2.2. History of Aramaic

2. Aramaic > 2.2. History of Aramaic

2.2.1. Importance:

The Aramaic language is of great importance to followers of many religions and beliefs, the most importantly of which are:

A. Christianity:

The Aramaic language is a sacred language for Christians as it is the language of Jesus Christ, his mother, the Virgin Mary, his disciples and the early Christians.

Many Aramaic words are mentioned in the Greek New Testament, and these are just a few examples:

  • Matthew 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”.
  • Mark 5:41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Tal′itha cu′mi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”
  • Mark 7:34 and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Eph′phatha,” that is, “Be opened.”
  • Mark 14:36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”

Also, portions of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic, and those portions are:

Above all, we find innumerable important Aramaic Christian writings and translations that span all of Christian history.

Daniel 3:26-27. MS in Aramaic language

Figure 2.2.1: Daniel 3:26-27. MS in Aramaic on vellum, Qumran, ca. 4 BCE-68 CE {The Schoyen Collection}

B. Judaism:

Aramaic was the language of the Jews from the 5th century BCE to the 11th century CE. They wrote a number of their religious books in it, especially the Babylonian Talmud, Targumim, Midrash and some parts of the Tanakh. Also, the Hebrew square scripts evolved from Aramaic in the 2nd century BCE.

C. Samaritanism:

Likewise, Aramaic had been the language of the Samaritans from the 4th century until the 14th century CE.

D. Islam:

The linguistic analysis of the text of the Quran confirms that it was influenced by the Aramaic language in general and the Syriac language in particular. Also, the Arabic scripts evolved from Aramaic in the 6th century CE.

E. Mandaeism:

The Mandaeans speak a dialect of Eastern Aramaic known as Mandaic. It is also the language of their religious literature.

F. Manichaeism:

Mani wrote the bulk of his writings in the Syriac language.

2.2.2. Old Aramaic:

Aramaic has the longest continuous written tradition and attested history of any language. It is attested over a period of almost 3,000 years. The Tell Fekheriye inscription, dated to the 9th century BCE, is considered the oldest Aramaic text discovered to date.

The oldest Aramaic language inscription, Tell Fekheriye

Figure 2.2.2.1: The Tell Fekheriye Inscription {Abou-Assaf: La statue de Tell Fekherye …}

The earliest inscriptions to the 6th century BCE are referred to as Old Aramaic.

The oldest Aramaic dialects:

Three dialect differences of Aramaic can be distinguished during this period, corresponding roughly to geographic regions:

  1. One dialect is attested in western Syria in the core Aramean territory of Aleppo and Damascus, where most of the Early Old Aramaic inscriptions (from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE) were found.
  2. Another in the northwestern border region around the city-state of Samʾal.
  3. And a third in the northeastern region around Tell Fekheriye.

However, there are a few other Aramaic texts, found outside these regions.

The Early Aramaic scripts

Figure 2.2.2.2: The Early Aramaic scripts {Cross: Palaeography and the Date of the Tell Faḫariyeh Bilingual Inscription}

After the Egyptian and Hittite empires lost grip of the Levant at the end of the Bronze Age, Aramaic tribes formed small independent regional states in the area. They promoted their vernaculars to official written languages by amending the Phoenician alphabetic script and making it easier to read.

The Aramaeans adopted the Phoenician letters from the 11th century BCE, and used it to write their language. Over time they began to modify and develop it until they had their own Aramaic alphabet distinct from the Phoenician since the 9th century BCE.

Among the developments made by the Arameans:
  • Since Aramaic had more sounds than the number of Phoenician letters, Aramaeans used certain individual letters to represent what were originally different sounds.
  • Aramaeans also invented a way to express the vowel letters to make reading easier and to avoid confusion between similar words. They used certain consonantal signs also for long vowels (at first h for /ā/ and /ɛ̄/; w for /ū/; y for /ī/).
  • Aramaeans are the first to introduce word division by spacing in the 7th century BCE. Then this invention was passed on to the Jews who adopted the Aramaic alphabet and followed the Aramaic spacing.
International language:

Aramaic had already in the 8th century BCE become the international language of the Middle East:

  • c. 735 BCE a Phoenician from Tyre (in Lebanon) writes an Aramaic letter to the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (in Iraq).
  • in 701 BCE the ambassadors of the Assyrian king Sennacherib and the Judaean king Hezekiah negotiate in Aramaic before the walls of Jerusalem:
    2 Kings 18:26 Then Eli′akim the son of Hilki′ah, and Shebnah, and Jo′ah, said to the Rab′shakeh, “Pray, speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”
  • in 604 BCE the Chaldeans spoke with the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar II, in the Aramaic language.
    Daniel 2:1 In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnez′zar, … 2:4 Then the Chalde′ans said to the king, (Aramaic begins here) …
  • and c. 600 BCE a Canaanite king, Adon, writes an Aramaic letter to the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Aramaic letter of King Adon

Figure 2.2.2.3: The Aramaic Letter of King Adon {Naveh: Early history of the alphabet}

2.2.3. Official Aramaic:

When the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid empire around the middle of the 6th century BCE, Aramaic, as has been seen, had long become the international language of the Middle East.

