A Short Introduction to Aramaic
1. Introduction. Hebrew, being the language of the Bible, naturally arouses the most interest and has pride of place among the Northwest Semitic languages. In contrast, Aramaic’s importance is somewhat underrated due to its scant representation in scripture (portions of Daniel, Ezra, a verse in Jeremiah, two words in Genesis, and scattered words in the New Testament). However, Aramaic is the longest and best attested of the Northwest Semitic languages. It became the lingua franca of the Near East, the official language of the Persian empire, and remained the major spoken language during the formative periods of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism until it was displaced by Arabic in the 7th century CE. The Aramaeans adopted the Phoenician alphabetic script, augmenting it with the use of vowel-letters, and seem to be responsible for its spread across the region, perhaps even to the Greeks.1 Not only are there many documents and inscriptions that are important for their content, but the attestation of the language itself reflects the type of chronological development and synchronic diversity that is only hinted at in biblical Hebrew.
2. Who were the Aramaeans? The origins of the Aramaeans are obscure and written evidence is scarce before the 9th century. Most of our information comes from Assyrian and Babylonian sources, archaeological evidence, and the few extant inscriptions. It is generally assumed that the Aramaeans were a tribal people of semi-nomadic pastoralists who dwelt mainly in the steppe west of the Euphrates. In the 10th century, sporadic references to the Aramaeans describe them as roving bands of marauders. The earliest indisputable reference to the Aramaeans comes from a well-known passage in the records of Tiglath-Pilesar I (1114-1076):
“I have crossed the Euphrates twenty-eight times, twice in one year, in pursuit of the ahlamû Aramaeans. I brought about their defeat from the city Tadmar of the land Amurru, Anat of the land Suhu, as far as Rapiqu of Karduniash (Babylon). I brought their booty (and) possessions to my city Ashur.”2
By the next century they seem to have settled into small city-states across most of Syria and Upper Mesopotamia, and northern Babylonia was subject to periodic raids. However, from the period of Assur-Dan II (934-912) and the renaissance of the Assyrian state, Upper Mesopotamia was brought back under Assyrian control and the Aramaeans there seem to have been incorporated into the empire and some were deported to Assyrian cities. Already in the eighth century Aramaic written on papyrus seems to have been used in the empire in certain contexts and ‘Aramaisms’ began to creep into the Assyrian language.3 Aramaic became the international language of diplomacy in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and Aramaic speaking people were dispersed throughout the empire as far as Egypt.4
Around 500 BCE, Darius I (522-486 BCE) made Aramaic the official language of the western half of the Persian Empire.5 This standardized dialect seems to have been based on the Babylonian Aramaic spoken and written by educated Persians.6 As Greek replaced Aramaic as the administrative language in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, local dialects began to develop independently of each other. However, Standard Literary Aramaic (SLA) remained as the written language (albeit with lexical and grammatical variation based on the local dialects). Aramaic dialects continued to be spoken until they were displaced by Arabic in the 7th century CE. At this point, Aramaic texts were composed and transmitted largely as a learned language. However, small groups of Aramaic speakers have survived into modern times.
3. Division of the dialects of Aramaic. There is no consensus among scholars as to the division of Aramaic, and, like most classification, the lines of demarcation are somewhat arbitrary. What complicates matters is that there are at least three axes of variation in the language: time, geography, and social factors (such as distinctions between standardized and local dialects). Thus an early division of Aramaic by Rosenthal (1939) moved from a chronological basis to a geographic one. First, he included under “Altaramäisch” (Old Aramaic) all of 1st millennium BCE Aramaic. This includes the early inscriptions as well as Reichsaramäisch (Official/Imperial Aramaic), the Persian ideograms, Nabatean, and Palmyrene. He distinguished this from “Jungaramäisch” (Young Aramaic) which included Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Modern Syrian (West) Aramaic. This was in turn distinguished from “Ostaramäisch” (East Aramaic) which included Syriac, Babylonian Talmud, Mandaic, and Modern East Aramaic.7
Segert and Beyer, among others, maintain a definition of Old Aramaic similar to Rosenthal, terming the inscriptions “Early Aramaic” or “Ancient Aramaic”. However, as more and more inscriptions have come to light, scholars began to restrict the sense of Old Aramaic to these early inscriptions in order to distinguish it from the increasingly standardized dialect of Imperial Aramaic. Fitzmeyer proposed a scheme based first on chronology and then divided by geography which is followed by the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon:8
Old Aramaic (c. 850 – c. 612 BCE)
Official/Imperial Aramaic (c. 600 – c. 200 BCE)
Middle Aramaic (c. 200 BCE – c. 250 CE)
Late Aramaic (c. 200 – c. 1200 CE)
1. See Stanislav Segert, “Vowel Letters in Early Aramaic”, JNES Vol 37 no 2 (Apr 1978): 111-114, as well as Stephen A. Kaufman, “The Pitfalls of Typology: On the Early History of the Alphabet,” HUCA 57 (1986): 1-14.
2. Quoted from Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. New York: Routlege, 1995, 395. See also ANET, 275.
3. Kuhrt, 398.
4. Kaufman, Stephen A, “Aramaic” in The Semitic Languages. Edited by Robert Hetzron (New York; London: Routledge, 1997): 114.
5. Beyer, Klaus. The Aramaic Language, Its Distribution and Subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986, 14.
6. Kaufman, Stephen A, “Aramaic” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992, 174.
7. Fitzmeyer, Joseph A, “The Phases of the Aramaic Language,” in A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979, 58.
8. See Fitzmeyer, “Phases” as well as the Kaufman articles in The Semitic Languages and ABD.