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Neo-Aramaic, or Modern Aramaic, languages are varieties of Aramaic that are spoken vernaculars in the medieval to modern era that evolved out of Middle Aramaic dialects, around AD 1200 (conventional date).
The term strictly excludes those Aramaic languages that are used only as literary, sacred or classical languages today (for example, Targumic Aramaic, Classical Syriac and Classical Mandaic). However, the classical languages continue to have influence over the colloquial, Neo-Aramaic languages.
Eastern Aramaic dialects are spoken primarily by ethnic Assyrians, who are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church (Assyrian Catholics), Syriac Orthodox Church, Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church.
According to SIL Ethnologue, there were an estimated 550,000 native ethnic Assyrian speakers of Neo-Aramaic dialects in 1994. The largest group is Sureth which some artificially and inaccurately divide according to church into Assyrian Neo-Aramaic with 210,000 speakers (Assyrian Church of the east), Chaldean Neo-Aramaic with 206,000 speakers (Chaldean Catholic church) and Surayt/Turoyo with 112,000 speakers (Syriac Orthodox church), although all of these dialects have speakers from other churches amongst their number, for example; Chaldean Neo-Aramaic has speakers who are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Protestant churches, similarly Assyrian Neo-Aramaic has Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox speakers. More than 90% of Neo-Aramaic speakers either speak Assyrian Neo-Aramaic or the Chaldean Neo-Aramaic variety.
Throughout the history of the Aramaic language, a clear dialect boundary dividing western and eastern varieties has existed, running transversely across the Syrian Desert from southeast to northwest. Eastern Aramaic has remained dominant throughout history, and all classical languages are eastern varieties. Only Western Neo-Aramaic, spoken in Ma`loula and surrounding villages in the Anti-Lebanon, remains as a witness to western varieties.
The group of Neo-Aramaic languages is not uniform; it grew out of pockets of Aramaic-speaking communities that have held fast to their language through the changes of past centuries. Therefore, the dialect continuum is incomplete, with many varieties absent. Mutual intelligibility between the varieties of the group is limited to closest neighbours only. However, many of the varieties share features that have developed in parallel from Middle Aramaic varieties and the classical languages.
The other Neo-Aramaic languages are all eastern varieties, but with little homogeneity. Most distinct in this group is Modern Mandaic, which has low intelligibility with other varieties. It is the direct descendant of Classical Mandaic, which traces its roots back to the Persian-influenced Aramaic of the Arsacid Empire. Modern Mandaic is spoken by about a hundred people mostly in Ahvaz, Iran, all of whom are Mandaeans.
The other Eastern Neo-Aramaic languages have a lot more in common with each other. Some studies have labelled this group Central Neo-Aramaic (however, that name is also used for a smaller sub-grouping) or Northern Neo-Aramaic. These languages can be divided in various ways. Sometimes they are divided by religion into Jewish and Christian varieties. However, there is not complete intelligibility throughout either religious community, and on occasion better intelligibility across the religious divide. From this group, the Christian varieties of the extreme north west of Mesopotamia – Central Neo-Aramaic (confusingly different from the definition above) – stand apart.
This sub-grouping is witnessed by Turoyo/Surayt and, the now extinct, Mlahsô, both influenced by Classical Syriac. The other varieties, both Jewish and Christian, form the largest sub-grouping of Neo-Aramaic, which is usually referred to as Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA). Christian NENA varieties are influenced by Classical Syriac, but to a lesser degree than Central Neo-Aramaic; Jewish NENA varieties are influenced by Targumic Aramaic.
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