Hurvitz, Avi, “Hebrew and Aramaic in the Biblical Period: The Problem of ‘Aramaisms’ in Linguistic Research on the Hebrew Bible.” Pages 24-37 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.
Nineteenth and early-twentieth century research devoted much time to the discovery of ‘Aramaisms’ in Biblical Hebrew (BH). However, newer discoveries and advances in methodology have overturned the assumption that such ‘Aramaisms’ are necessarily indicators of a late date. The discovery of Aramaic inscriptions dating as early as the beginning of the first millennium BCE demonstrates the vitality of Aramaic in the early biblical period and has provided important evidence for understanding the early history of the Aramaic dialects. Hurvitz thus makes a distinction between ‘Aramaisms’ which are chronologically neutral and those which are indeed late.
While Hebrew and Aramaic are in contact throughout the biblical period, the sixth century BCE seems to mark the turning point in the development of BH. Many changes in lexicon, grammar, and syntax are introduced into the language due to the Babylonian deportation and subsequent return. These ‘neologisms’ are absent from earlier Hebrew sources, but are common in the Aramaic dialects of the post-exilic period. Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles especially abound with these linguistic innovations which are usually attributed to extensive contact with Aramaic.
How can these late influences of Aramaic be distinguished from earlier contact? Here Hurvitz adopts methodology from Kutscher: a feature must be characteristic of distinctively late biblical texts, it must deviate from a feature of earlier BH, and it must be shown to have existed in the contemporary Aramaic dialect from which it is presumed to have originated. For example, in Esther, Nehemiah, and Chronicles the term אגרת (“letter”) appears 10x, instead of the expected term ספר. As אגרתא/אגרתה is a very common term for letter in Imperial Aramaic, it is clearly an ‘Aramaism’.
However, not all ‘Aramaisms’ clearly reflect a late date as there are other explanations for the influence of Aramaic on earlier texts. For instance, in poetry which is typologically early (based on strong comparisons to Ugaritic poetry), ‘Aramaisms’ may actually be ‘Archaisms’ – that is older features which survived in Aramaic, but were displaced in Hebrew. One such example is the use of the root רמה in Ex 15:1. This root is common in Aramaic, but rare in BH. However, it also appears in Arabic and Akkadian suggesting it is of an older lexical stock.
Another explanation for ‘Aramaisms’ in earlier texts is dialectal variation. From the epigraphic data, it seems that Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) reflects the dialect of Jerusalem and Judah, but not the Northern Kingdom. Due to the geographic proximity of the northern tribes to the Arameans, it is to be expected that the northern dialect shares linguistic features with Aramaic (such as the use of שת instead of שנת, “year”). Thus ‘Aramaism’ in texts originating in northern Israel do not necessarily reflect the late influence of Aramaic.
“Dialectal” variation may also occur when a biblical author uses ‘Aramaisms’ in an attempt to render the dialogue of a foreign character – what Dr Kaufman has termed ‘style-switching’. For example, in 2 Kgs 6:8-19 several ‘Aramaisms’ are clustered in a story dealing with the king of Aram.
Lastly, Hurvitz suggests that the northern Transjordan is a source of Wisdom Literature (cf Num 23:7). Therefore, it is not surprising to see the influence of Aramaic on biblical Wisdom Literature (especially Job and Proverbs) without necessarily indicating a late date.