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(9,543 words)

The Arameans, the speakers of all those dialects, are first directly mentioned in cuneiform texts from the end of the twelfth century B. C. where they are said to belong to the Akhlame group of people. In the course of time, various names such as Chaldean, Nabatean, Syrian, and Assyrian, came into use for Aramaic-speaking peoples.

The Arameans, the speakers of all those dialects, are first directly mentioned in cuneiform texts from the end of the twelfth century B. C. where they are said to belong to the Akhlame group of people. In the course of time, various names such as Chaldean, Nabatean, Syrian, and Assyrian, came into use for Aramaic-speaking peoples.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume II, Fascicle 3, pp. 250-261

i. General

Aramaic is the comprehensive name for numerous dialects of a Northwest Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic, first attested in inscriptions dating from the ninth to eighth centuries B. C., and still spoken today.

Early history. The Arameans, the speakers of all those dialects, are first directly mentioned in cuneiform texts from the end of the twelfth century B. C. where they are said to belong to the Akhlame group of people. In the course of time, various names such as Chaldean, Nabatean, Syrian, and Assyrian, came into use for Aramaic-speaking peoples; most of them used imprecisely. During the early centuries of the 1st millennium B.C., Aramaic-speaking groups in increasing numbers pushed successfully into the settled areas of Mesopotamia and Syria. The extent of their settlement in Mesopotamia and of the slow expansion of their political influence there is greatly obscured by the continued cultural and political hegemony of the Assyrians and Babylonians, but there is enough evidence to suggest that before the middle of the 1st millennium they had become the dominant element of the population (cf. M. Dietrich, Die Aramäer Südbabyloniens in der Sargonidenzeit, Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1970; S. A. Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic, Chicago, 1974). In Syria, Aramaic-speaking groups succeeded in founding a number of city states and federations around Aleppo and Damascus that dominated the history of the region for about three centuries, though in conflict with, or as vassals of, the rulers of Mesopotamia. In addition to their own inscriptions and references to them in cuneiform texts, some of the history of those states is also known from references in the Bible. Whatever political importance the Arameans gained anywhere in the Near East during the early stages of their known history remained comparatively minor and without much consequence. Yet the Arameans have played a most significant role in world history by virtue of the fact that Aramaic was chosen as the international written language of the Achaemenid empire and, as a result, became the language of the basic literature of important Near Eastern religions, among them Judaism, Christianity, and some highly influential forms of Gnosticism.

Aramaic in the Achaemenid empire. When Aramean groups infiltrated Mesopotamia, they brought with them, together with their language, their alphabetical writing derived from the Phoenician script. This Aramaic writing was obviously superior to the complicated cuneiform system of writing as a vehicle for easy and convenient written communication. The various groups in Mesopotamia and Syria no doubt spoke a variety of distinct dialects, but already by the 8th century at latest, one rather uniform written form of Aramaic had been developed, probably in Assyria, although it has also been argued that it had its origin in the Aramaic spoken in Syria (cf. B. Mazar, in The Biblical Archaeologist 25, 1962, pp. 98-120; R. Degen, Altaramäische Grammatik, AKM 38, 3, Wiesbaden, 1969). The only representative of a very different dialect of Aramaic known to us appears in the inscriptions of the North Syrian kingdom of Śamʿal/Yʿdy; the vocalization of Yʿdy is unknown, but the name is conventionally pronounced Yaʿudi, and the dialect is referred to as Yaʿudite or Samalian (P.-E. Dion, La langue de Yaʿudi, Corporation for the Publication of Academic Studies in Religion in Canada, 1974). Certain dialectal differences are clearly distinguishable in the preserved written materials and their number is growing; but, until about the beginning of the Christian era, they remain largely submerged and concealed from us under the uniform appearance of the written language. When the Achaemenids extended their rule westward, they adopted this language as the vehicle for written communication between the various regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. The use of a single official language, which modern scholarship has dubbed Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic, can be assumed to have greatly contributed to the astonishing success of the Achaemenids in holding their far-flung empire together for as long as they did.

Among the major discoveries of Official Aramaic writings are papyri and leather documents found in Egypt, most of which date from the 5th century B.C. The Elephantine papyri, named after the island in the Nile opposite Aswan where they were discovered, include the archives of a Jewish military colony established there to serve as a southern outpost of the Achaemenid empire. They contain the Jewish community’s official correspondence in the year 407 with Bagōhī, the Iranian governor of Judea, concerning the restoration of the Jewish temple in Elephantine which had been destroyed three years earlier in the course of political unrest in Egypt. Most of the documents are sales, marriage, and other contracts and legal briefs, but the archives have also preserved for us part of the Aḥiqar story, a representative of the type of wisdom literature cultivated by the Arameans of Mesopotamia, and there are large fragments of the Aramaic version of the famous Bīsotūn inscription of Darius I. It was no doubt this Aramaic version that was used to spread the Great King’s message throughout the empire (cf. A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923; E. G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Papyri, New Haven, 1953; B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine, Berkely, Los Angeles, 1968; P. Grelot, Documents araméens d’Ēgypte, Paris, 1972; J. C. Greenfield and B. Porten, The Bisitun Inscription of Darius the Great, Aramaic Version, Corp. Inscr. Iran. I, V, Texts I, London, 1982).

Another papyrus find consists of private letters intercepted on their way from northern Egypt to Aswan. The correspondents bear Egyptian, Akkadian, and Aramaic names, and the letters were possibly written by ethnic Arameans. Like the Elephantine papyri, these are instructive for the religious and ethnic history of the empire (cf. E. Bresciani and M. Kamil, “Le lettere aramaiche di Hermopoloi,” Atti, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di scienze mor., stor. e filol. 8, 12, 5, 1966, pp. 359-428; B. Porten and J. C. Greenfield, in ZATW 80, 1968, pp. 216-31).

Especially noteworthy is a group of leather documents dealing with the administration of the Egyptian domains of the satrap and royal prince (bar baytā = vispuhr) Aršāma, who himself normally resided in Babylon and Susa. Aršāma no doubt spoke Old Iranian; the people affected by the document were often Egyptians and spoke Egyptian; but the language of communication was Aramaic. The documents give us an insight into the ways in which the affairs of the provinces of the empire were administered on a level corresponding to that of the highest government authorities. The manifold problems in handling of workers and craftsmen, their duties, various ethnic origins, travels through the empire, and the influence on them of political disturbances are among the subjects touched upon, presenting us with a unique picture of Achaemenid political reality not available elsewhere. (See G. R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1954.) On the outside, the documents carry the names of the sender and addressee(s) and, for purposes of record and easy identification, a brief summary of the contents. The texts attempt to be concise and exact. A good example, showing the expected strong Persian influence and of particular interest for the ancient history of the production of works of art, is Driver No. IX: “From Aršama to Neḥtḥūr, the chief treasurer (knzsrm, Old Pers. ganza0, or proper name?), and his colleagues. And now: A sculptor (ptkrkr, OIr. *patikarakara) named (šmh, Aram. loan tr. from OIr. nāmaka) Ḥnzny, my servant, whom Bagasarū (OIr.) had brought to Susa—give him, and his household, the same provisions (ptpʾ, OIr. *piΘpa) as other jewelers (bd/rykrn, OIr. *badīkara?) of my workforce (grd, OIr. garda through Babylonian), so that he can make (equestrian?) sculptures (ptkrn, OIr. patikara) to be in your house (?), and make the sculpture (patikara) of a horse with its rider, as he has done formerly in my house, and other sculptures (patikara). Send (messengers) to bring (them) to me quickly and immediately. Artōhī (OIr.) cognizant of this order (yḍʿ ṭʿm[ ʾ], Aram. loan tr. from OIr.?); Rašt (OIr.), scribe.”

