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Study Resources :: Dictionaries :: Aramaic; Aramaic Language

Dictionaries :: Aramaic; Aramaic Language

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International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia

Aramaic; Aramaic Language:

ar-a-ma'-ik lan'-gwaj ('aramith; the King James Version Syrian, Syriac; SYRIAN in the Revised Version (British and American)):

1. Early Notices of Aramaic in Scripture

2. Extra-Biblical Evidences of Aramaic

3. The Script of Aramaic Inscriptions

4. Dialects of Aramaic

5. Grammatical Peculiarities

6. Comparison of Aramaic of Sinjirli with That of Bible

7. Comparison of Aramaic of Assouan with That of Daniel

8. Elephantine Papyri

9. Comparison with Aramaic of the Targums

10. Chief Differences in Latter


The name is given to a form of Semitic speech, most nearly related to Hebrew and Phoenician, but exhibiting marked peculiarities, and subsisting in different dialects. Its original home may have been in Mesopotamia (Aram), but it spread North and West, and, as below shown, became the principal tongue throughout extensive regions. After the return from the Captivity, it displaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews in Palestine. In its eastern form it is known as Syriac. In its occurrence in the Old Testament, it formerly, though incorrectly, generally bore the name Chaldee. The present article deals with it chiefly in its. Old Testament relations.

1. Early Notices of Aramaic in Scripture:

If we neglect two words which occur in Ge 31:47, the earliest notice of the use of this language in Scripture is in the request which the representatives of Hezekiah make to Rabshakeh: "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syriac language" ('aramith, 2Ki 18:26; Isa 36:11). The narrative from which we have made this excerpt, even if it stood alone, would prove that Aramaic, "the Syriac language," was so different from Hebrew, "the Jews' language," that it was not understood by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Further, it shows that Aramaic was the ordinary language of Assyrian diplomacy. We next meet with Aramaic in Jer 10:11 which appears to be an answer put into the mouths of the Jews as a reply to any attempt to seduce them to the worship of idols. If we assume the traditional date of Daniel to be correct, the six chapters in that book (Da 2:4-7:28), forming the greater part of the whole, are the next and most important occurrence of Aramaic in Scripture. There are, further, passages in Ezr 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26, amounting approximately to three chapters, in which Aramaic is used. In the New Testament several Aramaic words and phrases occur, modified by having passed through Greek

2. Extra-Biblical Evidences of Aramaic:

Formerly our knowledge of Aramaic earlier than the Targums and the Peshitta was restricted to the above-noticed passages of Scripture. Now, however, discoveries, still comparatively recent, have put us in a different position. In the closing decade of last century extensive inscriptions were discovered in Sibbaldia, in the neighborhood of Aleppo, dated in the reigns of Tiglathpileser and the Sargonid monarchs, and one that seems earlier. More recent has been the discovery of the Assouan papyri; these bear dates which synchronize with Ezra and Nehemiah. Earlier than these in discovery, but between them in date of origin, are weights of the reign of Sargon, with two inscriptions, one, official, in cuneiform, which not only gives the designation of the weight, but relates the name and titles of the king; the other, popular, in Aramaic, which only tells the weight. More striking is the fact that frequently, in regard to contract tablets, while the binding document is in cuneiform character and the Assyrian language, the inscription on the clay envelope which served as a docquet is in Aramaic, language and letter. This affords proof that at all events before the reign of Tiglath-pileser Aramaic was the general speech for commerce and diplomacy all over Southwest Asia.

3. The Script of Aramaic Inscriptions:

When we come in contact with it, Aramaic is a fully formed alphabetical language, and has attained a further stage of development than the Assyrian with its cumbrous cuneiform. To the end, Assyrian was largely ideographic and hieroglyphic. The same group of symbols represented very different sounds according to circumstances, and widely differing meanings were connected with the same sound, with the consequent necessity for determinatives. The alphabet employed in Aramaic is practically that found on the Moabite Stone. It evidently stands at the end of a long process of evolution. It is probable that a hieroglyphic stood behind it; whether it is derived from the Hittite (Conder), or from Egyptian (Rouge), or Assyrian (Delitzsch), or is of independent origin (Gesenius), cannot be determined. Aramaic is, like Hebrew and Assyrian, a North Semitic tongue, standing in a manner between them. It is more regular in its formation than either of the others, a character that may to some extent be due to its use as a lingua franca over so wide a territory. Aramaic was the official language of the extensive Persian empire, as it had been to some extent that of its predecessor, the empire of Assyria. It may be regarded as having been generally understood from Asia Minor on the North, to the Cataracts of the Nile on the South, and from the mountains of Media on the East, to the Mediterranean on the West. Its history has been long; spoken, as we learn by inscriptions, from before the days of Tiglath-pileser, it is still spoken on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

