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Aramaic 

aramaic

Introduction

Welkom – Welcome

Aramaic (ארמית Arāmît, ܐܪܡܝܐ Ārāmāyâ), a member of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, has a remarkable 3,000-year history. It was spoken by Aramaeans, an ancient semi-nomadic people who had lived in upper Mesopotamia. This area is now, occupied by Iraq, eastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Hebrew is closely related to Aramaic.

Aramaic is thought to have first appeared among the Aramaeans in the 11th century BC. By the 7th and 6th centuries BC, it became the lingua franca of the Middle East, and later it became the official language of the Achaemenian Persian dynasty (559–330 BC). It was eventually displaced by Greek, following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

mapIn the 6th century BC, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews, particularly in Syria and Palestine. Consequently, portions of the Old Testament and versions of the Talmuc are written in Aramaic. The Dead Sea Scrolls were also written in Aramaic, in addition to Hebrew and Greek. Aramaic is believed to have been the native language of Jesus and the Apostles. The language continued to be widely used until it was replaced by Arabic around 650 AD.

Modern or Neo-Aramaic today is a group of related languages, rather than a single language. It includes modern spoken varieties of the language that evolved in scattered communities throughout the Middle East that have succeeded in preserved their language throughout history.

Ethnologue lists 19 varieties of Neo-Aramaic dialects spoken today.  The largest groups are Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo. Modern Aramaic languages with at least 1,000 speakers are listed in the table below. The data is based on Ethnologue.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic 30,000 Iraq
232,000 worldwide
Chaldean Neo-Aramaic 100,000 Iraq
206,000 worldwide
Hértevin 1,000 Turkey
Bohtan Neo-Aramaic 1,000 Georgia
Hulaulá 10,000 Israel
Lishana Deni 7,500 Israel
Lishán Didán 4,230 Israel
Lishanid-Noshan 2,200 Israel
Turoyo 3,000 Turkey
62,000 worldwide
Modern Mandaic 5,000 Iraq
Classical Mandaic extinct as a spoken language but continues to be used as liturgical language of followers of the Mandaean religion Iran
Western Neo-Aramaic 15,000 Syria

Status
None of the Neo-Aramaic languages have official status in their countries. Most monolingual speakers tend to be older adults. Younger speakers learn Aramaic as a second language along with the dominant language of the country as their first language. Many varieties are endangered, and some are already extinct.

Dialects

Aramaic is spoken in scattered communities across the Middle East, from Azerbaijan to Syria. As a result, there are many varieties, not all mutually intelligible. The main division is between Eastern and Western varieties. Religious practices have also played a part in creating language barriers among speakers of Aramaic. As a result, there is no mutual intelligibility among dialects spoken by Christians, Jews, and Mandaeans. 

  • Christian
    The Christian Modern Aramaic languages are often called Modern Syriac, or Neo-Syriac. They are also sometimes called Assyrian or Chaldean. The varieties are not all mutually intelligible. East Syriac communities are usually either Chaldean Catholics or Assyrians.
  • Jewish
    The Jewish Modern Aramaic languages are now mostly spoken in Israel, and most are facing extinction since older speakers are not passing the language to younger generations. The Jewish dialects from communities that once lived in Iraq are not all mutually intelligible. In some places, Christians and Jews speak unintelligible dialects, while in other places they understand each other.

 

Structure

Sound system

The sound system of Aramaic shares many features with other Semitic languages, particularly with Hebrew. Aramaic varieties draw on a general pool of 25-40 phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Older dialects tend to have larger phonemic inventories than modern ones. For instance, some modern Jewish Aramaic pronunciations lack emphatic and geminated (doubled) consonants. Other dialects have incorporated sounds from the neighboring languages, particularly ArabicAzerbaijaniKurdish, Persian and Turkish. Due to its isolation, the consonant system of Western Aramaic has developed quite differently from other Aramaic varieties.

Vowels
All Aramaic varieties have three vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish word meaning. They can be either short or long. Vowel length affects word meaning. In the table below, vowel length is indicated by a colon after the vowel. There are also two diphthongs /ay/ and /aw/. Emphatic (pharyngealized) consonants turn all vowels into a schwa /ə/, a vowel similar to a in about.