Another direct witness to the role of Official Aramaic in the Achaemenid empire is the Aramaic portion of the Hebrew Bible. The Aramaic texts in the Book of Ezra 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26 reproduce, probably quite literally, the exchange of official documents concerning the necessary permits from the central government required for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and the return of Jewish exile groups from Mesopotamia to Palestine. The edifying Aramaic tales in the Book of Daniel 2:4-7:28, which in their preserved form date from the 2nd century B.C., also reflect the dominant position of Official Aramaic in the political setting in which they were originally conceived.

Aramaic texts from the center of the Achaemenid empire are so far few. A very large number of repetitive formulaic inscriptions on fragments of stone mortars, pestles, and plates from the 5th century were discovered in Persepolis. Although key words in them still defy interpretation, they appear to indicate the producer of the object on which the inscription was written (apparently part of an annual corvée contribution), as well as the administrative officials, the sgan (chief), ganzabara (treasurer), and upa-ganzabara (sub-treasurer), for whom or under whose control they were produced in a given year. A representative example reads: “In the (particular building or section) of the Fortress (Persepolis) under the control of NN, the chief NN made this plate, large, nine fingers wide, for (to be delivered to) NN the treasurer, who is in N. Corvée of the year n.” (cf. R. A. Bowman, Aramaic Ritual Texts from Persepolis, Chicago, 1970; B. Levine, in JAOS 92, 1972, pp. 70-79.)

A few inscriptions that have come to light in Anatolia also allow us glimpses of minor details of Achaemenid provincial administration and history. Among those most recently discovered are the stela from Daskyleion in northwest Anatolia (cf. F. M. Cross Jr., in Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 184, 1966, pp. 7-10, and R. S. Hanson, ibid., 192, 1968, pp. 3-11) and the important trilingual (Greek, Lycian, and Aramaic) inscription from Xanthos in the southwest corner of Anatolia, found in 1973 (cf. A. Dupont-Sommer and others, Fouilles de Xanthos IV: La stèle trilingue du Létôon, Paris, 1979). The eastern limits of the influence of Official Aramaic are marked by six inscriptions found in Pakistan (Taxila) and Afghanistan Pul-i Daruntah (Pol-e Darūnta, Kandahar I and II, Laḡmān), dating from the reign of Aśoka in the 3rd century B.C. (cf. A. Dupont-Sommer, Une nouvelle inscription araméenne d’Asoka trouvée dans la vallée du Laghman. Communication à l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 20 mars, 1970, Paris, 1970; G. D. Davary and H. Humbach, Eine weitere aramäoiranische Inschrift der Periode des Aśoka aus Afghanistan, Mainz and Wiesbaden, 1974, Akad. f. Wiss. u. d. Lit., Phil.-hist. Kl., 1974, 1; G. D. Davary, in Stud. Ir. 10, 1981, pp. 55f.). Other significant later evidence for the influence of Official Aramaic has been discovered in ancient Nisa near Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, where a vast number of ostraca were uncovered, most of them dealing with the storage of wine (see Corp. Inscr. Iran. II, II: Parthian Economic Documents from Nisa, Plates 1, pp. 1-6, and Texts 1, pp. 1-4). Like other relics of the Arsacid period, the Nisa ostraca have now been linguistically classified as Parthian, although the Aramaic component appears to be more prominent in them than in the other Arsacid documents. Future archeological exploration is likely to discover more inscriptional material in Aramaic script and thus further elucidate ancient Iranian history.

Later dialects. The great similarity of the later Aramaic dialects can be explained only by the assumption that Official Aramaic, the written form of the language, also made decisive inroads into the way Aramaic was spoken in Achaemenid times, at least by the more educated speakers of the language. From early Christian times on, clear distinctions between the dialects used in Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine become fully established. The major dialectal division is generally designated as one between Eastern Aramaic and Western Aramaic, roughly in keeping with the geographical distribution. This distribution implies that the Western Aramaic dialects were used in areas under the sway of the Roman and Byzantine empires, while the Eastern Aramaic dialects developed in the western part of the Arsacid and Sasanian realms or in contested border regions between Iran and Rome. Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, was located in the heart of the territory inhabited by speakers of Eastern Aramaic. Since, however, those Arameans had long been used to a life without real national independence, political tensions in the area were expressed more in terms of religious divisions than ethnic or linguistic ones.

A border region dialect of Aramaic is Palmyrenian, attested by many inscriptions from the city of Palmyra (whose native name, known since the first half of the 2nd millennium B.C., was, and is, Tadmar/Tadmōr/Tadmur) and from Palmyrenians sojourning in the Roman empire. The inscriptions date from the time of Palmyra’s economic and political ascendancy, the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., when the city was a powerful element in the continuous struggle between the Roman and Persian empires. Some Palmyrenian inscriptions were also found at Dura-Europos, a caravan and garrison city on the middle Euphrates, which flourished for a while and, like Palmyra, lost its importance after 271-72 A.D.; the international character of its population is reflected in the great variety of religious cults represented there and of the languages recorded in inscriptions which, in addition to Aramaic (Palmyrenian, Syriac), Greek, and Latin, also include Middle Persian and Parthian.

Nabatean (nabaṭī) is an ethnic and social designation used widely in medieval Islamic times for the local, mostly Aramean population of southern Mesopotamia. However, the dialect properly called Nabatean is the written form of Aramaic used in the Nabatean kingdom centered around Petra in Jordan, whose independence came to an end in 106 A.D. In addition to numerous monumental inscriptions, the dialect is now also known from a few papyrus documents. (Most of them are as yet unpublished, cf., for the time being, J. Starcky in Revue Biblique 61, 1954, pp. 161-81). Since the Nabateans were ethnically mostly Arabs and speakers of Arabic, the later inscriptions, from after the end of Nabatean independence, show increasing Arabic influences and contribute in a small way to our knowledge of pre-Islamic Arabic. The Nabatean development of the Aramaic script evolved further into the Arabic script of the Muslim Arabs. The transition from Nabatean to Arabic writing is shown here in Table 2 (cf. also F. Rosenthal, in H. D. Colt. ed., Excavations at Nessana I, London, 1962, pp. 198-210; A. Grohmann, Arabische Paläographie, II. Teil, Graz and Vienna, 1971.)

Table 2. From Nabatean to ArabicTable 2. From Nabatean to ArabicView full image in a new tab

Hatran is known from inscriptions discovered in Hatra northwest of ancient Assur and mainly dated in the 2nd century A.D. The name of the most prominent local ruler, Sanaṭrūq (Sanatruk/Sanatruces) reflects the dominance of the Arsacids in the area, as do occasional Parthian loanwords such as pzgrybʾ “heir apparent.” Hatran is the earliest directly attested dialect of Eastern Aramaic, which is otherwise known in its earlier stages only from certain peculiarities dimly noticeable in some old inscriptions and the Uruk incantation text written in cuneiform writing but in the Aramaic language.

