The Neo-Aramaic or Modern Aramaic languages are varieties of Aramaic, that are spoken vernaculars from the medieval to modern era that evolved out of Imperial Aramaic via Middle Aramaic dialects, around AD 1200 (conventional date).
|Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and the Assyrian diaspora|
The term strictly excludes those Aramaic languages that are used only as literary, sacred or classical languages today (for example, Targumic Aramaic, Classical Syriac and Classical Mandaic). However, the classical languages continue to have influence over the colloquial Neo-Aramaic languages.
Northeastern Neo-Aramaic and Central Neo-Aramaic dialects are spoken primarily (though not wholly exclusively) by ethnic Assyrians, who are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church (Eastern Rite Catholics), Syriac Orthodox Church, Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church. The Assyrians are an indigenous people of Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey and northwest Iran, sometimes claimed to be descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians.
Today the number of fluent Neo-Aramaic speakers is significantly smaller, and newer generations of Assyrians generally are not acquiring the full language, especially as many have emigrated and acculturated into their new resident countries.
The numbers of fluent speakers of Neo-Aramaic languages range from approximately 575,000 to 1,000,000. The largest of these are Assyrian Neo-Aramaic with approximately 500,000 speakers, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic with approximately 240,000 speakers, Surayt/Turoyo with approximately 100,000 speakers and a few thousand speakers of other Neo-Aramaic languages (i.e. Modern Jewish Aramaic varieties and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic, among others), which give a total of over 870,000 Neo-Aramaic speakers.
While these are often associated with specific religious affiliations among Assyrians (Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church respectively) these dialects have speakers from different churches amongst their numbers, for example, a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church may speak Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, and a member of the Assyrian Church of the East or Syriac Orthodox Church may speak Chaldean Neo-Aramaic.
There are also smaller numbers of speakers of smaller Northeastern Neo-Aramaic languages, notably Jews originally from Kurdistan, in approximate number of dozens of thousands of speakers in Israel, Western Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Aramaic languages and Neo-Mandaic.
Throughout the history of the Aramaic language, a clear dialect boundary dividing western and eastern varieties has existed, running transversely across the Syrian Desert from southeast to northwest. Eastern Aramaic has remained dominant throughout history, and all classical languages are eastern varieties originating in Mesopotamia (Assyria-Babylonia). Only Western Neo-Aramaic, spoken in Maaloula and surrounding villages in the Anti-Lebanon by Syriac-Aramean Christian communities, remains as a witness to the once widespread western varieties of the Levant and Transjordan.
Neo-Aramaic languages are not uniform; they grew out of pockets of Aramaic-speaking communities that have held fast to their language through the changes of past centuries. Therefore, the dialect continuum is incomplete, with many varieties absent. Mutual intelligibility between the varieties of the group is limited to closest neighbours only. However, many of the varieties share features that have developed in parallel from Middle Aramaic varieties and the classical languages.
The other Neo-Aramaic languages are all eastern varieties, but with little homogeneity. Most distinct in this group is Modern Mandaic, which has low intelligibility with other varieties. It is the direct descendant of Classical Mandaic, which traces its roots back to the Persian-influenced Aramaic of the Arsacid Empire. Modern Mandaic is spoken fluently by about 6,000 people mostly in Ahvaz, Iran, all of whom are Mandaeans, a Gnostic ethnic minority with approximately 70,000 followers in Iraq and Iran, most of whom have largely adopted Arabic or Persian despite being non-Arab and non-Iranian ethnically.
The other Eastern Neo-Aramaic languages have a lot more in common with each other. Some studies have labelled this group Central Neo-Aramaic (however, that name is also used for a smaller subgrouping) or Northern Neo-Aramaic. These languages can be divided in various ways. Sometimes they are divided by religion into Jewish and Christian varieties. However, there is not complete intelligibility throughout either religious community, and on occasion better intelligibility across the religious divide. From this group, the Christian varieties of the extreme north-west of Mesopotamia – Central Neo-Aramaic (confusingly different from the definition above) – stand apart.
This subgrouping is witnessed by Turoyo (aka Surayt) and the now extinct Mlahsô, both influenced by the Classical Syriac of Sassanid Assyria (Assuristan). The other varieties, both Jewish and Christian, form the largest subgrouping of Neo-Aramaic, which is usually referred to as Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA). Christian NENA varieties are influenced by Classical Syriac, but to a lesser degree than Central Neo-Aramaic, and appear to retain some Akkadian loan words and grammatical structures; Jewish NENA varieties are influenced by Targumic Aramaic.
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