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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

What is Aramaic and Syriac?

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11th-century West Syriac Melkite music book from Mount Sinai.

Robert Fisk recently wrote an article about Ma‘loula (معلولا) for the Independent. It is a good article, and I was glad to read it. However, there are a couple of small errors about the Aramaic spoken in Ma‘loula and its neighbouring villages of Bakh‘a (بخعة) and Jubb‘adin (جبّعدين) in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria. As someone who works in Aramaic, I tend to read many articles written by journalists touching on the language, and many make the same mistakes. So, I offer this article as a little corrective.

  1. Aramaic is a Semitic language — Fisk’s article declares “Did Arabic and Hebrew descend from Aramaic? Scholars – I always find that an odd word – are still undecided.” It is a rather silly statement because scholars, and it is always best to be a little more specific, are totally decided that the question of Arabic and Hebrew descending from Aramaic is rather silly. Aramaic, with Arabic and Hebrew, is part of the Semitic branch of Afro-asiatic languages (spoken throughout the Middle East and north-east Africa). All Semitic languages are descended from a hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, which branched off into the various Semitic languages that have existed throughout history. Thus, Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew do not have parent-child relationships, but more cousinly ones. In fact, Arabic branched off earlier, and so is slightly more distantly related to the other two, with Hebrew and Aramaic having more in common (these both belong to Northwest Semitic group). For example, the greeting of peace in Hebrew is shalom (שלום), in Arabic is salam (سلام), and in Aramaic is shlama (ܫܠܡܐ or שלמא).
  2. Aramaic has a long and diverse history — A major problem with reporting about Aramaic is that it is often treated as a monolithic language. However, no language stands still: we can see how English has changed from Shakespeare to hip-hop, let alone going back as far as Beowulf. Aramaic has a recorded history that is more than twice as long as that of English. Although, I would reckon that Aramaic has resisted change far better than English has, in different times and places people have spoken and written different Aramaics. Geographically, varieties of Aramaic tend to fall into two branches: the more vigorous Eastern Aramaic in Mesopotamia, and the near extinct Western Aramaic in the Levant. The earliest Aramaic inscriptions come from the tenth century BC. During the latter half of the eight century BC, the conquests of the Neo-Assyrian founder Tiglath-Pileser III, Aramaic became the diplomatic language of the region. Around the year 500 BC, Darius decreed Aramaic as the official language of Achaemenid Persian Empire. The standard Aramaic practised by Achaemenid scribes is known as Official Aramaic. After the conquest of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Seleucid Empire, Greek became the language of power and high society in much of the Levant, while Aramaic continued as a rural language, remaining strong in its Mesopotamian heartland. Thus, most post-Achaemenid Aramaic is written in Mesopotamian dialects. The Aramaic of Ma‘loula is the last living remnant of the western varieties of Aramaic. Greek and Aramaic coexisted for over a millennium, until Arabic gradually became the dominant language of the Middle East.
  3. Aramaic is one of the original languages of the Bible — The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was originally written down in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. However, a few parts of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic. The largest portion of Aramaic is Daniel 2.4b–7.28, with the rest of the book written in Hebrew. Daniel 2.4 is odd as the text changes from Hebrew to Aramaic mid-flow: ‘And the Chaldaeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live for ever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation”’ (where the narration is in Hebrew, then the quoted speech is in Aramaic, but then the narration and everything else continues in Aramaic). Portions of the Book of Ezra are also in Aramaic, as is one sentence in the Prophet Jeremiah, and one word in Genesis. The variety of Aramaic in Daniel and Ezra is post-Achaemenid with many Greek borrowings.
  4. Jesus spoke Aramaic — This is one of the big selling-points of Aramaic for many, and almost every journalist who mentions Aramaic has to make the connection with Jesus. I would too! However, we obviously have no sound recordings of Jesus speaking Aramaic, nor is he alleged to written anything down, except in the dust (John 8.6–9). Jesus’ speaking Aramaic is based on two bits of evidence. Firstly, we know that Aramaic was widely spoken by Jews and their neighbours, particularly among the lower classes. Hebrew and Greek were also important languages, and Jesus would probably have been able to speak them too. Secondly, the Greek New Testament records quite a few Aramaic words and phrases, names and places in transliteration (with no spoken Hebrew). These little fossilised bits of Aramaic are interesting in themselves — ‘talitha qum’, ‘ephphatha’ (actual Aramaic ‘ethpethach’) and  ‘eli eli’ or ‘eloi eloi lema sabachthani’ (in Mark 5.41, Mark 7.34, Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34 respectively). So, we are pretty sure Jesus spoke Aramaic. However, the Aramaic he would have spoken is clearly different from any Aramaic spoken today. We Christians who speak Aramaic like to say that we speak the language of Jesus, but in practice we all speak slightly different varieties of Aramaic to that spoken by Jesus. It is just not quite so glamourous to admit that we speak a language that is as close as you can get to that spoken by Jesus.