Syriac, the slightly archaizing Eastern Aramaic dialect of the city of Edessa (Orhāy, ar-Ruhā, Urfa), is the most important Aramaic dialect used by Christians. It is the earliest and basic language of Oriental Christianity and was spoken by the large number of Christians living under Sasanian rule. The literature written in Syriac is by far the largest and most varied in any Aramaic dialect. Most of it deals with theology, liturgy, and related matters, but it has also produced a substantial number of secular works on subjects such as history, philosophy, and science. Its religious poetry is distinguished by true artistic feeling and great emotional impact. The physicians of the medical academy in Gundēšāpūr (Jondīsābūr) wrote their works in Syriac. Their Syriac translations of Greek medical works, and many other Syriac translations from Greek literature and scholarship served frequently as intermediaries in the Greco-Arabic translation movement of the 8th and 9th centuries. Thus Syriac served as an important contributor to the mainstream of medieval Islamic and Western European civilization.

Christians in Syria and Palestine used their local Western Aramaic dialect, called Christian Palestinian Aramaic and written in a somewhat modified form of the old Syriac alphabet, for translations of biblical texts and some liturgical and literary compositions. For modern continuations of Christian Aramaic, see below under Neo-Aramaic.

Jewish Aramaic is often employed as a general denominator for all the Aramaic dialects used by Jews at various times during Jewish history. It covers the major dialects of east and west from the time of Official Aramaic down to contemporary spoken Aramaic. Its older forms include the dialects represented in Aramaic documents from the Dead Sea region (Qumrān), e.g., the “Genesis Apocryphon,” the “Prayer of Nabonidus,” and an Aramaic translation (Targum) of the Book of Job. The principal Jewish Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, known as the Targum Onkelos, also appears to reflect a somewhat older form of the language: Some of the apocrypha of the Bible, such as the Book of Jubilees, were originally composed in Aramaic, but only fragments of the Aramaic original are preserved. It has been argued that certain Hebrew books of the Bible were originally composed in Aramaic. At the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the most widely spoken Semitic language in Palestine, and it has been contended that important parts of the Gospels were originally conceived in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic originals. The Western Aramaic dialect of the Jews is represented in the Palestinian Targums and the Palestinian Aramaic dialects of the Jerusalemian Talmud. These Western forms are almost identical with Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Samaritan, the Western Aramaic dialect used by the Samaritans for their Aramaic translation of the Bible and a number of midrashic and liturgical works. The Eastern Aramaic dialect of the Jews is called Babylonian Talmudic. It is the language used by the rabbis in the Sasanian empire for their discussions of the law and preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (cf. J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, 5 vols., Leiden, 1965-70).

The gnostic religion of the Manicheans started out as an Aramaic-speaking sect in 3rd-century southern Mesopotamia but soon switched to other languages as more suitable vehicles for religious proselytizing. What is preserved of Manichean literature is written principally in Iranian and Coptic and not in their original Aramaic dialect. The same applies to the very few remains of the literature of the Sabians of Ḥarrān (cf. F. Rosenthal, in A Locust’s Leg, Studies in Honour of S. H. Taqizadeh, London 1962, pp. 220-32). However, a related gnostic sect, the Mandeans, whose preserved literature also had its start in Sasanian times, left a number of highly interesting religious writings in their Eastern Aramaic dialect referred to as Mandaic. Fundamental among those works is the Ginza Rabba “The Great Treasure.” The Mandeans are represented today by small numbers of adherents in Southern Mesopotamia and Iran, the only true remnant of the once powerful gnostic religions. A modern continuation of their Aramaic dialect has survived until our times (cf. E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Oxford, 1937; R. Macuch, Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic, Berlin, 1965).

Neo-Aramaic is the generic designation for a great variety of Aramaic dialects spoken today. Older written witnesses for the existence of Neo-Aramaic go back as far as the 16th century, but most of our knowledge of these dialects comes from the study of the spoken forms initiated in the last century. Eastern Neo-Aramaic, that is, modern forms of Eastern Aramaic (other than Mandaic), is spoken by Christians and Jews in Iran and Kurdistan. Emigration from their original habitats during the first half of the 20th century has scattered large numbers of the native speakers of these dialects all over the world, but many remain in Iran, Iraq, and other Near Eastern countries as well as in the neighboring parts of the USSR (Armenia, Georgia). The Christian dialects were first standardized and reduced to writing in the Nestorian Syriac script by American missionaries in the region of Reżāʾīya (Urmia) in the last century. A considerable amount of religious, scholarly, literary, and journalistic material has been and continues to be published in the Syriac, Cyrillic, and Latin scripts, principally in Iran, the USSR, and the United States: While these Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects are very closely related to each other, a quite different dialect, with phonetic and historic features close to the western, Jacobite form of Syriac, is spoken in Jabal Senǰār west of Mosul. It is known as Ṭūrōyo, i.e. “mountain” (Jabal) dialect (cf. I. Garbell, The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Persian Azerbaijan, The Hague, 1965; H. Jacobi, Grammatik des Thumischen Neuarämaisch, AKM 40, 3, Wiesbaden, 1973; H. Ritter, Ṭūrōyo, Beirut, 1967-1971.) Western Neo-Aramaic is the modern continuation of the Aramaic spoken by Christians in Syria and Palestine. It has survived in three villages of the Anti-Lebanon and is known as the Maʿlūla dialect, after the name of the principal one of those villages (cf. A. Spitaler, Grammatik des neuaramäischen Dialekts von Maʿlūla, AKM 23, 1, Leipzig, 1938).

Aramaic and Iranian writing. The Aramaic development of alphabetical writing is represented by the Hebrew script of the Jews and by the Arabic script of Islam (above, under Nabatean). It was the simplicity of the Aramaic script which recommended the use of Aramaic as the official language of the Achaemenid empire in the first place. (For a discussion of Aramaic writing in pre-Christian times, cf. J. Naveh, The Development of the Aramaic Script, Jerusalem, 1970; on Aramaic writing in Parthian times, see idem in Israel Oriental Studies 2, 1972, pp. 292-304.) Apart from Bactrian (and leaving aside the question of the origin of Brāhmī script, used for Khotanese Saka [q.v.]) all the ancient Iranian languages ever committed to writing were recorded in forms developed from the Aramaic script of the Achaemenid empire. The ancient Iranian cuneiform alphabet was an adaptation of Mesopotamian cuneiform writing to the Aramaic writing system (cf. I. M. Diakonoff, “The Origin of the " Old Persian" Writing System,” in M. Boyce and I. Gershevitch, eds., W. B. Henning Memorial Volume, London, 1970, pp. 98-124. The Western Middle Iranian languages employed Aramaic writing; but eventually, in Book Pahlavi, the script lost much of its original clarity, because a number of letters had evolved in such a way as to make their shapes indistinguishable from one another. This historical process is illustrated in Table 3, showing stages of the script from Aramaic to Book Pahlavi.

