Old Aramaic language

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Old Aramaic
Region Levant/Fertile Crescent
Extinct evolved into Middle Aramaic by the 3rd century CE
Language codes
ISO 639-3 oar
Linguist list
oar

Old Aramaic refers to the earliest stage of the Aramaic language, taken to give way to Middle Aramaic by the 3rd century (a conventional date is the rise of the Sassanid Empire in 224 CE).

Emerging as the language of the Aramaean city-states of the Levant in the Early Iron Age, Old Aramaic was adopted as a lingua franca (besides Assyrian) in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and in this role was inherited for official use by the Achaemenid Empire during Classical Antiquity. After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, local vernaculars became increasingly prominent, fanning the divergence of an Aramaic dialect continuum and the development of differing written standards.

Ancient Aramaic[edit]

"Ancient Aramaic" refers to the earliest known period of the language, from its origin until it becomes the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent and Bahrain. It was the language of the Aramaean city-states of Damascus, Hamath and Arpad.

Silver ingot of Bar-Rakib, son of Panammuwa II,[1] King of Sam‘al (the modern Zincirli Höyük).

There are inscriptions that evidence the earliest use of the language, dating from the 10th century BCE. These inscriptions are mostly diplomatic documents between Aramaean city-states. The alphabet of Aramaic at this early period seems to be based on Phoenician, and there is a unity in the written language. It seems that, in time, a more refined alphabet, suited to the needs of the language, began to develop from this in the eastern regions of Aram. Oddly, the dominance of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III over Aram in the middle of the 8th century led to the establishment of Aramaic as a lingua franca of the empire, rather than it being eclipsed by Akkadian.

From 700 BCE, the language began to spread in all directions, but lost much of its homogeneity. Different dialects emerged in Assyria, Babylonia, the Levant and Egypt. However, the Akkadian-influenced Aramaic of Assyria, and then Babylon, started to come to the fore. As described in 2 Kings 18:26, Hezekiah, king of Judah, negotiates with Assyrian ambassadors in Aramaic so that the common people would not understand. Around 600 BCE, Adon, a Canaanite king, used Aramaic to write to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

"Chaldee" or "Chaldean Aramaic" used to be common terms for the Aramaic of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylonia. It was used to describe Biblical Aramaic, which was, however, written in a later style. It is not to be confused with the modern language Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.

Imperial Aramaic[edit]

Imperial Aramaic
Official Aramaic
Region Ancient Near East
Era 700–300 BCE
Early forms
Old Aramaic
  • Imperial Aramaic
Language codes
ISO 639-2 arc
ISO 639-3 arc

Around 500 BCE, following the Achaemenid conquest of Mesopotamia under Darius I, Aramaic (as had been used in that region) was adopted by the conquerors as the "vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. The use of a single official language, which modern scholarship has dubbed Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic, can be assumed to have greatly contributed to the astonishing success of the Achaemenids in holding their far-flung empire together for as long as they did".[2] In 1955, Richard Frye questioned the classification of Imperial Aramaic as an "official language", noting that no surviving edict expressly and unambiguously accorded that status to any particular language.[3] Frye reclassifies Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Achaemenid territories, suggesting then that the Achaemenid-era use of Aramaic was more pervasive than generally thought.

Imperial Aramaic was highly standardised; its orthography was based more on historical roots than any spoken dialect, and the inevitable influence of Persian gave the language a new clarity and robust flexibility. For centuries after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire (in 331 BCE), Imperial Aramaic – or near enough for it to be recognisable – would remain an influence on the various native Iranian languages. Aramaic script and – as ideograms – Aramaic vocabulary would survive as the essential characteristics of the Pahlavi writing system.[4]

One of the largest collections of Imperial Aramaic texts is that of the Persepolis fortification tablets, which number about five hundred.[5] Many of the extant documents witnessing to this form of Aramaic come from Egypt, and Elephantine in particular (see Elephantine papyri). Of them, the best known is the Wisdom of Ahiqar, a book of instructive aphorisms quite similar in style to the biblical book of Proverbs. Achaemenid Aramaic is sufficiently uniform that it is often difficult to know where any particular example of the language was written. Only careful examination reveals the occasional loan word from a local language.