  5. No gospels were first written in Aramaic — There are people around (in the Internet sense rather than around universities) who will go to great lengths to prove that some of the New Testament was written in Aramaic, and then later translated into Greek. They are wrong.
  6. People of different religions speak Aramaic — Religion is a big deal, and Aramaic is the language of worship and theology for Christians, Jews and Mandeans. Christians make up the largest religious group among fluent Aramaic speakers. Aramaic as a learned language is used in prayer and study by many more Christians, Jews and Mandeans who do not speak it fluently. As well as liturgical texts in Aramaic for all three religions, a little less than a fifth of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Aramaic, and the base language of the Talmud is also Aramaic.
  7. There are a few million Aramaic-speakers today — It is often stated that Aramaic is an extinct language, or that some small group is the last few speakers of Aramaic in the world. However, there are thriving communities of Christian Aramaic-speakers in Chicago and Södertälje, near Stockholm, produced by different waves of refugees. However, the various modern Aramaics are endangered. Chronic turmoil in Aramaic-speaking homelands is a major factor. Also, Aramaic is less useful for everyday life if everyone around you is speaking Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish, German or English. The erosion of Jewish modern Aramaics is the most acute — each variety spoken by a small cluster of families from a Mesopotamian village, they have low intelligibility with each other, and most speakers are now in Israel and are giving way to Hebrew. Mandaic in both its classical and modern varieties is severely threatened, as is the Mandean way of life in Iraq and Iran. Mlahso, a Christian Aramaic from southeast Turkey, became extinct upon the death of Ibrahim Hanna in 1998. Turmoil and diaspora has created a koine, or amalgam, language of the previously diverse spectrum of Christian Aramaic tribal dialects spoken from the mountains of southeast Turkey to the plains of northern Iraq. On the more hopeful side, young people are using music (Aramaic hip-hop is pretty good!) and the Internet to keep their language alive, yet still there is major language erosion going on all around Aramaic.
  8. Aramaic is written in a number of different scripts — It is not straightforward to answer the question which script Aramaic is written in. The earliest inscriptions use a modified Phoenician script, which was used by many Northwest Semitic languages. Official Aramaic developed a formal, chancery script that was adopted by Jews for writing both Aramaic and Hebrew. What we think of today as Hebrew script (אבגד) is the descendent of Official Aramaic script. In Daniel 2.4, when the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic, there is no change of script. In the first century BC, the cursive Aramaic script of the city of Edessa began its development, which was taken up by Christian Aramaic-speakers, and is known as Syriac script (ܐܒܓܕ). Other cursive Aramaic scripts were developed for Mandaic, Nabatean and Palmyrene. Cursive Nabatean and Syriac were influential in the development of Arabic script (ابجد). When Robert Fisk asks about Aramaic being the forerunner of Hebrew and Arabic, he is clearly confusing the history of development of writing systems with the languages themselves, which, to be fair, is not an uncommon mistake. Syriac script has been found on Turkic gravestones in Central Asia as well as on a Tang Dynasty inscription in China.
  9. How do Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian fit in with Aramaic? — Different varieties of Aramaic have their own names, and names of the varieties often bear a relation to the speakers’ ethnic and religious identity. The  Syriac identity is almost synonymous with Christian speakers of Aramaic. As Christianity was adopted by many Aramaic speakers the name ‘Aramean’ came to be associated with their pagan past (armaya means ‘pagan’ in Classical Syriac), and so the Greek translation of ‘Aram’, which is ‘Syria’, was adopted. Many Christian Aramaic-speakers now refer to themselves as Assyrian in reference to Northern Mesopotamia, which long remained known as Assyria after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (interestingly they often spell it ‘As-‘ after the Greek spelling or ‘Ash-‘ after the Akkadian spelling, rather than ‘Ath-‘ the historical Aramaic spelling). Modern Christian Aramaic varieties called Assyrian should not be confused with the ancient variety of Akkadian known as Assyrian, which is a very different Semitic language. The term Chaldean or Chaldee is quite confusing, it belonged to the Semitic people of the Southern Mesopotamian marshes who founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 620 BC. Seeing as the Book of Daniel is set during the final years of this empire, St Jerome chose to use the word ‘Chaldee’ to describe Biblical Aramaic (I have an old Aramaic dictionary that is charmingly titled A Chaldee Lexicon). After the fall of this empire, the term came to refer to the scribal class of Achaemenid Babylon, which led ‘Chaldean’ to becoming a byword for ‘magician’. The term received renewed use when a split in the Church of the East led to one bishop Yuhannan Sulaqa being consecrated as ‘Patriarch of the Chaldeans’ by the Pope in Rome in 1553, based on Jerome’s use of the term for the Aramaic language. This identity continues to be used by East Syriac-rite Catholics, and is occasionally used to refer to their dialects of Aramaic.
  10. Any other questions? — Leave a comment below.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

13 thoughts on “What is Aramaic and Syriac?

  1. Liking the recent changes you’ve made mate!!

  2. This is a very informative overview, and answers many questions. I found it particularly interesting that you answered the question of whether it is possible today to speak the language of Jesus, and it appears that one can, almost. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your comment, Julianne. You are right. Of course it is impossible to speak in exactly the same manner of someone who lived two millennia ago, especially when we only have a few phrases of what might be his speech, and that is transmitted via a different script.

  3. Hello Mr. Hughes,

    Grammatically, is the Old Testament Aramaic similar to the grammar found in the New Testament Peshitta?

    Does studying O.T. Aramaic help a student know N. T. Syriac?

    Thank you for your answer.

    Sincerely,
    Bruce

    • Hello Bruce,

      It is tempting to give yes/no answers to these questions, but that wouldn’t be all that enlightening. Seeing as the original Aramaic of the Bible and the Syriac of the Peshitta are varieties of the same language, they have a lot in common, and particularly so when it comes to their grammar. Though there are lots of little grammatical differences. Learning one variety helps with the learning of another variety.

  4. Nice overview Gareth.🙂

    A few suggestions:

    5) Might want to make mention of underlying Aramaic sources in specific portions of the New Testament in contrast which a number of scholars have worked on reconstructing. (However I fear it might spoil the succinctness of this bullet point.🙂 )

    6) The Ma’loula Aramaic spoken in Bakh’a and Jub’adin is also spoken by some Muslims.

    Peace,
    -Steve

  5. Hi Gareth,

    Your article says you work in Aramaic. Do you know Hebrew as well? If so, can you tell me why there is such a battle with ‘YHWH’ and ‘YHVH,’ specifically the ‘W’ versus the ‘V’ (waw vs vav)? This has always confused me because proponents of the “W” never call “David” “Dawid” but will always be adamant that the third consonant in God’s name was originally ‘W’ but never provide any proof of this. Even book publications I’ve read will say things like “traditionally Jehovah, but properly it is Yahweh…” or “God’s name was originally pronounced Yahweh….”

    I’ve looked up quite a few Biblical names, such as Jehu, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, et al, which are theophanic names that start with “Je-” or “Jeho-“, and other theophanic names such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, et al, which all end with the “-ah”.

    So I guess I’m asking, with all the Biblical names cluing us in to the first two syllables “Je-ho-” and all the names cluing us into the last syllable “-ah”, and the fact that names like ‘David’, ‘Bethaven’, and ‘Havilah’ all have the a “v” in them and not a “w”, why would anyone think that the “vav” is really a “waw” and that God’s name is not Jehovah (Yehovah) and instead is “Yahweh”?

    • Dear Brian,

      Yes, I work with Hebrew also. There is a problem in trying to understand the issues around the Hebrew divine name with only English texts in front of you, so, to answer your question, I shall have to explain a few issues with both the Hebrew and Latin alphabets. I’m also going to be a little circumspect about writing and pronouncing the divine name out of traditional respect for it. I simply do not like slinging it around as a common name.