Table 3. From Aramaic to Middle IranianTable 3. From Aramaic to Middle IranianView full image in a new tab

Aramaic and the Iranian languages. We have no evidence that any text in an Iranian language was written in Aramaic script during the reign of the Achaemenids; although this practice would, it seems, have been natural (see Andreas Theory). A badly preserved inscription from the tomb of Darius I at Naqš-e Rostam is generally agreed to have been added no earlier than Seleucid times (see most recently R. N. Frye, “The " Aramaic" Inscription on the Tomb of Darius,” Iranica Antiqua 17, 1982, pp. 85-90, pls. I-IX). After a while, however, Aramaic was displaced by Iranian. Since it was so widely used in written communication, it is only to be expected that the transition from Aramaic to Iranian in writing was a gradual process. According to the best information available at present, that process was largely completed during the 2nd century B.C., at least over a considerable part of the area where Iranian dialects were spoken (cf. Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” p. 30). It took the form of a constant slow infiltration of Iranian words into Aramaic texts, mainly because there were Iranian administrative, cultural, and technical terms that did not lend themselves to translation into Aramaic and because the knowledge of Aramaic on the part of Iranian-speakers gradually became less sure. Eventually, the stage was reached in which Aramaic syntax was replaced by Iranian syntax throughout, and only individual Aramaic words and phrases continued to be employed ungrammatically and no longer thoroughly integrated. This then indicated that a text was no longer an Aramaic composition, but an Iranian one. Aramaic words, frozen in their grammatical and syntactic positions, the so-called Aramaic ideograms or heterograms, were automatically read and understood, no longer in Aramaic, but as their Iranian equivalents. Many of the ideograms known from Middle Iranian texts clearly date back to Achaemenid times, and the majority of them are likely to do so. If, for instance, the preposition byn “between” is used in both the Aršāma documents and Book Pahlavi in the meaning of “in,” this certainly indicates a survival of Achaemenid usage. And if the Mid. Pers. ideograms BYRḤ “in the month of” and ŠNT “the year of” are used for plain “month” and “year,” they are most likely to reflect the uninterrupted tradition of dating documents practiced in Achaemenid chancelleries. On the other hand, the Parthian ideogram YRḤʾ “month” can serve as an example of the fact that the history of the Aramaic ideograms was not uniform in the Iranian languages, but a long and complicated process. The ideograms showed themselves tenacious and continued to be used in late Book Pahlavi. In order to facilitate their Iranian reading, some of them were provided with certain phonetic and graphic complements. Glossaries with the special purpose of determining their reading and meaning were composed, such as the Frahang ī Pahlawīg. (For the history of the ideograms see Henning,“Mitteliranisch;” E. Y. Kutscher, “Aramaic,” in Current Trends in Linguistics 6, 1970, pp. 393-99; H. S. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi II, Wiesbaden, 1974, pp. 1-7; and see also H. Humbach and P. O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli, Part 3.2, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 132-39).

The Iranian words that entered Official Aramaic are an indispensable tool for the study of Old Iranian (cf. W. Eilers, Iranische Beamtennamen in der keilschriftlichen Überlieferung, AKM 25, 5, Leipzig, 1940; F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Die aramäische Sprache unter den Achaimeniden I, Frankfurt am Main, 1963). The symbiosis of speakers of Aramaic and speakers of Iranian continued after the end of the Achaemenid empire. It had the result that many Iranian words were adopted into Eastern Aramaic dialects such as Hatran, Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic, and Mandaic and preserved by them (cf. G. Widengren, Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit, Cologne and Opladen, 1960). These loanwords further enrich our understanding of the pre-Islamic stages of Iranian speech.


  • Given in the text. A bibliographical survey of the Aramaic dialects was made in 1938 by F. Rosenthal, Die aramaistische Forschung seit Theodor Nöldeke’s Veröffentlichungen, Leiden, 1938, repr. 1964.

ii. Iranian Loanwords In Early Aramaic

Speakers of Iranian languages were in all likelihood in contact with Aramaic speakers from the 7th century B.C. onwards in northern Mesopotamia, but this contact has not left a detectable impression. It is with the advent of the Achaemenids to power in the 6th century that a growing number of Iranian loanwords are found in Aramaic. In the Achaemenid period Aramaic was in use throughout the empire as a sort of official language and the Aramaic script was widely employed from Egypt in the southwest to Bactria and Sogdiana in the northeast. Texts were in all likelihood dictated in the native dialects, Iranian and others, written down in Aramaic, and then read out again in the native language at the place they were received. It is therefore not surprising that the Aramaic script, and the scribal practices of the chancery using Aramaic, achieved important status in these areas even after Aramaic had been replaced by Greek.

Many Iranian loanwords found in Aramaic are also found in neo-Babylonian and Elamite administrative and legal texts. It may also be assumed that the Iranian loanwords in Hebrew (primarily in the Book of Esther) entered via Aramaic.

The sources for these loanwords are 1) literary—the biblical books of Ezra (Ez), which quotes many early documents, and Daniel (Dan), which, although redacted in the time of the Maccabean revolt (i.e. ca. 186 B.C.), contains earlier material and is replete with Iranian words and usages; 2) the various collections of letters, contracts, administrative documents, etc. from Egypt (C = Cowley, K = Kraeling, D = Driver); 3) Aramaic inscriptions from Persepolis (B = Bowman); 4) inscriptions from other parts of the empire, primarily from Anatolia. As will be seen below, much of the vocabulary is from the spheres of administration, law, and commerce, but the texts also contain vocabulary from other walks of life. The later the text, the more Iranian words and idioms it will contain. Some phrases are entirely Iranian, and some documents, such as the ship-repair order (C 26) issued by Aršāma and the letters sent by Aršāma from Babylon and/or Susa (D), are particularly replete with Iranianisms. The Aramaic used in these texts has been called Official or Imperial Aramaic.

In the eastern provinces and the periphery of the Hellenistic world Aramaic continued in use as a written language into the Arsacid and Roman period. Aramaic inscriptions are known from Armenia and Georgia (Mcʿxeṭʿa) as well as from such sites as Laḡmān and Qandahār in Afghanistan and Taxila in Pakistan. The Aramaic of these inscriptions was clearly a sort of heterograph; with Aramaic words replacing the language actually spoken by the scribe. Three Aramaic dialects spoken in the Near East during this period have also left us inscriptions that contain Iranian words, primarily Parthian in form. They are a) Palmyrene inscriptions from Palmyra, the important ancient caravan city in the Syrian desert, the written dialect being a continuation of “official Aramaic” with Eastern traits; b) the Hatra inscriptions, from Hatra in northern Iraq, whose dialect shows clear eastern traits; and c) the Syriac inscriptions from the Edessa area (modern Urfa in southern Turkey ), the earliest testimony to the Syriac dialect of Aramaic.

The graphic realization of Iranian words in Aramaic in the early period presented few problems, for the Aramaic consonantal shape fit the known and assumed Iranian words; however, the vocalization of Iranian words transmitted in Biblical texts conforms to the patterns of Aramaic and Hebrew, while the consonantal shape remains relatively intact. Iranian č is expressed graphically by Aramaic š, Θ by t and xw at times by simple .

