One of the two branches of the later Northwest group of Semitic languages, the other being Canaanite (Phoenician and Hebrew), “Aramaic” actually encompasses a number of closely related dialects. They probably emerged in Syria at the end of the Late Bronze Age; the first written traces date from the tenth century BCE. The Aramaic dialects have been in continual use since that time in some form. The importance of Aramaic lies in its long history and the geographic extent of its influence. Many of the cultures of the region employed Aramaic for civil, literary, or religious use even when the vernacular was another language. The formative periods of Christianity and Judaism occurred when Aramaic was in wide use, and it has left its mark on much of their literature. There is no consensus on the periodization of Aramaic, but the categories developed by Joseph A. Fitzmyer (1979) are widely used: Old Aramaic, the dialects of the Iron Age inscriptions from Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia (tenth-seventh centuries BCE), Imperial Aramaic (sixth–third centuries BCE), Middle Aramaic (second century BCE–second century CE), Late Aramaic (third–eighth centuries CE), and Modern Aramaic (present day).


Aramaic grammar, the description of its phonology (meaningful sounds), morphology (formation and inflection of words), and syntax (meaningful arrangement of words in clauses and sentences), shares many features with the other Semitic languages.


The Arameans borrowed the twenty-two-letter Phoenician alphabet sometime in the eleventh or tenth century BCE. The letter forms of the earliest inscriptions are the same as contemporary Phoenician ones. Aramaic forms of the letters began to develop in the eighth century BCE. The intensive use of Aramaic in the Persian Empire (539–332 BCE) resulted in a widely used Aramiac cursive. The geographic extent of Aramaic writing triggered—by borrowing or imitation—the development of alphabetic writing in non-Aramaic languages such as Brahmi (in northwestern India), Armenian, and Georgian.

Local varieties of the script emerged in the Hellenistic period for writing the indigenous dialects, such as Palestinian, Nabatean, and Palmyrene. Jewish scribes modified each letter to fit within an imaginary square frame; this “square script” was eventually used for Hebrew as well as Aramaic, and much later was adapted for Yiddish. The Nabatean script eventually evolved into the Arabic cursive.


When the Arameans adopted the alphabet, they had twenty-seven phonemes to fit to the twenty-two Phoenician letters. Several of the letters had to represent two phonemes (see table 1). This breach of the one-letter/one-phoneme principle may have expedited an important Aramaic innovation: using the letters /'/, /h/, /w/, and /y/ to represent the long vowels /ā/, /ē/, /ū/, and /ī/, respectively. At first used mostly for final vowels, these matres lectionis (“mothers of reading”) could also be used within a word, and conceivably for short as well as long vowels. Some later dialects fully exploit these possibilities; for example, Mandaic indicates every vowel by a mater. [See Mandaic.] However, the ambiguity inherent in a primarily consonantal system was not resolved until Syriac grammarians in the fourth century CE invented symbols written above and below the consonants to express the vowels. [See Syriac.] Jewish scribes adopted the principle (and some of the diacritics) for the various vocalization systems developed for the square script. The Tiberian Masoretic system is still in use.


The consonants and vowels of Aramaic have undergone a number of important changes throughout history.


The oldest Aramaic texts have a consonantal inventory little changed from Proto-Semitic. One peculiarity is the indication of etymological by /q/; for examples, the original *'arḍ, “earth,” is spelled /'rq/ (later dialects 'r῾). The articulation is not known, but in later periods the consonant is written with ayin (/῾/). In Imperial Aramaic, the original interdentals (ḏ, ṯ̣, ṯ) become the corresponding dentals (d, ṭ, ṭ). All later dialects reflect this change. The merger of with and of ś with s occurred in the Middle Aramaic period. (See table 1.)

Table 1. Aramaic Phonemes. The Aramaic phonemes are given, by point of articulation, in standard transcription. The squarescript equivalent is also given, as well as the phonemic changes that become standard in later dialects.