      In the Hebrew Bible, the divine name is written with four letters of Hebrew alphabet. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are all consonants. The vowels would be provided from memory or recorded in writing by the addition of points around the letters. To blur this distinction a little, three letters not only serve as consonants but serve to mark some long vowels. These three are known by the names He, Waw and Yod. The divine name is written entirely in these dual-role letters. It is written Yod He Waw He. The consonantal value of Yod is like the y in ‘yes’; it can do duty for î or ê, but not when it stands at the beginning of a word as here. He is pronounced as the h in ‘hair’; at the end of a word it can stand for â also. Waw is also called Vav depending on how one pronounces it; in classical Hebrew it was probably like the w in ‘wine’, but modern Hebrew has it as the v in ‘vine’; it also does duty for the long vowels û and ô. So, you can transcribe the four Hebrew letters as YHWH or YHVH. The difference does not signify a difference in the Hebrew, just a different transliteration map.

      When a devout Jew reads scripture they replace the divine name with the Hebrew word ‘Adonay’, meaning ‘my lord’ (it is grammatically plural ‘my lords’, but this is interpreted as a plural of majesty). This is a longstanding replacement. When the Hebrew scriptures were first translated into Greek various ways of rendering the divine name were tried. The method that stuck was to use the Greek word ‘Kyrios’, meaning ‘lord’. That translation choice has stayed with us, through writing ‘Dominus’ in Latin and ‘Lord’ in English. Yet this comes from an avoidance of saying the divine name.

      As I said earlier, most vowels are not written, but later rabbinic scribes indicated them by writing points around the letters. This was done to help the reader make the correct pronunciation. When the reader came to the divine name, the scribes would want the reader to say ‘Adonay’ rather than say the divine name. The letters couldn’t be changed, as they’re sacred, so the vowel marks for ‘Adonay’ were written around the letters of the divine name creating an odd hybrid. At no point was anyone actually supposed to pronounce the consonants of the divine name with the vowels of ‘Adonay’, and a native Hebrew reader would find that looks and sounds odd.

      The Hebrew word ‘Adonay’ is also four letters long: Aleph, Dalet, Nun, Yod. Aleph represents a glottal stop and is the only way one can start a word with a vowel in Hebrew (it is not an A). The first vowel mark, written under the Aleph, is called Chattuph Patach, or Half A. It is a rushed vowel, used in certain contexts. It doesn’t occur with Yod, so it is replaced by a generic rushed vowel in the hybrid spelling, a vowel called Shewa or Sheva. This rushed vowel sounds like the A in ‘about’ or the second E in ‘helmet’. It is often transcribed with an E in Latin alphabet transcription of Hebrew. This is how a rushed A sound at the beginning of ‘Adonay’ can come to  be written with an E. The two other vowels, the O and A, are long and don’t need any more explanation. Putting that all together, we could mistakenly transcribe the hybrid name as YeHoWaH or YeHoVaH. Once again, I’ll emphasize that this from a mistake of using the consonants of the divine name mixed with the vowels one is supposed to use in the replacement word. However, many non-Jewish scholars didn’t understand this hybrid nature and thought this was the divine name.

      In Latin, the letter Y is only used as a vowel letter in words borrowed from Greek (the French name for the letter is 《 i-grec 》). What we write as the consonant Y in ‘yes’ would be written with an I, which doubles for English Y and I sounds. The letter J is a mediaeval variant of I that came to be used for the ‘yes’ sound, as it still does in German. Likewise, U and V were orthographic variants of the same letter. In mediaeval Latin, it was often written twice when it represented the consonant at the being of ‘wine’ or ‘vine’, which became W (Germans pronounce this letter like an English V). But in English and French, we distinguished U for vowel sounds and V for consonants (Julius Caesar probably sounded more like ‘Weni, widi, wiki’). Thus, ‘Jehovah’ is how the hybrid name was written by French and English scholars, and ‘Jehowah’ by Germans. It goes to show how spellings and pronunciation have moved quite significantly over time.

      This meat grinder of historical spelling changes also applied to other proper names. That middle consonant in ‘David’ is a Waw or Vav in Hebrew. It probably was pronounced like ‘wine’ originally, but is now pronounced like ‘vine’. It’s not a case that one is right and another wrong: it’s just change. In Arabic, it’s Dawoud or even Dodi.

      The theophoric names having a bit of YHWH in them use either just three letters YHW or two YH. The pointing of rabbinic scribes gives YH the sound ‘yah’ and YHW the sounds ‘yehû’, ‘yehô’ or ‘yahû’. This might give us an inkling about how the divine name was pronounced. In English Bibles, the Ys are written Js by the same historical process given above.

