Category Archives: Galilean

Digital, Interactive, and Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary

So, I was alluding to a Faculty Research Grant over here at RVCC that I applied for back in February, and before the summer I got the good news that I was approved! 🙂

What is it for? A Digital, Interactive, and Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary project that I will be constructing over the course of the summer. This post is serving to motivate me to get it done.

Here’s an excerpt from the proposal that was accepted:

Faculty Research Grant Proposal:
Digital, Interactive, & Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary
Steve Caruso, MLIS – Computer Science Department

Aramaic is a family of languages that is part of the Northwest Semitic group with a written history that stretches back over 3,000 years and is related to Akkadian, Ugaritic, Amharic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Among other things, it has served as the language of the ancient Aramean kings, the official language of the western half of Darius I’s empire, one of the languages that helped spread Buddhism under Ashoka, and has strong influences upon both the writing system and vocabulary of Classical Arabic.

A Galilean Aramaic inscription in Kursi, near the Sea of Galilee. | Photo credit: Jennifer Munro

Galilean Aramaic, a Western Aramaic language, is of special importance within both Judaism where it was the language of the Jerusalem Talmud (and a large body of other of Rabbinic works) and within Christianity as it was the everyday language of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers. Despite that, Galilean has proven to be one of the more obscure and misunderstood dialects due to systemic – albeit well-intentioned – corruption to its corpus over the centuries, involving the layering of Eastern scribal “corrections” away from genuine Western dialect features. To this day there is no easily accessible grammar[1] or fully articulated syntax, and due to the academic predisposition towards viewing Aramaic languages through an Eastern Aramaic lens, assessing vocabulary with appropriate orthographical and dialectical considerations has proven difficult.[2]

It is that last problem that my proposal for a Faculty Research Grant seeks to remediate. Over the course of the last 10 years or so, I have been compiling a topical lexical reference of the Galilean dialect comprising all words that appear in the corpus over five times with the intention of building a web-based, interactive dictionary. It will serve as both a learning tool as well as a reference work for both academics and laymen grappling with the dialect.

(Mockup of a flashcard screen, to be implemented in HTML5/Canvas and/or Pixi.js.)
(Mockup of multiple spoken hover states. Highlighting, transliteration, and sound would happen in real time depending on where the user hovers the mouse or – if on a mobile device – taps on the word.)

The system that I use seeks to address difficulties that have been handled poorly in other works, including a more appropriate vocalization system (the early 5-vowel “Palestinian” vocalization system from antiquity, rather than the more expansive Tiberian or Babylonian systems which do not match Galilean phonology), and more genuinely Galilean/Western Aramaic orthography.



[1] One reliable grammar by Michael Sokoloff is in Hebrew and uses a standardized orthography, where the other reliable grammar by Steven Fassberg is not for the faint of heart (it is far too technically-oriented for laymen and –arguably – even some experts). All other grammars published to date (Dalman, Stevenson, Levias, etc.) are based upon a corrupt or inconsistent corpus.

[2] For a fuller handling of the problems facing the Galilean dialect, see E.Y. Kutcher’s “Studies in Galilean Aramaic” (Bar-Illan University, 1976).

So you can see why I’m a bit excited.

I’ve already set up some webspace at RVCC for it, which you can find here:

Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary

As you can see, it’s very sparse at the moment, but I’ll be posting updates and taking feedback right here on

If anyone would like to help out with data entry, sourcing images, or testing, feel free to email me. There’s plenty of work to be done before the summer is out.


Aramaic Inscription Found in Kursi (Near the Sea of Galilee)

The ancient slab found near the Sea of Galilee on Wednesday | Photo credit: Jennifer Munro
The ancient slab found near the Sea of Galilee on Wednesday | Photo credit: Jennifer Munro

A 1,500-year-old marble slab found on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee Wednesday provides the first real proof of ancient Jewish settlement in the area, archaeologists say. The large slab, which bears an Aramaic inscription in Hebrew script, was dug up on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee on Wednesday as part of an ongoing excavation in the ancient town of Kursi.

