Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic, is one of the world’s most ancient languages still in use today. The earliest attested inscriptions in Aramaic date to the beginning of the first millennium BCE, and the language continues to be spoken to the present day among Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities throughout the Middle East and in diaspora, although it is severely endangered.
Aramaic became widespread throughout the Fertile Crescent largely as a result of the policies of the Neo-Assyrian (ca. 934-609 BCE) and Neo-Babylonian (ca. 627-520 BCE) empires. The Achaemenids (576-330 BCE) adopted it as an auxiliary language both for international communication and internal administrative use. It was during this time that the Aramaic portions of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were composed. It gradually came to supplant the native languages of the region, but due to its wide geographic distribution and political circumstances following the collapse of the empire, it soon evolved into two major sub-families—the Western sub-family, comprising Jewish Palestinian, Christian Palestinian, and Samaritan, and the Eastern sub-family, comprising Late Babylonian, Syriac, and Mandaic. Some scholars place Syriac in a third group, separate from Western and Eastern Aramaic.
Although the Achaemenid empire succumbed to Alexander and his successors, the Parthians (238 BCE to 226 CE) and the Sasanians (226-651 CE) who succeeded them retained Aramaic in a privileged position as the preeminent language of commerce and administration in the region. After the advent of Islam, it lost this privileged position to Arabic and became increasingly relegated to the religious and domestic spheres, as a liturgical language among certain non-Muslim communities such as the Jews, a variety of Christian sects, and the Mandaeans, and as the language of the home among a shrinking number of communities from all faiths in the region. The language of these communities, conventionally described as “Neo-Aramaic”, forms a constellation of dialects ranging from Lake Van and Lake Urmia in the north to Damascus and Ahvāz in the south, clustered in small groups. Having developed in isolation from one another, most Neo-Aramaic dialects are mutually unintelligible and should therefore be considered separate languages; however, determining the exact relationship between the various Neo-Aramaic dialects is a difficult task, fraught with many problems, which arise from our incomplete knowledge of the surviving dialects and their relation to the Aramaic dialects of antiquity. Although Aramaic is severely endangered as a spoken language today, the vast literature composed in the various Aramaic dialects continues to be of fundamental importance to scholars and historians of the Middle East.
The Department of AMESALL currently offers a one-semester introduction to Aramaic.