Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialect of Urmia

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Lishán Didán
לשן דידן Lišān Didān, לשנן Lišānān
Pronunciation[liˈʃan diˈdan] [liˈʃanan]
Native toIsrael, United States; originally Iran, Turkey; briefly Azerbaijan, Georgia (country)
RegionJerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York, Los Angeles; originally from Iranian Azerbaijan
Native speakers
4,500 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3trg
ELPJewish Azerbaijani Neo-Aramaic

The Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialect of Urmia, a dialect of Northeastern Neo-Aramaic, was originally spoken by Jews in Urmia and surrounding areas of Iranian Azerbaijan from Salmas to Solduz and into what is now Yüksekova, Hakkâri and Başkale, Van Province in eastern Turkey.[2] Most speakers now live in Israel.

Rahel speaking Jewish Neo-Aramaic (Lishan Didan)


Various Neo-Aramaic dialects were spoken across a wide area from Lake Urmia to Lake Van (in Turkey), down to the plain of Mosul (in Iraq) and back across to Sanandaj (in Iran again).

There are two major dialect clusters of Urmi Jewish Neo-Aramaic. The northern cluster of dialects centered on Urmia and Salmas in West Azerbaijan province of Iran, and extended into the Jewish villages of Van Province, Turkey.[3] The southern cluster of dialects was focused on the town of Mahabad and villages just south of Lake Urmia.[4] The dialects of the two clusters are intelligible to one another, and most of the differences are due to receiving loanwords from different languages: Standard Persian, Kurdish and Turkish languages especially.[5]

Many of the Jews of Urmia worked as peddlers in the cloth trade, while others were jewelers or goldsmiths. The degree of education for the boys was primary school, with only some advancing their Jewish schooling in a Talmud yeshiva. Some of these students earned their livelihood by making talismans and amulets. There was a small girls school with only twenty pupils. There were two main synagogues in Urmia, one large one and one smaller one. The large synagogue was called the synagogue of Sheikh Abdulla.

By 1918, due to the assassination of Shimun XIX Benyamin, Patriarch of the Church of the East as part of the Armenian Genocide, and the invasion of the Ottoman forces, many Jews were uprooted from their homes and fled. The Jews settled in Tbilisi or much later emigrated to Israel. The upheavals in their traditional region after World War I and the founding of the State of Israel led most Azerbaijani Jews to settle in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and small villages in various parts of the country.[6] Due to persecution and relocation, Neo-Aramaic began to be replaced by the speech of younger generations by Modern Hebrew.[6]

Not all Urmi Jews went to Israel. Beginning in the early 1900s, some came to the United States, forming a community in Chicago. Others stayed in Iran until after the Iranian Revolution, eventually moving to New York, Los Angeles, and other places in the United States, joining existing Persian Jewish communities. A few moved to Tehran, and remain there into the 21st century.

Most native speakers speak Hebrew to their children now.[7] Fewer than 5000 people are known to speak Urmi Jewish Neo-Aramaic, and most of them are older adults in their sixties who speak Hebrew as well.[6] The language faces extinction in the next few decades.[7] There are also a dwindling number of speakers scattered across the United States, as well as a handful in Tehran.

Geographical distribution[edit]

Jewish languages[edit]

Jewish Azerbaijani Neo-Aramaic is the term used by most scholars. Its speakers lived in Northern Iran in the townships of Northern Iranian Azerbaijan (specifically Urmia, official name Rizaiye and Salamas, official name Shahpur). Lishan Didan, translated as 'our language' is often confused with a similar language called Inter-Zab Jewish Neo-Aramaic (which is also referred to as "Lishan Didan"). The term targum is often used to describe the two different languages called Lishan Didan, as it is a traditional and common term for the Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects.

Another language is called Manuscript Barzani or Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic. Manuscript Barzani was spoken in a community in Iraqi Kurdistan of the Rewanduz/Arbel region.[8] This language is also called 'Targum,' as it follows distinct translation techniques used by Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan.[9][10] Most of the men of the Barzani family were rabbis and Torah scholars. The rabbis would travel around Kurdistan to set up and maintain yeshivas in the towns of Barzan, Aqra, Mosul, and Amediya. Much literature (commentaries on religious text, poetry, prayers, ritual instructions) has been compiled and published by the members of the Barzani family and their community.

