The Semitic languages began to emerge in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) about 5,000 years ago. The oldest of these languages is Akkadian which was widely spoken in the area by 3000 BCE. Akkadian branched into two languages—Assyrian and Babylonian—which were widely spoken for the next 2,000 years. By the 8th century BCE, Aramaic, also a Semitic language, was one of the most common languages of Mesopotamia and the Levant. By the 4th century BCE it was the dominant language of the area and remained commonly spoken through the 6th century CE.
Aramaic evolved in Aram, an ancient region of central Syria. Linguists classify it as belonging to the Northwest Semitic group of languages, which includes the Canaanite languages such as Hebrew and Phoenician.
Three thousand years ago, Aramaic was being spoken by millions of people from Syria to the borders of India. Aramaic served as a language in the administration of empires as well as a language of divine worship. About 500 BCE, Darius I, the conqueror of Mesopotamia, adopted Aramaic as the vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the empire. The use of a single official language contributed to the success of the empire. During Israel’s Second Temple Period (539 BCE to 70 CE), it was the day-to-day language of the people.
Today, Aramaic is regarded as an endangered language with only a few scattered groups of native speakers. There are an estimated 400,000 native speakers. The language is still spoken in small communities in Syria (in and around the village of Malula, north of Damascus) and in Turkey (near the town of Mardin, east of Urfa). Assyrian, which is closely related to Aramaic, is spoken by 150,000 people in northeastern Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Russia.
Biblical scholars are interested in Aramaic as it was the original language of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra and the Gospel of Matthew. It is the main language of the Talmud. It was also the language spoken by Jesus. As a part of the revival of this ancient language, Oxford University is currently offering a course in Aramaic. John Ma, an Oxford classicist and one of the leaders of Project Arshama which organized the lessons, said:
"You would probably have to go back 2,000 years to find a room so full with people speaking Aramaic – the time when Jesus would have been speaking the language."
Some of the Aramaic phrases include:
"Shelam biznah qodemay, ap tamah qodemayk shelam", from a letter written 2,500 years ago, translates as "Peace here before me, and also peace over there before you", but colloquially means "I am well, and hope you're well too".
"Anah rahem leki" (from a man to a woman) and "Anah rahmah lak" (from a woman to a man), which means "I love you".
"Shelam we sherarat saggi hawseret leki" for "I have sent you peace and much strength".
As with other Semitic languages, the morphology (the way in which words are formed) of Aramaic is based on a trilateral root. The root consists of three consonants which provide the basic meaning. For example, k-t-b has the meaning of "writing." By adding vowels and other consonants different nuances of the basic meaning are created.
Ktābâ = handwriting, inscription, script, book
Ktābê = the Scripture
Kātŭbâ = scribe
Ktābet = I wrote
Aramaic was originally written in the Hebrew alphabet. Syriac, which evolved out of Aramaic, is used as the liturgical language of the Maronite Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Nestorian Church, as well as some others.
This diary was originally posted on Street Prophets