In this article, Tropper presents a sociolinguistic explanation of the development of the early Aramaic dialects, arguing that the standard geographic distinction of East and West Aramaic is too simplistic. Instead, he suggests the division between the dialects of the nomadic peoples and those of the city and village dwellers is the basis of the wide variety of early Aramaic dialects as well as the earlier differentiation of Aramaic from Canaanite dialects.
Old Aramaic, or Early Aramaic as Tropper prefers to label it, includes the Aramaic inscriptions of the 9th and 8th centuries up to about 700 BCE. Roughly four dialect groups can be distinguished:
1. A relatively uniform group from central Syria, which is the best attested group and serves as the baseline for the other dialects.
2. The Aramaic of the Tell Fakhariyeh stele, an early representative of East Aramaic which was clearly derived from an early central Aramaic, but shows great linguistic and orthographic innovation which are also found later in Imperial Aramaic.
3. The Aramaic of the Deir-Alla inscription, which deviates even further from early central Aramaic, but also shows many agreements with Canaanite languages.
4. Samalian, the local dialect of Zincirli, which shows the greatest deviation from early central Aramaic. It is distinguished from its contemporary Aramaic dialects by strongly conservative features such as retention of the old Semitic case inflection in masculine plural forms and the lack of a definite article.
Interestingly, this analysis of Old Aramaic shows that many of the features considered to be specifically Aramaic were actually innovations after Proto-Aramaic. For instance, the post-positive definite article /-ā/ and the etpe’el stem with prefix -t. Samalian and Deir Alla lack the former, and where Tell Fakhariyeh has a t- stem, it is an infix -t- (ygtzr, Line 23) as is common in most other Semitic languages. Further, the G infinitive seems to be qtl (= /qatāl/) rather than /miqtal/, which is an innovation common in East Aramaic and again first represented at Tell Fakhariyeh.
If these characteristics only arose secondarily, then it suggests that Proto-Aramaic was linguistically far closer to Proto-Canaanite than has been assumed. Further, Proto-Aramaic seems to be far more conservative throughout than Proto-Canaanite. For instance, Aramaic retains all 29 Proto-Semitic consonantal phonemes, the Proto-Semitic 1 c.p suffix -na (in contrast to Canaanite -nū), and nunation in the dual and plural of the noun (in contrast to mimation in Canaanite).
Tropper explains these typological differences by appealing to the study of Arabic dialects, in which a clear distinction is found between the bedouin dialects and those of settled people. In general, the dialects of nomadic speakers are much more conservative. Innovation takes place in the urban centers and reaches the nomadic dialects only with substantial delay, if at all. It this model is transferred to Northwest Semitic speakers during the mid 2nd millennium a clear distinction can be seen between the settled people of West Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and the nomadic or semi-nomadic people farther inland on the Syrian steppe. In the former areas, urban culture predominates and the Canaanite languages developed, while the latter is the area of the Aramaens. Thus perhaps one can associate Canaanite with the early NWS urban dialects, and the Aramaic of that time with the NWS nomadic dialects. Thus the original differentiation of Aramaic from Canaanite is sociolinguistic based on the early settlement of a section of NWS speakers.
Around the 12th century BCE, the lifestyle of the Aramaens changed radically as they became settled in a relatively short period, giving rise to a distinct Aramaic urban culture. This had effects on the subsequent development of the Aramaic dialects. The far reaching changes in Aramaic in the first half of the 1st millennium explain why the relationship of Aramaic to Canaanite is completely different from around 1000 BCE and 500 BCE. Aramaic becomes the modern branch of NWS as it becomes the lingua franca of the entire ancient Near East and surpasses the more slowly developing Canaanite. This quick development of Aramaic also explains why some of the geographically isolated dialects, such as Samalian and Deir Alla, did not share in these innovations.
Tropper recognizes that such a sociolinguistic model of urban versus nomadic dialects is certainly oversimplified. At no time was the ancient Near East divided into a strict dichotomy of nomads and settled peoples. However, he argues that the model does help explain some of the basic differences between Canaanite and Aramaic dialects. It also explains why East Aramaic dialects such as Tell Fakhariyeh are much more innovative than other early Aramaic dialects. The settlement of northeast Syria began to happen earlier than other areas, and was in contact with the highly developed Mesopotamian urban culture. Thus the native dialect of Tell Fakhariyeh was much more innovation-happy than others, and seems to be the source for many Aramaic distinctives which spread out later, most notably by means of Imperial Aramaic.