Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

For the ancient Assyrian dialect of Akkadian, see Akkadian language.
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic
ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Ātūrāyā, ܣܘܪܝܬ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Sūrët, Āshuri, Suryāyā, Sooreth

Sūrët in written Syriac
(Madnkhaya script)
Pronunciation [surɛt], [surɛθ]
Native to Iraq, Syria, Iran
Region Northern Iraq, Hakkari (Turkey), Urmia (Iran)
Native speakers
232,300 (1994)[1]
Dialects Urmian, Iraqi Koine, Tyari, Jilu, Nochiya, Barwari, Baz and Gawar
Language codes
ISO 639-3 aii
Glottolog assy1241[2]

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, or Assyrian, is a Northeastern Neo-Aramaic[3][4] language spoken by an estimated 200,000 people[1] throughout a large region stretching from the plain of Urmia in northwestern Iran, to the Nineveh plains, and the Irbil, Mosul, Kirkuk and Duhok regions in northern Iraq, together with the Al Hasakah region of northeastern Syria, and formerly parts of southeastern Turkey.[5] In recent years, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic has spread throughout the Assyrian diaspora.[6]

Speakers of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo are ethnic Assyrians and are descendants of the ancient Assyrian inhabitants of Northern Mesopotamia.[7][8][9][10][11] Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is the largest speaking Neo-Aramaic group (232,000 speakers), followed by Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (206,000 speakers) and Turoyo (112,000 speakers).[12]

Despite the terms Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic indicating a separate religious (or even ethnic) identity, both languages and their native speakers originate from, and are indigenous to, the same Upper Mesopotamian region (which was Assyria between the 25th century BC and 7th century AD).[3] Most speakers are members of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is closely related to Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, both evolving from the same distinct Syriac language which evolved in Assyria[13] between the 5th century BC and 1st century AD.[14] There is also some Akkadian vocabulary and influence in the language. Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is written from right to left, and it uses the Madnhāyā version of the Syriac alphabet.[15][16]

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is, to a significant extent, mutually intelligible with Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and, to a moderate degree, with Senaya, Lishana Deni and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic (which are, at times, considered Assyrian dialects). It is partially intelligible with Lishan Didan, Hulaulá and Lishanid Noshan.[17][18] Its mutual intelligibility with Turoyo is rather limited.[19]


Inscriptional Pahlavi text from Shapur III at Taq-e Bostan, 4th century. Pahlavi script is derived from the Aramaic script that was used under the Achaemenid rule.

Aramaic was the language of commerce, trade and communication and became the vernacular language of Assyria in classical antiquity.[20][21][22][23] Aramaic writing has been found as far north as Hadrians Wall in Ancient Britain, in the form of inscriptions in Aramaic, made by Assyrian and Aramean soldiers serving in the Roman Legions in northern England during the 2nd century AD.[24]

The Syriac language had evolved from Imperial Aramaic, an Akkadian infused dialect introduced as the lingua franca of Assyria and the Neo Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-Pileser III in the 8th century BC. The term Syrian and thus its derivative Syriac, had originally been 9th century BC Indo-Anatolian and Greek corruptions of Assyria, and specifically meant only Assyria until the 3rd century BC, after which the Seleucid Greeks also applied the term to The Levant and its largely Aramean and Phoenician inhabitants.[25]

Syriac began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Imperial Aramaic in Assyria-northern Mesopotamia, an Akkadian influenced version of the Old Aramaic language which was introduced as the lingua franca of the Neo Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC)[26] The first evidence of such dialects emerged in Assyria, and begin to influence the written Imperial Aramaic from the 5th century BC. After the conquest of Assyria, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects gradually lost their status as imperial languages but continued to flourish as lingua francas alongside Ancient Greek.[27]

