Thursday, March 24, 2016

Is Aramaic the oldest living language?

ARAMAIC WATCH: Assyrians: Speaking the Oldest Living Language of the Middle East (Eden Naby,, via AINA). This headline requires considerable qualification, but the article itself presents the claim in a more nuanced way:
Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world. Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering.

The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian's Wall.

With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it.

At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan).
It is more or less fair to say that Aramaic is the oldest Middle Eastern language that has both an unbroken written tradition and an unbroken tradition of being a spoken native language. Arabic is comparably old, but its written tradition only begins in late antiquity. (If you want to factor in the various now-extinct ancient Arabian dialects in their various now-extinct writing systems, the tradition goes much further back, comparably to the Aramaic tradition.) Hebrew is comparably old and, contrary to what you may have heard, has been in continuous use up to the present. It has a comparably old, unbroken written and liturgical tradition, but it was not a native spoken language between (at latest) the early centuries CE and around a century ago. (Last sentence revised for accuracy.)