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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.

A New Tool for Teaching and Studying Biblical Aramaic

A New Tool for Teaching and Studying Biblical Aramaic

A review of Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook, Hendrickson, 2016, described by the publisher as “an essential tool for everyone who wants to read the Aramaic portions of the Bible with ease, understanding, and enjoyment.”


In 2015 Hendrickson Publishers issued Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition, prepared by Donald R. Vance, George Athas, and Yael Avrahami, a volume for students in which almost every word of the Stuttgartensia is annotated with lexical and grammatical information, albeit using a very awkward and concise grammatical code. Here the material for Biblical Aramaic has been extracted and the annotations converted into a more legible format for this much shorter volume. Rather than trying to explain the format further, a picture of a typical page may suffice.

Note that the 53 forms (not lexemes) that are most frequent are not glossed in the notes but are rather listed in a “Glossary” at the very end of the book. The ubiquitous and multifaceted דִּי is annotated each time, however.

The bulk of the volume, however, is made up of 63 “Vocabulary and Morphology Lists” prepared by Jonathan G. Kline. These are divided into Frequency Lists, Parts of Speech, Verbs by Stem, Verbs by Root Type, Verbs by Frequency of Attested Form and Number of Stems, Pronominal Suffixes, Easily Confused Words, and Loanwords.

There is obviously a lot of material here and one may quibble about this or that detail, especially concerning the usefulness of the annotations for students. For example, as seen in the above, at Dan 3:15 the expression בַּהּ־שַׁעֲתָה is not explained but rather simply annotated as two separate words. In the lexical lists I would have preferred to see verbs glossed as, e.g. “to bring” rather than simply “bring”. There are no paradigms, rather the student is expected to deduce them from the attested forms in the lists, a process that might prove more difficult than the authors hope.

I have never been a fan of word by word annotated biblical texts for students. To be sure, if the instructor demands that students come to class ready to recite everything in those annotations without looking at them, some learning is sure to be achieved. But at best, that is all. If the students have to go to the lexicon, however, to identify a difficult form in the first place, to learn the various usages of the lexeme and follow its usage across multiple biblical texts, the amount of learning is magnified exponentially. Of course, it depends on what the instructor is trying to achieve.

Nonetheless, this volume can probably serve as an adequate introduction to Biblical Aramaic for students of Biblical Hebrew, and will surely be helpful for former seminary students and scholars in other fields who wish to refresh their knowledge. The question I would like to consider here, however, is whether this volume constitutes a solid foundataion for those who wish to move on to a greater breadth of Aramaic studies. I believe it can if used as a resource and not just as a prop. All of the most common vocabulary should be mastered and the lists used for extracting grammatical principles in a systematic way under the guidance of an instructor or a plan. In any case, the authors are to be thanked for providing what should serve as a useful new resource and introduction to Biblical Aramaic studies.

A New Edition of DJPA


Just a brief note to alert readers to the appearance of a “Third Revised and Expanded Edition” of Sokoloff’s A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic by Bar-Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan, 2017.

The major changes would seem to be the incorporation of or reactions to comments by reviewers to the earlier edition and the incorporation of material from Genizah magical texts published after the appearance of the first edition. Citations of forms from Syriac and CPA are now in the “native” fonts of those dialects, though the use of the latter is unlikely to be of help to most users of this dictionary.

I am not quite sure, though, why he calls it an “expanded” edition. Indeed it is “contracted,” inasmuch as there is no index of passages, an invaluable feature of the earlier editions.  One may assume that Press pressures may be responsible both for the subtitle and the lack.

What’s the Matter with Samaritan?

A lot! In many ways, the publication of A. Tal’s A Dictionary of Samaritan Aramaic (2 vols., Brill, 2000), based on the decades-long research and collection of lexical material by the late Z. Ben-Ḥayyim, may be said only to have muddied the waters of Aramaic lexicography. To be sure, it provides a long-missing guide to understanding Samaritan Aramaic texts of all periods. But the language there described, most of whose unique lexemes come from the very late “A” version of the Pentateuch, often bears little relation to normative Aramaic, being largely a combination of Hebrew and Arabic words and meanings, as well as the unique words of that text, many of which seem to have a distant relationship to Latin (q.v. e.g. אסולה p. 573!) but not Greek (i.e. those that are not based on Arabic, Hebrew, or a misunderstanding of the Hebrew)! Much of the vocabulary may with certainty be ascribed to the artifical late language first described by Ben-Ḥayyim as “Shomronit” and recently the subject of fine study by M. Florentin in Late Samaritan Hebrew: A Linguistic Analysis of its Different Types (Brill, 2005). In addition, the scholarship presented in Tal’s work is idiosyncratic to say the least: Each group of words is introduced by a presumed root, fully a quarter of which must be said to be imaginary. Infinitive forms of various structures are all given their own entry. Noun forms of the qātōl type, that serve as common participles in later Samaritan, are all given their own lemma. Some words are used in a distinctive way that is based on a misunderstanding of a Pentateuchal form. Definitions often leave much to be desired. Varied spellings of what are obviously all the same lemma are given separate entries. Many of the supposedly Aramaic cited passages are in fact in Hebrew. Scribal errors are included as headwords. There is no index of passages (or any real index at all for that matter). And the less said about etymologies the better.

