Monday, January 7, 2013

Aramaic Language

This post explores the Aramaic language

Firstly, it is important to understand the context through which the language first developed:

Aramaic started as the language of the Aramaean people.
The Aramaean people were a Semitic-language speaking people (like Hebrew and Arabic) that lived in South-Eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and present-day Syria from the periods of 1200 BCE  until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century CE. They practised a polytheist religion (meaning they believed in many gods and goddesses such as Atargatis, a goddess represented as a mermaid).
They were known for their trading ability and for being shepherds. They established their capital in Damascus, the present day capital of Syria. Their trading ability encouraged the use of the language as a lingua franca (common tongue),  leading to its use by a variety of people (Persians, Arabs Assyrians, Jews,  and others).
(NB. there has been a recent movement declaring Aramaean identity, I am still unsure of the continuous history of this group)

Now in regards to the language itself:

It is a Northwest Semitic language (just like Phoenician which is extinct and Hebrew which is still spoken),
Aramaic as being a language family or a group of closely related languages which at the same time are spoken of as versions of Aramaic (in parallel to the various forms of Chinese which are called dialects but can be languages as well)
the language is presently used in several contexts: liturgical and vernacular.
Liturgical relates to the use of a language in a religious context: for example, Aramaic has been used as one of the two key languages of Judaism, as Aramaic was spoken by the majority of Jews (as a first or second-language) throughout the Classical period.

It is also important to note its fame as the language spoken by Jesus, the key figure in the religion of Christianity.

Vernacular Aramaic refers to the contemporary and colloquial use of the language: Turoyo is a vernacular form of Aramaic spoken in Southeastern Turkey yet it is not used in the church (where Classical Syriac, the liturgical language is used).
The vernacular language is spoken by Assyrians/Chaldeans (in Iraq, Turkey as well as Sweden and other areas), Mandeans (a group from Iraq who believe in a Gnostic religion which holds John the Baptist as their chief religious figure), Arabs (in several towns in Syria such as Ma'aloula) and Jews (formerly living in Turkey and Iraq yet presently living in Israel although mainly spoken by an elderly population).

Now to a phonological understanding:
the key phonemes or basic units of sound which are distinct in regards to the English language are:
ḥ(Heth) which is similar the ch in the Scottish word loch or in the Jewish name Chaim.
a letter which is called an emphatic consonant where the airflow is stopped after the sound thereby creating a break between it and the next letter.

ʿ  (Ayin), is a very rare sound, the best way to explain its pronunciation is through showing the spoken example here(under the sound there is a play button to press). It is a voiced sound meaning the vocal chords, vibrate during the pronunciation of the sound.

Main alphabets used to write Aramaic:
Aramaic is written in the Hebrew alphabet, an alphabet based on the Imperial Aramaic square alphabet during the Akkadian (Assyrian) empire.

 The other major alphabet used is the Syriac alphabet, this is an alphabet which has three forms:
Estrangela, the original which is more square-shaped, (using the first letter Alaph for comparisons)

Syriac Estrangela alap.svg

Madnhaya, the version used among Eastern Syriac (Assyrian/Chaldean) religious communities which is similar to the original with a slightly more cursive look,
Syriac Eastern alap.svg
And finally, Serto, the version used among the Western Syriac religious communities (Maronite, Syriac Orthodox) which has a more cursive look resembling Arabic,
Syriac Serta alap.svg

(For a religous perspective on Aramaic as a sacred language, click here).
Further information:

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