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The Neo-Aramaic or Modern Aramaic languages are varieties of Aramaic that are spoken vernaculars from 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.
The numbers of fluent speakers of Neo-Aramaic languages range from approximately 575,000 to 1,000,000. The largest of these are Assyrian Neo-Aramaic with approximately 235,000 speakers, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic with approximately 216,000 speakers and Surayt/Turoyo with approximately 250,000 speakers. While these are often associated with specific religious affiliations (Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church respectively) these dialects have speakers from different churches amongst their numbers. There are also smaller numbers of speakers of smaller Northeastern Neo-Aramaic languages, Western Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Aramaic languages and Neo-Mandaic.
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.
Neo-Aramaic languages are not uniform; they 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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