To give an example of a typical problematic entry that is not included in the CAL, take the root משק, rendered “to rule” (p. 491), which occurs in the A targum. It is without parallel elsewhere in Aramaic, or in Semitic for that matter. It is, however, known from Florentin’s Shomronit Hebrew, where it has been derived from the poorly understood Hebrew text of Gen. 15:2: בן משק ביתי. We see no reason to include such a thing in a dictionary designed to reflect the Aramaic lexicon.

Thus it has been necessary to adopt a strategy for dealing with this material in the CAL in a way that truly reflects the contribution of Samaritan to the Aramaic lexicon: All the words in the clearly Aramaic portions of manifestly earliest texts are to be included; this includes Targum J, book one of Marqe, and the earliest liturgical poems. Infinitives and participles from those texts are listed under the verbal form. Multiple spellings of the same word are combined into a single lemma. Definitions are made to conform to standard Aramaic ones where the connection is obvious. Hebrew usages are included only where they also appear in Jewish Aramaic texts. Words that occur only in the late texts that are also in our database (e.g. Asatir and the later books of Marqe), will be included as they are encountered, for the sake of comprehensiveness and usefulness for students.

What’s the Matter with Babylonian Talmudic?

Those who have tried to use the CAL database for dealing with Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic (JBA) will undoubtedly have encountered many problems not generally encountered when dealing with, say, targumic texts. In light of the interest in our work of several new projects dealing with talmudic material, we are currently reviewing the database toward the twin goals of accuracy and consistency but feel that a detailed explanation of problematic nature of the material for our users is warranted.

The JBA material was prepared by Michael Sokoloff as the basis of his magisterial dictionary. How was it done? First, during a year-long stay at the CAL, he prepared an outline lexicon of entries, based largely on Jastrow. Then he had the chosen texts entered and processed via our algorithms. From him we then received the tagged data. Then the outline lexicon, the tagged files, and the printed dictionary were all incorporated into the CAL database.

All good, then? Not at all. Herewith the problems:

a) The CAL still contains here and there lemmata found only in Jastrow but either eliminated or spelled differently in DJBA.

b) DJBA contains entries from the Talmud not included in the textual database! As was the case with the Talmud Yerushalmi, Sokoloff omitted Hebrew material from the textbase. Where Hebrew appears within extended Aramaic contexts it is marked as Hebrew and not otherwise tagged in the text. But where an isolated Aramaic word occurs in a Hebrew context it is generally not found in the database but is included in DJBA. Similarly, many DJBA (and hence CAL) entries come from variant texts that are not those included in the textbase.

c) The headwords of DJBA are quite properly in Babylonian form, first and foremost, of course, the emphatic form of nouns, but also with extensive matres lectionis. The headwords of the CAL are in standard Aramaic, i.e. in the absolute and without extensive matres. Homograph numbers also may often differ between the CAL entry and that in DJBA. This means that we have to provide extensive data tables to provide the proper correspondences. As of this writing roughly 500 lemmata still remain without collated verification of this data.

d) Lastly and most importantly, Sokoloff simply did not do his otherwise valuable work with the needs of the CAL in mind. Simple typographical errors in the tagging were never corrected. Where the tagging of a specific lemma was correct and consistent, it does not necessarily match the original outline lexicon form that served as the basis of the CAL entry, nor does it necessarily match the form chosen as the headword in DJBA. Nor are all the examples of a single lemma tagged consistently across the database.

We hope to have all of these issues (except for (b) of course) corrected within a few months, but as always any assistance or corrections will be most welcome.

A Request for Reviewers: Gzella’s Cultural History

I invite reviews of the new book by Holger Gzella: A Cultural History of Aramaic From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam (Brill, 2015), available, like most recent Brill publications in our fields, in ebook format (even online in violation of copyright for those who know how to find it–email me)!

Those who have not yet seen the book should be warned that the title is completely misleading and must have been developed by the advertising department at Brill.  I would not blame Prof. Gzella for it. It intends to be a history of the language, not a cultural history. Herewith the key explanatory paragraph:

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.

The logic of that paragraph may not be obvious, but so it is.

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