*h has been retained in some words in Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic and other communities near Kurdistan.[11] The following displays *h retention.[12]

ghk 'to laugh'
dbh 'to slaughter'
rhm 'to pity'
mhq 'to erase'
htm 'to sign'

This is different from the Jewish Urmia language as this dialect has the voiceless glottal /h/[13] while Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic has regular pharyngealization with the voiced pharyngeal /ʕ/.

Assyrian Dialects[edit]

Another Assyrian community settled in Urmia after the local Kurds and Turkish army forced them to flee their homes.[14] Over ten thousand people died en route to Urmia.[14] After additional trouble in Urmia, the Assyrian community left and settled in Ba‘quba near Baghdad.[14] In the early 1930s some moved to Syria and lived near the Euphratic Khabur between al-Hasakah and Ras_al-Ayn.[14]

The following displays examples of divergence in phonology, morphology, and lexicon between the Jewish and Assyrian Urmia dialects.[15]

Jewish Urmia Assyrian Urmia
belà béta 'house'
zorá súra 'small'
-u -e 'their'
-ilet -iwət 2ms copula
mqy hmzm 'to speak'
kwś ˤsly 'to descend'


Urmi Neo-Aramaic, at the northeastern extreme end of this area, is somewhat intelligible with Trans-Zab Jewish Neo-Aramaic (spoken further south, in Iranian Kurdistan) and Inter-Zab Jewish Neo-Aramaic (formerly spoken around Kirkuk, Iraq).[16]

However, the local Christian Neo-Aramaic dialects of Suret Neo-Aramaic are only mildly mutually intelligible: Christian and Jewish communities living side by side developed completely different variants of Aramaic that had more in common with their coreligionists living further away than with their neighbors.[13] The topography in many of the dialects of Neo-Aramaic is so distinct that small villages, (like the town of Arodhin which consisted of two Jewish families), had their own dialect.[8]


Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n
voiceless p t k q ʔ
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ x h
voiced w z ʒ ɣ
Approximant l j
Rhotic r

Most dialects feature a weakening of historically emphatic consonants. For example, Urmi dialect features suprasegmental velarization in historically emphatic contexts.

Sometimes these consonants can be realized differently:

  • /q/ is often realized as [ɢ ~ ʁ] between a vowel/sonant and a vowel
  • /w/ is realized as [β ~ v ~ w]
  • /h/ is realized as [ɦ] in intervocalic and post-vocalic positions
  • /n/ is realized as [ŋ] before /k/, /g/, and /q/
  • /r/ is realized as [ɾ] in non-velarized words, and [r] in velarized words
  • /b/, /d/, and /g/ tend to be devoiced when near voiceless consonants


Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open ɑ

Some vowels are realized in many different ways:

  • /a/ is realized as
    • [a] most commonly in non-velarized words
    • [ɑ] when
      • in the vicinity of back and labial consonants in stressed syllables
      • in pretonic open syllables
      • at the end of a word
      • in velarized words
    • [ʌ] when, for non-velarized words
      • in unstressed closed syllables
      • in open syllables that do not immediately precede the stress
    • [ɔ] when in the sequence /aø/ (sometimes)
    • [ɒ] when, for velarized words
      • in unstressed closed syllables
      • in open syllables that do not immediately precede the stress
  • /ə/ is realized as
    • [ɪ ~ ə] in non-velarized words
    • [ɯ] in velarized words
  • /o/ is realized as
    • [ø] in non-velarized words
    • [o] in velarized words
  • /u/ is realized as
    • [y] in non-velarized words
      • [ʏ] in unstressed closed syllables
    • [u] in velarized words
      • [ʊ] in unstressed closed syllables
  • /i/ and /e/ are realized with lowered onglides and/or offglides in velarized words
All Vowel Realizations
Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i y ɯ u
Near-Close ɪ ʏ ʊ
Close-Mid ø o
Mid e ə
Open-Mid ʌ ɔ
Open a ɑ ɒ


Below is a general comparison of different Neo-Aramaic dialect differences in phonology:[17]

Ancient Aramaic A. A. pronunciation Zāxō Dehōk ʿAmadiya Urmia Irbil
ידאֿ "hand" ʾ īḏa ʾ īza ʾ īḏa ʾ īda īda īla
ביתאֿ "house" bēṯa bēsa bēṯa bēṯa bēla bēla


As a trans-Zab dialect, Jewish Salamas *ḏ has a reflex l like the Irbil dialect above. Examples are:[15]