      There’s a lot of evidence that classical Hebrew Waw/Vav was pronounced like ‘vine’ when a consonant. Other Semitic languages retained that sound, and transliteration into Greek (the Greek letter Upsilon is used to render the Waw in ‘Nineveh’). That it is mostly rendered with V in English Bibles is a more a foible of how that letter has developed and been used in Latin. For instance, we use CH to render the Hebrew letter Kaph when it is softened (it’s a K otherwise). In Hebrew it’s like the CH in ‘loch’ or ‘Bach’. Just because English mainly uses CH for the sound in ‘church’ might lead people to say ‘Jehoiachin’ with a ‘jam’ sound and a ‘church’ sound, but we know that neither were phonemes of classical Hebrew.

      I realise there’s a lot packed in there. I hope it helps you to see the pitfalls of understanding the spelling and pronunciation of Hebrew with only the English spellings to hand. Let me know if anything needs clarification.

      • Thanks for replying so quickly. I actually knew everything you said already, because it’s the same response I get from everyone. And they always say stuff like what you said, such as “It probably was pronounced like ‘wine’ originally…” or “In Arabic, it’s Dawoud or even Dodi…” but this is what my problem is.

        How do you know it was “probably” pronounced like ‘wine’? You gave me an example from Arabic, but Arabic is not Hebrew.

        You also said that ‘Yehovah’ was a mistake from not understanding the vowel point substitution. I am aware of this argument, but so far no one has been able to actually prove that the true vowels would have made it ‘Yahweh/Yahveh’. I am also aware of the ‘J’ origins, and that names like Joseph (Yo-seph in Hebrew) are English-ized.

        Anyway my main questions are still unanswered: what actual evidence is there that the vav was originally a waw, and that ‘Ye-ho-vah’ was originally ‘Yah-weh’?

        This is especially intriguing when considering Isaiah 12:2 and Isaiah 26:4, that both use a contraction of God’s name immediately followed by His full name.

        Isaiah 12:2 (https://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/biblia-hebraica-stuttgartensia-bhs/read-the-bible-text/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/23/120001/129999/ch/da6037169906d5d6e868d4ba37d089e6/)
        יָ֣הּ יְהוָ֔ה <– Jah Jehovah (Yah Yehovah), translated as "Yah, the LORD" in the NKJV, and "LORD GOD" in the NASB

        Isaiah 26:4 (https://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/biblia-hebraica-stuttgartensia-bhs/read-the-bible-text/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/23/260001/269999/ch/54783d0d2db4841818dfa81d973a7eed/)
        בְּיָ֣הּ יְהוָ֔ה <– Jah Jehovah (Yah Yehovah), translated as "Yah, the LORD" in the NKJV, and "GOD the LORD" in the NASB with a footnote for "GOD" saying "Heb YAH, usually rendered LORD".

        I copied and pasted the Hebrew words above (my Hebrew knowledge is super basic and requires copy/paste). This, combined with the fact that theophanic names in the Bible always contain a 'Jeho (Yeho)', 'Je (Ye)', or even a 'Jo (Yo)' sound (such as 'Joshua' [contraction for 'Jehoshua'] or 'Joseph' [contraction of 'Jehoseph' <–Psalm 81:5]) at the beginning of a name, or 'ah' at the end of a name, truly makes me wonder how 'Yahweh' ever came about.

        I hope I was able to portray my predicament clearly. And like I said, my knowledge of Hebrew is basically nothing and I don't know anything. But the responses I get to questions like this are all the same…which would be fine if there was real proof to go along with it, but so far I have yet to receive anything other than "it probably was originally pronounced like that."

        I really do appreciate your time and I hope my reply was not offensive to you, as it was not meant to be.

  6. Hello Gareth,
    You are well versed in these languages and this blog was insightful. Thank you 😊
    I was wondering if you might be able to list the scripture that was in Aramaic originally for me. I cannot seem to find such in Internet searches, them preferring to relate my search to ‘the original languages in the Bible’ as opposed to the specific scriptures originally written in Aramaic. Thank you so very much in advance 😄

    Tamara

  7. i have come across http://www.chaldean.org.uk/greek.htm which appears to give all the occurences with a commentary.

    • Thank you for responding. I never received a notification but decided to randomly check back here. May your days be blessed.

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