Imperial Aramaic (c.600 – c.200 BCE)

1. Main Sources. Imperial Aramaic (sometimes called Official Aramaic or Reichsaramäisch) is the widespread, standardized dialect which developed during this period, and continued to be the model for later literary dialects (Standard Literary Aramaic). Modeled after the Babylonian Aramaic spoken by educated Persians, it was made the official language of the Persian Empire.1 However, it should be noted that already from the 8th century Aramaic enjoyed prestige as the lingua franca of the Near East.2 Further, while the degree of homogeneity is significant given the wide distribution of the language, local dialectal differences do appear from time to time.3

Imperial Aramaic has been found across the span of the Persian Empire, as far east as the Indus Valley and as far south as Upper Egypt. Unfortunately the bulk of documents have been lost since they were written with ink on perishable materials. Note that Greenfield and Kutscher have argued for a distinction between eastern and western dialects within Imperial Aramaic.

a. Most documents are from Egypt where the dry climate preserved the papyrus and leather. These include the Elephantine Papyri (the archives of a Jewish military garrison), a letter to the Pharaoh from a Canaanite king found at Saqqarah,4 a packet of letters found at Hermopolis, etc (See Porten and Yardeni, Aramaic Documents from ancient Egypt).

b. The Aramaic letters in Ezra are Imperial Aramaic.5

c. The Uruk incantation is a clay tablet written with the cuneiform script. Chronologically, it is from Hellenistic times, but typologically the language may be classified as Imperial Aramaic.

d. The Persepolis fortification tablets are Persian administrative texts from the palace archives. There were 15,000 to 30,000 tablets and fragments found, most of which were Elamite written in cuneiform. However, several hundred tablets are Aramaic written in the Aramaic script on clay.

2. Phonology and Orthography. Along with the standardization of the language, Imperial Aramaic saw a standardization in script and orthography, corresponding to a reduction of phonemes due to mergers and the introduction of the spirantization of stops (the so-called bgdkpt letters).6

2.1. Phonemic Mergers. The consonantal inventory of Imperial Aramaic was reduced due to the following mergers: /ṯ/ > /t/, /ḏ/ > /d/, /ḍ/ > /ʕ/, /ẓ/ > /ṭ/, /ḫ/ > /ḥ/, /ġ/ > /ʕ/. The merger of /ś/ with /s/ may also have begun during this period.7 . The mergers of /ṯ/ with /t/ and /ḏ/ with /d/ (which had in Hebrew merged with sibilants) are probably related to (and evidence of) the allophonic spirantization of /t/ and /d/ ([ṯ] and [ḏ]) in post-vocalic positions.8

2.2. Imperial Aramaic Phonemic Inventory. The following table lists the Imperial Aramaic consonantal phonemic inventory along with the corresponding grapheme.9

  Emphatic Voiced unvoiced
Laryngeals   [ʔ] א [h] ה
Pharyngeals   [ʕ] ע [ḥ] ח
Velars [q] ק [g] ג [k] כ
Palatovelars     [š] ש
Sibilants [ṣ] צ [z] ז [s] ס
Interdentals   [ḏ] ז  
Dentals [ṭ] ט [d] ד [t] ת
Labials   [b] ב [p] פ
Liquids [l] ל and [r] ר
Nasals [m] מ and [n] נ
Semivowels [y] י and [w] ו

2.3. Orthography. Despite the mergers, historical and archaizing spelling is common in the period such as ז for original /ḏ/ (rather than ד) and ק for original /ḍ/ (rather than ע), though this will lead to hypercorrection with ז being used for etymological /d/ (like זמא “blood” for דמא).10 In the same vein, Imperial Aramaic is notable for nasalization – the dissimilation of geminated consonants (CC) into nun + simple consonant (nC).11 In some cases this nun is etymologically correct as in verbs I-n and III-n as well as words like אנת (*anta > atta את in OA > anta). However, in others it is not as in מנדע “knowledge”. Note that in הנעל hanʕēl (haph pf 3ms of עלל “to go in”) the use of nun be an attempt to render the lengthened velar spirant /ḡ/ (ie if the grapheme ע is still representing /ġ/).12

2.4. Vowel Reduction. A distinguishing characteristic of Aramaic is the reduction of short vowels in open syllables (thus *qatala > Heb qɔtal but Arm qətal). Since the ancient texts are unvocalized, comparative material must be used to date the phenomenon. In Akkadian words loaned to Aramaic, bi-syllabic nouns often reflect pre-tonic lengthening which suggests that at the time of borrowing, vowel reduction had not yet taken place. This in-turn suggests that vowel reduction began during the time of early Imperial Aramaic (ie after the date of borrowing). There also seems to be a chronological priority of reduction of /i/ to that of /u/.13

2.5. Dissimilation of Emphatics. As in Old Aramaic, regressive dissimilation is regular when initial /q/ precedes /ṣ/ or /ṭ/, though qṭl is frequently attested without dissimilation. Progressive dissimilation does not seem to occur, thus forms of ṣdq do not show dissimilation, though this could also be due to the distance of /q/ from /ṣ/.14

2.6. Interchange of /-m/ and /-n/. In some plural forms of the pronoun final /m/ is replaced with /n/. This change is seen first in letters and will later enter the formal language as well.15 Thus the 3ms suffix /-hūm/ also appears as /-hūn/, etc.