A group of thirty Aramaic documents from Bactria have been discovered, and an analysis was published in November 2006. The texts, which were rendered on leather, reflect the use of Aramaic in the 4th century BC Achaemenid administration of Bactria and Sogdiana.[6]

Old Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew both form part of the group of Northwest Semitic languages, and during antiquity there may still have been substantial mutual intelligibility. In the Pesahim, Tractate 87b, Hanina bar Hama said that God sent the exiled Jews to Babylon because "[the Babylonian] language is akin to the Leshon Hakodesh".

Post-Achaemenid Aramaic[edit]

Coin of Alexander the Great bearing an Aramaic language inscription
Bilingual inscription (Greek and Aramaic) by Ashoka the Great, 3rd century BC at Kandahar, Afghanistan

The conquest by Alexander the Great did not destroy the unity of Aramaic language and literature immediately. Aramaic that bears a relatively close resemblance to that of the 5th century BC can be found right up to the early 2nd century BCE. The Seleucids imposed Greek in the administration of Syria and Mesopotamia from the start of their rule. In the 3rd century BCE, Greek overtook Aramaic as the common language in Egypt and Syria. However, a post-Achaemenid Aramaic continued to flourish from Judaea, Assyria, Mesopotamia, through the Syrian Desert and into northern Arabia and Parthia.


Biblical Aramaic is the term for the Aramaic passages interspersed in the Hebrew Bible. These passages make for a small fraction of the entire text (of the order of 1%), and most of it is due to the Aramaic parts of the Book of Daniel:

  • Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 – documents from the Achaemenid period (5th century BCE) concerning the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem.
  • Daniel 2:4b–7:28 – five subversive tales and an apocalyptic vision.
  • Jeremiah 10:11 – a single sentence in the middle of a Hebrew text denouncing idolatry.
  • Genesis 31:47 – translation of a Hebrew place-name.

Biblical Aramaic is a somewhat hybrid dialect. It is theorized that some Biblical Aramaic material originated in both Babylonia and Judaea before the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty. According to historical criticism, defiant Jewish propaganda shaped Aramaic Daniel during Seleucid rule. These stories might have existed as oral traditions at their earliest stage. This might be one factor that led to differing collections of Daniel in the Greek Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which presents a lightly Hebrew-influenced Aramaic.

Under the category of post-Achaemenid is Hasmonaean Aramaic, the official language of Hasmonaean Judaea (142–37 BCE). It influenced the Biblical Aramaic of the Qumran texts, and was the main language of non-biblical theological texts of that community. The major Targums, translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, were originally composed in Hasmonaean. Hasmonaean also appears in quotations in the Mishnah and Tosefta, although smoothed into its later context. It is written quite differently from Achaemenid Aramaic; there is an emphasis on writing as words are pronounced rather than using etymological forms.

Babylonian Targumic is the later post-Achaemenid dialect found in the Targum Onqelos and Targum Jonathan, the "official" targums. The original, Hasmonaean targums had reached Babylon sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. They were then reworked according to the contemporary dialect of Babylon to create the language of the standard targums. This combination formed the basis of Babylonian Jewish literature for centuries to follow.

Galilean Targumic is similar to Babylonian Targumic. It is the mixing of literary Hasmonaean with the dialect of Galilee. The Hasmonaean targums reached Galilee in the 2nd century CE, and were reworked into this Galilean dialect for local use. The Galilean Targum was not considered an authoritative work by other communities, and documentary evidence shows that its text was amended. From the 11th century CE onwards, once the Babylonian Targum had become normative, the Galilean version became heavily influenced by it.

Babylonian Documentary Aramaic is a dialect in use from the 3rd century CE onwards. It is the dialect of Babylonian private documents, and, from the 12th century, all Jewish private documents are in Aramaic. It is based on Hasmonaean with very few changes. This was perhaps because many of the documents in BDA are legal documents, the language in them had to be sensible throughout the Jewish community from the start, and Hasmonaean was the old standard.