Front Central Back
Close
i, i:
u, u:
Open
a, a:

 

Consonants
The table below shows the consonant phonemes of Aramaic (from Wikipedia). Like other Semitic languages Aramaic has the following features::

  • a wealth of consonants produced at the back of the oral cavity
  • an opposition between voiceless plain and emphatic consonants, e.g., a plain /t/ and a pharyngealized // (Emphatic consonants are pronounced with the root of the tongue retracted.)
  • an opposition between single and geminated (double) consonants; all consonants, except for pharyngeal and glottal, can be doubled (geminated) by holding them for a longer period than their single counterparts. Whether a consonant is single or double makes a difference in word meaning.
  • absence of consonant clusters at the beginning of words.

 

Interdental Palatal Uvular Pharyngeal
voiceless plain
p
t
k
q
ʔ
voiceless emphatic
voiced
b
d
g
voiceless plain
θ
s
ʃ
x
ħ
h
voiceless emphatic
voiced
ð
z
ʒ
ɣ
ʕ
m
n
x
l
Flap/trill
r
w
j
  • /tˤ, kˤ, sˤ, tsˤ, tʃˤ/ are  emphatic consonants with no equivalents in English.
  • /θ/ = th in thin
  • /ð/ = th in those
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /ʔ/ = sound between the vowels in uh-oh
  • /x, q, ħ, ʕ/ have no equivalents in English
  • /j/ = y in yet

 

Grammar

The grammar of Aramaic is typical of Semitic languages.

Nouns and adjectives
Most Aramaic nouns, like nouns in other Semitic languages, are built on tri-consonantal roots. Some of the features associated with nouns and adjectives are listed below (based on Wikipedia):

  • There are two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine. The feminine absolute (basic form) singular is usually marked by the ending -â.
  • There are two numbers, singular and plural with vestiges of the dual number for paired objects.
  • Nouns and adjectives have three states that are similar to cases in European languages: absolute state is the unmarked case, the construct state is the case of the possessed object, the emphatic state is an extended form of the noun that functions somewhat like a definite article.
  • Adjectives agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify.

 

Verbs
The verb system of Aramaic is quite complicated. Below are a few of its most salient features:

  • Alterations of the verbal root K-T-B mark different categories.
  • There are two tenses that are called perfect and imperfect.
  • There are six conjugations, three basic and three derived.

 

Word order
The normal word order in Aramaic is Verb-Subject-Object. Modifiers follow the noun they modify.

Vocabulary

Words consist of tri-consonantal roots representing a basic meaning. The bulk of Aramaic vocabulary evolved from *Proto-Semitic, the ancestor of all Semitic languages. In addition, different varieties of Aramaic have borrowed words from the surrounding languages, such as ArabicAzerbaijaniKurdishPersian and Turkish.

Writing

The Early Aramaic alphabet is an extremely ancient writing system derived from the Phoenician alphabet, a consonant-based writing system, during the 10th or 9th centuries BC. Eventually, Aramaic developed its distinctive ‘square’ style. The use of Aramaic as a lingua franca throughout the Middle East from the 8th century BC resulted in the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet for writing Hebrew. At the end of the 6th century BC, the Early Aramaic alphabet was replaced by the Hebrew Square Script. Today it is better known as the Hebrew alphabet. Latin, Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets are all used to write Aramaic, though the Syriac alphabet is the most widely used script to write Aramaic.

There are three forms of the Syriac alphabet. All are written from right to left in horizontal lines.

    • The oldest classical form is called ʾEsṭrangēlā. It is used  in scholarly publications and inscriptions, but it is no longer the main script for writing  Syriac.
    • Maḏnḥāyā ‘Eastern’ is used for writing East Syriac dialects. It is modelled on ‘Esṭrangēlā but it also uses dots to represent vowels.
    • Serṭā ‘Western’ is used for writing West Syriac dialects. It is also modelled on ‘Esṭrangēlā, but it uses miniscule Greek vowels to represent vowels. It has simpler, more cursive lines.

 

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

1 ܡܠܘܐܐ
ܟܠ ܒܪܢܫܐ ܒܪܝܠܗ ܚܐܪܐ ܘܒܪܒܪ ܓܘ ܐܝܩܪܐ ܘܙܕܩܐ. ܘܦܝܫܝܠܗ ܝܗܒܐ ܗܘܢܐ ܘܐܢܝܬ. ܒܘܕ ܕܐܗܐ ܓܫܩܬܝ ܥܠ ܐܚܪܢܐ ܓܪܓ ܗܘܝܐ ܒܚܕ ܪܘܚܐ ܕܐܚܢܘܬܐ.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Aramaic?
There is no data on the difficulty of Aramaic for speakers of English.

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