Old Aramaic Later Dialects
Glottal stop ', written א
Voiceless spirant h, written ה
Voiceless spirant , written ח
Voiced spirant ‘, written ע
Voiceless spirant , written ח ḥ (ח)
Voiced spirant ǵ, written ע ῾ (ע)
Emphatic stop q, written ק
Voiced stop g, written ג
Voiceless stop k, written כ
Voiceless sibilant š, written שׁ
Lateral(?) sibilant ś, written שׂ s (ס)
Emphatic sibilant , written ע
Voiced sibilant z, written ו
Voiceless sibilant s, written ס
Emphatic spirant ṯ̣, written ע ṭ (מ)
Voiced spirant , written ו d (ד)
Voiceless spirant , written ס/שׁ t (ת)
Voiced emphatic stop ḏ̣ (?), written ק ῾ (ע)
Emphatic stop , written מ
Voiced stop d, written ד
Voiceless stop t, written ת
Voiced stop b, written ב
Voiceless stop p, written פ
Lateral l, written ל
Flap(?) r, written ד
Dental nasal n, written ב
Bilabial nasal m, written מ


By the time Old Aramaic emerged, all final short vowels had disappeared. The other vowels, only partially indicated orthographically, show some development away from the Proto-Semitic system of six vowels (long and short i a u): for example, unstressed final î becomes ê (written /h/). The position of word stress affected the vowels: During the Middle Aramaic period and after, short vowels in unstressed open syllables were eliminated or reduced to the semivowel shewa (ǝ). In some late dialects, unstressed final long vowels were dropped.

Table 2a. Inflection of Nouns

Masculine Feminine
Singular Nouns
Absolute -ā
Construct -at
Emphatic -â -
Plural Nouns
Absolute -în -ân1
Construct -ê2 -ât
Emphatic -ayyâ3 -âtâ
1Old Aramaic also -ât. 2Syriac -ay. 3Syriac, JBA, Mandaic -ê.


Morphology is the analysis of word structure. Aramaic words can be analyzed according to their formation (the production of lexical items) or their inflection (elements added to words to indicate various nonlexical relations, such as number, gender, person, and so on).

Nouns: Inflection and formation.

Nouns are inflected for three “states”: absolute, construct, and emphatic (or determined). The absolute state is the unmarked state, while the emphatic state (indicated by final -â) signifies definiteness, similar to a definite article. (The Old Aramaic inscriptions from Zincirli, Turkey, and the Deir ῾Alla plaster text do not use the emphatic state; it may have been a later innovation that spread to all the dialects.) [See Deir ῾Alla Inscriptions.] In Syriac and Late Eastern Aramaic, the emphatic state is the normal state, while the absolute is used only in certain contexts. (See table 2a–b.)

Nouns in the construct state are the head words of genitive constructions (see below). In addition to the states, most nouns are marked for number (singular, plural, and sometimes dual) and gender (masculine, feminine). Most nouns are formed by combining a triconsonantal root and a vocalic or vocalic-consonantal pattern, as in other Semitic languages. Some of the nominal patterns have a regular function, such as the adjectival pattern kattîb (e.g., qaddîš, “holy,” from qdš; raššî῾, “wicked,” from ῾), or the kâtôb agentive (e.g., pârôq, “savior,” from prq), but many patterns have no systematic function. Compound words are very rare.

Table 2b. Example Showing Inflection of ṭâb, “good”

Masculine Feminine
Absolute ṭâb ṭâbā
Construct ṭâb ṭâbat
Emphatic ṭâbâ ṭâbe
Absolute ṭâbîn ṭâbân
Construct ṭâbê ṭâbât
Emphatic ṭâbayyâ ṭâbâtâ

Table 3. The Aramaic Verb. A good impression of the similarities and differences between the dialects can be gained from a synoptic table of verb conjugations. This table presents the conjugation of the root ktb, “to write,” in the G-stem (basic stem), perfect and imperfect tenses. The sample dialects are those for which dependable traditions of vocalization exist. “Proto-Aramaic,” the putative ancestor language, is purely hypothetical. Superscript letters represent consonants written but not pronounced.

