Notes on

A Cultural History of Aramaic

From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam


Holger Gzella


Sometime ago I put out a request for reviews of this extensive (xvi, 451 pp. and expensive: €168,00) volume from Brill but received no responses. At the time it, like many recent Brill publications, was available on the paid Scribd web site, but alas it, also like many of its congeners, is no longer to be found there. Lacking, then, such a thorough review, I have decided to publish here some of my notes upon working through the volume. This is not meant to be taken as a definitive review.

The author is a student of the late Klaus Beyer, and has been overly influenced by the many peculiarities of Beyer’s treatment of Aramaic dialectology. Beyer’s work is by far the largest source of footnotes. Now that Prof. Beyer (1928-2014) has passed away (see the fine in memoriam by M. Moriggi in Hen 36(1.2014), it is time for an honest assessment of his massive and often masterful contribution to Aramaic studies. Unfortunately, perhaps, this is not that assessment. It instead presents an idiosyncratic history of Aramaic, based on the work of Gzella himself and that of his teacher, often without justification here but only with references to earlier articles. Over and over again Gzella simply refers to his or Beyer’s own articles as the truth without giving details. I for one am not prepared to go back and study each of these articles to find out the justification for such statements. Admittedly this book is for a general audience, but it is repeatedly frustrating to see idiosyncratic positions referred to as common scholarly opinion.

From a book entitled A Cultural History of Aramaic, one expects precisely a cultural history: What was the native culture like of those who spoke these dialects? How did they interrelate among themselves? What was the nature of their societies and and the political and religious differences among the various societies for whom Aramaic was the primary vehicle of communication? How did the political and social contacts with neighboring peoples and the empires in which they found themselves influence their culture and their language? But this book never achieves anything approaching such a synthesis. Instead we learn (p.2.) of the following goal of the book:

Since Aramaic was not used by one well-defined speech community but by very different groups and in quite distinct social contexts, this work does not focus on the history of Aramaean peoples and their culture throughout the ages. Rather, it follows the language in its meanderings from the Ancient Near Eastern city-states and empires via the Greco-Roman matrix cultures into the Islamic period.

We might question the logic conveyed by the first word of that paragraph, but clearly a fundamental problem with this work is simply that it is misleadingly titled. Well we all know about publishers on that score and are prepared to forgive the author for such a concession. We must focus, then, on the Aramaic language and see if the book’s goals to give us some kind of clear picture of its development up to the Arab conquest has here been met. I find several major and constant flaws with this work on that score:

a) The language is rambling and repetitive, especially in the introductory material.*1 It reads like, and probably is, notes from lectures on the history of Aramaic combined with material from the author’s previous publications. Although there are a few clear grammatical tables in the beginning of the work, far too many such presentations are in prose: herewith an example:

Suffixes attached to finite verbs express pronominal direct objects. Except for the first person singular /-nī/ ‘me’, these correspond to the possessive suffixes. Forms of the “perfect” that end in a consonant take a linking vowel, whereas suffixed “imperfects” with an /-n-/ intervening between the verbal base and the suffix are customarily interpreted as “long” forms plus a remnant of the old “energic” ending /-an/ or /-anna/. No such /-n-/ appears to have been used with suffixed forms of the “short imperfect” and the imperative. Later vocalization traditions point to many secondary developments in suffixed verbs in the historical languages.

Now this is probably clear to experienced semitists, but if one does not already know Aramaic, how is such a paragraph possibly to be understood?

b) The author is fixated on the role of Achaemenid (Imperial or Official) Aramaic in the development of the Aramaic dialects at the expense of clearly described linguistic developments, a fixation previously often expressed in his earlier publications: Tempus, Aspekt und Modalität im Reichsaramäischen, Wiesbaden 2004, “The Heritage of Imperial Aramaic in Eastern Aramaic”, in: AS 6: 85–109. 2008, and most clearly in: “Das sprachliche Prestige des Reichsaramäischen”, in: R. Rollinger et al.( eds.), Interkulturalität in der Alten Welt: Vorderasian, Hellas, Ägypten und die vielfältigen Ebenen des Kontakts , Wiesbaden, 489–505 2010. By explaining everything as due to the influence of such a prestige dialect, however, one avoids having to deal with detailed problematic developments, rather entire periods are summarized with paragraphs such as the following (p. 335):

Such a reconstruction [i.e. of the linguistic situation in the east at the rise of the Eastern Aramaic dialects-sak] obviously also has to take into account other languages used in this vast region, especially Greek in Byzantine Syria and Iranian idioms in Parthian and Sassanian Mesopotamia, and subsequently Arabic, which gradually came to dominate speech and writing with the rise of Islam in the Fertile Crescent since the eighth century c.e. Research on the exact modalities of contact between Aramaic and other languages during these periods is still in its infancy, but some general tendencies may be noted: the imprint of Greek on early Syriac by and large seems to affect the lexicon, later also the discursive prose style, whereas long-term exposure to Iranian over time triggered fundamental changes in the syntax of the contemporaneous Aramaic vernaculars, especially in the verbal system. These have dramatically altered the structure of the Eastern Neo-Aramaic languages, but individual, though mostly indirect, reflexes of such an evolution in the vernacular can apparently already be observed in the written material.

So, pray tell, exactly why did the Greek lexicon influence Syriac? Is it only in works translated from the Greek and otherwise only in political and scientific terminology? Who was influenced by Iranian and why? Only those writers whose native language was Iranian and only in the eastern regions or many others?*2

c) As we might expect from a scholar whose primary interest is in the older periods, early texts and dialects are studied in detail, while the many times more massive first millennium CE material gets short shrift. For the older periods, a relatively complete discussion of the kinds of texts known is presented, but for the later periods there is only disaster.

