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Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is a modern Eastern Aramaic language. Assyrian Neo Aramaic is neither to be confused with Assyrian Akkadian, nor the Old Aramaic dialect that was adopted as a lingua franca in Assyria in the 8th century BC. Although this latter Aramaic is also an Aramaic language, it is incomprehensible to speakers of the modern language. Originally, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic was spoken in the area between Lake Urmiamarker, north-western Iranmarker, and Siirtmarker, south-eastern Turkeymarker, but it is now the language of a worldwide Assyrian diaspora. Most speakers are members of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

Origin, history and use today

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is one of a number of modern Eastern Aramaic languages spoken in the region between Lake Urmiamarker in Iranian Azerbaijan and Mosulmarker in northern Iraqmarker. Jews and Christians speak different dialects of Aramaic that are often mutually unintelligible. The Christian dialects have been heavily influenced by the Syriac language, a dialect of Eastern Middle Aramaic, that became the literary and liturgical language of many churches in the Fertile Crescent. Therefore Christian Neo-Aramaic has a dual heritage: literary Syriac and colloquial Eastern Aramaic. The Christian dialects are often called Sûret, Syriac, or Sûryāya Swādāya, Colloquial Syriac. The name Assyrian (Ātûrāya or even Āsûrāya) is adopted by many, but not all, Aramaic-speaking Christian communities as a socio-political definition of a nation (umta) rather than a religious group (millet). Russian linguists studied Assyrian Neo-Aramaic as spoken by immigrant speakers in Georgiamarker and Armeniamarker at the end of the 19th century. They called the language Айсорский, Aysorskiy, from the Armenian name Ասորի, Asori. However, by the 1930s, the official name of the language in Russian had become Ассирийский, Assiriyskiy, or Assyrian.

The Assyrian Church of the East, of which most speakers of the varieties of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic are members, uses classical Syriac in its liturgy. However, colloquial Assyrian often affects the pronunciation.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic has numerous diverse dialects. In fact, on purely linguistic grounds, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic could be considered the same language. However, the latter is based on the dialect of Alqosh in northern Iraqmarker, whereas the Urmiamarker dialect has become the prestige dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, and comprehension between the two is limited.

The Urmia dialect rose to prominence in 1836, when that dialect was chosen as the basis for publications in Assyrian. Justin Perkins, an American Presbyterian missionary, founded schools and printing presses, and was instrumental in the creation of a standard literary Assyrian. In 1852, his translation of the Bible into General Urmian was published by the American Bible Society with a parallel text of the classical Syriac Peshitta. During the First World War, many Assyrians living in Turkeymarker were forced from their homes, and many of their descendants now live in Iraqmarker. Some of the rich texture of dialects remains, but the relocation has created a general dialect usually called Iraqi Koine. Iraqi Koine is a mixture of various dialects with the influence of General Urmian.

The dialects of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic can be grouped thus:

The Central and Western groups are often grouped together as Ashiret dialects. They, and especially the Western group, have more in common with Chaldean Neo-Aramaic than with General Urmian. Ashiret dialects are often characterised by the presence of the fricatives θ (th) and ð (dh), where other dialects pronounce them either as stops (t and d) or, in the case of the Northern group, often eliding them. The so-called Iraqi Koine is a mixture of Ashiret dialects with General Urmian. Iraqi Koine does not really constitute a new dialect, but an incomplete merger of dialects. Elements of original Ashiret dialects can still be observed in Iraqi Koine, especially in that of older speakers. Iranian Assyrians could be said to have developed an Iranian Koine. However, their language is far more uniform, and much closer to General Urmian. In the Assyrian diaspora, especially in the United Statesmarker, those of Iranian extraction can be distinguished from those from Iraq by their more Urmian based language.

Assyrian is written in the Madnhāyā version of the Syriac alphabet, which is also used for classical Syriac. Chaldean Neo-Aramaic was written in the 17th century, and developed a relatively phonetic spelling system. In the 1830s, Justin Perkins (see above) used the Syriac script for writing Urmian Assyrian. However, his heavily etymological spelling system distinguishes it from the more natural Chaldean spelling. Other missionary agencies (Roman Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox) adapted Perkins's script for printing General Urmian. In the 1930s, following the state policy for minority languages of the Soviet Unionmarker, a Latin alphabet for Assyrian was developed and some material published. However, this innovation did not displace the Syriac script.

See also



  • Heinrichs, Wolfhart (ed.) (1990). Studies in Neo-Aramaic. Scholars Press: Atlanta, Georgia. ISBN 1-55540-430-8.
  • Maclean, Arthur John (1895). Grammar of the dialects of vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul: with notices of the vernacular of the Jews of Azerbaijan and of Zakhu near Mosul. Cambridge University Press, London.

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