The Northeast Neo-Aramaic (NENA) dialects were spoken by the minority population of Jews and Christians in the area covering southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran. The Muslim population of this same area spoke Arabic, Turkish, and Kurdish. Unfortunately, since 1915 these NENA speakers have been uprooted and dispersed. NENA is not a descendent of Syriac, but a sister dialect. Since there is no attestation of the proto-NENA dialects, it is analyzed in respect to three earlier dialects of Eastern Aramaic: Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic (BT), and classical Mandaic. However, Aramaic was the dominant dialect of Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Syria before the Arab conquest, thus there must have been a large continuum of dialects about which we know nothing. This article explores whether the NENA dialects should be taken as a single unit with a single source, or whether they may represent the early spectrum of dialectal diversity.
For the comparison, Fox selects 11 dialects: Hertevin, a Christian Anatolian dialect and the most western of the group; Zakho Jewish, a Jewish dialect from northern Iraq; Aradhin, a Christian dialect from northern Iraq; Tisqopa, a Christian dialect from the plain of Mosul; Jilu, from southeast Turkey; Tkhuma, also from southeast Turkey, Sanandaj Christian, a Christian dialect from Iranian Kurdistan; Urmi, the dialect of the Christians from Urmi; Koy Sanjaq, the language of Jews from Koy Sanjaq who now reside in Israel; Azerbaijan, the language of Jews from Azerbaijan; Halabja, a Jewish dialect on the Iran-Iraq border. Fox also compares these to the eastern Aramaic dialects of Turoyo and Mandaic. The analysis is based on 24 phonological, morphological, morpho-lexical, and lexical features.
For instance, in the case of phonology Fox notes that the alternation of plosive/fricative t/θ, conditioned by a preceding vowel, is no longer regular. Rather, the form has been lexicalized so that one or the other spreads through the whole paradigm of a verb. Further, the phoneme θ has undergone further shifts in some dialects to s, l, or even h. For instance, the word for house occurs as be:θa (Tkhuma), biya (Jilu, θ > h, which becomes a glide y), belá (Halabja), and bēsa (Sanandaj Christian).
The development of the verbal systems is also quite interesting. First, NENA has dropped the passive -t- forms and reduced the three base stems of Syriac – peal (G-stem), pael (D-stem), and aphel (C-stem) – into two. Stem I is descended from the peal and follows the pattern CCaC- (e.g. Urmia ptaxa ‘to open’). Stem II collapses the pael and afel following the pattern CaCoC- (e.g. Urmia šadure ‘to send’). However, in some dialects (Jewish Azerbaijani, Halabja, and possibly Koy Sandjaq) the choice of Stem I or Stem II no longer follows historically from the lexical meaning of the verb, but depends on its consonantal shape. Strong verbs use Stem II, while middle-weak verbs use Stem I.
Second, Syriac, BT, and Classical Mandaic all developed a form for the past tense using the passive participle followed by the preposition l with a pronominal suffix agreeing with the agent, eg šmy’ lh ‘it was heard by him’ = ‘he heard’. In all the NENA dialects, this has become the normal preterite, displacing the old suffix conjugation. In fact, it is even used for intransitive verbs such as qimli ‘I stood up’. However, in Halabja intransitive verbs are distinguished from transitive in that they attach a different set of pronominal suffixes directly to the participle, qīmna ‘I stood up’. Hertevin goes a step further, using both constructions. The form attaching the pronominal suffix directly to the participle conveys the relevance of the action to the present. Thus, qímat ‘you (f.s.) have risen’, but qimlxun ‘you (c.p.) rose’.
Lastly, the affix -wa (from hwā ‘he was’) is used generally to add a past meaning. For instance, it shifts the general present to past continuous and the perfect to pluperfect. Thus from Aradhin ipalxin ‘I work’ but ipalxinwa ‘I worked (durative)’. Also, plixli ‘I worked’ but plixwāli ‘I had worked’. The future is expressed generally with the prefix b-, bāmir ‘he will say’. The general present is also expressed by a prefix, either k- on all verbs, k- on some forms, or i- on all forms.
Fox concludes that the dialects of NENA form a ‘strikingly coherent group’ and share many distinctive features against Turoyo and Mandaic. Thus, they seem to be derived from a single dialect or a group of closely related dialects. The article ends with a helpful chart of all the features by dialect.