Proto-Aramaic Targum Onkelos JPA Samaritan Syriac Mandaic
Perfect, Singular
3d masc. kataba kǝtab kǝtab kātab ktav ktab
3d fem. katabat kǝtabat katǝbat kātābat katvat kitbat
2d masc. katabtā kǝtabtā kǝtabt kātabt ktavt ktabt
2d fem. katabtī kǝtabt kǝtabt kātabt ktavty ktabt
1st (com.) katabt(u) kǝtabit katǝbet katbǝt kitvet kitbit
Perfect, Plural
3d masc. katabû kǝtabû kǝtabu kātābu ktavw ktab, ktabyun
3d fem. katabâ kǝtabâ katben kātābi ktavy, ktaven ktab, ktabyan
2d masc. katabtuma kǝtabton kǝtabton kātabton ktavtun ktabtun
2d fem. katabtina kǝtabten kǝtabten kātabten ktavten ktabtin
1st (com.) katabnâ kǝtabnâ kǝtabnan kātabnan ktavn ktabnin
Imperfect (indicative), Singular
3d masc. yaktubu yiktob yektob yiktab nektuv niktub
3d fem. taktubu tiktob tektob tiktab tektuv tiktub
2d masc. taktubu tiktob tektob tiktab tektuv tiktub
2d fem. taktubina tiktǝbîn tektǝbin tiktābi tektvin tiktub
1st (com.) 'aktubu 'ektob 'ektob, nektob iktab ektuv iktub
Imperfect (indicative), Plural
3d masc. yaktubûna yiktǝbûn yektǝbun yiktābon nektvun nikitbun
3d fem. yaktubnâ yiktǝbân yektǝban yiktāban nektvân nikitban
2d masc. taktubûna tiktǝbûn tektǝbun tiktābon tektvun tikitbun
2d fem. taktubnâ tiktǝbân tektǝban tiktāban tektvân tikitbun
1st (com.) naktubu niktob nektob niktab nektuv niktub
G-stem katâb miktab mektob maktab mektav miktab
D-stem kattâb? kattâbā mǝkattaba amkattaba mkattâvu katobi
C-stem haktâb? 'aktâbā maktaba miktāba maktâvu aktobi

Verbs: Inflection and formation.

Verbs have two conjugations, one with suffixes (the “perfect”) and one with prefixes and sometimes suffixes (the “imperfect”). The conjugational affixes indicate person, number, and gender. In Old and Imperial Aramaic, the imperfect distinguished between the indicative and jussive moods, but the later dialects made their paradigms uniform, leveling through the indicative type (Western Aramaic) or the jussive type (Syriac, Eastern). Infinitives and active/passive participles complete the system. (See table 3.)

Like nouns, root/pattern combinations form verbal “stems.” Unlike nouns, the stems form a limited but productive system and differentiate certain kinds of action. The three principal stems are the simple, or G stem for simple or unmarked action; the D-stem (with a doubled middle root letter) for repetitive, factitive, or pluritive action; and the C-stem for causative action. Each stem has a corresponding stem with prefixed 'it- (Gt, Dt, Ct), usually indicating the passive voice. Early Aramaic used an internal causative passive instead of the Ct-stem; it also had an internal G-stem passive. The verb stems in the perfect conjugation with the root ktb are as follows (using Biblical Aramaic):

G-stem kǝtab Gt-stem 'itkǝtib
D-stem kattēb Dt-stem 'itkattab
C-stem haktēb C-passive huktab

In later dialects, the C-passive huktab was replaced by 'ittaktab.


Syntax examines the combination of words into phrases, clauses, and sentences. Only a few important syntactic features are discussed here.

Genitive phrase.

The oldest type is the construct chain, in which a noun in the construct state is prosodically bound to a following noun to produce a genitive construction: bayt, “house” + malkâ, “the king” > bêt malkâ, “the house of the king.” In Old Aramaic the construct phrase begins to be replaced, under Akkadian influence, by nouns joined by the particle (later d-): bêtâ dî malkâ (same meaning). Such constructions become the rule in the later dialects. A common subtype has a suffix on the head-word: bêtēh dî malkâ, “his house of the king,” or “the king's house.”

Verbal function.