Experts say the slab probably dates to around 500 C.E., when the Hebrew alphabet was used by Jews and some local Christian communities. This suggest that Kursi was either a Jewish community or a mixed Christian-Jewish settlement. Researchers could only discern two words: “Amen” and “Marmaria,” the latter possibly referring to Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Take the sensational claims with a grain of salt. There needs to be a much more thorough study of this inscription before jumping to conclusions. The rest of the article can be found here:

Update: From what I can see, it truly is in Galilean Aramaic. The orthography is what I’d expect to see (the plene spelling in words like סייע [“helps”] and use of ה for final a vowels like what looks like אתרה [“the synagogue” or “the place”] and יקרה ד [“the honor of”]). Unfortunately, it’s so cracked and crumbling it’s hard to make out full sentences. I’m really looking forward to seeing some better pictures. 🙂


Working on the Daily Office


Tomorrow morning I’ll be at in the Ross Room at Christ Church New Brunswick from 10 AM to noon (as I usually am) working on various Aramaic-related things.

This week the focus is on translating some of the services of the Daily Office into Galilean, making use of Targum Neofiti and the Christian Palestinian Aramaic Lectionary as source material.

If anyone wants to drop in, send me a message or leave a comment here so I’ll be expecting you. (The office will be closed.)


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus on the Cross

Most churches do a Passion Play this time of year, re-enacting the final moments of Jesus up to and including the crucifixion. Most of these Passion Plays tend to include Jesus’ final words as recorded in Matthew and Luke which appear in most Bibles transliterated as:

“Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?”

“How the heck do you pronounce *that*?” I am asked often enough. “Eh-loy eh-loy llama sab-ach!-thane-y?”

And my answer is: You don’t.

In truth, this phrase has been subject to a game of telephone, which started in Aramaic and twisted its way through Greek, and some German spelling conventions, before landing in English.

This phrase is an Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

As we can see from extant translations in other Aramaic dialects, in Jesus’ native Galilean Aramaic, it was most likely rendered:

אלהי אלהי למה שבקתני
əlahí əlahí ləmáh šəvaqtáni

(The funny upside-down e signifies a shewa, a vowel kind of like the a in “above.”)

When the Gospel writers were compiling their work in Greek, they ran into some interesting problems. Mainly that the Greek writing system had no way to express some of these sounds. It ended up with this (or something like it, as there is some variation from manuscript to manuscript):

ελοι ελοι λαμα σαβαχθανι
elü elü lama saḇaḥṯani

e-loo e-loo lema savakhthani

  1. In Greek, there was not a sufficient 1 to 1 relationship with Aramaic vowels. Galilean’s ə (shewa) and its open vowel a (patah) were under many circumstances differentiated solely by emphasis and were slightly colored depending upon what sounds fell nearby. In trying to approximate them, the Greek scribe chose what sounded the closest based upon Greek vocalization.
  2. There is no way to indicate an “h” sound in the middle of a word. So the “h” sounds  in əlahi disappeared, and there was an unintended consequence: The two letters ο (omicron) and ι (iota) when placed together formed a diphthong, similar to the nasalized eu in French. In truth, if the diphthong were broken and the two vowels spoken separately with an “h” in the middle, they are very good approximations to the original.
  3. There is also no way to express an sh sound (above š) so it was replaced with what was closest: σ (sigma, an “s” sound).
  4. There was no “q” sound, which in Aramaic is a guttural “k” in the very back of the throat. It was replaced with χ (chi, a sound like clearing your throat).
  5. And finally, the particular quality of the t was closer to their θ (theta) than to their τ (tau), so it was replaced with the former, softer sound.

Now when the Bible was translated into English, it went through yet another transliteration… but this time from the Greek. It looked (for the most part) like this:

Eloi, Eloi! Lama sabachthani?

How did we arrive at this from the Greek? Greek transliteration conventions were influenced by German transliteration conventions:

  1. Again, Greek vowels aren’t at all 1:1 with English vowels — they represented different sounds — but their cognates in transliteration were very well established.
    1. ε and η → e,
    2. ο and ω→o,
    3. ι→i,
    4. α→a,
    5. υ→y or u,
    6. etc.
  2. The use of these transliterations actually broke up the οι diphthong in reading — so that was a step back in the right direction.
  3. The letter χ (ḥ, chi) is, through German transliteration, rendered as “ch,” as the digraph ch in German makes a similar sound.
  4. The letter θ (theta) is transliterated as “th” as that’s the closest sound in English, although the quality of it is not nearly as breathy.

So there you have it.