By the 1st century AD, Akkadian was extinct, although some loaned vocabulary still survives in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic to this day.[28][29] The Neo-Aramaic languages are ultimately descended from Old Aramaic, the lingua franca in the later phase of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, displacing the East Semitic Assyrian dialect of Akkadian. The Neo-Aramaic languages evolved from Middle Aramaic by the 13th century. Following the Achaemenid conquest of Assyria under Darius I, the Aramaic language was adopted as the "vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages."[30][31]

The Assyrian Empire resorted to a policy of deporting troublesome conquered peoples (predominantly fellow Semitic Aramean tribes as well as many Jews) into the lands of Mesopotamia. By the 6th century, the indigenous and originally Akkadian speaking Semites of Assyria and Babylonia, spoke Akkadian infused dialects of Eastern Aramaic, which still survive among the Assyrian people to this day. Consequently, during the Persian rule of Assyria, Aramaic gradually became the main language spoken by the Assyrians.[32] Even before the Empire fell, the Assyrians had made the language the lingua franca of its empire, capable of speaking both Akkadian and Aramaic.[32][32]

An 11th-century Syriac manuscript.

There is evidence that the adoption of Syriac, the language of the Assyrian people, was led by missionaries. Much literary effort was put into the production of an authoritative translation of the Bible into Syriac, the Peshitta (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ Pšīṭtā). At the same time, Ephrem the Syrian was producing the most treasured collection of poetry and theology in the Syriac language. By the 3rd century AD, churches in Edessa began to use Syriac as the language of worship and the language became the literary and liturgical language of many churches in the Fertile Crescent. Syriac was the lingua franca of the Middle East until 900 AD, when it was superseded by Arabic.

The differences with the Assyrian Church of the East led to the bitter Nestorian schism in the Syriac-speaking world. As a result, Syriac developed distinctive western and eastern varieties. Although remaining a single language with a high level of comprehension between the varieties, the two employ distinctive variations in pronunciation and writing system, and, to a lesser degree, in vocabulary.

The Mongol invasions of the 13th century, and the religiously motivated massacres of Assyrian Christians by Tamurlane further contributed to the rapid decline of the language. In many places outside of northern Mesopotamia (the Assyrian homeland), even in liturgy, it was replaced by Arabic.[33]

Instability throughout the Middle East over the past century has led to a worldwide diaspora of Assyrian Aramaic-speakers, with many speakers now living abroad, such as in North America, Australia or in Europe. Despite this, the Assyrian homeland still has sizable Assyrian Aramaic-speaking communities, particularly Mosul, Irbil, Kirkuk, Dohuk and Hasakah.

Just as many ethnic groups take pieces of the surrounding language into their own, Assyrians often use words in Farsi, Arabic, Turkish, etc., depending on where they live or where their family came from, while speaking in their own Neo-Aramaic dialect.



One of the Amarna letters in Assyrian cuneiform, 14th century B.C.E.
Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer, 3100–3000 BC

The original Mesopotamian writing system (believed to be the world's oldest) was derived around 3600 BC from this method of keeping accounts. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, the Mesopotamians were using a triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay to record numbers.[34]

Around 2700 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of spoken Sumerian. About that time, Mesopotamian cuneiform became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables and numbers. This script was adapted to another Mesopotamian language, the East Semitic Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) around 2600 BC. With the adoption of Aramaic as the 'lingua franca' of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC), Old Aramaic was also adapted to Mesopotamian cuneiform. The last cuneiform scripts in Akkadian discovered thus far date from the 1st century AD.[35]

The Syriac script is a writing system primarily used to write the Syriac language from the 1st century AD.[36] It is one of the Semitic abjads directly descending from the Aramaic alphabet and shares similarities with the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and the traditional Mongolian alphabets. The alphabet consists of 22 letters, all of which are consonants. It is a cursive script where some, but not all, letters connect within a word.[37]

The sixth beatitude (Matthew 5:8) from an East Syriac Peshitta.
ܛܘܼܒܲܝܗܘܿܢ ܠܐܲܝܠܹܝܢ ܕܲܕ݂ܟܹܝܢ ܒܠܸܒ̇ܗܘܿܢ܄ ܕܗܸܢ݂ܘܿܢ ܢܸܚܙܘܿܢ ܠܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ܂
Ṭūḇayhōn l-ʾaylên da-ḏḵên b-lebbhōn: d-hennōn neḥzōn l-ʾalāhā.
'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.'
"Amen" in contemporary Syriac script (Madnhāyā).