The perfect conjugation is commonly used for the historical past or the perfect. The imperfect has a more complicated development. In the older texts, it has an iterative, durative, future, or precative reference. When used as a precative, some dialects used a preformative l- instead of the usual y-. In Eastern Aramaic and Syriac, the precative came to replace the indicative (with the preformative l- becoming n- in Syriac and Mandaic). At the same time, the active participle came to be used as a present tense and, with the root hwy, “to be,” to denote past or future continuous action. In Syriac and Late Eastern Aramaic, the participle often denotes futurity, and the imperfect, modality, while in the West a three-tense system formed: past (perfect), present (participle), and future (imperfect).

Word order.

The oldest word order in the verbal clause is verb-subject-object (VSO), with a subject-verb-object (SVO) as a common variant; both orders are common in the later dialects. Some Imperial Aramaic texts, as well as Biblical Aramaic, also use an SOV order, apparently under Akkadian or Persian influence.


Despite significant dialect differences, a pervasive unity is seen in common Aramaic vocabulary. The most frequently used verbal roots are shared by all dialects: slq, “to go up”; nḥt, “to go down”; ῾ll, “to enter”; npq, “to exit”; ῾bd, “to do, make”; mll; “to speak”; 'zl, “to go”; yhb, “to give”; nṭl, “to lift up”; and so on. The same is true of nouns, numerals, and adjectives—for example, ḥad, “one”; rab, “great”; 'óraḥ, “way”; 'atar, “place”; saggî, “many.” Such unity must derive from a common divergence from a single ancestor dialect, or from a convergence of dialects fostered by constant contact. Probably both elements contributed to Aramaic uniformity.

Contact with other languages.

Aramaic was used alongside other languages throughout its history, and it both absorbed features from them and influenced them. Akkadian had great influence, particularly on the shape of Imperial and Eastern Aramaic (see above), and it borrowed freely from Aramaic as well. Persian also contributed many lexemes and some grammatical features. Greek loanwords and constructions became increasingly common in the Byzantine period, especially in Syriac. [See Greek.] In Jewish circles, Aramaic greatly altered Hebrew; postbiblical Hebrew owes many of its characteristic features to Aramaic, and Aramaic in turn borrowed various religious words from Hebrew. Finally, Arabic owes its alphabet and a significant number of loanwords to Aramaic. [See Hebrew Language and Literature; Arabic.]

Aramaic dialects.

No texts in the hypothetical ancestor language of the Aramaic dialects (“Proto-Aramaic”) have survived. From its earliest written appearances, Aramaic is characterized by dialect divisions.

Old Aramaic.

The earliest Old Aramaic text is a one-line inscription on an altar found at Tell Ḥalaf on the upper Khabur River (KAI 231), possibly from the tenth century BCE. [See Ḥalaf, Tell.] From a nearby site and from a slightly later time is the Tell Fakhariyah bilingual, a statue bearing inscriptions in Akkadian and Old Aramaic. [See Fakhariyah Aramaic Inscription.] The oldest text from Syria is the Melqart stela (KAI 201), a votive inscription to Melqart from “Bar-Hadad, king of Aram,” probably from the ninth century BCE. Although found north of Aleppo, it probably originated in the kingdom of Damascus. The longest texts, the Sefire treaty inscriptions (KAI 222–224), appear on three stelae discovered at Sefire, south of Aleppo. They contain the text of a treaty made between Mati῾'el of Arpad and a certain Bar-Ga῾yah of KTK (the Assyrian Shamshi-Ilu, according to André Lemaire and J.-M. Durand, Les inscriptions araméennes de Sfiré et l'Assyrie de Shamshi-ilu, Geneva, Paris, 1984). The texts date from the mid-eighth century BCE. [See Sefire Aramaic Inscriptions.]

Two eighth-century BCE inscriptions, the Hadad and Panammu inscriptions (KAI 21-4, 215) were discovered at Zincirli (ancient Sam'al). The first is on a statue of Hadad dedicated by Panammu I of Sam'al; the second is on a broken statue, dedicated to Panammu II by his son Bar-Rakkab (c. 730 BCE). The inscriptions are the only evidence for the Sam'alian dialect of Aramaic, which evinces a number of archaisms and unusual features, leading some to doubt its classification as Aramaic. Bar-Rakkab also left six other texts, not written in Sam'alian, of which the so-called Bauinschrift (KAI 216), detailing his building activities, is the longest and best preserved.

