One of the semitic languages, belonging, together with Ugaritic, Phoenician, hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects, to the Northwest Semitic group. Originally spoken by aramaeans in northern Syria and Mesopotamia, it gradually became the lingua franca of the ancient Near East from India to Egypt. In importance it rivaled Phoenician and far surpassed Hebrew. It is the general name for various dialects often difficult to classify.
Four main phases of ancient Aramaic are distinguishable: Old Aramaic, Official Aramaic, Middle Aramaic, and Late Aramaic. For the sake of completeness, a few words will be added concerning its survival in the dialects of Modern Aramaic.
One of the features that make Aramaic distinct from all the other Semitic languages is the phonetic shift whereby the Proto-Semitic fricative interdentals, which were largely retained in Arabic and South Arabic and which became sibilants in Akkadian and Canaanite (Hebrew), became simple dentals in Aramaic; thus, Proto-Semitic ḏ, ṯ, ṯ became respectively z, š, ṣ in Aramaic. But in Old Aramaic this shift had apparently not yet taken place in all local dialects. Old Aramaic was written in a script borrowed from the Phoenician script of only 22 consonants, which had no letters for fricative interdentals. The indiscriminate writing of the demonstrative particle as both d and z in Official Aramaic documents seems to show that this particle was still pronounced as ḏ (as in Proto-Semitic). The phoneme that was [symbol omitted] Proto-Semitic (voiced emphatic interdental), which shifted to ṣ in Canaanite, became in Aramaic first q (qoph ) and then ' (‘ayin ).
Another characteristic of Aramaic is its means of expressing determination (the definite article). Proto-Semitic had no article; Akkadian did not develop one. In Canaanite (e.g., Hebrew) the article was expressed by prefixing ha' -to the substantive; in Aramaic it was expressed by suffixing -a at the end of the substantive. Finally, at least in the later periods of the language, Aramaic reduced to zero grade unaccented short vowels much more than the other Semitic languages did, especially in the pretonic syllable (syllable before the accented syllable).
Old Aramaic. The earliest attested phase of Aramaic extends from c. 925 to c. 700 b.c. Inscriptions from northern Syria, written in the borrowed Canaanite (Phoenician) alphabet, preserve dedications and treaties in a language that is basically Aramaic, but distinct from its later phases by the retention of Canaanite phonetic and syntactic features. Probably not many centuries earlier both Aramaic and Canaanite developed from a common mother-language (Proto-Northwest-Semitic). Except for two inscriptions from Zinjirli, Hadad and Panammu, the rest (e.g., Ben-Hadad, Zakur, Sefire I–II–III, Nerab I–II; see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 501–05) present a fairly homogeneous picture of this early Aramaic.
Official Aramaic. During the Assyrian domination of the 7th century, Aramaic developed a characteristic form and came to be used widely in the Levant as a means of international communication, probably due to traveling Aramaean merchants. The name "Imperial" was given to this form of Aramaic, which lasted from c. 700 to c. 200 b.c., in the belief that its standardization was due to the Persian imperial chanceries' use of it for communication in their far-flung administration. Though its international use clearly antedated that empire (see 2 Kgs 18.26; Asshur Ostracon, dated c. 650, in which an Assyrian official writes to a colleague in Aramaic), the Persian imperial administration certainly furthered its use and standardization. Documents from 5th-century Egypt show how it was used for contracts, letters, and notes about household affairs between Jews and Egyptians or other Jews (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 427–30, 491–92). The largest group of Official-Aramaic texts has come from Egypt (Elephantine, Saqqarah, Hermopolis West, etc.). The correspondence of the satrap, Arsames, was found in Egypt, but written apparently in Babylon. To this phase also belongs Biblical Aramaic (see below).
Likewise from this period come the Aramaic ideographs in Middle Persian (i.e., words written as Aramaic but read as Persian) and inscriptions from such places as Arabia, Persia, Asia Minor, India, and Afghanistan. It is also during this period that Aramaic gradually supplanted Hebrew in Palestine, although small areas or levels of society always remained where Hebrew too was used. With the fall of the Persian Empire, Aramaic was replaced gradually by Greek as the international language, but it persisted in wide use among Semitic peoples.