4. Dialects of Aramaic:

These extensive limits, geographical and chronological, imply dialectic differences. Means of communication were so ineffective that the distance between the eastern and western limits would require greater time to traverse, than does that which separates America from Europe, or New York from Brazil. The primary dialectic distinction was between eastern Aramaic (Syriac) and western (formerly called Chaldee). The peculiarity which most prominently distinguishes these is the preformative of the imperfect; in the western, as in Hebrew and Arabic, it is yodh (y), while in the eastern it is nun (n) or lamedh (l). Each of these has sub-dialects. In Palestine, besides the Chaldee of the Jewish Targums, there was the Samaritan Pentateuch; in it, besides many foreign elements in the vocabulary, the use of ‘ayin instead of waw in the preterite of ‘ayin-waw verbs is the most striking feature. The sub-dialect of eastern Aramaic is Mandean; it is characterized by the use of the matres lectionis instead of vowel signs. From the inscriptions and the papyri it would seem to follow that the eastern peculiarities are the more recent-changes introduced through passage of time. In eastern Aramaic the script became more cursive than in western, which retained the square character we associate with Hebrew: except the Samaritan, which used a still earlier script, less removed from the angular style of the inscriptions. The script of the Assouan papyri indicated a tendency toward the later square character.

5. Grammatical Peculiarities:

Although an article like the present is not the place to give a full grammar of Aramaic, yet we may advert to some of the more prominent peculiarities, common to all branches of the language, which distinguish it from Hebrew, the best-known of north Semitic tongues. The peculiarity that most strikes the beginner in Aramaic is the want of the article, and the presence instead of the status emphaticus, which follows the syntactic rules of the Hebrew article. The next thing likely to attract attention is the use of the relative pronoun zi or di as if it were a preposition meaning "of." While in Hebrew the passive voice is generally indicated in the derived conjugations by internal vocalic changes, as the pu‘al from the pi‘el; in Aramaic the syllable ‘eth (E) or ‘ith (W) is prefixed (earlier hith). Instead of the Hebrew causative hiph‘il there is the ‘aph‘el earlier haph‘el with its passive ‘ethtaph‘al or ‘ittaph‘al (earlier hoph‘al). The causative had also shaph‘el and taph‘el forms, which occasionally are found. While in the Targums and the Old Testament Peshitta the syllable yath is the sign of the accusative (earlier vath, as in the Sinjirli inscriptions), the letter lamedh serves that purpose in Aramaic which is not a translation from Hebrew. A characteristic of later Aramaic prominent in the Peshitta of the New Testament is the facility with which it adopted words and phrases from Greek which had already largely displaced it as the common language. New Syriac shows a similar facility in regard to Arabic and Persian.

6. Comparison of the Aramaic of Sinjirli with That of the Bible:

A question of very considerable importance to the Biblical student is the relation in which the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra stands to that of the Sinjirli inscriptions and that of the more nearly contemporary Assouan papyri. In making the comparison we must bear in mind that the Hebrew Massoretic Text is the result of transcriptions extending the Bible over 1,500 or 1,200 years, according as we take the traditional or the critical dates for the books in question. This implies probably a score or more of transcriptions each with its quota of variations from the original. While the variations introduced by any one transcription might be few and unimportant, they would all be in the direction of lateness, and cumulatively might easily become very great. The late Hebrew of Ecclesiastes, notwithstanding its ascription to Solomon, shows how little the idea of the chronology of style entered into the thoughts of the scribes of those days, to check this tendency to modernization. It follows that while the presence of late peculiarities proves nothing but the inaccuracy of the copyist, early grammatical forms and modes of spelling are nearly indisputable evidences of antiquity.

