History of Aramaic

Aramaic was the language of the Semitic peoples throughout the ancient Near East. It was the language of the Hebrew, Chaldean, Assyrian and Syrian peoples. Because Aram-Damascus and Israel sprang from the same stock, the Hebrew patriarchs, of Aramaic origin, married with the tribes of Aram, keeping their Aramaic names and speaking Aramaic.

The word Aramaic comes from Aram, who was the 5th son of Shem, who in turn was the firstborn of Noah. (cf. Gen. 10:22]. The children of Aram lived in the fertile valley called Padan-aram or Beth Nahreen. The language remained pure in Padan-aram and became the lingua franca for the Semitic clans. By the 8th century B.C. Aramaic was the major language from Egypt to Asia Minor to Pakistan. The empires of Assyria and Babylon used it as did the Persian (Iranian) government in their western provinces. The language of the Jews in their ancient homeland shifted from Hebrew to Aramaic between 721-500 B.C.

It is thought that Aramaic has gone through these changes:
  • Old Aramaic 975-700 B.C.
  • Standard Aramaic 700-200 B.C.
  • Middle Aramaic 200 B.C.-200 A.D.
  • Late Aramaic 200-700 A.D.
The language became the official language of the Mesopotamian imperial government and was in general use until the spread of Greek (331 B.C.). Still the language continued to be used in the East until it was replaced by Arabic in the 7th century. However, the Christians of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon continued to use Aramaic at home and in the church.

I think it's worth noting that Aramaic also happens to be the language that Jesus Christ spoke, and hence he did not speak Hebrew (contrary to popular opinion).

Modern Aramaic has been written in a Latin-based script created by missionaries to the area and Cyrillic imposed during the Soviet occupation. It is now written using a more traditional script based off of Syriac in both appearence and character, though the origins of its source-script are unknown. From Syriac it carries a marked similarity to Arabic, though for various reasons the complexity in writing is a great deal less. The orthography of the writing system is deliberately etymological, because Aramaic spawned into many divergent dialects and the writing system was intended to span them all as a viable means of communication.

Like Arabic, Modern Aramaic is an abjad, having signs for just consonants and one or two vowels. Other vowels and unrepresented consonants are indicated through diacritics. It is written cursively from right to left, also like Arabic. Yet another similarity is that many of the diacritics are optional; they can be left out and the writing is still intelligable. In languages of the region, vowel distribution is far more regular than in Indo-European languages, so leaving some obvious vowels out is more reasonable and helps to alleviate dialectical pronunciation differences. Modern Aramaic written with full diacritic usage is called 'pointed', whereas the shorthand is called 'unpointed'. Unlike Arabic, however, nearly all Modern Aramaic texts are written pointed, with all diacretics utilized. There are several diacretics serving non-pronunciation purposes, for instance to mark an optional consonant present in Classical Aramaic that's no longer pronounced in Modern Aramaic.

Information sourced from Daniels, Peter T. Bright, William. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ar`a*ma"ic (#), a. [See Aramaean, a.]

Pertaining to Aram, or to the territory, inhabitants, language, or literature of Syria and Mesopotamia; Aramaean; -- specifically applied to the northern branch of the Semitic family of languages, including Syriac and Chaldee.



The Aramaic language.


© Webster 1913.

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