1902 Encyclopedia > Aramaic Languages

Aramaic Languages

ARAMAIC LANGUAGES are so called from Aram, a geographical term, which in old Semitic usage designates nearly the same districts as the Greek word Syria. Aram, however, does not include Palestine, while it comprehends Mesopotamia (Heb. Aram of two rivers), a region which the Greeks frequently distinguish from Syria proper. Thus the Aramaic languages may be geographically denned as the Semitic dialects originally current in Mesopotamia and the regions extending S. W. from the Euphrates to Palestine. Philologically these" dialects form a distinct group of Semitic languages (North Semitic), separated by gram-matical and lexical peculiarities alike from the Middle Semitic (Hebrew, Phoenician) and from the South Semitic (Arabic, Ethiopic). Babylonia is not part of Aram, and the Semitic language of the Assyrian and Babylonian arrowhead inscriptions is not Aramaic.

All Aramaic dialects are characterised by poverty of vowels, by the disappearance of many of the forms of internal declension so characteristic of the original genius of Semitic speech, and by a tendency to analytical con-struction by the aid of relative particles in place of the earlier usage of the construct state. Along with these marks of degradation they retain some antique features lost in Hebrew and Arabic, and in particular, generally present the oldest consonantal forms, having mutes instead of sibilants and aspirates, in a way quite analogous to the relation of Low to High Dutch. A special Aramaic peculiarity is the enclitic use of the article as in modern Danish.

The tribes of ancient Aram never possessed political unity, their settlements being intersected by strips of desert with Arabian population. Thus, there must have been from an early time considerable diversity of dialect within the group, and apart from differences due to the very various ages of the extant literature, we are able to divide Aramaic into two main branches, commonly known as Ohaldee and Syriac respectively, and distinguished partly by differences of pronunciation and vocabulary, but more conclusively by differences of grammatical flexion, especially in the verb. In comparison with the great age of this branch of Semitic, the whole Aramaic literature is of comparatively late date, and presents the languages in an advanced and in some sense exhausted stage of development.

The historical and geographical relations of Syriac and Chaldee respectively are involved in some obscurity. As the entire Chaldee literature is of Jewish origin, Hupfeld and others have attempted to refer the whole difference of this language from Syriac to an infusion of Hebrew elements. This view, however, is now generally given up, and it is agreed that Chaldee is no corrupt dialect, but a genuine Aramaic development. But where and when did the Jews give up their old language and adopt a foreign tongue 1 The explanation formerly adopted and embodied in the name Chaldee, which from the days of Jerome has been commonly used to designate the Jewish Aramaic, is that the change took place in Babylon. That the so-called Biblical Chaldee, in which considerable portions of the books of Ezra and Daniel are written, was really the language of Babylon, was supposed to be clear from Dan. ii. 3, where the Chaldeans are said to have spoken to the king in Aramaic, and accordingly the writer in the fol-lowing verse passes from Hebrew to that language. But the cuneiform inscriptions show that the proper language of the Chaldeans was not Aramaic; and an examination of the very large part of the Hebrew Old Testament written later than the exile seems conclusively to prove that the substitution of Aramaic for Hebrew as the vernacular of Palestine took place very gradually. Under the Persian empire Aramaic was a sort of official language for the western provinces, and the Hebrews were in con-stant contact with Aramaic populations, so that the lan-guage of the many could not fail ultimately to supersede the language of the few. Hence most scholars are now agreed in holding that the term Chaldee is a misnomer, and that the dialect so called is really the language of the South-western Arameans, who were the immediate neighbours of the Jews. Probably this doctrine would be no longer disputed but for the connection between the question before us and that of the date and authorship of Daniel In any case, the substitution of Aramaic for Hebrew as the vernacular of Palestine was completed before the time of Christ, and it is this dialect (not the language of the Old Testament Scriptures) which is designated in the New Testament as "Hebrew." The old Hebrew Scriptures were understood only by the aid of interpretations, which, at first oral, were set down in writing in the early centuries of our era, and form after the Biblical Chaldee the second main element of Chaldee literature, the so-called Targums. These versions or paraphrases arose partly in the Pales-tinian, partly in the Babylonian schools, and accordingly display considerable variety of dialect—the Palestinian Targums approaching most nearly to the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra. But the Aramaic of the Targums is again very different from the language of every day life, as presented in the Talmuds of Babylon and Jerusalem. The Talmudic dialects show extreme phonetic and grammatical decay, but have hitherto been very inadequately investi-gated. The Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud is more nearly allied to the Aramaic of the East than to the language of Palestine.