The Sinjirli inscriptions, if we neglect the less important, are three, the Panammu inscription, the Hadad inscription and the Barrekab inscription (Bauenschrift, Sachau). The first and last of these are dated in the reign of Tiglath- pileser, the middle one is placed by Sachau in the preceding century. It ought to be noted that, when first discovered, it was a matter of doubt whether the inscriptions should not be reckoned as Hebrew, rather than Aramaic The close affinity between them and Hebrew is shown in various ways. By a relation among the north Semitic tongues similar to that among the Aryan languages expressed by Grimm's law, where letters with the s- sound appear in Hebrew, in later Aramaic we find corresponding letters with the t-sound. But in the Sinjirli inscriptions we do not find this mark of the later language; thus we have sheqel, not theqel, shelathin instead of telathin, zehabh for dhehabh, etc. That this is not due to the proximity of Hebrew is proved by the fact that on the weights in Sargon's palace we find sheqel. Thus, the Sinjirli inscriptions date from a period when Hebrew and Aramaic had not been completely differentiated. There are other points of likeness. Instead of the ‘aph‘el and ‘ethtaph‘al or ‘ittaph‘al of later Aramaic, there is haph‘el and hoph‘al; instead of the ‘eth or ‘ith as the sign of the passive, there is hith. The vocabularies also are nearly identical. In both, the syllable yath or wath, sign of the accusative, is present, as if a survival, only as the support of the oblique case of a pronoun (Da 3:12; Sinjirli, Had 28). The pronouns exhibit a similar resemblance to Hebrew and also to Biblical Aramaic. The 1st person pronoun is ‘anokh (once ‘anokhi in Pan. 1.19), as in the Phoenician and Moabite dialects of Hebrew; ‘anah occurs occasionally as in Daniel. The most marked differences from later Aramaic is "z" instead of "dh" in the demonstrative pronoun; here there is relation to the Hebrew zeh. Another case in frequent evidence is ‘arqa' instead of ‘ar‘a.

7. Comparison of Aramaic of Assouan with That of Daniel:

More nearly contemporary with the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra is that of the Assouan papyri. These are carefully dated, and extend from 471 BC to 411 BC; these two dates include the whole reign of Artaxerxes I, the king whose cupbearer Nehemiah was, and who sent him as governor to Jerusalem, and a few years of his predecessor's and successor's reigns. These documents, as written with a reed pen on papyrus, and not cut with a chisel on stone, manifest a very different style of letter; as already said, there is some approximation to the later square character. The resemblance between the grammar and vocabulary of these papyri and those of Biblical Aramaic is closer than that of the latter to the Sinjirli grammar and diction. Where, in the more ancient Aramaic, we have "z," in these papyri we occasionally find the later "dh." It is not improbable that, as in Spain, a lisping pronunciation became prevalent; the "dh" pronounced as "th" in "then" would in that case represent more accurately the sound actually uttered than would "z."

The word already noticed, ‘arqa' which generally appears in Biblical Aramaic as ‘ar‘a, is a similar case. In northern Palestine the Arabic qaf is pronounced much as if it were ‘ain, if not even the related sound hemzeh; instances of this spelling also are found in the Assouan papyri. Both of these differences are due to frequent transcription assimilating the spelling to the pronunciation. Another peculiarity is probably due to a different cause. In Biblical Aramaic the preformative of the 3rd person singular and plural of the imperfect of the substantive verb is lamedh. Of this peculiarity Dr. Bevan gives an ingenious explanation. If the yodh preformative were used, the resulting word would have a resemblance to the sacred name: to avoid this, he thinks, the yodh was changed into a lamedh.

Unfortunately this explains too much, therefore explains nothing. Had this been the explanation, the name "Jehu," which consonantally is nearly the same as the 3rd person singular and plural of the substantive verb, would never have been written as it is. Further, if Jewish reverence for the Divine name expressed itself in this way, we should expect to find this preformative in the Targums, which, however, we do not. Hundreds of cases in proof may be found in Onkelos alone. The truth is, it is a Mandean form, which proves that the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra is eastern. A further peculiarity is the nun compensative; as tinda‘ (Da 4:23), which regularly would be tidda‘. This also is found in the Mandean; it is, however, also found in papyri of Assouan, an evidence that the Mandean characteristic was a survival from an earlier time.

8. Elephantine Papyri:

Another interesting point of contact between the Aramaic of this period and that of Daniel is exhibited in the Elephantine papyri published by Sachau. These papyri, discovered in the island of Elephantine (opposite Assouan) in 1907, are three in number, and are dated in the 14th year of Darius II (407 BC). In the first, ll. 2, 27, 28, the second, l. 26, and the third ll. 3, 4, we have God called "the God of heaven," the title given to God throughout Da 2. This is also the appellation used in the Aramaic of Ezra (5:11,12; 6:9 etc.) From the passages where it occurs it would seem that during the Babylonian and Persian rule this was the recognized governmental title of the God of the Hebrews.