From the ancient kingdom of Hamath comes the Zakkur stela (KAI 202), a fragmentary inscription from Afis south of Aleppo. [See Zakkur Inscription.] It narrates the rise to kingship of Zakkur, “a humble man” (l.2), and how, having fought off a coalition of foreign kings, he embarked on building projects to the glory of his god Iluwer. It probably dates from the early eighth century BCE. Two funerary inscriptions from Nerab probably date from the beginning of the seventh century BCE: the Sin-zer-ibni inscription (KAI 225) and the Si-gabbar inscription (KAI 226), commemorating two priests of the god Śahr. [See Nerab Inscriptions.]

Modern Jordan and Israel are the sites of two important recent discoveries. The most interesting (and perplexing) is the Deir ῾Alla plaster text, an inscription in ink painted on plaster discovered In 1967 at Tell Deir ῾Alla in Jordan. Only fragments are preserved, and the reconstruction of the text as a whole is provisional. It is certain, however, that it tells of a vision seen by Balaam son of Beor, known from Numbers 22–24. The connections with the biblical text are intriguing. Equally as controversial is the classification of the language: despite some features that link it to the local Canaanite languages (Hebrew or Moabite), the language of the text should be considered Aramaic. The newest Aramaic discovery is the Tel Dan stela, a stone fragment containing 13 incomplete lines discovered in northern Israel In 1993. The fragments tell of the victory of an Aramean king, probably Hazael (eighth century BCE), over the “king of Israel” and the “king of the house of David”—that is, Judah—in what, apparently, is the first reference to David outside the Hebrew Bible. Additional fragments were discovered In 1994.

Imperial Aramaic.

Assyria dominated the Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, and the texts from this period reflect a growing standardization of Aramaic—the beginning of “Imperial Aramaic,” an Aramaic koine that left its mark on all subsequent dialects. The widespread use and influence of Aramaic dates to the period of Assyrian hegemony. A narrative from the Hebrew Bible depicts the knowledge of Aramaic at this time as a possession of the Israelite scribes but not of the common people. The emissary of Sennacherib of Assyria came to Jerusalem In 710 BCE to demand surrender. During the parley, the Judeans said, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. But do not speak with us in Judean in the hearing of the people” (2 Kgs. 18:26). Written and pictorial remains testify to the presence of Arameans and Aramaic scribes in official capacities throughout the region.

The extant Aramaic texts from the Assyrian period, however, are brief. They include 14 inscribed weights from Nineveh (CIS 1–14), dockets, labels, and brief records written or scratched into clay tablets from Aššur, Nimrud, Tell Ḥalaf, and elsewhere. The Aššur ostracon (KAI 233) is a fragmentary letter sent from Babylonia and dated to about 650 BCE. [See Nineveh; Aššur; Nimrud.]

Aramaic texts from the Neo-Babylonian period (612–539 BCE) are also few and brief, comprising a few dockets, and one fragmentary papyrus, the 6th-century Adon letter (KAI 266), from the ruler of Ekron (Tel Miqne) in Palestine to the Pharaoh. [See Miqne, Tel.] The original of the Uruk incantation may date to the same period. Its magical text contains an archaic form of Eastern Aramaic written in syllabic cuneiform on a tablet dating to the third century BCE.

The high point of Imperial Aramaic is in the Persian period (539–332 BCE). The Achaemenid dynasty continued the practice of using Aramaic as a lingua franca, and textual remains from every point of the far-flung Persian Empire attest to its use in law, administration, and literature. The largest and most significant remains have come from Egypt, where the climate is ideal for preserving writings on leather and papyrus. One of the most important manuscript finds of the century was the discovery In 1906 of the archives of the Jewish colony at Elephantine, comprising more than one hundred relatively intact papyri. Dating from the fifth century BCE, they include ten official letters to and from the head of the community, several family archives, and numerous administrative, legal, epistolary, and literary documents. [See Papyrus; Elephantine.]

The most important literary text is a copy of the Words of Ahiqar, later versions of which are known from other languages. It is the story of how the sage Ahiqar, advisor to Assyrian royalty, was betrayed by his nephew Nadan and later restored to favor. The “proverbs” of Ahiqar contained in the document are a significant example of Near Eastern wisdom literature. Also found at Elephantine was an ancient translation of the Bisitun inscription of Darius. [See Bisitun.] Other significant documents from Egypt are the correspondence of Arsham, the Persian satrap of Egypt; the Hermopolis letters, private letters written in a nonstandard dialect; papyri and inscriptions from Memphis Saqqara, Abydos, Giza, Luxor, Edfu, and elsewhere. [See Memphis; Saqqara; Abydos; Giza.] One of the most remarkable documents is the Amherst demotic papyrus, a long, fragmentary scroll of religious and narrative texts in Aramaic written in Egyptian demotic script. Still only partially published, the often idiosyncratic use of demotic characters makes the papyrus difficult to understand. Other Imperial Aramaic documents from Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Iran (especially Persepolis), Afghanistan, and Arabia (Tayma'), show its widespread use. [See Persepolis; Tayma'.] The Aramaic sections of the Book of Ezra in the Hebrew Bible, putatively dating from the Persian period, are written in Imperial Aramaic.

Middle Aramaic.

When the Greeks came to power in the Near East in the fourth century BCE, Aramaic lost its official status. However, its long career as a lingua franca left its mark on every dialect, and the local vernaculars continued to play major roles. The “post-Imperial” period, during which the local dialects developed as literary standards in their own right, is called Middle Aramaic.

Nabatean was used in North Arabia, Sinai, and Petra in Jordan. Archaeologists have found thousands of Nabatean graffiti and burial inscriptions dating from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE. Several Nabatean legal texts have been discovered in caves in the Judean wilderness. In general. Nabatean is conservative, being much influenced by Imperial Aramaic. It contains a number of loans from Arabic, the region's principal vernacular. The Nabateans developed a highly individual cursive script that was the direct ancestor of the Arabic script. [See Nabatean Inscriptions; Sinai; Petra.]

To the west, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic is attested from the finds from the Dead Sea wilderness, principally Wadi Qumran. [See Qumran.] About 25 percent of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Aramaic, including the oldest targum (Aramaic Bible translation), the Targum of Job. Other important texts include the Genesis Apocryphon (a retelling of the patriarchal narratives), the Book of Tobit, the Book of Enoch, and the Testament of Levi. Other texts, including apocalypses, stories, and legal texts, have recently been published, and testify to a rich Aramaic literary culture in the centuries from about 200 BCE to the mid-first century CE. The Aramaic sections of the Book of Daniel probably belong to this period, although in some respects its language is more archaic than that in the Qumran documents. Inscriptional material is sparse, but there are some burial texts and graffiti on ossuaries. Letters and legal documents from the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–35 CE) found in other cave sites near the Dead Sea include letters (some in Aramaic) written by the revolt's leader, Shim῾on bar Koseba/Bar Kokhba. [See Judean Desert Caves; Dead Sea Scrolls; Bar Kokhba Revolt.] The Qumran dialect itself is conservative, but less so than Nabatean. By the time of the Second Revolt, the vernacular was beginning to shake off the influence of the old Imperial dialect, particularly in the Bar Kokhba letters. The legal texts often preserve the formularies of earlier centuries.

From the same period, the Greek New Testament preserves a few words and brief sentences in Aramaic; this, combined with other evidence, has given Aramaic a reputation as the “language of Jesus.” Although Aramaic was commonly used, it is not certain that Jesus and the early Palestinian church used it exclusively because Hebrew and Greek were also widely spoken at the time.

The oasis of Palmyra (Tadmor) in the Syrian desert yielded thousands of inscriptions in its national script dating from 44 BCE to 272 CE, including the longest Aramaic inscription known, the Tariff Bilingual in Greek and Palmyrene (137 CE). [See Palmyrene Inscriptions.] Palmyrene is a transitional dialect sharing both Western and Eastern features. Farther north, about seventy votive and funerary inscriptions in Edessene (Old Syriac) survive from the first and second centuries CE. As its name indicates, this literary dialect originated in Edessa (modern Urfa). The oldest inscription is dated to 6 CE.Finally, the Aramaic of the Parthian Empire is found on hundreds of votive inscriptions from Hatra, an oasis on the upper Tigris River, from Aššur and a few other sites. They date from the first-third centuries CE. The morphology of Hatran already displays the traits of the later Eastern dialects. [See Hatra Inscriptions.]

