Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Language Profile: Aramaic

In our last post on the languages of Iran, we briefly mentioned Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, a member of the Aramaic language family. The Aramaic languages are part of the Semitic language family that includes languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic. They are particularly interesting due to their historical importance and long written history.

The earliest written evidence of Aramaic dates back to the 10th century BC. Aramaic was an important lingua franca throughout the Middle East for several centuries. It was used by the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Achaemenid Empires, as well as being the language of Syriac Christianity. The Talmud, an important Jewish text, was also written in Aramaic, which is thought to be the language used by Jesus since it was the everyday language in Judea at the time. After centuries of linguistic dominance in the region, Aramaic was eventually replaced by the Arabic language.

This book was written in the 11th century using Syriac script,
which descended from the Aramaic alphabet. 
Due to the long history of Aramaic, it should come as no surprise that it evolved into numerous varieties, most of them distinct enough to be classified as separate languages. There are only a few remaining spoken varieties of Aramaic, which all have small numbers of speakers. These include the aforementioned Assyrian Neo-Aramaic language spoken in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, also spoken in Iraq. There are also some remaining speakers of Judeo-Aramaic varieties in Israel.

Aramaic is written using the Aramaic alphabet, which is the basis of most modern writing systems used in the Middle East. Two of the most widely used alphabets based on Aramaic's alphabet are Hebrew and Arabic, fellow Semitic languages.