Achaemenid empire adopted the Aramaic language

Figure 2.2.3.1: Achaemenid empire ca. 500 BCE {Wikipedia> User: WillemBK}

The Achaemenids adopted the existing Neo‐Babylonian administrative system, in which Aramaic was already prominent, and reformed and unified it during the reigns of King Darius I (522 – 486 BCE) and his successor King Xerxes I (486 – 465 BCE).

As a result, and during this period, Aramaic continued to be spoken in its old heartland Syria, in addition to the important position it occupied as the language of international diplomacy over the entire territory of the Achaemenid Empire until the downfall of the Achaemenid dynasty at the hands of Alexander the Great by 330 BCE. So, it reached the peak of its distribution in the first millennium BCE after it was adopted by three successive empires:

  • Neo-Assyrian Empire     911 – 609 BCE
  • Neo-Babylonian Empire 626 – 539 BCE
  • Achaemenid Empire       550 – 330 BCE
Evidences:

Direct evidence of different sorts, mostly legal deeds, economic notes, official as well as private letters, and memorial and funerary inscriptions have been discovered in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, North Arabia (=Saudi Arabia), Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in various parts of Asia Minor (=Turkey).

The first clear attestation of Official Aramaic language

Figure 2.2.3.2: The first clear attestation of Official Aramaic dated to 495 BCE {Sachau: Aramäische Papyrus aus Elephantine}

Ezra 4:7 And in the days of Ar-ta-xerx′es, Bishlam and Mith′redath and Tab′e-el and the rest of their associates wrote to Ar-ta-xerx′es king of Persia; the letter was written in Aramaic and translated.

[*] Artaxerxes I (465 – 424 BCE) was the fifth of the Achaemenid Kings.

The use of the Aramaic language as the language of international diplomacy did not stop with the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. The Indian emperor Ashoka (268 – 233 BCE) wrote six inscriptions in the Aramaic language in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of Ashoka Aramaic inscriptions

Figure 2.2.3.3: One of Ashoka inscriptions {Dupont-Sommer: Une nouvelle inscription araméenne d’Asoka}

Beneath the surface of Achaemenid Official Aramaic older Aramaic vernaculars continued to develop in the regions where they were already spoken, such as Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Later and gradually, they reappeared in written texts after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

2.2.4. The Internal Classification of Aramaic:

The Aramaic language can be classified according to chronological, social, geographical factors and common linguistic features as follows:

The internal classification of Aramaic language

Figure 2.2.4.1: The internal classification of Aramaic {© Rimon Wehbi}

Eastern Aramaic consists of the dialects of eastern Syria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia and east of the river Tigris. While Western Aramaic consists of the dialects of western Syria and Palestine.

Note 1: The Palmyrene dialect has a double affiliation, because it combines Western with Eastern Aramaic features, but it is somewhat closer to the eastern branch.
Note 2: There are some other dialects which remained unwritten.

Differences between Eastern and Western Aramaic:

The first differences between Eastern and Western Aramaic were already evident in the 9th century BCE. For example:

  1. Western Aramaic preserves the old emphatic state ending of the masculine-plural /-ayyā/ as opposed to the Assyrian form /-ē/ in Eastern Aramaic.
  2. The preformative of the 3rd person masculine of the imperfect /y-/ in Western Aramaic consistently shifted to /l-/ or /n-/ in the whole of Eastern Aramaic.
  3. The reduction of the pharyngeals /ʕ/ and /ḥ/ to /ʔ/ and /h/ respectively in some Eastern Aramaic dialects.
  4. There are differences in certain lexical items, such as the Western roots ḤMĪ, ṢDQ, LRAʕ instead of Eastern Aramaic ḤZĪ, ZDQ, LṮAḤT.

These differences became more apparent in written texts after the 2nd century BCE following the decline of Aramaic’s role as an international language and the influence of various other languages in each dialect.

As can be seen in Figure 2.2.4.1, nothing remains of Western Aramaic, except for the dialects of Maaloula, Bakh’a and Jubb’adin.
While in the eastern branch remained the Central Turoyo (spoken by Syriacs), the Northeastern dialects (spoken by Assyrians, Chaldeans and Jews), and the Neo-Mandaic (spoken by the Sabeans).

Modern Aramaic dialects in their areas of origin

Figure 2.2.4.2: Modern Aramaic dialects in their areas of origin (red: Western Neo-Aramaic, green: Turoyo, yellow: NENA, violet: Neo-Mandaic) {© Rimon Wehbi}

2.2.5. The Aramaic scripts:

Just as the handwriting of each person differs from the other, so are the scripts of the Aramaic inscriptions. Each inscription differs slightly from the other. With time and the wide geographical spread of the Aramaic language, in addition to other factors, Aramaic scripts emerged and developed.

Figure 2.2.5: Aramaic scripts of the main Aramaic dialects {© Rimon Wehbi}

Notes on Figure 2.2.5:

  • Palmyrene, Jewish Babylonian, and (to a lesser extent) Hatran are similar to Nabataean and Jewish Palestinian in their scripts, and all are similar to the Official Aramaic scripts from which they are derived.
  • The Christian Palestinian script was derived from the Syriac Esṭrangēlā script (a Greek word meaning “rounded”), from which also the modern Central and Northeastern dialect scripts are derived.

Rimon Wehbi   07/07/2021

What you can read next: