A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Aramaic Part 1: Aramaic and Syriac Over the Millennia

I'm on vacation this week. Lest my loyal readers waste away or be driven to watching reality television, I've prepared, ahead of time, a series of rather lengthy posts on historical and cultural subjects unlikely to be overtaken by events, one or more of which will automatically go up daily. Should something really earth-shattering happen (Mubarak's hair turns gray), I may check in live, but otherwise I hope these posts entertain and inform.

If you ask the average educated Westerner today what he/she knows about Aramaic, you might be told by a Christian that it's the language that Jesus spoke; a Jewish respondent might say that it's the language of the Talmud (both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds) and also used in many Jewish prayers and rituals.  An educated secularist might know either, or both. Both statements are absolutely true. If you told them that the illustrations above and at left are bilingual inscriptions in Syriac (late Aramaic) and Chinese, found on a stele at the old Chinese capital at Xian and dating from 781 AD during the Tang Dynasty, you might get a little confusion. (Especially since the Syriac, in its Estrangelo alphabet, has been written top to bottom Chinese style, rather than right to left.) If you then showed them bilingual Akkadian/Aramaic inscriptions from the decline of the Assyrian Empire a millennium earlier, or the official correspondence of the Persian Court of Darius the Great (in Aramaic), or bilingual Egyptian/Aramaic inscriptions in Saqqara, Egypt, you might raise an eyebrow. So then pile on a bilingual Aramaic and Greek inscription erected in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire, and you'd probably find even a well-informed person will be surprised.

Then introduce them to a native speaker of Aramaic today.

Recently I had a couple of  posts about Syriac,one ancient (the first question mark?) and one modern.

I noted then that I should post about the various modern survivals of Aramaic, small islands surrounded by a sea of Arabic (and Kurdish, Turkish, and Persian). That will be the "Aramaic Part Two" post, my vacation post for tomorrow. But first I need to emphasize how this near-forgotten language once was a lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan, and why a stele in China and a pillar erected by an Indian Emperor would use it. For over 1,000 years, this was an international language; for another 500 or so, an important spoken language of the Middle East. Today it is restricted to those small islands, though it is still the language of the liturgies of several Eastern Churches (Antiochian [Eastern] Orthodox, Oriental Syriac Orthodox, several Eastern Catholic rites, Assyrian Church of the East, and Indian Christians of Saint Thomas). It is also of course a necessary language for Talmudic scholars.

Aramaic originated as the language of the Aramaean people, who lived in Syria from Hittite times onward. They have walk-on parts in the Bible and other ancient sources, and the Hebrews seem to have considered them not just kin, but ancestors:  Deuteronomy 26:5 famously says "And you shall declare before the Lord your God, 'My father was a wandering Aramaean ...'" It's referring to Jacob and Joseph, for its says he "went down into Egypt," but by extension to the Patriarchs back to Abraham. The Old Aramaic Language is attested in some small inscriptions as early as he 900s BC (and it was doubtless spoken long before it was written); that Chinese/Aramaic bilingual inscription is from the 8th Century AD, (please substitute BCE and CE if you prefer), and Syriac (which is just late Christian Aramaic) was still a major literary language as late as the time of the Crusades. Since it is still spoken and written, it is sometimes claimed to have 3000 years of attested written evidence. Its prominence for so long can't (quite) challenge Ancient Egyptian or the many stages of Chinese for longevity, but it makes English and French look pretty puny. Its only rival in the region since the demise of Ancient Egyptian would have to be its close cousin, Hebrew.

What took Aramaic from being a local Syrian language, just one other Semitic tongue in a welter of them, was its adoption as the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire, though the Assyrians themselves spoke Akkadian. In the late or "Neo-Assyrian" Empire it was the lingua franca

In 2 Kings18: 26-27, the role of Aramaic in the Assyrian Empire is captured during the siege by Sennacherib of Jerusalem under King Hezekiah {when, in Byron's words, "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold/And his cohorts sere gleaming in purple and gold"), this conversation reportedly occurred (and I guess I should say "Language Warning," even though it's Holy Scripture). In the King James version it reads:
26. Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rabshakeh, Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall.

27. But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?
Tough negoiator. Isaiah 36: 11 tells the same story in the same words. what the King James Version translates as "the Syrian Language" is aramit (Aramaic), while "Hebrew" is yehudit (the language of the Jews). A century or two later, the "men which sit upon the wall" would be speaking Aramaic, but at this time, apparently not.

When the Neo-Babylonians or Chaldeans replaced the Assyrians, Aramaic remained the administrative language, and the Judaeans carried off into exile by the "waters of Babylon" soon learned Aramaic. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and sent the Jews home, Aramaic went with them. Though the books of Ezra and Nehemia are mostly in Hebrew, the official correspondence is in Aramaic; from that point on, Aramaic creeps into the late Biblical books, especially Daniel.

Meanwhile, Cyrus the Great's new Achaemenian Empire of the Medes and Persians continued to use, and solidify, Aramaic as its language of bureaucracy and administration. This spread Aramaic as far west as Egypt and deep into Central Asia. Though I simply cannot allow any reference to the Medes and Persians to go by without quoting the immortal S.J. Perelman's "One man's Mede is another man's Persian." (For non-native English speakers: there's a proverb, "One man's meat is another man's poison.")

When Alexander conquered Persia, Aramaic and Persian got a new competitor: Greek. Greek became the administrative language of Syria and points east, and Aramaic lost ground, but it remained the spoken language of Syria and the Levant, including Judea.

The Christian gospels are written in Greek, though many think Matthew and perhaps others had an Aramaic original; when they quote Jesus in the original language, a few of the quotes are in Hebrew, but several are in Aramaic. Some could be either; the languages were intermingled by then, and are close to begin with. Aramaic was the language of the eastern varieties of Christianity from teh beginning. Aramaic had always had many dialects, and was always written in many scripts; soon its Jewish religious forms evolved into the somewhat differing vocabularies of the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud and the Iraqi (or Babylonian) Talmud, while the language evolved among Christians into the late Aramaic form known as Syriac, with a distinctive writing system. The Syriac translation of the gospels known as the Peshitta became the accepted scripture not only among Syriac-speaking Christians but among Persian-speakers and even the far-away St. Thomas Christians of India, not to mention the eventual Nestorian colonies in Central Asia and China. Aramaic in its Syriac form, though displaced by Greek as an administrative language, remained the common vernacular in the Middle East east of Egypt and west of Iran (though still in use in both) up to the rise of Islam. Arabic, whose writing system derives from Syriac via Nabatean and whose grammar is not that far removed from Aramaic, eventually supplanted its older cousin, but the languages were close enough kin that the transition in Syria must have been easy. Certainly it would have gone more smoothly than the shift from Coptic to Arabic in Egypt, where the two languages, though both in the "Afro-Asiatic" family, have vast differences.

But Aramaic never died. It did not even go into a period (as Hebrew did) of being only a liturgical and learned language, until revived anew. Many people just kept on speaking it, often for religious or ethnic reasons (though oddly, not always: of the three towns in Syria that still speak it, one is Christian but two are mostly  Muslim, and some say one of the Muslim village's Aramaic is less Arabized than the other two!).

But modern Aramaic will be the subject of Part 2.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

A newly published book argues the case for an Aramaic forerunner to the first canonical gospel, that of St. Mark. The authenticity of the Aramaic text is controversial among biblical scholars, but we can be sure the historical Jesus would normally have spoken Aramaic to his followers, not Hebrew and certainly not the Greek which is the language for the textual sources for the gospels accepted by both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches.