spoken by the nomadic Aramean people of the Aram-Naharaim region. This area, known also as Mesopotamia, comprises modern day Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The Arameans had small tribal groups and kingdoms, but they were never a unified nation.

  • Official Aramaic - The Aramean kingdoms were taken over by the Assyrians and the Aramean people and their language became part of the Assyrian Empire. After a period, Aramaic replaced Assyrian as the main language used for governance and commerce. The Biblical texts of Ezra, Daniel, Genesis and Jeremiah were written in Aramaic in this period.

  • Middle Aramaic - Greek replaced Aramaic as the official language, but the common people still communicated in Aramaic. A written form, known as Hasmonian Aramaic was developed and used in Jerusalem.

  • Late Aramaic - Palestinian and Galilean Aramaic are from this period. Galilean Aramaic was the language that Jesus supposedly spoke.

  • Modern Aramaic - Spoken by Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldean Christians, Israeli Jews, Kurds.

Forms of Aramaic

Some of the various forms of Aramaic are as following -

  • Classical Aramaic
  • Biblical Aramaic
  • Christian Syriac Aramaic
  • Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic
  • Qumran Aramaic
  • Nabatean Aramaic
  • Official Aramaic of Targumims
  • Syriac Aramaic
  • Palmyrene Aramaic
  • Aramaic of Hatra
  • Arsacid Aramaic
  • Galilean Aramaic
  • Samarian Aramaic
  • Christian Aramaic
  • Palestinian Aramaic
  • Mandaic Aramaic
  • Syriac Aramaic
  • Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic
  • Ma’lula, Gubb’adin, Bax’a Aramaic
  • Toroyo Aramaic
  • Mlahso Aramaic
  • Harbul, Bespen, Ishshi, Mer Aramaic

The spread of the Aramaic language was in part due to its relative easy usage in comparison to the languages it supplanted, and due to the political factors of those times, which made Aramaic speakers migrate, on their own initiative or forced, as in the Jewish Babylonian exile, to other lands. In modern times, again goaded by unfavorable political and economic situations, Assyrians have migrated from Syria and Iraq to Europe, the USA and Australia. Far from becoming the lingua franca in those countries though, the language now stands a chance of disappearing. There is an influx of loanwords from other languages as well as disinterested second or third generations who either are not given the option of learning Aramaic, or show no interest in it or prefer to assimilate the language of the culture in their new homeland.