Aramaic a “Corruption of Hebrew”?

One can get some strange things from a Google news feed given the search term “Aramaic.” This one came from a Jewish newspaper “5 Towns Jewish Times” in an article named Understood by Rabbi Abraham Sebrow:

Aramaic has a special distinction in Jewish law. It is the only language that one is not permitted to use while praying alone. Aramaic is considered a corruption of Hebrew and prayers in that language are not processed in heaven when recited by an individual.” (full article)

I can understand that this may be an article of faith, and I will not say anything against it to that regard, but the idea of Aramaic being a corruption of Hebrew is a bit misleading. I can understand that Hebrew is at the heart of Judaism, and that when Aramaic superseded it as the lingua franca of the Jewish People that there were translations that had to be made if not simply for the understanding of the common man (and this is why we have such things as the Aramaic Targums).

However, Aramaic is a language that evolved separately from (albeit closely next to) Hebrew and is not descended from it. Both Ancient Hebrew (a dialect of Canaanite) and Ancient Aramaic come from a much older language from which both of them (including Arabic and a few others) are descended.

I do hope that Rabbi Sebrow meant the former. πŸ™‚



6 thoughts on “Aramaic a “Corruption of Hebrew”?

  1. I don’t think that even on the basis of faith one can claim that Aramaic is a corruption of Hebrew. It isn’t. Forms of the two languages existed side by side in our earliest evidence of either. You put the relationship between them exactly right – they are both descendants of an earlier common ancestor, but neither is a corruption of the other.

    As I am struggling to get my students to understand, perhaps one can feel comfortable believing things that cannot be strictly proven on the basis of faith. That is not inappropriate. But one cannot rewrite history, linguistics, biology or other disciplines on the basis of really wishing the evidence wasn’t what it is! As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews put it, faith is “the evidence of things not seen” – it isn’t evidence that the things seen don’t exist! πŸ™‚

  2. Yes, Hebrew is classified as a Canaanite language, which also includes Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite.

    Some of the features that distinguish Canaanite languages from other Semitic language families are:

    1) The use of the definite article “ha-“. In Hebrew the word “sefer” (“book”) becomes “ha-sefer” (the book). In Aramaic languages, definiteness is either expressed through the Emphatic suffix “-a”, “sfer” (“book”) vs. “sefra” (“‘the’ book”), or (in Syriac) a genitive construct “sefreh dmalka” (lit. “his book, that of the king” -> “the king’s book”). Arabic has the definite article “al-“.

    2) The first person pronoun “anak” (which means “I”). In Old Hebrew it was “anoki” (for example Genesis 4:9), where in later Hebrew “ani” was adopted. In Aramaic, it is “ena” and in Arabic “ana”.

    3) The Canaanite vowel shift where “a” vowels realized in Proto-Semitic were perturbed to “o”. For example the word for “no” or “not” is “lo” in Hebrew, but “la” in Aramaic and Arabic. The same goes for the word for “head” which is “rosh” in Hebrew, but “resh” in Aramaic and “ra’s” in Arabic.

    Hebrew, Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite (i.e. the Canaanite language family) share these distinguishing features.


  3. Thanks for your travails in the blogosphere on behalf of Aramaic.

    I’ve heard so many stories about Aramaic from my rabbis…

    Like, Aramaic is used for blessing X because it is the only language no one speaks. Of course, this is not exactly true… But even if “hardly anyone” spoke it today, when the prayer books were written everyone spoke it.

    Along these lines, I was told that the angels did not understand Aramaic. I forget why.

    And in any case, the rabbi is completely wrong. For example, the “vo l’Zion” blessing, recited twice a day, contains a lengthy translation into Aramaic of the vision of Isaiah of G-d’s throne. And it is recited whether Jews are gathered together in prayer or a Jew is praying alone.

    The Targum (the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible) is hugely important. A pious Jew will read the Hebrew portion of the Torah for that week three times and then the Aramaic. And, yes, whether he is alone or in a group.

  4. Who says that Aramaic is not spoken or read in modern times. The Assyrians speak Aramaic and read and write it everyday of their lives. Infact , Aramaic came from the ancient Aakadian dialect which is also called the Assyrian dialect. Aramaic or Assyrian language was the lingua franca of the middle east , Thanks to the Assyrians who did not let the language die out. It is the oldest spoken , written and read languages in the world. And no it is not a dead language because I myself speak it, read it, and write it, both dialects , eastern and western. It is the mother of all languages, infact Hebrew, Arabic, farsi, and other languages are derived distinctively from Aramaic (Assyrian). And noone can tell me other wise because I know ky history, my culture, my language and my people. I Am ASSYRIAN. GOD BLESS YOU ALL . ASSYRIAN PATRIOT

  5. @Evan – There is certainly a lot of interesting folklore surrounding the Aramaic language, much of which is rather squiffy in origins and you’re absolutely correct about your realizations. πŸ™‚

    @Assyrian Patriot – Not to stir the pot, but as a linguist, I will have to tell you a *bit* otherwise.

    Aramaic is not one language, but a family of closely related ones, and was used in a variety of contexts, cultures, and locations over its nearly 3,000 year old history.

    Interestingly enough, what you call “both dialects, eastern and western” are actually *both* Eastern dialects with a simple vowel shift. All Syriac (and Syriac flavored dialects, with the exception of Christian Palestinian Aramaic; as only the script employed is different) are Eastern. The only Western dialects that survive to this day as a spoken, home language are the forms found in Ma’loula, Bakh’a and Jub’addin in Syria. Christian Palestinian (or “Melkite”) Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, and Galilean Aramaic (such as what’s in the Palestinian Talmud) are three liturgical forms that survive, but are not spoken dialects.

    (Interesting side note: Out of these, Jesus spoke an old Galilean dialect, which is vastly different from what you, yourself speak today, much as Anglo-Saxon “Olde Engisc” is different from Modern English. In fact, if I were to type out a bit of Galilean here, I doubt that you would understand it without considerable difficulty.)

    In any case Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic all derive from an earlier “proto Semitic” language. None are derived from each other, but branched out from this common ancestor over time into their respective families.

    East Semitic with Akkadian, Eblaite, etc.
    North West Semitic with Canaanite (which includes Hebrew), Aramaic, and Ugaritic.
    Central Semitic with Arabic.
    South Semitic with Arabian and Ethiopic.

    Farsi is an Indo-European language and has none of its roots in Aramaic (with the exception of some loan words from Imperial Aramaic, as King Darius I used it as the administrative language of the western part of his empire, and in all honesty, more Old Persian was imparted upon that dialect of Aramaic than Aramaic on Old Persian), but since the Islamic conquest of Persia has a lot of Arabic influence.

    Not *quite* as you stated. πŸ™‚


Leave a Reply