Of much greater historical importance than these Jewish dialects is the Aramaic of the north and east, which rose to a literary language under the name of Syriac, in the Chrstian schools of North Mesopotamia. Like so many other languages, the Syriac first received stable literary form by the translation of the Bible, the so-called Peshito. On this basis the language was assiduously cultivated for many centuries, especially in the renowned schools of Edessa and Nisibis, and possesses a very large literature, in which theology has a leading place, but which is also strong in other forms of composition, as history and poetry, and even extends into the domain of Occidental philosophy and science. The treatment of the latter subjects in a Semitic speech was rendered possible by the very great infusion of Greek elements (not merely technical terms, but even particles and the like) brought into the language by long centuries of Greek domination and culture. The period during which Syriac literature was most flourishing extends from the 4th to the 10th Christian century. From the later date onward, the language began to give way to Arabic, though some very distinguished authors, e.g., Barhebreeus, wrote as late as the 13th century. Even now the Syriac is used to some extent as the ecclesiastical language of various bodies of Christians, Jacobites, Nes-torians, and Maronites. The systematic study of Syriac by grammars and lexicons was commenced pretty early. Of native grammarians, may be mentioned Jacob of Edessa (7th century) and Barhebraeus; of lexicographers, Bar-Ali and Bar-Bahlul (9th and 10th centuries respectively). By the Maronites the study of Syriac was transplanted to Europe in the 16th century. A corrupt dialect (Neo-Syriac) is still spoken in some districts near Mosul, in Antilibanus, <fcc, and has been grammatically handled by Stoddart, Noldeke, and others. Besides the two main branches of Aramaic already discussed, several minor Aramaic dialects claim to be noticed. The Samaritan dialect, spoken by the mixed population introduced into Northern Palestine after the deportation of the Ephraim-ites, has long been superseded as a living tongue by Arabic, but is still the sacred language of the Samaritan communi-ties. The most important literary monument of this dialect is the Samaritan translation of the Pentateuch; but we possess also Samaritan liturgies and other remains. Another written dialect is the Mandean, the language of a mystical sect on the Euphrates and Tigris, whose Booh of Adam has been edited by Norberg. Others are known only from inscriptions, as the dialect of Hauran, and that of certain Egyptian monuments. See SEMITIC LANGUAGES.

Helps to the Study of the Aramaic Dialects.—There is as yet no good Grammar of the Chaldee dialects. That most commonly used is Winer's Grammatik des biblischen und targumischen Chaldaismus, which has passed through several editions, and of which there is an American translation by Riggs. Luzzato's Elementi grammaticali del Oaldeo Biblico e del dialetto Talmudico Babilonese (Padua, 1865) is in some respects preferable to Winer. The Chalddische Grammatik of Fuerst (Leipsic, 1835) is unfinished. The best Chaldee Lexicon is still the old Lexicon Chaldaicum Talmudicwm et Habbinicum of Buxtorf (Basil, 1640). The worthless modern reprint by Fischer is to be avoided, but the Chalddisches Worterbuch of J. Levy, 2 vols. Leipsic, 1867-68, may be used with caution. On the controversy as to the real character of the Chaldee dialects, the student may be re-ferred to the books of introduction to the Old Testament, especially to Schrader's edition of De Wette, which gives full references to rele-vant literature. Of recent Syriac Grammars may be mentioned those of Hoffmann (Grammatical Syriaae Libri III., Halae, 1827) and Uhlemann (Grammatik der Syrischen Sprache, 2 Aufl., Berlin, 1857) in Germany, and of Cowper (London, 1858) in English. An elaborate and pretentious reconstruction of Hoffmann's Grammar by Professor Merx of Tubingen, treats all the Aramaic dialects, but is not yet finished (part i. 1867, part ii. 1870). The Grammar of Amira (Rome, 1596) is still referred to. There is no complete Syriac Lexicon adequate to modern requirements. Michaelis's edition of Castellus (Gottingen, 1788), and Sehaaf s Lexicon Concordanliale to the New Testament (Leyden, 1708), are valuable ; and a great Thesaurus, compiled from numerous sources, and from the collections of several scholars, is now being published by the Clarendon Press under the editorship of Br Payne Smith. On the Samaritan litera-ture see the introduction to Nutt's Fragments of a Samaritan Targum, London, 1874. There is a Samaritan Grammar by Uhlemann (Leipsic, 1837), and an Essay on the Mandean dialect by Noldeke (Gottingen, 1862). The Aramaic inscriptions have been in-vestigated by Gesenius, De Vogiie, Noldeke, and others. (W. R. S.)

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