From an article by Tom Segev, this fascinating report on an ethnic group I didn’t know much about (though I had a brief post about them a couple of years ago):

Sometimes, when Gila Hakimi leaves a note for her husband, she writes it in Rashi script, in Aramaic. That’s only natural: This is the language used by the Hakimis for everyday discourse as well; they speak Aramaic to their eldest son too.

I phoned her in my search for the story furthest removed from the war, but Gila Hakimi said it isn’t all that remote. Anyone who says prayers, opens the Talmud, and in effect anyone who speaks Hebrew speaks Aramaic in one way or another. But as an everyday language of discourse? Yes, says Hakimi. At least several thousand Israelis, who are generally described as “Kurds,” speak Aramaic, in one dialect or another. Unfortunately, more and more people are ceasing to conduct their everyday lives in Aramaic and are forgetting the language. That is why Hakimi created her one-woman show. As far as is known, she is the first Aramaic stand-up comedian. She is extremely successful.

Aramaic is a language with a fascinating and very complex story. The Babylonians and the Persians used it as their official language, and afterward, it was mainly a Jewish language. There is ancient, middle and modern Aramaic. From its inception it was heard in at least two dialect groups, Eastern and Western. In Eastern Middle Aramaic there is a Tadmor and a Nabatean dialect, among others; in Western Middle Aramaic there is a distinction between Christian, Eretz Israel, Galilee and Samaritan dialects. There is Syrian Aramaic, which is generally located between Eastern and Western Aramaic, and in all the dialects, the spoken language is not identical to the written language.

All this is also meant to explain the difficulty of understanding what the “Kurdish” Israelis mean when they say Aramaic; they are not all referring to exactly the same thing, because there are different types of Kurds among them: Some come from Kurdistan in Iraq, some from Iran, Turkey or Syria – some are “ours” and some are not. For example, there is a Web site that perpetuates “Nash Didan” – “our people,” and includes a dictionary, songs and jokes. No, said Hakimi, they (the operators of the Web site) come from Urmia and that’s something else. Her one-woman show is called “Belishna Noshan” – “In our language.”

Hakimi was the principal of the Yeshurun religious state elementary school in Pardes Hannah-Karkur, and when she retired five years ago, she decided to fulfill an old dream and went onstage with a show that revives the folklore of the past with a smile, here and there satirically, and all in Aramaic. The beginning was very modest, without any celebrity mannerisms, but in recent months she finds herself in the center of a major Aramaic awakening: She travels from city to city with her show, and attracts large audiences everywhere. She is told that more and more family celebrations are now being held in Aramaic, and this week she was invited to conduct a course in spoken Aramaic.

She feels as though she has extracted from the members of her ethnic group something that was hidden inside them, and perhaps until now they were embarrassed to reveal it, or neglected it and now are rediscovering it. Something of the kind has been happening for several years to Yiddish speakers, as part of the return to Judaism. Like most of the shows in Yiddish, Hakimi goes for nostalgia. One of her subjects is the traditional status of women, when the prevailing practice was “All glorious is the King’s daughter within the palace.” She levels criticism at modern feminism. We argued about that a little, in Hebrew; I assume that it sounds better in Aramaic.

Thanks for the link, Kobi!

(Note: the linked article includes all sorts of political/historical discussion that is bound to annoy certain LH readers; I hope they will recognize that I am blogging it solely for the linguistic/cultural information and ignore the rest, which I am not in any way endorsing.)

Update. Bulbul has posted some excellent material on the Mandaic variety of Aramaic.


  1. Speaking of Aramaic, are you familiar with this site:
    It’s run and contributed to by the same people who gave us Semitica Viva and other fascinating stuff published by the Harrassowitz Verlag in Wiesbaden and also includes some recordings of Jewish Neo-Aramaic from the region around lake Urmia (

  2. Aramaic is a language with a fascinating and very complex story. The Babylonians and the Persians used it as their official language, and afterward, it was mainly a Jewish language.
    I would take issue with that. Syriac, for example, is a Christian dialect of Aramaic (eastern Aramaic) and was once spoken and written from Palestine all the way to India. To this day there are Christians still speaking Aramaic in Syrian villages like Ma’lula.