Nabataean Aramaic is the language of the Arameo-Arab kingdom of Petra. The kingdom (c. 200 BCE–106 CE) covered the east bank of the Jordan River, the Sinai Peninsula and northern Arabia. Perhaps because of the importance of the caravan trade, the Nabataeans began to use Aramaic in preference to Old North Arabic. The dialect is based on Achaemenid with a little influence from Arabic: "l" is often turned into "n", and there are a few Arabic loan words. Some Nabataean Aramaic inscriptions exist from the early days of the kingdom, but most are from the first four centuries CE The language is written in a cursive script that is the precursor to the modern Arabic alphabet. The number of Arabic loan words increases through the centuries, until, in the 4th century, Nabataean merges seamlessly with Arabic.

Palmyrene Aramaic is the dialect that was in use in the Syriac city state of Palmyra in the Syrian Desert from 44 BC to 274 CE. It was written in a rounded script, which later gave way to cursive Estrangela. Like Nabataean, Palmyrene was influenced by Arabic, but to a much lesser degree.

Arsacid Aramaic, that in use during the Arsacid empire (247 BC – 224 CE), represents a continuation of Achaemenid Aramaic, widely spoken throughout the west of the empire. Aramaic continued as the scribal basis for Pahlavi as it developed for the needs of Parthian: using an Aramaic-derived script and incorporating many heterograms, or Aramaic words meant to be read as Parthian ones. The Arsacids saw themselves as a continuation of Achaemenid rule, and so Arsacid Aramaic, more than any other post-Achaemenid dialect, continued the tradition of the chancery of Darius I. Over time, however, it came under the influence of contemporary, spoken Aramaic, Georgian and Persian. After the conquest of the Parthians by the Persian-speaking Sasanids, Arsacid Pahlavi and Aramaic were influential on Sasanian language use.[7]

Late Old Eastern Aramaic[edit]

The dialects mentioned in the last section were all descended from Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic. However, the diverse regional dialects of Late Ancient Aramaic continued alongside these, often as simple, spoken languages. Early evidence for these spoken dialects is known only through their influence on words and names in a more standard dialect. However, these regional dialects became written languages in the 2nd century BCE. These dialects reflect a stream of Aramaic that is not dependent on Imperial Aramaic, and shows a clear division between the regions of Mesopotamia, Babylon and the east, and Judah, Syria, and the west.

In the East, the dialects of Palmyrene and Arsacid Aramaic merged with the regional languages to create languages with a foot in Imperial and a foot in regional Aramaic. The written form of Mandaic, the language of the Mandaean religion, was descended from the Arsacid chancery script.[8]

In the kingdom of Osroene, centred on Edessa and founded in 132 BCE, the regional dialect became the official language: Old Syriac. On the upper reaches of the Tigris, East Mesopotamian Aramaic flourished, with evidence from Hatra, Assur and the Tur Abdin. Tatian, the author of the gospel harmony the Diatessaron came from Assyria, and perhaps wrote his work (172 CE) in East Mesopotamian rather than Syriac or Greek. In Babylonia, the regional dialect was used by the Jewish community, Jewish Old Babylonian (from c. 70 CE). This everyday language increasingly came under the influence of Biblical Aramaic and Babylonian Targumic.

Late Old Western Aramaic[edit]

Further information: Aramaic of Jesus and Syriac language

The western regional dialects of Aramaic followed a similar course to those of the east. They are quite distinct from the eastern dialects and Imperial Aramaic. Aramaic came to coexist with Canaanite dialects, eventually completely displacing Phoenician in the 1st century BC and Hebrew around the turn of the 4th century CE.

The form of Late Old Western Aramaic used by the Jewish community is best attested, and is usually referred to as Jewish Old Palestinian. Its oldest form is Old East Jordanian, which probably comes from the region of Caesarea Philippi. This is the dialect of the oldest manuscript of Enoch (c. 170 BCE). The next distinct phase of the language is called Old Judaean into the 2nd century CE. Old Judaean literature can be found in various inscriptions and personal letters, preserved quotations in the Talmud and receipts from Qumran. Josephus' first, non-extant edition of his Jewish War was written in Old Judaean.