Jewish Salamas English
nəqlá 'thin'
rqül 'dance'

The reflex for Jewish Salamas of *ṯ is l like the Urmia and Irbil dialects above. Examples are:[15]

Jewish Salamas English
malá 'village'
ksilá 'hat'
sahlül(ġ)á 'testimony'

Suprasegmental Emphasis[edit]

Jewish Salamas lost the trait of word emphasis. This is the only Neo-Aramaic dialect that has completely lost this trait. Below is a comparison of Jewish Salamas and Christian Salamas suprasegmental emphasis.[15]

Jewish Salamas Christian Salamas English
amrá +amra 'wool'
bəzzá +bezza 'hole'
susəltá +susiya 'plait, pigtail'


Urmia, like other Neo-Aramaic dialects, exhibits complex verbal morphology that allows for fine-grained expression of mood, tense, and aspect.[13]

+qat ́Ә́l he kills
+qatolé he is killing
+qat ́Ә́lwa he used to kill
+qatolá-wele he was killing
+qt ́Ә́lle he killed
+qt ́Ә́lwale he had killed
+qtilé he has killed
+qtilá-wele he had killed


Though few Neo-Aramaic dialects have written literature, educational and religious documents in Urmia were published and widely distributed in Urmia and the Kurdish mountains on both Persian and Turkish territory. Several newspapers were also published in the language. Most of this literature has been lost. However, at least one poem has been preserved, from the 1909 issue of the Syriac newspaper Kokba. The poem is the last literary survival of a classical Sugita, a type of Syriac poetry which often has three characteristic features:[4]

  1. initial stanzas provide the setting
  2. the body of the poem is often dialogue between two characters
  3. it is usually in acrostic form (optional. The poem presented here excludes this.)
Last literary survival of a classical Sugita, a type of Syriac poetry

The poem evidences borrowing and words from Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic, and some Greek origins.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lishán Didán at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Garbell, Irene (1965). The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Persian Azerbaijan: Linguistic Analysis and Folkloristic Texts. Walter de Gruyter. p. 13. ISBN 978-3-11-087799-1.
  3. ^ Heinrichs, Wolfhard (1990). Studies in Neo-Aramaic. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press.
  4. ^ a b Yaure, L (1957). "A Poem in the Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Urmia". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 16 (2): 73–87. doi:10.1086/371377. S2CID 162120167.
  5. ^ Rees, M (2008). Lishan Didan, Targum Didan: Translation Language in a Neo-Aramaic Targum Tradition. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
  6. ^ a b c "Israel - Languages". Ethnologue.
  7. ^ a b Mutzafi, H (2004). Two Texts in Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.
  8. ^ a b Sabar, Y (1984). The Arabic Elements in the Jewish Neo-Aramaic Texts of Nerwa and ʿAmādīya, Iraqi Kurdistan. American Oriental Society.
  9. ^ Jastrow, O (1997). The Neo-Aramaic Languages. New York: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
  10. ^ Mengozzi, A (2010). "That I Might Speak and the Ear Listen to Me" (PDF). On Genres in Traditional Modern Aramaic Literature.
  11. ^ Maclean, A. J (1895). Grammar of the dialects of vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul. London: Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ Khan, G (1999). A Grammar of Neo-Aramaic: The Dialect of the Jews of Arbel. Leiden, Brill.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  13. ^ a b c d e Khan, Geoffrey (2008). The Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialect of Urmi. Piscataway, NJ: Georgias Press.
  14. ^ a b c d Coghill, E. (1999). "The Verbal System of North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic". CiteSeerX {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ a b c d Khan, G and Lidia, N. (2015). Neo-Aramaic and Its Linguistic Context. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Sabar, Y (2002). A Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dictionary. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrossowitz Verlag.
  17. ^ "Neo-Aramaic". Jewish Virtual Library.


  • Heinrichs, Wolfhart (ed.) (1990). Studies in Neo-Aramaic. Scholars Press: Atlanta, Georgia. ISBN 1-55540-430-8.
  • Mahir Ünsal Eriş, Kürt Yahudileri - Din, Dil, Tarih, (Kurdish Jews) In Turkish, Kalan Publishing, Ankara, 2006
  • Maclean, Arthur John (1895). Grammar of the dialects of vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul: with notices of the vernacular of the Jews of Azerbaijan and of Zakhu near Mosul. Cambridge University Press, London.

External links[edit]