Reichsaramäisch.

I’m continuing to read Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew (see this post), and I thought I’d pass along this interesting paragraph on the effect of the official adoption of Aramaic in the Near East:

Vernacularization—that is, literary communication aimed at the masses— was critical to the emergence of empire in the ancient Near East. Referring to the formation of European and Indian societies, Sheldon Pollock observes that “using a new language for communicating literarily to a community of readers and listeners can consolidate if not create that very community, as both a sociotextual and a political formation.” In the case of the ancient Near East, the simplicity of the alphabet as opposed to the cumbersome cuneiform writing system likely informed this choice. More than this, as a result of the spread of Aramaic, cuneiform itself became a restricted and esoteric writing system in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, being supplanted by Aramaic in the administration of far-reaching parts of the empire. To perform its new functions, a literary standard was created, which scholars have called Official Aramaic (or Imperial Aramaic, or Reichsaramäisch). Hitherto, Aramaic had been a cacophony of different dialects. The standardization and concomitant simplification of Aramaic was a natural consequence of its wide diffusion under imperial authority. Such tendencies are also evident in the wake of Alexander’s conquest and in Arabic in the aftermath of the advent of Islam. For this reason sociolinguists point to Aramaic as “a classic case of imperialism utilizing a foreign language instead of trying to impose its own.”

Schniedewind goes on to talk about the promulgation of Aramaic under the Persian Empire as a literary standard, as a result of which the books of Ezra and Daniel are written in Official Aramaic; “when the torah … was read aloud in Jerusalem during the Persian period, it apparently needed to be translated into Aramaic to be understood…. Clearly, Hebrew was no longer understood by the majority of people, and this is also reflected in the epigraphic record.”

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    Schniedewind: “when the torah … was read aloud in Jerusalem during the Persian period, it apparently needed to be translated into Aramaic to be understood…. Clearly, Hebrew was no longer understood by the majority of people, and this is also reflected in the epigraphic record.”

    How is that clear? This could also be consistent with a persianized elite, or even with a ruling elite of third generation exiles from the imperial capital, commissioned by the emperor to rebuild and stregthen the local institutions as a bulwark against Egypt.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    … rebuild and strengthen, but strictly within the framework of the Persian empire, I mean.

  3. There’s a lot more evidence which Schniedewind goes into in some detail. It seems clear from his description that although Hebrew survived as a spoken language in some Judean villages (he compares the survival of Aramaic in a few villages of Syria today), there was a break in tradition which meant the loss of understanding of many rare words of early Biblical Hebrew.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Hitherto, Aramaic had been a cacophony of different dialects.

    And thereafter, he might add: Ethnologue defines 19 Aramaic languages, of which 2 are in vigorous use, 2 are threatened (still in use but losing users fast), 7 are in use by parents but no longer being transmitted to children, 3 are in use by grandparents only, 4 are in use solely as liturgical languages, and 1 is utterly lost.

  5. Well, yes, but that’s after decline in use, centuries of isolation for communities where it remained in use and significant contact with Kurdish, Arabic et al.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I meant to stop here, since I obviously know nothing and Schniedewind is an expert, but it’s still bothering me.

    The Book of Ezra was written some time around the mid-fifth century BC. That’s 150 years after the Neo-Babylonian conquest and not yet 100 years after Cyrus. That’s a short time for complete replacement, at least without massive resettlement operations, and I don’t think there’s evidence for that. Elite realignment, sure. A new formal register, OK. Old terms of law and religion forgotten, quite likely. This is the groundwork for full replacement in the two or three centuries to come, but not yet replacement.

    And, by the way, how is the Book of Ezra evidence of the language of the villages and the streets? It seems to me that it’s close to the loyal imperial elite, attempting to reconcile its persianized origins with its strive for a Hebrew national renaissance, or to channel a popular national sentiment into loyalty to the emperor.

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  1. […] Hat has two posts on language standardization, one on Aramaic in the ancient Middle East an the other on Hazaragi, a Persian dialect spoken […]

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