Endangered Language Alliance





Neo-Aramaic

a group of Central Semitic languages spoken in pockets across Iran, Iraq, and Syria


Background

The term “Neo-Aramaic”, or modern Aramaic, is conventionally applied to varieties of Aramaic that have been used as spoken vernaculars since around 1200 AD. These language varieties exhibit substantial diversity, such that many are not mutually intelligible with each other, and have been spoken across a wide swath of the Middle East. Several religious groups inside and outside the region make active use of liturgical languages based on Aramaic–examples includes the Targumic Aramaic of the Jewish Talmud, the Classical Syriac of Syriac Christianity, and Classical Mandaic–but these are distinct from the modern vernaculars. As many as half a million may still speak Neo-Aramaic varieties, according to the Ethnologue database, with Iraq and Iran representing the largest numbers and Western Aramaic varieties spoken by a comparatively small number of people.

Affiliation

All varieties of Neo-Aramaic–the Ethnologue lists 19 of them, primarily Northeastern varieties associated with Iran, Iraq, and Kurdish areas–are classified as Central Semitic languages, connected historically and through recent contact with many different forms of Arabic. The North Eastern Neo-Aramaic Database Project, spearheaded by researcher Geoffrey Khan, has demonstrated how considerable the diversity is just within that particular branch. 

Endangerment

Surviving Neo-Aramaic varieties are a testament to the once-massive influence of Aramaic as a regional lingua franca in previous millennia. It is notable that speakers are primarily non-Muslim religious minorities (Christians, Jews, and Mandæans) and that for all of these groups, varieties of written Aramaic also took on liturgical significance. War, migration, and fundamentalism have had a tremendous adverse impact of Neo-Aramaic-speaking communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, three major centers, as many religious minorities have chosen asylum and traditional communities have disappeared. Even beforehand, few forms of Neo-Aramaic remained vigorous after a millennia in which the principal official languages of the Middle East (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) were dominant. Virtually all Neo-Aramaic languages can be considered threatened or endangered, particularly in the new circumstances of migration, and some are already thought to be extinct.

Academic Work

Although classic and liturgical forms of Aramaic have received scholarly interest for several centuries, the study of spoken, modern Aramaic vernaculars is considerably more recent. Geoffrey Khan in particular has systematically documented, in detailed descriptive grammars, the Neo-Aramaic varieties of Jewish communities in Arbel, Sulemaniyya and Halabja, Urmi, and Sanandaj, as well as the communities of Barwar and Qaraqosh. Linguist Yona Sabar, himself a Kurdish Jew raised speaking Neo-Aramaic, has investigated the dialects of Amidya, Dihok, Nerwa and Zakho in Northwestern Iraq. Several others have produced high quality academic descriptions of Neo-Aramaic varieties, but similarly high quality audio and video documentation has generally been lacking.

ELA’s Work

Varieties of Neo-Aramaic have been spoken by individuals in the New York area for at least a century. In fact, one of the earliest waves of immigration from the Middle East to the US consisted of Lebanese and Syrian Christians. Some spoke a form of Western Aramaic, others had already shifted to Arabic, but most had some familiarity with the liturgical language. Today there are still Syrian immigrants who speak Neo-Aramaic in such New Jersey communities as Paramus and Teaneck, as well as speakers of Eastern Aramaic varieties who have arrived in increasing numbers from Iraq. ELA has been recording stories and memories with Ghaith Hadaya, a speaker of Surath (also called Chaldean Neo-Aramaic), the language of over 100,000 Chaldeans worldwide, originally spoken on the Plain of Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan.