Aramaic language

Spoken in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Turkey
Region Throughout the Middle East, Europe and America.
Total speakers 2,200,000
Language family Afroasiatic
Writing system Aramaic abjad, Syriac abjad, Hebrew abjad, Mandaic alphabet, Arabic Abjad(vernacular} with a handful of inscriptions found in Demotic[1] and Chinese[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2
ISO 639-3 variously:
arc – Imperial and Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE)
oar – Old Aramaic (before 700 BCE)
aii – Assyrian Neo-Aramaic
aij – Lishanid Noshan
amw – Western Neo-Aramaic
bhn – Bohtan Neo-Aramaic
bjf – Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic
cld – Chaldean Neo-Aramaic
hrt – Hértevin
huy – Hulaulá
jpa – Jewish Palestinian Aramaic
kqd – Koy Sanjaq Surat
lhs – Mlahsô
lsd – Lishana Deni
mid – Modern Mandaic
myz – Classical Mandaic
sam – Samaritan Aramaic
syc – Syriac (classical)
syn – Senaya
tmr – Jewish Babylonian Aramaic
trg – Lishán Didán
tru – Turoyo

Aramaic is a Semitic language belonging to the Afroasiatic language family (etym. language of Aram[3], an ancient region in central Syria). Within this family, Aramaic belongs to the Semitic subfamily, and more specifically, is a part of the Northwest Semitic group of languages, which also includes Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician. Aramaic script was widely adopted for other languages and is ancestral to both the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets.

During its 3,000-year history,[4] Aramaic has served variously as a language of administration of empires and as a language of divine worship. It was the day-to-day language of Israel in the Second Temple period (539 BCE – 70 CE), was the original language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, the Gospel of Matthew,[5] was the language spoken by Jesus, and is the main language of the Talmud.[6]

Aramaic's long history and diverse and widespread use has led to the development of many divergent varieties which are sometimes treated as dialects. Therefore, there is no one singular Aramaic language, but each time and place has had its own variation. Aramaic is retained as a liturgical language by certain Eastern Christian churches, in the form of Syriac, the Aramaic variety by which Eastern Christianity was diffused, whether or not those communities once spoke it or another form of Aramaic as their vernacular, but have since shifted to another language as their primary community language.

Modern Aramaic is spoken today as a first language by many scattered, predominantly small, and largely isolated communities of differing Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups of West Asia[7]—most numerously by the Assyrians in the form of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and the Chaldean Christians in the form of Chaldean Neo-Aramaic—that have all retained use of the once dominant lingua franca despite subsequent language shifts experienced throughout the Middle East. The Aramaic languages are considered to be endangered.[8]

Geographic distribution

During the Neo-Assyrian and the Neo-Babylonian period, Aramaeans, the native speakers of Aramaic, began to settle in greater numbers in Upper Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Syria and south eastern Turkey).[9] The influx eventually resulted in the Assyrian and Babylonian empires becoming operationally bilingual in written sources, with Aramaic used alongside Akkadian. As these empires, and the Persian Empire that followed, extended their influence in the region, Aramaic gradually became the lingua franca of most of Western Asia and Egypt.[9] From the 7th 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

Traditionally, Aramaic is considered a single language. However, it could equally well be considered a group of closely related languages, rather than a single monolithic language—something which it has never been. 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. 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. A kind of high Aramaic Standard Aramaic survived till the 9th century. 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.

Writing system

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 and Palmyrenean in Palmyra. In modern times, Turoyo (see below), has sometimes been written in an adapted Latin alphabet.