  3. What has always impressed me is that the Kurdish language has survived under millennia of onslaught from powerhouse languages like Aramaic and Arabic.

  4. Syriac, for example, is a Christian dialect of Aramaic
    Yes, but it says “mainly,” not “exclusively,” and I think “mainly a Jewish language” is a fair summary of its post-Achaemenid history.

  5. Yes, but it says “mainly,” not “exclusively,” and I think “mainly a Jewish language” is a fair summary of its post-Achaemenid history.
    Post-Achaemenid and pre-Christian, yes. But the article omits the Christian-Syriac part in general, which, when it comes to history of Aramaic, is a big ommission.
    Note: I’m not trying to push any agenda here, just nitpicking :o)

  6. Hey, there’s nothing I like better than a good nitpick!

  7. I’m just waiting for someone to spoonerise ‘Turkish Kurds’.

  8. I studied some Aramaic (Modern Assyrian) in one of my classes last semester. Very interesting language. I knew some Arabic before & Farsi (Kabuli Dialect) is my mother tongue, so the connections and the mapping fun was endless. Too bad we didn’t have time to dive into too much of etymological history. We were too busy mapping Syntax & Phonology, not to complain though, I do love Syntax.

  9. There seems to be a confusion about which Kurds she is referring too. Is there some group called Kurds that speaks Aramaic, along with the real Kurds who speak urdish or whatever? This sounds as confusing as “Albanian” and “Caucasian Albanians”.
    A thought on the nitpick about “mainly” and “exclusively” – surely Aramaic was the dominanat language in the whole area for the whole population, and this continued after most people in the area converted to Christianity during Roman times right up until the area converted to Arabic. Throughout that whole period Jewish speakers of the language would certainly have been a minority.

  10. From what I know, Aramaic was more or less one of the dominant languages in the Middle East before Islam came on the scene. Also, the Aramaic that I studied a little was spoken mainly by the Christian Arabs of the Middle East.

  11. Correction, Christian Arabs of Syria, Iraq and area. I don’t know about Eygpt

  12. There seems to be a confusion about which Kurds she is referring too.
    Well, yes. It would be more fitting to refer to them as “Kurdistan Jews”, Kurdistan being a geographical, not ethnic/linguistic designation.

  13. Jim’s comment on the relative numbers of Christian and Jewish speakers of Aramaic is quite correct. Today, speakers of Christian Neo-Aramaic dialects far outnumber speakers of Jewish dialects.

  14. Siganus Sutor says

    Aramaic, a language used by Middle-East Jews or Christians (or Muslims)…
    To blur things a little bit more, we can have a look at the Samaritans. They are considered Jews by the State of Israel but not by the Jewish religious authorities. Their liturgical language is sometimes referred to as Samaritan Hebrew, sometimes as Samaritan Aramaic. And they have (or had) an alphabet of their own.

  15. Boy, the Middle East gets more complicated every time I turn around! Thanks for all the information, everyone.

  16. Throbert McGee says

    Does anyone know which dialect of Aramaic was used in Mel Gibson’s Passion movie? An Arabic-speaking acquaintance of mine went to see it when it was in theaters, and I remember that he remarked with some surprise at how much of the Aramaic dialogue he was able to understand.

  17. Whichever version it was, Mr Mcgee, I’m sure it wasn’t kosher!

  18. Boy, the Middle East gets more complicated every time I turn around!
    Noone’s brought them up yet, so I must resort to shameless self-promotion, all for the good of the assembled readership of LanguageHat :o) : there’s also Mandaic, another dialect of Aramaic.

  19. Siganus Sutor: good catch on the Samaritans.
    As for their script, they basically retained the one originally used by all Israelites, see for example the Siloe/Siloam inscription.
    Samaritan Hebrew and Samaritan Aramaic are, naturally, two different languages (Rudolf Macuch wrote a grammar of both Samaritan Aramaic and Hebrew). As reported by Abram Firkovich, by the second half of the 19th century most Samaritans used Arabic language and script almost exclusively (even their names were Arabic). The little they wrote in Hebrew, however, they wrote in Samaritan script

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