9. Comparison with Aramaic of the Targums:

As it is frequently asserted that the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra is that of the Targums, it is necessary to examine the truth of this statement. In considering this question son with we must have regard to the history of these paraphrases, as only in this way can we estimate truly the chronological value of this "great" resemblance, should it be found to exist. According to Talmudic tradition the Targums were delivered orally, and were not committed to writing till late in the 2nd century of our era. A traditional rendering was handed on from meturgeman (interpreter) to meturgeman. In such circumstances archaic forms, words and idioms, are perpetuated. The sacred always tends to preserve the antique; in illustration we need only refer to the song of the Fratres Arvales, a college of priests dating from primitive Latin times and continuing to the days of the Gordians. This sacred song of theirs preserves to us the most ancient form of the Latin tongue, though the inscriptions, from which we learn of it, date from the classic period. Hence the Aramaic of the Targums may represent the form of the language a couple of centuries before the Christian era.

10. Chief Differences in Latter:

We cannot attempt to give an exhaustive summary of the differences between Biblical and Targumic Aramaic, but indicate only some of the more obvious. Account need not be taken of yath, the sign of the accusative, as it appears only as representing the Hebrew ‘eth. In verbs, reference has already been made to the "L" preformative in the substantive verb, a peculiarity which Biblical Aramaic shares with Mandean in distinction from other forms of the language: also to the fact that the hith of the earlier verbal forms is replaced by ‘ith in the more recent ‘ithpe‘el and ‘ithpa‘al. This also is the case with ‘aph‘el (in earlier and Biblical Aramaic haph‘el), the passive of which is hoph‘al, not ‘ittaph‘al, as in Targumic. The importance of verbal forms in determining age is readily recognized; thus in English, if the 3rd person singular of the verbs in an English writing is in eth we decide that writing to belong, in fact or feigning, to a period not later than the 17th century. In regard to pronouns, while in Biblical Aramaic, as in Sinjirli and Assouan, the 1st person singular is ‘an'a, in Targumic it is ‘anah: the plural in Biblical Aramaic is ‘anachna' akin to ‘anachnah in Assouan, whereas in the Targums it is usually ‘anan, though sometimes the Biblical form appears. The 2nd person singular in Biblical Aramaic is ‘ant as in Assouan, with the plural ‘antum (Assouan, ‘antem): in Targumic it is ‘att and ‘attun.

To compare our own language, when we find "thou" and "ye" in a writing, we date it as not later than the 17th century. The ordinary vocabulary, though not without value in this respect, is not very important chronologically. Connective particles, however, are. Everyone acquainted with Hebrew knows how frequently yesh, "is" occurs; as frequent is ‘ith in Targumic. In the Bible, the papyri, the form found is ‘ithi. In the Targums ‘i stands for "if"; in the Bible and papyri it is hen. Cognate with this, the Bible and the papyri have lahen, "therefore": this is not found in the Targums, which have instead ‘al-ken. In our own language the presence of "eke" in serious prose or poetry as a conjunction would prove the antiquity of the composition. The fact that the distinction between "c" and "s" has disappeared in the Targums, but is still preserved in the Bible, is a note of age that cannot be passed over. Other examples might be given, but these will suffice. Professor Bevan lightly dismisses many of these differences as mere matters of orthography; yet in French the presence of "l" for "u" or as strengthening the "u" in such words as alx, eulx, aultres is regarded as a note of old as distinct from modern French; yet probably the pronunciation was not different.

In pursuing this part of the subject the latter portion of Pusey's first Lecture (Daniel the Prophet) is worthy of study. Pusey had not the advantage of contemporary documents with which to compare Biblical Aramaic; he could only emphasize the nature and amount of the differences which separated the language of Daniel from that of the Targums. The argument can now be supplemented by a yet stronger argument from the resemblance between the former and the contemporary papyri of Assouan, and yet the earlier Sinjirli inscriptions. See further, SYRIAC VERSIONS; LANGUAGES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT; and compare the article "Aramaic" in Encyclopedia Biblica.


Numerous grammars and dictionaries of the two principal dialects of Aramaic, eastern (Yr) and western (Chaldee) may be seen in any catalogues. There is an excellent compendium of the grammar of Biblical Aramaic in Delitzsch's introduction to Baker's Text of Daniel and Ezra. For the Samaritan there is a small grammar by Nichol ls, also one in the series "Portia Lingua rum Oriental." Noldeke has published grammars for Mandean and New Syriac

Written by J. E. H. Thomson

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