Description by Yona Sabar and Alan Niku
Lecture on Jewish Neo-Aramaic by Dr. Geoffrey Khan
The first Diaspora Jewish language was the Middle Eastern lingua franca, Aramaic. Once widespread, this language survived two millennia in mountain-dwelling Jewish and Christian communities of the Middle East. Over thousands of years, Old Aramaic varieties, like Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, and Rabbinic Aramaic, evolved into several dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic spoken by Jews from Zakho, Iraq in the west, to Bijar, Iran in the east.
While Jewish Aramaic texts from the ancient world and some of the Tanakh—including large parts of the Books of Ezra and Daniel—have been read for generations, the thousands of years between these written varieties and the varieties spoken in modern times have made the dialects very different from each other. Varieties in the Talmud, Targum, Zohar, and the medieval song Had Gadya are perhaps slightly closer to Jewish Neo-Aramaic, but they still differ greatly. Jews living in the mountains in what is today Kurdistan spoke Aramaic along with their Christian Assyrian neighbors, though the two dialect streams grew apart to the point that Christian Neo-Aramaic and Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects are not considered mutually intelligible.
With the Islamic conquests in the 7th century, Aramaic was quickly superseded by Arabic, which influenced all of the languages of the region, including Jewish Neo-Aramaic. With each wave of persecution of Jews in the Middle East from the Mongols to the Timurids, Jews from Iran, Iraq, and Syria fled to the mountains and joined the pre-existing communities. These
Names of language
Aramaic, Arami, Judeo-Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic, Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Lishanid Targum, Targumic, Lishana Deni, Lishan Didan, Lishanid Noshan, Lishana Noshan, Hulaulá, Lishan Hozaye, Jabali, Kordi Yahudi, Musayekan
Territories where it was/is spoken
originated: Aram, Assyria
heyday: Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria)
today: Israel, United States
Estimated # speakers
Hebrew alphabet with some modification
Mostly translations (tafsirs) of Bible, midrashim, and piyyutim
Modern Semitic/Aramaic dialects
communities spoke Aramaic, which in Arabic is referred to as “Jabali”, or “language of the mountains.” By this point, Jewish Aramaic was no longer used as a written language—it was replaced by Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian, both of which had vast literatures throughout the Middle East. Living in close proximity to Kurdish people, some dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic absorbed significant vocabulary and grammatical features from Indo-European languages such as Gorani, Sorani Kurdish, and later, the official language of Iran, Persian. Along with the ancient Akkadian influences on the language, Jewish Neo-Aramaic became a unique set of dialects, both similar and dissimilar to their Jewish Aramaic ancestor languages.
Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect Map, Coghill (2016)
By the modern era, Jews had preserved Aramaic in many unique forms. In the western part of the Kurdistan region, Jews from Zakho and Amedi spoke forms of Jewish Neo-Aramaic like Lishana Deni, which is quite similar to the dialect of their Christian neighbors. Lishanid Noshan, another dialect spoken around the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, displays phonetic changes unusual in the western dialects. Speakers of these dialects were largely displaced after World War II, along with the vast majority of Jews throughout Iraq in the 20th century.
In the Northeast of the Jewish Neo-Aramaic speaking region, Jews from Urmia and its surrounding areas spoke a version of the language more influenced by the Turkish and Azeri of their Iranian Azerbaijan surroundings than by the Kurdish influences to the west and south. This dialect, known as Lishan Didan (“our language”), has been recorded extensively in the music of Nissan Aviv, including in his Lishan Didan version of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. The dialect of Urmia, whose Jews call themselves “Nash Didan” (“our people”), is quite different from the Christian Neo-Aramaic of Urmia and has more influence from Turkic languages than other dialects. Many speakers were displaced from southeastern Turkey around World War I, and many more left during and after the Iranian Revolution.
Further south and east, in Iranian Kurdistan, Jews from Sanandaj, Bijar, Saqqez, Kerend, and the surrounding areas speak a dialect known as Hulaulá (“Jewish”) or Lishana Noshan (“our language”). This dialect is particularly affected by phonetic changes and is less intelligible with western Jewish dialects and quite unintelligible with all Christian dialects. The Jewish dialect with the most living speakers, due in large part to the later emigration of communities in Iran, Hulaulá has deep influences from the literary Gorani dialect of Kurdish, and from the local dialect of Sorani Kurdish. During the 20th century, due to language policies and the integration of these Jews into Tehran and into other countries, Hulaulá was also significantly influenced by Persian, especially Jewish Persian. This can be seen in the loss of many verbs that exist in other dialects, replaced in Hulaulá with Indo-Iranian compound verbs that reflect their Persian and Kurdish equivalents, but with Aramaic vocabularies transposed on them. Other Persian and Kurdish influences on some dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic include the loss of gendered pronouns.
Besides this mixed vocabulary and grammar, Hulaulá displays unique phonetic changes that render it difficult or incomprehensible to speakers of other Aramaic dialects. Hulaulá represents the easternmost frontier of native Semitic-speaking Jews, beyond which local populations spoke Judeo-Median and Persian dialects.