Late Aramaic.

The late dialects (200 CE–700 CE) are generally associated with the national or religious groups that used them. They are typically divided geographically into Eastern (Mesopotamian) and Western (Palestinian) dialects. This division is simplistic and should be revised to include Central Aramaic (see below), which is comprised of classical Syriac and other dialects not clearly falling into the East–West categories.

Western Aramaic includes the dialects used by the three principal religious groups of Palestine in the Byzantine period: Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Samaritan Aramaic. Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (JPA) is used in the Palestinian targum, a translation of the Pentateuch preserved in various recensions, including texts from the Cairo geniza, liturgical selections known as the Fragment-Targum, and the virtually complete Targum Neofiti. A somewhat different (later?) dialect is used in the Palestinian Talmud and the Palestinian rabbinic commentaries (midrashim). Although JPA developed from dialects spoken in an earlier period, occasional efforts to study it simply as the first-century CE vernacular (and therefore the language of Jesus) have not been successful. Christian Palestinian Aramaic (CPA) is preserved in inscriptions and manuscripts of the Melkite Christians, primarily from the third–ninth centuries CE. Almost all of the literature is translated from Greek and includes biblical texts, liturgies, sermons, and biographies. CPA is written in a form of the Syriac script, and indeed Syriac was an important influence on it. Samaritan Aramaic was used by the Samaritan sect of Judaism. The Samaritans had their own targum (in two recensions) and religious literature, including chronicles, sermons, and liturgical poetry. [See Samaritans.]

Eastern Aramaic is comprised of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (JBA) and Mandaic. JBA was the language of the Mesopotamian Jewish community. The Aramaic portions of the Babylonian Talmud are the most important witness to this dialect. Hundreds of bowls bearing magical incantations in JBA from excavations at Nippur and other sites in Lower Mesopotamia constitute crucial nonliterary evidence for JBA. Mandaic was used by the Mandaeans, a Gnostic sect living in parts of Iran and Iraq since Late Antiquity. Mandaic, used in their voluminous religious literature (also including incantation bowls and other magical texts), is very close to JBA in its grammar and vocabulary but has its own distinctive script and orthography.

Central Aramaic is virtually equivalent to Syriac, the written variety of the standard Aramaic of Syria-Upper Mesopotamia during the Byzantine period. There is more surviving literature in Syriac than in any other Aramaic dialect because it was used by a vast portion of Eastern Christianity for liturgy, translations of secular works, and religious literature, including one of the oldest Bible translations, the Peshitta.

Syriac Christianity, divided by doctrinal controversies, split into two groups during the fifth and sixth centuries CE. The Western (Jacobite) branch, centered on Edessa in the Byzantine Empire, and the Eastern (Nestorian) branch, centered at Nisibis in the Persian sphere, evolved their own scripts, pronunciation, and literary traditions. In both forms, Syriac continued to be a creative medium of literature until around the fourteenth century CE. It still survives in its classical form as a liturgical and scholarly language. The language of Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan, the most widely used targums in Judaism, has proved difficult to classify. Although many consider it to belong to Middle Palestinian Aramaic, it may be a Jewish variety of early Central Aramaic.

Late literary dialects. Aramaic declined as a spoken language after the rise of Arab power and prestige under Islam, but the literary dialects continued in use. Syriac, as noted, endured as a literary medium to modern times. A number of Jewish Bible translations were written in late Jewish Literary Aramaic, a dialect combining Eastern, Western, and Syriac features. CPA's second principal literary period occurred during the eleventh-thirteenth centuries CE.

Modern Aramaic. Some forms of Aramaic are still spoken in various ethnic enclaves of the Near East. Western Aramaic is represented by the language of the Syrian town of Ma῾lula and other nearby villages and Eastern Aramaic by a number of dialects spoken in parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The phonology and vocabulary of the modern dialects are heavily influenced by Arabic, Turkish, and Persian.

[See also Arameans; Imperial Aramaic; and Palestinian Aramaic.]


  • Beyer, Klaus. Die aramäischen Texte vom Toten Meer. Göttingen, 1984. Collection of Dead Sea documents as well as other texts from the period, along with a general description and history of Aramaic, an outline grammar, and lexicon. An ambitious but idiosyncratic study. An Ergänzungsband appeared In 1994.
  • Brockelmann, Carl. Lexicon Syriacum. 2d ed. Halle, 1928.
  • Degen, Rainer. Altaramäische Grammatik der Inschriften des 10.–18. Jh. v. Chr. Wiesbaden, 1969. Complete text and grammatical description of Old Aramaic texts known to 1969.
  • Donner, Herbert, and Wolfgang Röllig. Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften (KAI). 3 vols. 2d ed. Wiesbaden, 1969. Useful collection of most of the major Aramaic inscriptions, including bibliography, commentary, and glossary.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Phases of the Aramaic Language.” In Fitzmyer's A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays, pp. 57–84. Missoula, 1979. Description and defense of Fitzmyer's periodization of Aramaic.
  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A., and Stephen A. Kaufman. An Aramaic Bibliography, part 1, Old, Official, and Biblical Aramaic. Baltimore and London, 1992. Indispensable tool for studying the early dialects of Aramaic.
  • Garr, W. Randall. Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000–586 B.C.E. Philadelphia, 1985. Methodologically significant study of dialect relationships, including Old Aramaic.
  • Hoftijzer, Jacob, and Karel Jongeling. Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions. Leiden, 1995. An able and comprehensive two-volume lexicon incorporating all the Old and Imperial Aramaic inscriptions (as well as Palmyrene, Hatran, and Nabatean). Includes R. C. Steiner and A. M. Mashawi, “A Selective Glossary of North-west Semitic Texts in Egyptian Script.”
  • Kaufman, Stephen A. The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic. Chicago, 1974. One of the few works to provide extensive treatment of the major linguistic influences on Aramaic.
  • Kutscher, Eduard Y. “Aramaic.” In Current Trends in Linguistics, vol. 6, Linguistics in South West Asia and North Africa, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, pp. 347–412. The Hague, 1970. Presents a comprehensive summary of research and suggests directions for inquiry into the earlier dialects.
  • Macuch, Rudolf. Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic. Berlin, 1965.
  • Macuch, Rudolf. Grammatik des samaritanischen Aramäisch. Berlin, 1982.
  • Müller-Kessler, Christa. Grammatik des Christlich-Palästinisch-Aramäischen, vol. 1, Schriftlehre, Lautlehre, Formenlehre. Hildesheim, 1991. Comprehensive grammar based on a reexamination of the manuscripts and inscriptions.
  • Muraoka, Takamitsu, ed. Studies in Qumran Aramaic. Abr-Nahrain, Supplement Series, vol. 3. Leiden, 1992. Essays on general and particular linguistic issues raised by the Aramaic dialect of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • Nöldeke, Theodor. Compendious Syriac Grammar. Translated by James A. Crichton. Rev. ed. London, 1904. This research grammar has not been equaled for its grasp of detail, especially in syntax.
  • Porten, Bezalel, and Ada Yardeni. Textbook of Ancient Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, vol. 1, Letters; vol. 2, Contracts; vol. 3, Literature, Accounts, Lists. Jerusalem, 1986–1992. New edition of all the Elephantine papyri and other important Imperial Aramaic texts, including excellent facsimiles by Yardeni.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. Die aramäistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldekes Veröffentlichungen. Leiden, 1939. Classic study of early linguistic research on Aramaic.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Porta Linguarum Orientalium, n.s. 5. Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • Segert, Stanislav. Altaramäische Grammatik mit Bibliographie, Chrestomathie und Glossar. Leipzig, 1975. Detailed structural study of Old, Imperial, and Biblical Aramaic.
  • Sokoloff, Michael. A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period. Ramat Gan, 1990. The first lexicon devoted solely to JPA, compiled on the basis of the best manuscript evidence.
  • Vogüé, Melchior de. Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum, part 2, Inscriptiones aramaicae. Paris, 1889. Monumental collection of more than four thousand texts, sketchy for Old and Imperial Aramaic (both then little known) but admirably comprehensive for Nabatean and Palmyrene inscriptions.

Edward M. Cook