It is not surprising that the number of Iranian words in the administrative and legal fields is relatively large. Among the administrative functions, the following officials should be mentioned: ʾzdkryʾ azdakara “recorder” (C 17:5); ʾdrgzrʾ handarza-kara “counselor” (Dan); ʾḥšdrpnʾ xšaΘrapāna “satrap” (Dan); ḥštrpnʾ (Xanthos); gzbrʾ ganzabara “treasurer” (Ez); ʾpgnzbrʾ upaganzabara “sub-treasurer” (B pp. 30ff.); gwškyʾ gaušaka “hearer, spy” (C); dtbrʾ dātabara “law officer” (Dan); dtkyʾ dātaka “lawyer” (C); hdbrʾ hadabāra “companion” (Dan); hptḥptʾ haftaxwapātā “guardian of the seventh (part)” (K 8:2, 3); hmrkr hamārakara “accountant” (D); prmnkrʾ framānakara “superior, foreman” (C); ʾprskʾ frasaka “investigator” (Ez); ʾprstkʾ frastāka “leading official” (Ez); prtrkʾ frataraka “governor” (C); prtm fratama (Heb.) “general” (Dan); ptyprs pātifrāsa “retribution” (C); srkʾ sāraka “chief minister” (Dan); tptʾ tāyupātā “policeman” (Dan). Such professions as patikarakara “sculptor (D); waršabara “forester” (D) and nāupati “(ship) captain” (C) should also be noted.

A variety of items from the realm of realia deserve mention here: ʾbšwnʾ abišavana “pestle” (B); ʾšrnʾ āčarna “furnishings” (C); ʾḥšynpyn axšainafaina “turquoise” (B); ʾstdnʾ astōdāna “ossuary” (KAI 262); ʾtrwdn āΘrōdāna “fire altar” (C); drḥt draxta “tree” Sardis (KAI 260); hmynk hamyānaka “necklace, belt” (Dan); hndwn handavana “repair material” (C); hnpnʾ hanpāna “covered passage” (K); hwnʾ havana “mortar” (B); nbršt nibrāšti “lamp” (Dan); ndn nidāni “container, sheath” (Dan; Gen Apoc); prds paridaiza “garden, park” (Enoch); prbr paribāra, parbar “wall” Sardis (KAI 260); ptpʾ piΘfa “ration” (C; D); ʾwpšr upačāra “repair (material)” (C 26); ʾwpkrtʾ upakarta “preparation, gathering of material” (C); zrnyk zaranyaka “arsenic” (C).

The following nouns belong essentially to the administrative sphere: ʾbygrn abigarana “penalty, fine” (C; K); ʾdrngʾ ādranga “guarantor” (K); ʾwdysʾ avadaisa “protocol” (C); ʾzt āzāta “free” (K); ʾzdʾ azdā “known” (C; Dan); ʾdwn advan “route, (stage of a) journey” (D); bg bāga “portion, domain” (D); grd garda “domestic staff” (D); gnz ganza “treasury” (C; D; Ez); dmʾ dama “domain” (Xanthos); dšn dāšna “gift” (D); dtʾ dāta “law” (passim); dwškrtʾ duškarta “misdeed” (C); hdʾbgw hadā-abigāva “with interest” (D); hnbgʾ hngytʾ hanbāga, hangaiΘa “partners (in land or movable property)” (C; K); ksntw kasanΘva “decrease” (D); nštwnʾ ništavana “order” (C; Ez); srwšytʾ sraušyatā “punishment” (D); ptbg patibāga “portion” (Dan); ptgm patigāma “message, report” (passim); ptšgn patičagna (Hebrew ptšgn; Aram. pršgn) “document, copy;” psšrt pasčā-rāti “addition to dowry” (K); rz rāza “secret” (Dan); ywz yauza “rebellion” (D).

There are also interesting idioms which consist of a form of the Aramaic verb ʿbd “to do, make” and an Old Persian noun: gst ptgm (gasta patigāma) yṭʿbd (D) “he will be strictly called to account;” hdmyn tṭʿbdwn (Dan) “you will be direly punished;” hndrz (handarza) yʿbdwn (D) “they will give instructions.” There is a group of words used in an adverbial construction: apatamā(m) “finally” (Ez); azdā “publicly” (Dan); asparnā “in full” (D; Ez); (a)drazdā “diligently” (Ez).

It has been plausibly suggested that the enigmatic ddymyy (K 9:3) which follows Aramaic yhbth lky “I gave/have given it to you” is a similar declaration in Old Persian dadāyam ayāy (for *adadāyam *ahyāi ). In the inscription from Arebsun (KAI 264) the phrase dynmzdysnš dainā-mazdayasniš “Mazda-believing,” and in KAI 265, the verbal mgyš lmtrh (Greek emageuse Mithrē) “acted the magus to Mithra” is found. Religious terminology from the Iranian sphere is found in the Aramaic of the recently discovered Xanthos trilingual: krpʾ karpa “religious usage, rite” and ḥštrpty xšaΘrapati “noble, protective spirit,” used for Apollo (lit. “landlord”). In the Taxila inscription (KAI 273) the following religious terms are found: hwptysty hu-patyāsti “good obedience,” hww[rd] hu-varda “good progress” and hwnštwn hu-ništavana “good order” and from Qandahār I ptytw patīΘva “for redemption (?),” ptyzbt pati-zbāta “forbidden,” prbsty frabasta “unbridled,” mzyštyʾ mazišta “elders, superiors.” The inscriptions from Afghanistan contain other Iranian terms.

A not unexpected source of interesting Iranian words in Aramaic are the Qumran scrolls. The Aramaic texts are written in Standard Literary Aramaic and therefore reflect essentially the Eastern Literary dialect. As well as several Iranian words known from other texts, they contain such words as: (a)sparaka “buckler” (Gen Apoc.), daxšta “desert” (Targ. Job), naḥšīr “hunt” (I Q Wars), naḥšīrūta “slaughter” (Test. Levi), *naiza-ka (written nzk) “spear” (Targ. Job).

Of particular interest are the Iranian titles that have reached us in variant forms. In the inscriptions from Mcʿxeṭʿa in Georgia, the same title is written both bṭḥš (I 1.2) and pyṭḥš (II 1.2-5). In the Greek version of inscr. I this is rendered pitiaksēs. In the Hatra inscription, there may also be two versions of this term: bṭḥšʾ (no. 143) and also pdḥšʾ (no. 127). The forms bytḥš (Parthian) and btḥšy (Pahlavi) are known from Šāpūr KZ while the Greek transcriptions pitiaksou and pituaksou are also found there, and Ammianus Marcellinus preserves vitaxa. On this word see O. Szemerényi in Monumentum H. S. Nyberg II, Acta Iranica 5, Tehran and Liège, 1975, pp. 363-65. Another title with slightly divergent spellings is found as pšgrybʾ in the Syriac Hymn of the Soul (where it was recognized by I. Gershevitch, JRAS, 1954, p. 124) as well as in an Old Syriac inscription; at Hatra it has the forms pzgrybʾ (185:3) and pšgrybʾ/psgrbʾ (287:6; 282). It is attested in Man. Mid. Pers. as psʾgryw and as a Parthian loanword in Man. Sogd. as pšʾgryw, and derives from OIr. *pasčā-grīva “behind/instead of the self,” i.e. “viceroy” (see Szemerényi, op. cit., p. 365, with references). Among the other civic and religious titles that occur in these inscriptions are ʾrgptʾ “city governor” (Palmyra), mhrqrʾ “incantation maker” (Palmyra), hdrpṭʾ “fire-priest” (Hatra), and nḥšrpṭʾ “in charge of hunt” (Hatra). The god Nergal, of Babylonian origin, is given the title dḥšpṭʾ at Hatra. It is Parthian *daxšpat, known from Syriac daḥša and Armenian dahič, daḥčapet, where it means “chief guard, executioner.” This is consonant with Nergal’s role as god of the underworld.