The Old East Jordanian dialect continued to be used into the 1st century CE by pagan communities living to the east of the Jordan. Their dialect is often then called Pagan Old Palestinian, and it was written in a cursive script somewhat similar to that used for Old Syriac. A Christian Old Palestinian dialect may have arisen from the pagan one, and this dialect may be behind some of the Western Aramaic tendencies found in the otherwise eastern Old Syriac gospels (see Peshitta).

In the 1st century CE, Jews in Roman Judaea primarily spoke Aramaic (besides Koine Greek as the international language of the Roman administration and trade). In addition to the formal, literary dialects of Aramaic based on Hasmonaean and Babylonian there were a number of colloquial Aramaic dialects. Seven dialects of Western Aramaic were spoken in the vicinity of Judaea in Jesus' time. They were probably distinctive yet mutually intelligible. Old Judaean was the prominent dialect of Jerusalem and Judaea. The region of Engedi had the South-east Judaean dialect. Samaria had its distinctive Samaritan Aramaic, where the consonants "he", "heth" and "‘ayin" all became pronounced as "aleph". Galilean Aramaic, the dialect of Jesus' home region, is only known from a few place names, the influences on Galilean Targumic, some rabbinic literature and a few private letters. It seems to have a number of distinctive features: diphthongs are never simplified into monophthongs. East of the Jordan, the various dialects of East Jordanian were spoken. In the region of Damascus and the Anti-Lebanon mountains, Damascene Aramaic was spoken (deduced mostly from Modern Western Aramaic). Finally, as far north as Aleppo, the western dialect of Orontes Aramaic was spoken.

The three languages influenced one another, especially Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew words entered Jewish Aramaic (mostly technical religious words but also everyday words like ‘ēṣ "wood"). Vice versa, Aramaic words entered Hebrew (not only Aramaic words like māmmôn "wealth" but Aramaic ways of using words like making Hebrew rā’ûi, "seen" mean "worthy" in the sense of "seemly", which is a loan translation of Aramaic ḥāzê meaning "seen" and "worthy").

The Greek of the New Testament often preserves non-Greek semiticisms, including transliterations of Semitic words:

  • Some are Aramaic like talitha (ταλιθα) that can represent the noun ṭalyĕṯā (Mark 5:41).
  • Others can be either Hebrew or Aramaic like Rabbounei (Ραββουνει), which stands for "my master/great one/teacher" in both languages (John 20:16).

References[edit]

  1. ^ Panammuwa II and Bar-Rakib: Two Structural Analyses, K. Lawson Younger, Jr., University of Sheffield
  2. ^ Shaked, Saul (1987). "Aramaic". Encyclopedia Iranica 2. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 250–261.  p. 251
  3. ^ Frye, Richard N.; Driver, G. R. (1955). "Review of G. R. Driver's "Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C."". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 18 (3/4): 456–461. doi:10.2307/2718444. JSTOR 2718444.  p. 457.
  4. ^ Geiger, Wilhelm; Kuhn, Ernst (2002). Grundriss der iranischen Philologie: Band I. Abteilung 1. Boston: Adamant. pp. 249ff. 
  5. ^ Stolper, John A. Matthew (2007). "What are the Persepolis Fortification Tablets?". The Oriental Studies News & Notes (winter): 6–9. Archived from the original on 14 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-13. 
  6. ^ Naveh, Joseph; Shaked, Shaul (2006). Joseph Naveh, ed. Ancient Aramaic Documents from Bactria. Studies in the Khalili Collection. Oxford: Khalili Collections. ISBN 1-874780-74-9. 
  7. ^ Beyer. p. 28 n. 27; Wiesehöfer, Josef; Azodi, Azizeh. Ancient Persia. pp. 118–20. 
  8. ^ "Iranian Scripts for Aramaic Languages," in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 341 (2006), pp. 53-62.
  • T. Muraoka & B. Porten. 2004. A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic. Handbook of Oriental Studies, The Near and Middle East. Brill.
  • Franz Rosenthal. 1995. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. 6th revised edition. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.