Middle Aramaic. This phase of Aramaic is a slight development of the former, when Aramaic, lacking the normative control of royal chanceries, began to break down into dialects. To be grouped here is the Aramaic used between roughly 200 b.c. and a.d. 200. To this phase belong (1) in Palestine: the Nabataean inscriptions of petra (Aramaic with early Arabic influence), Qumran Aramaic, Murabba’at Aramaic (see dead sea scrolls), the beginnings of Rabbinical literature, inscriptions on Jewish ossuaries and tombstones, the Aramaic words in the NT and Josephus; and (2) in Syria and Mesopotamia: the inscriptions found at palmyra, Hatra, etc. Local dialects now appear, especially Palestinian, Nabataean, and Palmyrene, but they are still a closely related development of Official Aramaic. The discovery of Qumran-Aramaic texts fills in a gap in our knowledge of Palestinian Aramaic that previously existed between the final redaction of Daniel (c. 165 b.c.) and the first of the Rabbinical writings (Megillat Ta’anit or "Scroll of Fasting," c. a.d. 100). Whereas Palestinian Aramaic of this period was previously known almost exclusively from short funerary inscriptions, there are now about 125 literary texts, which reveal the type of Aramaic in use in Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ. Moreover, several scraps of Targums have also been found there, which suggest that some of the Targums that are extant only from a later date (Yerushalmi I–II, Neofiti) may possibly preserve older translations belonging to this period.
Late Aramaic. In this phase, which extends from about a.d. 200 to 700 mainly, but in certain areas lasted even longer (into the Middle Ages), a clear distinction can be made between Western Aramaic, which includes Syro-Palestinian Christian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, and Palestinian Jewish Aramaic on the one hand, and Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, and Mandaic on the other. (Mandaic is the language of the Gnostic sect of Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia; see mandaean religion.)
Syriac, the dialect of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey), became the most important dialect of Late Aramaic; it developed two chief forms, Eastern or Nestorian at Nisibis, Western or Jacobite at Edessa. This form of Aramaic, Syriac, persists as the liturgical language of several Eastern churches, among them the Chaldean, Malabar, Malankarese, Maronite, and Syrian Jacobite churches. (see syriac language and literature.)
Modern Aramaic. Aramaic has persisted into modern times, being spoken in the west in isolated villages of the Anti-Lebanon regions north of Damascus in Syria (by Christians in Ma‘lūla, by Muslims in Jubba’dīn and Bakh'a); and in the east in three areas [by Jacobite Christians in Tur ‘Abdīn, by Jews and Nestorian Christians ("Assyrians") between the Lakes Urmia and Van in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, by Chaldean Christians in the region about Mosul]. Modern Aramaic is quite corrupt, having been heavily influenced by Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic.
Bibliography: f. rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldekes Veröffentlichungen (Leiden 1939), basic. c. brockelmann et al., "Aramäisch und Syrisch," Handbuch der Orientalistik, 3.2–3 (Leiden 1954) 135–204. e. y. kutscher, "Aramaic," in Linguistics in South West Asia and North Africa (Current Trends in Linguistics 6; The Hague 1971). k. beyer, The Aramaic Language, tr. j. f. healey, (Göttingen 1986). j. c. greenfield, "Aramaic in the Achaemenian Empire," Cambridge Ancient History 2 (1985) 698–713. s. a. kaufman, "Languages (Aramaic)," Anchor Bible Dictionary 4 (1992) 173–78. e. m. cook, "Aramaic Language and Literature," The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 5 v. (Oxford-New York 1997), 1:178–84. j. a. fitzmyer, "The Phases of the Aramaic Language," in A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (SBLMS 25; Missoula, MT 1979); "Aramaic," Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. l. h. schiffman and j. c. vanderkam, 2 v. (Oxford 2000) 2:48–51; The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire: Revised Edition (Bibliotheca orientalis 19A; Rome 1995). a. lemaire and j. m. durand, Les inscriptions araméennes de Sfiré et l'Assyrie de Shamshi-Ilu (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes 2, Hautes Etudes Orientales 20; Paris-Geneva 1984). j. a. fitzmyer and s. a. kaufman, An Aramaic Bibliography: Part I, Old, Official, and Biblical Aramaic (Baltimore, MD 1992). m. black, "The Recovery of the Language of Jesus," New Testament Studies 3 (1956–57) 305–13.
[j. a. fitzmyer]