Modern development

The oldest and classical form of the alphabet is ʾEsṭrangēlā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ); the name is thought to derive from the Greek adjective στρογγύλη (strongylē, 'rounded'),[38][39] Although ʾEsṭrangēlā is no longer used as the main script for writing Syriac, it has received some revival since the 10th century.

When Arabic began to be the dominant spoken language in the Fertile Crescent, texts were often written in Arabic with the Syriac script. Malayalam was also written with Syriac script and was called Suriyani Malayalam.[40]

The Madnhāyā version formed as a form of shorthand developed from the Syriac alphabet and progressed further as handwriting patterns changed. The Madnhāyā version also possesses vowel markings to help foreigners learn and read Syriac. Other names for the script include Swāḏāyā, "conversational", often translated as "contemporary", reflecting its use in writing modern Neo-Aramaic.[41][42]

Latin alphabet

Main article: Syriac Latin alphabet

In the 1930s, following the state policy for minority languages of the Soviet Union, a Latin alphabet was developed and some material published.[43] Despite the fact that this innovation did not displace the Syriac script, the usage of the Latin script in the Assyrian community has become rather widespread due to the Assyrian diaspora's settlement mostly being in Europe and the anglophone, where the Latin script dominates.[44]


ܐ    ܒ    ܓ    ܕ    ܗ    ܘ
ܙ    ܚ    ܛ    ܝ    ܟܟ    ܠ
ܡܡ    ܢܢ    ܣ    ܥ    ܦ
ܨ    ܩ    ܪ    ܫ    ܬ

Three letters act as matres lectionis: rather than being a consonant, they indicate a vowel. ʾĀlap̄ (ܐ), the first letter, represents a glottal stop, but it can also indicate a vowel at the beginning or the end of a word. The letter Waw (ܘ) is the consonant w, but can also represent the vowels o and u. Likewise, the letter Yōḏ (ܝ) represents the consonant y, but it also stands for the vowels i and e. In addition to foreign sounds, a marking system is used to distinguish qūššāyā, 'hard' letters) from rūkkāḵā, 'soft' letters). The letters Bēṯ, Gāmal, Dālaṯ, Kāp̄, , and Taw, all plosives ('hard'), are able to be spirantized into fricatives ('soft').[45]

The system involves placing a single dot underneath the letter to give its 'soft' variant and a dot above the letter to give its 'hard' variant (though, in modern usage, no mark at all is usually used to indicate the 'hard' value).[46] Furthermore, the script has 22 consonants and 3 vowels.[47]



Assyrian Neo-Aramaic consonant phonemes
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn
plain emp.
Nasal m n
Stop pb td kɡ q ʔ
Fricative sibilant sz ʃ
non-sibilant f θð x(ɣ) (ʕ) h
Approximant w l j
Trill r


Vowel phonemes of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (Standard Urmian/Iraqi Koine) are as follows:[53]

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ ə o
Open æ a ɑ

Two basic diphthongs exist, namely /eɪ̯/ and /aw/. For some words, many dialects have converted them to e and o respectively.

Phonetics of Iraqi Koine


Most Assyrian Neo-Aramaic nouns are built from triliteral roots. Nouns carry grammatical gender (masculine or feminine), they can be either singular or plural in number (a very few can be dual) and can exist in one of three grammatical states (somewhat akin to case in Indo-European languages). The states should not be confused with grammatical cases in other languages.

