NEO-ARAMAIC , general name for the various branches of spoken Aramaic, both western and eastern. Three groups of dialects are known. The first includes the dialects of Maʿlūla, a continuation of the western branch of Middle Aramaic, spoken by Christians and Muslims in three villages about 60 km. (38 mi.) north of Damascus. The second comprises the dialects spoken by Christians in the Ṭūr ʿAbdīn area in the Mardin region of southern Turkey. These dialects occupy an intermediate position between the first group and the third, the Aramaic dialects that are the continuation of the eastern branch of Middle Aramaic and are used in Kurdistan in the area on the common border of Iraq, Persia, and Turkey. Christians and Jews speak these dialects. Most of the Jews have immigrated to Israel; the Christians have spread out through the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. The recently discovered spoken dialect of the Mandeans in Persia has a special position in the third group.
The Jewish dialects can be divided into three groups:
(1) The dialects spoken in northwest Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan). Important settlements are Nerwa, ʿAmadiya, Zāxō, and Dehōk, to which Jezira and Čalla (Çukurca) in Turkey should be added. The dialects of this group are particularly important for historical-linguistic study, since they clearly resemble Ancient Aramaic, in pronunciation, forms, and vocabulary.
(2) (Persian) Azerbaijan. Important settlements are Salmas (Shahpur), Urmia (Rizaiyah), Naǵada (Solduz), Ushnuiyeh (Šinno), to which Bašqala in Turkey should be added.
(3) Persian Kurdistan. Important settlements are Sablaǵ (Mahabad), Saqqiz, Bokan, Bana, and Senna, and the Iraqi towns of Rawanduz, Irbil, Sulaymaniya (before Iraq was established as an independent political entity after World War i, it was part of the Ottoman Empire). The southernmost Aramaic-speaking settlement is Kerend.
From the Middle Ages Jews are known to have spoken Aramaic in Kurdistan. Some scholars hold that Aramaic was not the original language of some of these Jews, but that they adopted it after their emigration (from Persia?) to the Aramaic-speaking areas. Perhaps not all the Jews from this area spoke Aramaic. The census takers did not distinguish between Jews who spoke Aramaic and those who spoke other languages. It appears that in the cities where Arabic (or Turkish) rule was strong the Jews adopted the language of their surroundings, after a period of bilingualism. Jews from places where, according to travelers, Aramaic was still spoken in the 19th century, did not bring this language with them to Israel. Immigrants from Irbil exemplify this process: both Arabic and Aramaic are the everyday language of the older generation.
When the State of Israel was established the total number of Aramaic-speaking Jews was estimated at 20,000; most of them are now in Israel, grouped largely according to their provenance. The Jews (especially from Persia and Turkey) have called their language the "language of the Targum." Other names are "the language of the Jews," "our language," and "Jabali." In Israel this language is commonly called Kurdi, even though this is the scientific name for the Iranian language of the Muslim Kurds. It seems that rabbinic scholars on rare occasions called this language Aramaic, as can be seen in two manuscripts, one from the beginning of the 18th century, the other from the beginning of the 20th. The scientific name given this language is "Northeastern Neo-Aramaic" or "modern Syriac" (the latter suitable to the Christian dialects). The Christians who use this language consider Syriac the language from which their language evolved, but there is no linguistic proof for this contention.
From the historical-linguistic point of view it is assumed that the eastern dialects of Neo-Aramaic developed from a language similar to Babylonian talmudic Aramaic and Mandaic, but there are no documents extant in this language since it was not used as a literary vehicle. Similarly, the exact connection between eastern Neo-Aramaic and the Aramaic of the Babylonian Jews before they began speaking Arabic is unknown.
An idea may be obtained of some of the major features of these dialects by a description of the dialect as spoken in Zāxō, which is of particular importance for historical-linguistic study.
The glottal stop, ʾ, parallels three consonants of Ancient Aramaic, גֿ, ע, א. ʾ from ע (or גֿ) is always retained, while the ʾ from א is liable to disappear in certain situations: ʾurxa ("road"), burxa ("on the road") as against ʾisra ("ten") and bʾisra ("by ten"). This is important in determining the etymological origin of a particular ʾ. ח is pronounced as x (= כֿ).
The phonemes of b, g, d, k, p, t which in Ancient Aramaic, as in Hebrew, had two variants each, have attained phonemic status in the modern dialects for each of their variants. The spirantized and dageš forms appear in all environments and are not conditioned by the accepted rules of Ancient Aramaic, for example, the ת of שתי, יתב is always given the hard pronunciation, even though it was spirantized in Ancient Aramaic under certain conditions.
The following is the transposition of b, g, d, k, t in Neo-Aramaic: בֿ = w; גֿ (through כֿ ;ך = (ע = x; דֿ = z; תֿ = s. The different pronunciations of דֿ and תֿ in the various dialects serve as a criterion for differentiating them.
As in Eastern Syriac, the phoneme פ is always pronounced p. In all the Jewish dialects, however, f is found only in loanwords, while in most of the Christian dialects f is replaced by p.
|אֿדי "hand"||ʾ īza||ʾ īḏa||ʾ īda||īda||īla|
|אֿתי ּב "house"||bēsa||bēṯa||bēṯa||bēla||bēla|
In loanwords the phonemes ʾ, ḥ, ʿ, ġ, č, j, are also found. The diphthongs in Ancient Aramaic have become monophthongized: ay > ē (בַּיְתָא > bēsa), aw > ō (יָוְמא > yōma). The same is true for diphthongs originating in Neo-Aramaic as a result of the בֿ > w shift: חָבֿלָא xōla. The doubling of consonants has largely been eliminated and replaced by the lengthening of the preceding vowel, as יַמָּא > jāma.
The new status constructus is formed by adding the suffix it to the noun base: baxta ("a woman"); baxtit axōna ("the brother's wife"). In the plural there is no differentiation of gender in adjectives, pronouns, or the verb, as: gōra sqīla ("A handsome man"), baxta sqïlta ("a beautiful woman"); gūrē sqīlē ("hand-some men"), baxtāsa sqīlē ("beautiful women"). There is only one set of possessive pronouns suffixed to the nouns (both the singular and the plural).
The verb differs radically from Ancient Aramaic both in form and in content. Whereas in Ancient Aramaic the tense system has two parts (past and future), in Neo-Aramaic it is tripartite: past, present, and future. The prefixed and suffixed forms which in Ancient Aramaic were perfect and imperfect have been replaced by other forms. The form šāqïl (שָׁקִל in Ancient Aramaic = active participle) is a subjunctive. It is conjugated by adding the enclitic pronouns. Šāqil refers to the actor and the recipient of the act is indicated by-l-plus pronominal suffixes, e.g., šāqïllē ("that he will take"). The present is formed by prefixing g/k to šāqïl (gzamir, "he plays"); the future by prefixing b/p to this form (bzāmïr, "he will play").
Šqīl (= שְׁקִיל, the passive participle) is the basis of the past and the recipient of the action. The actor is indicated by-l-plus personal suffixes: šqilē ("he took"), šqilālē ("he took her"), šqililē ("he took them").
Neo-Aramaic has also introduced compound tenses which indicate different aspects (continuous action and perfect). The infinitive šqāla (bi usually precedes the infinitive of the first conjugation) plus the copula produce the continuous present: bïšqāla lē ("he is taking"). The form šqīla, conjugated according to gender and number, with the copula, forms the present perfect: šqīlā lē ("he has taken"), šqïltā lā ("she has taken"), šqīlē lū ("they have taken"). By adding the suffix wa every tense can be cast one degree into the past: gšaqïlwa ("he used to take"), šqïlwālē ("he had taken").
There are only three conjugations which parallel qal, pael, and afel. The reflexive conjugations that were used in Ancient Aramaic to express the passive are not found in Neo-Aramaic where the passive is formed with the passive participle plus an auxiliary verb.
Especially noteworthy is the syntax of the copula. In a sentence whose predicate is not a verb, the predicate is formed through the addition of the copula, as: baxta sqïlta ("a beautiful woman"), baxta sqïlta lā ("the woman is beautiful").
Neo-Aramaic was greatly influenced by the neighboring languages. The impact of Kurdish seems to have been especially strong in the early stages of the language and there are those who attribute the changes in the verb to it. As in all Jewish languages there are many words from Hebrew, especially in the sphere of tradition, which were absorbed in Jewish Aramaic: סעודה (!), ברכה, גזירה, מצוה, נשמה, etc.
The Jews use the Hebrew alphabet in writing their language and they add certain diacritical signs to represent the missing consonants. In the earliest known manuscripts (17th century, north Iraq) the long vowels are indicated by matres lectionis: א = ā; 'י= ī or ē (final ē by ' or יה/ה); waw for short and long u and o. In later manuscripts the system was not consistently maintained, vocalization also being used for this purpose.
The use of Neo-Aramaic as a written language was limited to certain literary types intended to be read in the synagogue both during prayers and apart from it: tafsirs (elaborated translations) of haftarot and piyyutim; Midrashim for some of the parashiyyot; the midrashic Targum of Song of Songs, etc. Hebrew is used for secular purposes. It seems that the epic poems on biblical themes and the Targum in different dialects were first transcribed in Israel through the efforts of Joseph Joel *Rivlin.
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