Phonetically, Jewish varieties of Neo-Aramaic have unusual changes. For example, while the th/dh/t/d sounds are often expressed with a “z” or “s” sound in western dialects, eastern dialects express them as an “L” sound. For example, the Aramaic word for “hand”, ida, remains ida in most western dialects and in Lishan Didan, but is iza in Zakho and ila in Erbil and in Hulaulá. The word for house, beta, is besa in Zakho, and in many Christian dialects, but becomes bela in Lishan Didan, Lishanid Noshan, and Hulaulá.
Contact with Hebrew
All dialects of Jewish Neo-Aramaic are significantly influenced by Hebrew as well. As in other Jewish languages, many Judaic and even some secular terms are borrowed from Hebrew, rather than being inherited from traditional Jewish Aramaic. One example is the Hebrew עולם olam 'world,' rather than Aramaic עלמא 'alma. The Hebrew loanwords were one of the major features that distinguished Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects from their Christian counterparts, in addition to minor or quite major grammatical differences. In addition, the Jewish Neo-Aramaic texts are written in the Hebrew alphabet, like most Jewish languages, but the spelling is phonetic, rather than etymological (e.g. כמשא 'five', rather than חמשא, and שואא 'seven', instead of שבעא).
While written varieties of these dialects are rare, the known examples are written in the Hebrew alphabet. The oldest literature in Jewish (and Christian!) Neo-Aramaic is from ca. 1600 C.E. Additional texts were written in the 19th and 20th centuries, including poems, Hebrew-Neo-Aramaic dictionaries, commentaries on the Tanakh, hymns (piyyutim), and translations of the Torah and midrashim (homiletic literature). New literary activity in this language is virtually non-existent. Most Neo-Aramaic-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, and their language was superseded by Hebrew.
Speakers of Jewish Neo-Aramaic have used a variety of terms to refer to their language, which varied from region to region and reflected internal dialectal differences. Conscious of the historical connection of the language with earlier literary forms of Jewish Aramaic, some refer to the language as lišanət targum ‘the language of the Targum.’ Many refer to their language with the aforementioned ‘our language’ in their particular region’s dialect. Some names reflect the consciousness of it being a specifically Jewish language— reflecting the phonetic changes between dialects, Zakho’s Jews sometimes refer to their dialect as hozaye (“Jewish”), equivalent to Hulaulá. In old Aramaic, this word is yhudhayutha (related to the Hebrew word for Judaism, yahadut).
Today, the majority of remaining Jewish Neo-Aramaic speakers live in Israel and the United States. Though younger generations no longer speak it, some have shown renewed interest in learning Hulaulá and even making new contemporary music featuring the language, like in Israeli pop band HULAULA’s groundbreaking music videos, "Ahu Khanem" and "Aramaic Lesson." In addition, several organizations have recorded elderly speakers, which you can view below.
Until these recent efforts, there was limited public knowledge of the existence of Jewish languages besides Yiddish and Ladino. Even among Jewish communities in Israel and Iran, Jewish Neo-Aramaic was constantly minimized—this language was often referred to as Kurdi or Kordi, reflecting that Jews in Iran and Israel thought the Jews from Kurdistan were speaking the same language as their Muslim neighbors. With renewed interest in Jews of the Middle East, the restoration and resurrection of particular Jewish languages like Hulaulá and other Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects can serve as an example of the universal need for cultural preservation, especially as underrepresented cultures begin to receive recognition. This work is particularly urgent—many Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects, like Barzani Jewish Neo-Aramaic and Betanure Jewish Neo-Aramaic, have already gone extinct. But the fact that some native speakers of Hulaulá, Lishan Didan, Lishanid Noshan, and Lishana Deni are still alive gives us the opportunity to illuminate this language among students of Jewish culture, even if places like Sanandaj, Urmia, Zakho, Erbil, Slemani, and Rawanduz are virtually devoid of Jewish populations. For young Jews who may never get to visit their ancestral home in Kurdistan, meet their grandparents, or feel connected to a place culturally or physically far from their current homes, the emerging ability to learn this language can connect them to Judaism in the way their Ashkenazi friends do by learning Yiddish or eating European Jewish foods. Creating new songs and culture in this language is only the first step.
Post-vernacular engagement by Alon Azizi and Adi Kadussi, Israeli descendants of Jewish Neo-Aramaic speakers
Listen to the Sounds of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
A brief introduction to Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Harav Eliyahu reciting Bereshit in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Interviews and theater show in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Theater show in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Shimon Cohen, Aziz Barazani, and Yosef Cohen speaking the Erbil dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Song and interviews in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Interviews in Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Lishan Didan lullaby performed in song
Translations of Torah into Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Oral history videos for Lishana Deni (dialect from Zakho, Iraq), Lishana Noshan (Takab, Iran), and Lishan Didan (Urmia, Iran) were filmed, transcribed, and translated as part of a grant with the Wikimedia Foundation, administered by the Jewish Language Project and Wikitongues. You can learn more about this grant here.
Rakhma speaking the Lishana Deni (Zakho, Iraq) dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Rahel speaking the Lishan Didan (Urmia, Iran) dialect of Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Recordings of Songs in Jewish Neo-Aramaic, c. 1980s-1990s
Facebook group for Sanandaj Hulaula Lishana Noshan
YouTube channel about Jewish Neo-Aramaic