  • Texts of the Achaemenid period: R. A. Bowman, Aramaic Ritual Texts from Persepolis, Chicago, 1970 (= B); A. E. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923 (= C); G. R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C., revised edition, Oxford, 1964 (= D); E. G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. from the Jewish Colony at Elephantine, New Haven, 1953 (= K); H. Dorner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften 1, Wiesbaden, 1962 (= KAI).
  • The Iranian words in Ezra and Daniel: W. B. Henning, in F. Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, 2nd revised ed., Wiesbaden, 1963, pp. 58-59.
  • W. Hinz, Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen, Wiesbaden, 1975.
  • For Xanthos: M. Mayrhofer, “Die iranischen Elemente im aramäischen Text,” in Fouilles de Xanthos. Tome VI. La stèle trilingue du Létôon, Paris, 1979, pp. 181-85.
  • The Iranian words in the Job Targum and bibliography for the other words in the Qumran Scrolls: J. C. Greenfield and S. Shaked, “Three Iranian Words in the Targum of Job from Qumran,” ZDMG 122, 1972, pp. 37-44.
  • See also J. C. Greenfield, “On some Iranian Terms in the Elephantine Papyri,” Acta Antiqua (Budapest) 21, 1977, pp. 113-18; “Some Notes on the Arsham Letters,” in Irano-Judaica, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 4-11.
  • For Mcʿxeṭʿa: A. M. Apʿakʿije, G. Pʿ. Gobejišvili, A. N. Kalandaje, and G. A. Lomṭʿaṭʿije, Mcxeṭʿa: arkʿeologiuri kvlevajiebis sedegebi. I. Armazisxevis arkʿeologiuri jeglebi, 1937-1946 ċċ ganat ʿxaris mixedviṭʿ, Tiflis, 1955.
  • For Afghanistan: H. Birkeland, “Eine aramäische Inschrift aus Afghanistan,” Acta Orientalia 16, 1938, pp. 222-23; G. Davary and H. Humbach, Eine weitere aramäoiranische Inschrift der Periode des Aśoka aus Afghanistan, Mainz, 1947.
  • A. Dupont-Sommer, “Une nouvelle inscription araméenne d’Aśoka trouvée dans la vallée du Laghman (Afghanistan),” Comptes-rendus de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, 1970, pp. 158-73.
  • For Kandahar I see D. Schlumberger, L. Robert, A. Dupont-Sommer, and E. Benveniste, “Une bilingue gréco-araméenne d’Aśoka,” JA 246, 1958, pp. I-48; for Kandahar II see E. Benveniste, A. Dupont-Sommer, and C. Caillat, “Une inscription indoaraméenne d’Aśoka provenant de Kandahar (Afghanistan),” JA 254, 1966, pp. 437-70.
  • Palmyra: F. Rosenthal, Die Sprache der palmyrenischen Inschriften, Leipzig, 1936, pp. 96-97.
  • Hatra: F. Vattioni, Le iscrizioni di Hatra, Naples, 1981; D. Harnack, “Parthische Titel, vornehmlich in den Inschriften aus Hatra,” in F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Geschichte Mittelasiens im Altertum, Berlin, 1970, pp. 492-549.

iii. Iranian Loanwords In Middle Aramaic

The period between Achaemenid and Sasanian rule saw the emergence of the Middle Aramaic dialects. The main division of the Aramaic language ran between the eastern and western dialects, with Syriac as the major exception, lying across the boundary line between the two groups. The presence of Iranian elements was, predictably, felt much more strongly in the eastern regions of Aramaic, which were under direct Iranian domination or at least within the Iranian cultural sphere. Among the most important survivals from that area is the Jewish rabbinical literature of the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash, which was continued in the post-Talmudic and early Islamic period in Gaonic literature. This literature consisted mostly of religious discussions relating to questions of law, ritual, liturgy, theology, exegesis, and legendary history. Very close to it linguistically is Mandean literature, from the small religious sect that still survives in the area between present-day southern Iraq and Iran. Syriac developed a rich and varied literature over a very wide geographical area; it reflected the thinking and discourse of the Christian communities from Egypt and Asia Minor to Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia, with a certain limited presence in India. The impact of Iranian is felt most strongly in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and in Mandaic, as well as in Eastern Syriac. The western dialects, such as Palestinian Syriac and Galilean Jewish Aramaic, also contain a certain number of Iranian loanwords, but these are not as numerous as the words that can be identified as Iranian in the eastern varieties of Aramaic. The language of Aramaic centers such as Hatra and Palmyra also displays a fairly small number of Iranian loanwords.

To start with Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, it is clear that the numerous loanwords in the language did not all enter Aramaic at the same time. Different chronological layers of loanword material must be separated out; these distinctions can be made linguistically through the known rules of phonetic changes, but these changes affected a relatively small number of words in the language, and many words still can not be chronologically determined with confidence. In some cases we can use evidence that is not purely linguistic, such as the fact that a certain word is already found in early Aramaic, or that it is common to several varieties of late Aramaic, suggesting that it constitutes a common heritage from earlier Aramaic, even if it is not actually attested in the older language.

Loan words can also be distinguished according to the Iranian dialect from which each derives. In some cases it is possible to observe phonetic features that characterize northwest Middle Iranian (Parthian) as different from the southwestern language (Middle Persian). Such clear distinctions are rare and even where they do occur, their significance is limited by the fact that the language of the Sasanian period, which was basically Middle Persian, had become at an early period a koinē, absorbing words from other dialects and containing a rich Parthian element as part of its vocabulary. Words that display Parthian linguistic features are not necessarily borrowings from the Parthian language; in many cases, they may be words of Parthian origin that were current in the Persian language and were borrowed into Aramaic as Persian words. Many words of east Iranian origin, such as Sogdian or Khwarezmian, also became part of the Persian language and may have been similarly borrowed into Aramaic from Persian.

Even in the case of genuine Parthian words, i.e. Parthian words that were never absorbed into Persian and may have been borrowed directly from Parthian into Aramaic, it would be wrong to assert, as has sometimes been done, that they were necessarily borrowed in the Parthian, or Arsacid, period. Parthian continued to exist as a language of culture and trade in the Sasanian period, and Parthian words could have entered Aramaic in the post-Arsacid period. Dialect differences should not be confused with the chronology of borrowings, and even the use of dialect distinctions as an indication of regional provenance is problematic since individual words were prone to wander from one dialect to another.