Adjectives always agree in gender and number with the nouns that ty modify. Adjectives are in the absolute state if they are predicative but agree with the state of their noun if attributive.[58]

Most Syriac verbs are built on triliteral roots as well. Finite verbs carry person, grammatical gender (except in the first person) and number, as well as tense and conjugation. The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive and the active and passive participles. The emphatic state became the ordinary form of the noun, and the absolute and construct states were relegated to certain stock phrases (for example, ܒܪ ܐܢܫܐ/ܒܪܢܫܐ, bar nāšā, "man, person", literally "son of man").[59]

The present tense is usually marked with the participle followed by the subject pronoun. However, such pronouns are usually omitted in the case of the third person. This use of the participle to mark the present tense is the most common of a number of compound tenses that can be used to express varying senses of tense and aspect.[60]


Unlike other Neo-Aramaic languages like Turoyo, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic has an extensive number of Iranian loanwords (namely Persian and Kurdish).[61][62] That is because of its close geographical proximity to those languages.


The distribution of the Syriac language in the Middle East and Asia
Post 2010, in Iraq, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic is mainly spoken in the Nineveh plains and the cities around Mosul, Duhok, Irbil and Kurkuk (magenta).

SIL Ethnologue distinguishes five dialect groups: Urmian, Northern, Central, Western, and Sapna, each with sub-dialects. Mutual intelligibility between the Assyrian dialects is as high as 80%–90%.

The Urmia dialect has become the prestige dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic after 1836, when that dialect was chosen by Justin Perkins, an American Presbyterian missionary, for the creation of a standard literary dialect of Assyrian. A second standard dialect derived from General Urmian known as "Iraqi Koine", developed in the 20th century.[63]

In 1852, Perkins' translation of the Bible into General Urmian was published by the American Bible Society with a parallel text of the classical Syriac Peshitta.[64][65]


Sample of the Urmian dialect, which has a Farsi tone to it. Notice the usage of /v/, /ui/ and the frequency of /ch/.
Sample of the Tyari dialect (voice by Alan George). Notice the usage of /θ/, /ð/ and /au/.
Sample of the Chaldean dialect - Which is considered its own language in some regards. Notice the usage of /ħ/ and /ʕ/, which makes it similar sounding to the Western Aramaic languages (voice by Bishop Amel Shamon Nona).

Iraqi Koine

Sample of the Iraqi Koine dialect (voice by Linda George). Notice how it combines the phonetic features of the Hakkari and Urmian dialects.

Iraqi Koine, also known as Refined Urmian and Standard Assyrian, is a compromise between the thicker rural accents of Hakkari and Nineveh Plains (listed above), and the prestigious dialect in Urmia. Iraqi Koine does not really constitute a new dialect, but an incomplete merger of dialects. Koine is more analogous to Urmian in terms of manner of articulation, place of articulation and its consonant cluster formations.[66]

During the First World War, many Assyrians living in Ottoman Turkey were forced from their homes, and many of their descendants now live in Iraq. The relocation has led to the creation of this dialect. Iraqi Koine was developed in the urban areas of Iraq (i.e. Baghdad, Basra, Habbaniya and Kirkuk), which became the meccas for the rural Assyrian population. By the end of the 1950s vast number of Assyrians started to speak Iraqi Koine. Today, Iraqi Koine is the predominant use of communication between the majority of the Assyrians and it is also used as the standard dialect in music and formal speech.[67]

To note, the emergence of the Koine didn't mean that the rest of the spoken dialects vanished. The Ashiret dialects were still active because some Assyrians remained in the rural areas and the fact that the first generation speakers who relocated in urban areas still maintained their native dialects. Elements of original Ashiret dialects can still be observed in Iraqi Koine, especially in that of older speakers.