2.7. Weakening of /h/ to /ˀ/. A second feature which appears first in letters is the weakening of /h/ to /ˀ/ in initial position. This occurs in the causative stem (hapˤel > ˀapˤel) and later in the 3mp pronoun (hinnōn > ˀinnōn).

3. Morphology. The nominal and verbal inflection of Imperial Aramaic is largely the same as Old Aramaic, with most of the changes being phonological in nature. The only major change is the the use of 3mp forms for 3fp in the formal language.

3.1. Pronouns. The set of independent pronouns are as follows (unattested forms are marked with *):

Person Singular Plural
1c אנה ˀanā אנחנה ˀanaḥnā
2m אנת ˀantā אנתם ˀantūm
2f אנתיˀantī *ˀantēn
3m הו(א) hū(ˀ) המו himmō
3f הי(א)hī(ˀ)  

The suffixed pronouns are as follows:

Person Singular Plural
1c י- (nominal); ני- -anī (verbal) -anā
2m ך- -āk כם- -kōm
2f *-ek, -ekī *kina
3m ה- -eh (-hī after vowels) הם huma
3f ה- -ah (-h(ā) after vowels) הן--hina

Note that the indefinite pronoun mindaʕm is used for “something”.

3.2. Nouns. The noun morphology is the same as Old Aramaic. the only innovation is the appearance of the determined plural ending on gentilics and collectives. Later, in Eastern dialects this will replace -ayyā as the normal ending of the masculine plural.16

3.3. Verbs. There are two important developments in Imperial Aramaic. The first is the increased use of prefixed t- forms (ˀetpaʕel and ˀetpaʕʕal) in place of the internal passive. The second is the standardization of miktab as the infinitive for the base stem (found already at Tell Fakhariyeh, while other early dialects used a form without a prefix katāb).

4. Syntax. The most significant development in Imperial Aramaic syntax is the drift toward verb-final word order, which seems to result from the Aramaic of native Persian speakers.17 This change does not continue into the later periods.

1. Stephen A. Kaufman, “Aramaic” in ABD (ed D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992), 174.
2. Klaus Beyer, The Aramaic Language: Its Distribution and Subdivisions, trans John Healy (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 14, notes that while the Canaanite rulers in the 2nd millennium communicated with Egypt in Akkadian in the Amarna letters and Ugarit (c. 1200) also corresponded in Akkadian, the Assyrian ambassadors to Hezekiah (c. 701) conduct their business in Aramaic (2 Kg 18:26) and a letter from a certain Canaanite king Adon to the Pharoah c. 604 is also in Aramaic (on this see Bezalel Porten, “The Identity of King Adon,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Winter, 1981): 36-52.)
3. Fitzmayer, “The Phases of the Aramaic Language,” in A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays. (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979): 61.
4. See above footnote 2
5. Fitzmayer also classifies the language of Daniel as Imperial Aramaic, but from the later stages of the language.
6. Kaufman, “Aramaic” in ABD, 178.
7. Ibid.
8. Bergsträsser, Gotthelf. Introduction to the Semitic Languages: Text Specimens and Grammatical Sketches, trans and expanded by Peter T Daniels. (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1983): 77 note 4.
9. Adapted from Segert, “Old Aramaic Phonology,” in Phonologies of Asia and Africa, edited by Alan S Kaye and Peter T Daniels (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997): 119.
10. See Blau, On Pseudo-Correction in some Semitic Languages. Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 1970).
11. This phonetic phenomenon was also well known in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, see Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic. Assyriological studies 19. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974): 120.
12. Kaufman, Aramaic in Hetzron The Semitic Languages: 120.
13. See Kaufman, “On Vowel Reduction in Aramaic.” JAOS 104 (1984): 87-95.
14. Folmer, The Aramaic Language in the Achaemenid Period: A Study in Linguistic Variation (Peeters, 1995): 95.
15. Kaufman, “Aramaic” in The Semitic Languages: 116.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid, 127.


2 Comments on “Imperial Aramaic (c.600 – c.200 BCE)”

  1. Elias Says:


    First, thank you for your dedication doing this, is being of much help in my research.
    Second, if it is possible, I would like to know from where did the Imperial aramaic came from? from what languages did it evolved?

    My main concern is whether the Imperial Armaic language raised from the jewish culture or if they adopted it from the dominant empire.

    Please try to support your answers with scintific data

    Very Thankful,

  2. […] by Jesus Christ himself. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and “Imperial Aramaic” became the official administrative language of pre-Islamic Iranian polities through the Sassanid […]

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