A word like rāz “secret,” for example, had already been introduced into Aramaic when it was a chancery or official language of the Achaemenid dynasty and is found in nearly all later Aramaic dialects. Likewise pitgām “decree, word” displays in its phonetic structure the marks of an early borrowing (Mid. Pers. paygām, NPers. payām). Pitgām(a) is found in basically this form in many Aramaic dialects, sometimes with late inner-Aramaic developments, e.g. pwgdʾmʾ in Mandaic. Another early borrowing into Aramaic with widespread attestation in later Aramaic dialects is Aramaic ptkr “sculpture, image,” from Old Iranian patikara- (see G. D. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1954, p. 72f.). Apart from these and other words that are already familiar from the Aramaic documents of the Achaemenid period, several words may be assigned to the same chronological layer of borrowing on phonetic grounds. A list of such words from the Babylonian Talmud was made up by S. Telegdi (“Essai sur la phonétique des emprunts iraniens en araméen talmudique,” JA 226, 1935, p. 218f.), although it may be doubted whether all of his criteria are indeed valid. The maintenance of the letter qōf in the morphemes -ak(a-) -akān(a), for example, can not be considered an archaism, since in early Arabic borrowings (probably made toward the end of the Sasanian period) the Arabic letter qāf is consistently used for the same function. It would not be justified to regard the borrowing of zndnqnʾ “jailer” from Middle Persian *zēndānakān, *zēndānagān as pre-Sasanian on phonetic grounds, nor can a very early borrowing period be presumed for words like ḵandaq “ditch, moat,” which occurs in early Arabic, but which was probably borrowed not earlier than the 5th century A.D. G. Widengren (Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit, Cologne, 1960, pp. 25ff.) makes his own list of early borrowings into Mandaic, but his criteria for establishing Parthian words are questionable.

It is also important to make a distinction between genuine loanwords (i.e. words of Iranian origin that became part of the Aramaic vocabulary) and Iranian words quoted in Aramaic, perhaps only in a single context, without being absorbed into Aramaic. This distinction, valid in theory, is not easy to make in practice. Many of the words of Iranian origin listed in the various Aramaic lexicons were completely naturalized, and some of them even passed the test of supreme absorption into a foreign language in that verbs were formed from them, and they became part of the Semitic root system of the language. In other cases, where what looks like a whole Persian phrase is quoted in an Aramaic context, such as kʾr hzr gwnʾ (TBavli [Babylonian Talmud], Sanhedrin 98a) “a donkey with a thousand colors,” it would be hardly justified to consider each word as a loanword in Aramaic (in this example it may be noted that gwnʾ was independently borrowed into Aramaic). Similarly, numerous juridical terms that occur in The Lawbook of Yišōʿ-boxt (ed. in E. Sachau, Syrische Rechtsbücher III, Berlin, 1914) do not seem to have become part of the Syriac language. In other cases where an Iranian word occurs in an Aramaic text, it is often simply impossible to determine what status the borrowed word has in Aramaic.

The phonology of the Iranian loanwords in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, as reflected in its orthography, has been thoroughly treated by S. Telegdi (“Essai sur la phonétique”), who distinguishes three modes of reflecting in Aramaic the Iranian phoneme č when it is also retained in Iranian: by šin, by ṣade, and, rarely, by the combination ṭet-ṣade. The grapheme with šin corresponds to Parthian usage, although the occurrence of such a grapheme does not necessarily indicate a borrowing from the Parthian. The Iranian phoneme ǰ is most often rendered by the Aramaic zayin, occasionally, especially in late (Gaonic) texts, by the combination dalet-zayin (as in dzwd, Mid. Pers. ǰud “separate, different”), and even by dalet-yod (dywṭr, Mid. Pers. ǰuttar “different”).

A case of unusual phonetic correspondence occurs in a small group of words, where one may assume an interchange of -g-/-γ- with -x-/-: Aram. brḥʾ “ram,” cf. Mid. Pers warrag, NPers. barra; Aramaic (and Hebrew) ḥznʾ “superintendent, guard,” perhaps connected with Iranian ganza-, gazna- (cf. Sogdian γzn), which otherwise gives the productive Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic root GNZ. The derivation of Aramaic ḥznʾ from Iranian gains some credibility from the existence of the Arabic root ḴZN “to store up,” from the same Iranian origin (see W. Eilers, “Iranisches Lehngut im Arabischen,” Actas do IV Congresso de Estudos Árabes e Islâmicos [Lisbon, 1968], Leiden, 1971, p. 602). Note also Aramaic gwšgrʾ “dark or coarse flour,” with which NPers. ḵošk-ārd has been compared (H. Fleischer in J. Levy, Chaldäisches Wörterbuch über die Targumim, Leipzig, 1867-68; B. Geiger in S. Krauss, Additamenta ad librum Aruch completum Alexandri Kohut, Vienna, 1937; repr. New York, 1955, s.v.).

Occasionally an unetymological ʿayin occurs in Aramaic words of Iranian origin. The most conspicuous example is kʿkʾ “bread,” probably from an Iranian antecedent of NPers. kāk (but cf. T. Nöldeke, Persische Studien II, Sb. d. Kais. Akad. d. Wissenschaften in Wien, phil-hist. Kl. 126, 1892, p. 42; Eilers, “Iranisches Lehngut,” p. 612). Aramaic ṇʿṇʿ, ṇʿnʾ, nynyʾ “spearmint” is of doubtful origin, but the phenomenon is widespread in Arabic words (see A. Siddiqi, Studien über die persischen Fremdwörter im klassischen Arabisch, Göttingen, 1919, pp. 69ff., and Eilers, “Iranisches Lehngut”).

A list of the most important categories of loanwords according to their meaning and semantic field follows. There is a fairly large number of terms related to state administration, designating either functions and abstract notions or concrete objects, as well as titles of office. Abstract notions and concrete objects belonging to the area of state or local administration in Babylonian Jewish Aramaic include: hrmnʾ < Parth. *hramān “command” (but cf. Mandaic prʾʾmʾn, from Persian framān); gzʾ, also in Syriac < *ganǰa- “treasury” (an old borrowing, with a phonetic assimilation of the n that seems to have occurred in Aramaic); by dwʾr “postal station” (the etymology of the second word is uncertain but the word seems to be of Iranian origin; the first word is Aramaic “house”); mwhrqʾ < Mid. Pers. muhrag “seal;” glmhrg, cf. NPers. gel-mohra “bulla;” ptšgn, pršgn < OIr. *pati-čagna-, “document, copy” (an old borrowing), cf. Mandaic pʾršygnʾ, pʾršyknʾ, Syriac pršgnʾ. A Mandaic term that belongs to the same class is prwdgʾ “decree; passport” (perhaps also Syriac prwdtqʾ, not attested in literature). The word seems to derive from Iranian (cf. Mid. Pers. frawardag “letter, missive”).

Titles of office and terms designating state functionaries: mrzbnʾ cf. NPers. marzbān, a military title. ʿrqptʾ, ʿrgbtʾ, ʾlqptʾ “a high-ranking official,” cf. Inscr. Parth. ḥrkpty, Inscr. Mid. Pers. ḥlgwpt; prdšk, prdkšʾ some court official, perhaps from Mid. Pers. *pardak-kaš, lit. “one who draws the curtain,” cf. Arabic-NPers. ḥāǰeb; qhrmnʾ “ruler, commander” (contracted from Parthian *kār-hramān, cf. Mid. Pers. kār framān); bzbnʾ “customs collector” < Mid. Pers. *bāz-bān; zhrwrʾ “tax collector (?),” perhaps connected with a Mid. Pers. word like *zīnhār-bār, literally “one who carries a document of safety;” ʾmrkl < OIran. *ahmār-kāra- “accountant;” the word is an older borrowing; drbwnʾ “gate keeper” < Mid. Pers. *dar-bān; kwšqbʾnʾ “guardian of a tower” < Mid. Pers. *kōšk-bān; gzbrʾ (attested in Hebrew and Aramaic; Mandaic gʾnzybrʾ) < OIran. *ganza-bara-, evidently an old borrowing; dbyr “scribe” < Mid. Pers. dibīr (a Persian word quoted in Aramaic, not a loanword); pštybnʾ “guardsman”" < Mid. Pers. puštībān.