Dialect continuum

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic has a rather slightly defined dialect continuum, starting from the Assyrian tribes in northern Iraq (i.e. Alqosh, Batnaya) and ending in Western Iran (Urmia). The dialects in Northern Iraq, such as those of Alqosh and Batnaya, would be minimally unintelligible to those in Western Iran.[66]

The dialects in Northern Iraq have a distinct phonetic system (such as the realization of /ħ/) and, as such, would be considered part of Chaldean Neo-Aramaic. Nearing the Iraqi-Turkey border, the Barwari and Tyari dialects are more "traditionally Assyrian" and would sound like those in the Hakkari province in Turkey. Furthermore, the Barwar and Tyari dialects are "transitional", acquiring both Assyrian and Chaldean phonetic features (though they don't use /ħ/).[67]

In Hakkari, going east (towards Iran), the Gawar, Jilu and Nochiya dialects would respectively begin to sound slightly distinct to the Tyari/Barwar dialects and more like the prestigious "Urmian" dialect in Urmia, Western Azerbaijan. The Urmian dialect, alongside Iraqi Koine, are considered to be Standard Assyrian. Though Iraqi Koine is more widespread and had thus become the more common standard dialect.[63]

Sample phrases

English Assyrian Neo-Aramaic
Hello (plural) Shlamalokhon
Love Khooba
Thank you Baseema (male)/Basimta (female)
How are you? Dakheet(oon)?
Who? Mani?
Father Baba
Mother Yemmah
Uncle Khaloowah (Maternal)/Mamoonah (Paternal)
Aunt Khalta (Maternal) / 'Amtah (Paternal)
Man/Human Nasha/Bar Nasha
Woman Bakhta
Boy Yalah/Oorza
Girl/Daughter Brata/Bratha
Children (Male/Mixed Group) Yaleh
Book Ktava/Ktawa
Go Khoosh/Si
Here Tama/Lakha
Come Ta/Hayo/Sha
Sun Shimsha
Moon Sahra
Star Kekhwa
Hand Eeda
Marriage Zuwagha/Gwarta
You Aht
Death Mota/Mawta
Money (plural) Zoozeh
Heart Leba
Dream Khulma
Village Matah/Mathah
See/Look (Kh)zee/Gasheq
Mirror Nora/Nawra
River Nara
Ocean Yama
Teacher Rabi (male)/Rabeeta (female)

See also


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  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Assyrian Neo-Aramaic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. 1 2 Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Northeastern Neo-Aramaic". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
  4. Blench, 2006. The Afro-Asiatic Languages: Classification and Reference List
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  9. From a lecture by J. A. Brinkman: "There is no reason to believe that there would be no racial or cultural continuity in Assyria, since there is no evidence that the population of Assyria was removed." Quoted in Efram Yildiz's "The Assyrians" Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, 13.1, pp. 22, ref 24
  10. Especially in view of the very early establishment of Christianity in Assyria and its continuity to the present and the continuity of the population, I think there is every likelihood that ancient Assyrians are among the ancestors of modern Assyrians of the area." Biggs, pp. 10
  11. Assyrians After Assyria, Parpola
    • MacDonald, Kevin (2004-07-29). "Socialization for Ingroup Identity among Assyrians in the United States". Paper presented at a symposium on socialization for ingroup identity at the meetings of the International Society for Human Ethology, Ghent, Belgium. Based on interviews with community informants, this paper explores socialization for ingroup identity and endogamy among Assyrians in the United States. The Assyrians descent from the population of ancient Assyria (founded in the 24th century BC), and have lived as a linguistic, political, religious, and ethnic minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 608 BC. Practices that maintain ethnic and cultural continuity in the Near East, the United States and elsewhere include language and residential patterns, ethnically based Christian churches characterized by unique holidays and rites, and culturally specific practices related to life-cycle events and food preparation. The interviews probe parental attitudes and practices related to ethnic identity and encouragement of endogamy. Results are being analyzed.
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External links

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
For a list of words relating to Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, see the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

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