Herewith some comments on details:

(p.27) It is particularly troubling that Gzella, as seems to be his pattern in all of his publications, presents his own opinion as a factual statement of the current state of discussions of the issue; the following example of this pattern is nonsense: :

Remnants of the old feminine-singular ending in /-at/ in the Hermopolis letters and in Achaemenid Official Aramaic have occasionally been explained as accusative markers in a few older studies, but this view could not be corroborated and has been abandonedin the meantime (cf. Gzella 2011b: 578 and 583 for simpler and more plausible explanations). Already the earliest Phoenician inscriptions from the tenth century b.c.e. may point to a loss of case inflection (see Gzella 2013f: 176–182).

What does Phoenician have to do with the history of “case inflection” in Aramaic, pray tell? Then on the very next page he says: Only remnants of the older feminine singular ending /-at/ or /-t/ (the distribution of the two allomorphs seems essentially lexical) are preserved in unbound forms, especially a few nouns serving as adverbs. Combining the two statements one sees that Prof. Gzella does not realize that “adverbs” are remnants of the “accusative” (better termed “adverbial”) case of Semitic in general!

(p. 26)

Person Singular Plural 1 masc./fem. /ʾanā/ ‘I’ /ʾanáḥnā/ ‘we’ 2 masc. /ʾáttā/ ‘you’ /ʾattom/ ‘you’ 2 fem. /ʾáttī/ ‘you’ /ʾattenn/ ‘you’ 3 masc. /hūʾ/ > /hū/ ‘he’ /hóm(ū)/ ‘they’ 3 fem. /hīʾ/ > /hī/ ‘she’ /hénnī/ ‘they’ Whence henni?, and what is the evidence the short /i/ was already e in earliest aramaic? (p. 28) State, by contrast, belongs to the typical features of Semitic nominal morphology. The “absolute” state (or “unbound form”) acts as the unmarked form; when the emphatic state emerged as a postpositive definite article, the absolute state came to signal indefiniteness. It is generally used with the quantifier /koll/ ‘all’, adverbial and numerical constructions, and predicative adjectives.

But this applies only to eastern aramaic after the loss of the definiteness, here it appears in the first chapter as a characteristic of Aramaic! The often-proposed Akkadian origin of this feature is ignored, presumably because it was not proposed by Beyer.

(p. 28)

Morphological definiteness marking spread gradually during the opening centuries of the first millennium b.c.e., following a common tendency in Northwest Semitic.

This is typical of the author’s use of prose instead of providing tabular details. (Actually a more specific statement as to the identity and derivation of this “morphological definiteness marking” has already been mentioned on p. 21!) Further, how do we know that it spread gradually? How gradual is gradually? Where did it spread to, when, and from where? How about some examples. Elsewhere (p. 69) one finds typically rambling discussions of the early history of such marking, as usual without clear examples or serious analysis. Nor does the author attempt to determine just when final -ā was used in the earlier texts and when it wasn’t, but rather just says the distinction was “construction bound,” whatever that means.

Re definiteness and definite object marking, on p. 75 we note a statement re nṣb zn ‘this stele’ (kai 214:1; 215:1.20)213 that is totally contradicted by a previous footnote (190) on the same subject. One suspects that a search through the PDF version for any number of subjects will reveal similar repetitions and/or contradictions throughout the work.

(p. 69)

Given the one instance of dissimilation of the first of two “emphatic” consonants in kyṣʾ ‘summer’ (kai 216:19, a Central Syrian Aramaic text from Samʾal, see below) instead of the expected *qyṣʾ from the original /*qayθ̣-/ cannot count as a distinctive local dialectal trait, because the very same text also contains the non-dissimilated form ṣdq ‘justice’ (kai 216:4–5).

This is wrong. As one learns from the details of “Geers’ Law” in Akkadian, the early Semitic dissimilation of emphatics in words with multiple instances of them depends largely on their sequence and hierarchy, not just their presence.

pp. 81-85 The discussion of the use of “asyndetic imperfects” in the Tel Dan stele and, as is necessarily related, the use or not of the narrative preterite form in early Aramaic is convoluted and quite incorrect. This is not the place to discuss the details issue, which I have dealt with in several earlier contributions.


(p. 286 re western Aramaic)

Scribal practice of that time shows a general weakening of Achaemenid standards in favour of a more phonetic spelling (with, for instance, widespread h instead of ʾ as a vowel letter for final /-ā/ in the emphatic state.

Why is final “h” for final -ā a phonetic spelling?

(fn. 959, in reference to the the addition of nun to words ending in long vowel)

See Beyer 1984: 149 for examples. This feature has been considered a specifically Jewish Palestinian or Western Aramaic trait in older literature (e.g., Kutscher 1976: 32; similarly still Sokoloff 2011a: 612), but its wider Aramaic distribution is now an established fact.

Established by whom and for what dialects? And one could go on with many more such examples. I do find one very sage statement in this book (p. 341):

There is no reason to assume that Aramaic in the region was less diversified in Late Antiquity than it is at present.

*1*And like far too many Brill publications by non English-speaking authors, poorly proofread.

*2*As regards Greek, Gzella has dealt with the matter to somewhat greater extent in his rambling review of Aaron Butts, Language Change in the Wake of Empire. Syriac in Its Greco-Roman Context (Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic, 11). Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, 2016 in Bibliotheca Orientalis 73(2016): 759ff.

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