Aramaic, like Hebrew, is a Northwest Semitic language, and the two share many features. From the 7th century BCE, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Middle East. It became the language of diplomacy and trade, but was not used by the Hebrew populace at this early date. As described in 2 Kings 18:26, Hezekiah, king of Judah, demands to negotiate with Assyrian ambassadors in Aramaic rather than "Judean" (or "Judahite") so that the common people would not understand.
During the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian captivity brought the working language of Mesopotamia much more into the daily life of ordinary Jews. Around 500 BCE, Darius I of Persia proclaimed that Aramaic would be the official language for the western half of his empire, and the Eastern Aramaic dialect of Babylon became the official standard. Documentary evidence shows the gradual shift from Hebrew to Aramaic:
- Hebrew is used as first language and in society; other, similar Canaanite languages are known and understood.
- Aramaic is used in international diplomacy and foreign trade.
- Aramaic is used for communication between subjects and the imperial administration.
- Aramaic gradually becomes the language of outer life (in the marketplace for example).
- Aramaic gradually replaces Hebrew in the home, and the latter is used only in religious activity.
These phases took place over a fairly protracted period, and the rate of change varied depending on the place and social class in question: the use of one or other language was likely a social, political and religious barometer.
From the Greek conquest to the Diaspora
The conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE overturned centuries of Mesopotamian dominance, and led to the ascendancy of Greek. It became the dominant language throughout the Seleucid Empire, but significant pockets of Aramaic-speaking resistance continued. Judaea was one of the areas where Aramaic remained dominant, and its use remained among Babylonian Jews as well. The destruction of Persian power, and its replacement with Greek rule sped the final decline of Hebrew to the margins of Jewish society. Writings from the Seleucid and Hasmonaean periods show the complete supersession of Aramaic as the language of the Jewish people. In contrast, Hebrew was the holy tongue. The early witness to this period of change is the Biblical Aramaic of the books of Daniel and Ezra. This language shows a number of Hebrew features have been taken into Jewish Aramaic: the letter He is often used instead of Aleph to mark a word-final long a vowel and the prefix of the causative verbal stem, and the masculine plural ending -īm often replaces -īn.
Different strata of Aramaic began to appear during the Hasmonaean period, and legal, religious and personal documents show different shades of hebraisms and colloquialisms. The dialect of Babylon, the basis for standard Aramaic under the Persians, continued to be regarded as normative, and the writings of Jews in the east were held in higher regard because of it. The division between western and eastern dialects of Aramaic is clear among different Jewish communities. Targums, translations of the Jewish scriptures into Aramaic, became more important as the general population do not understand the original. Perhaps beginning as simple interpretive retellings, gradually 'official' standard Targums were written and promulgated. Eventually, those of the Babylonian community became standard in Judaea also. Among religious scholars, Hebrew continues to be understood, but Aramaic appears in even the most sectarian of writings. Aramaic is used extensively in the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah and the Tosefta alongside Hebrew.
In the Diaspora
The Great Jewish Revolt of 70 CE and the Bar Kokhba's Revolt of 135 with their severe Roman reprisals lead to the breakup of much of Jewish society and religious life. However, the Jewish schools of Babylon continued to flourish, and, in the west, the rabbis settled in Galilee to continue their study. Jewish Aramaic had become quite distinct from the Official Aramaic of the Persian Empire by this period. Middle Babylonian Aramaic is the dominant dialect, and it is the basis of the Babylonian Talmud. Middle Galilean Aramaic, once a colloquial northern dialect, influenced the writings in the west. Most importantly, it is the Galilean dialect of Aramaic that was most probably the first language of the Masoretes, who composed signs to aid in the pronunciation of scripture, Hebrew as well as Aramaic. Thus, the standard vowel marks that accompany pointed versions of the Tanakh may be more representative of the pronunciation of Middle Galilean Aramaic than that of Hebrew of earlier periods.
As the Jewish diaspora was spread more thinly, Aramaic began to give way to other languages as the first language of widespread Jewish communities. Eventually, it, like Hebrew before it, became the language of religious scholars. The thirteenth century Zohar, published in Spain, is testament to the continued importance of the language of the Talmud after it had long since ceased to be the language of the people.
In the 20th century
Aramaic only continued to be the first language in those Jewish communities that remained in Aramaic-speaking areas throughout Mesopotamia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, dozens of small Aramaic-speaking Jewish communities were spread throughout a wide area spread between Lake Urmia and the Plain of Mosul, and as far east as Sanandaj. Also throughout this same region were many Aramaic-speaking Christian groups. In some places, Zakho for instance, the Jewish and Christian communities comprehended one another's Aramaic well. In others, like in Sanandaj, Jews and Christians both speaking Aramaic could not understand one another. Among the different Jewish dialects, mutual comprehension became quite sporadic. In the middle of the last century, the founding of the State of Israel led to the disruption of centuries-old Aramaic-speaking communities. Today, most first-language speakers of Jewish Aramaic live in Israel, but their distinct languages are gradually being eroded in a sea of Modern Hebrew.
Modern Jewish Aramaic languages are still known by their geographical location before the return to Israel.
- Lishana Deni – originally spoken around Zakho in Iraq.
- Lishan Didan – originally spoken in Iranian Azerbaijan.
- Lishanid Noshan – originally spoken around Arbil in Iraq.
- Sokoloff, Michael, A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: Bar Ilan and Johns Hopkins 2002
- Sokoloff, Michael, A Dictionary of Judean Aramaic: Bar Ilan 2003
- Sokoloff, Michael, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period: Johns Hopkins 2002/3