Several words designate “messenger”: ʿzgdʾ (Mandaic ʿšgʾndʾ), cf. Sogd. `γnt, ʾ`γʾnty; prystqʾ, cf. Mid. Pers. frēstag; prwnqʾ, Mandaic pʾrwʾnqʾ, cf. Mid. Pers. parwānag “guide, leader.”

Aramaic loanwords from Persian that are concerned with the administration of justice include: dwʾr “judge,” probably from forms like NPers. dāvar (Mid. Pers. dādwar); gzyrpṭʾ “police officer,” cf. Mid. Pers. wizīr “judgement, decision;” ytgrʾ “certificate,” cf. Mid. Pers. ayādgār “memorandum;” pwrsyšmng, a corruption of pwrsyšnmg “proceedings of a judicial enquiry,” from Mid. Pers. *pursišn-nāmag (a similar form exists in Syriac); wʾbwrgʾn “safe, trustworthy,” Mid. Pers. wābaragān; dstbyrʾ “bill of divorcement” (attested in a Syriac magic bowl from Babylonia, see Shaked, “Bagdana”), probably connected with dastwar “authoritative (document);” bwktnmg (Syriac) “deed of acquittal (?)” (cf. Bedjan, Histoire de Mar Jabalāhā, Leipzig, 1895, p. 234), from Mid. Pers. *buxt-nāmag.

A number of terms refer to punishment by law: bzywny “prison,” perhaps from an Aramaic-Persian combination, be zēna- “house of weapons;” zndwqnʾ, zndwqʾ “jailer,” probably from Mid. Pers. *zēndānag, cf. NPers. zendān-bān, which originally must have meant “keeper of the armory;” mtprsʾ “punishment,” cf. Mid. Pers. pādefrāh (the Aramaic word is probably derived from Parthian).

Some military and cavalry terms: zyynʾ “weapon,” Mid. Pers. zēn; zrdʾ “armor,” cf. Mid. Pers. zrēh; the Aramaic word seems to derive from Parthian, unless it is an older borrowing, cf. YAv. zrāda-; gwndʾ “troops,” Mid. Pers. gund; špšyrʾ “sword,” cf. Mid. Pers. šamšēr; ʾpsr (Syriac and Hebrew) “muzzle, bridle, rein,” cf. NPers. afsār, fasār ; srgʾ (Syriac; Babylonian Jewish Aramaic has the denominative SRG) “saddle,” cf. the Arabic loanword sarǰ ; ʾhwryrʾ “stable manager,” Mid. Pers. *āxwar-dār ; snwʾrt “helmet,” probably from Old Pers. *sara-varti-.

Further military terms attested in Syriac: nyzkʾ “lance,” nymʾ sheath,” qṭyrqʾ “quiver,” pygʾ “foot-soldier.”

There is a fairly long list of words borrowed in the field of garments and textiles (e.g., gwndʾ “cloak;” dstwdr “shawl;” hmyynʾ “belt”); in the field of food and cooking (e.g., ṭbhq “a roasted slice of meat;” ṭwzyq “picnic;” kwptʾ “meat cutlet”). Some terms designate servants (bdwbr, kwʾngr, dwrdq, the latter two for cooks or waiters). Many terms of flora and fauna in Babylonian Aramaic derive from Iranian (ʾmgwzʾ “nut;” ʾsprmqy “herbs with scent;” hndqwqy “melilot;” zʾzʾ “dry branches;” brḥʾ “ram” (doubtful); qbwṭl “pigeon;” rmk “mare, herd;” gytʾ “cattle, livestock”). A number of terms indicate household items (e.g., drgš “bed;” tktqʾ, tktkʾ “chair, bench, table;” bstrqʾ, nmrqʾ, bysʾdʾ “cushion, pillow.” On these see S. Shaked, “From Iran to Islam,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 7, forthcoming). The adjective “multicolored” is expressed by Aram. šsgwnʾ, probably from Mid. Pers. šast-gōn “of sixty colors.”

The strong linguistic impact of Iranian on Babylonian Aramaic appears most strikingly with the loanwords that were turned into Aramaic verbs: gnz “to store;” bgn and pgn “to cry for help;” bšqr “to search, find out;” grb “to seize;” hrzq “to close, lock up;” prhwzy “to take precautions, beware;” rwz “to be glad” (not all the examples are certain).

Syntax and morphology constitute a more complicated field of investigation than vocabulary. Syntactically, the tendency attested in later Aramaic to replace the straightforward past tense in active verbs by a passive construction shows the parallel development in Aramaic of what was the standard mode of expressing the past of active verbs in most languages of the Middle Iranian period. This later became the standard way of expressing the past of such verbs in Neo-Aramaic dialects (see E. Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris, 1966; E. Y. Kutscher, Hebrew and Aramaic Studies, Jerusalem, 1977, pp. 70-89).

Influences in the opposite direction, from Aramaic to Iranian also exist; this is most visible in the system of writing the Middle Iranian languages, where in most cases not only was the script borrowed from Aramaic, but also a great many Aramaic words were used as logograms for Iranian words. These words were only borrowed as written signs, not as part of the spoken language. (On the process see W. B. Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” pp. 58ff.). Quite a few Aramaic words entered Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian; in Middle Persian, e.g.: ʾʾwš “foundation;” ʾškwp “root;” gʾclyx “the work of a fuller;” gcytk “poll tax;” tlgmʾn “interpreter;” nkylʾd “repudiating, denying;” gty “document;” mgynd “shield;” rgyh “inclination” (the latter perhaps from a form like Mandaic rʾgwhyʾ “desire,” contrary to what is suggested in S. Shaked, Wisdom of the Sasanian Sages, Boulder, Col., 1979, pp. 252ff.; see also S. Shaked in Israel Oriental Studies 4, 1974, p. 250, and T. Nöldeke, Persische Studien). Some of the Aramaic loanwords in New Persian are likely to be borrowings of the Middle Persian period (e.g., tafšīla; on these words see J. W. Weryho, “Syriac Influence on Sasanian Iran,” Folia Orientalia 13, 1971, pp. 299-321).


  • See also P. de Lagarde, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, Leipzig, 1866.
  • J. Perles, Etymologische Studien zur Kunde der Rabbinischen Sprache und Alterthümer, Breslau, 1871.
  • J. N. Epstein, “Glosses babylo-araméennes,” Revue des Etudes Juives 73, 1921, pp. 27-58; 74, 1922, pp. 40-72.
  • E. S. Rosenthal, “Talmudica Iranica” (in Hebrew), in: S. Shaked, ed., Irano-Judaica, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 38-134.
  • S. Shaked, “Bagdana, King of the Demons, and other Iranian Terms in Babylonian Aramaic Magic,” in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce II, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 511-25.
  • J. Naveh and S. Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls, Jerusalem and Leiden, 1985 (index of Iranian words on p. 288).
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