There are a handful of Aramaic passages in the Bible; notably in Daniel and Ezra. Since the writing system of these two was the same, how are the Aramaic sections identified?


3 Answers 3


The two languages are related (both are Northwest Semtic languages) and eventually shared a script. Hebrew, prior to the exile used its own script called Paleo-Hebrew. It was still used afterwards in isolated places and instances, but what we now call Aramaic Square replaced it for the most part. Though they share many common words and large pieces of grammar (noun states are the same and verbal stems are similar), there are differences.

It is these differences in grammar that allow us to tell them apart:

  1. The definite article differs between the two languages. In Hebrew, the definite article is prefixed to the noun as a he. In Aramaic, the definite article is attached to the end of the noun as an aleph.
  2. Aramaic has a particle "diy" that can be used in at least 5 ways (Hebrew does not use this until postexilic times and even then rarely).
    1. To mark the genitive - Daniel 4:23 "roots of the tree."
    2. As a particle of relation (who, which, that) - Dan 2:24 "whom the king had appointed."
    3. As the conjunction "as"- Dan 4:23 "And as it was commanded...".
    4. To function as opening quotation marks - Dan 2:24 "Said to him, 'I found...".
    5. As an idiom - Dan 2:29 "whatever will be".
  3. Aramaic uses "l" in 3 ways.
    1. As a preposition, "to, for" - Dan 3:20 "to the furnance."
    2. To mark the infinitive - Dan 3:20 "ordered to bind...".
    3. As the mark of the accusative - Dan 3:20 "to bind Shadrack." (Yes, it gets a lot of use in that verse.)
  4. Aramaic can use "diy" and "l" to mark that part of a construct chain is indefinite (in Biblical Hebrew, such a chain must be either all definite or all indefinite). Dan 6:15 "Remember, O King, that a law of the Medes and Persians.. does not change." The "a" comes from law being indefinite even though Medes and Persians is not (by definition, even without the article). However, the "l" prefixed to Medes tells us that the first part is not definite.
  5. The participle can be used in Aramaic in ways that Hebrew does not.
    1. With immediate future meaning "about to" Dan 4:22 "About to be driven."
    2. As a 'past tense' — very common in the phrase "answered and said."
  6. There are letter changes. Hebrew words with "sh" will often appear in Aramaic spelt with a "t." For example, Daniel 5:25 contains "mene, mene, teqel upharsin." "teqel" is the Aramaic spelling of "sheqel."
  7. Aramaic did not experience the Canaanite vowel shift from a to o that Hebrew did.
  • 1
    amazon.com/Introduction-Aramaic-Second-Resources-Biblical/dp/… is the textbook I used. But I would also carefully consider this one: amazon.com/Basics-Biblical-Aramaic-Complete-Annotated/dp/…
    – Frank Luke
    Jan 10, 2013 at 3:42
  • E.Y. Kutscher's article on Aramaic from the Encyclopedia Judaica (2006) is available by permission at the Jewish Virtual Library site. Hefty.
    – Dɑvïd
    Mar 17, 2014 at 0:13
  • On the whole, not bad. But why do you say “the definite article changes”. Changes from ha- to –ā ? What makes you think the Hebrew construction is older? Aramaic is not a “changed” form of Hebrew, but a different Semitic language.
    – fdb
    Mar 19, 2014 at 19:47
  • @fdb, by changes, I did not mean to indicate that either was older than the other or that one was a modified form of the other.
    – Frank Luke
    Mar 19, 2014 at 19:56
  • But that is what "changes" means in English.
    – fdb
    Mar 19, 2014 at 19:59

They are both west Semitic and have a very obvious shared root language. They also use the same script. However, there are a handful of differences in the way they developed. For instance, the long 'a' was retained in Aramaic but changed to a long 'o' in Hebrew in some words.

Also, where we see a tav in Aramaic, there is often a shin in Hebrew. This is likely because the original "hl" (voiceless L) pronunciation of shin shifted to "th" in some areas and "sh" in others.

  • 1
    You mean Semitic /th/. This becomes /t/ in Aramaic and /sh/ in Hebrew and Akkadian. The voiceless lateral (your "hl") becomes /s/ in Aramaic and "sin" in Hebrew.
    – fdb
    Mar 16, 2014 at 21:44

Hebrew and Aramaic are both West Semitic languages with common ancestry in Phoenician and Canaanite roots. Hebrew is about 200 years older, and based on a Canaanite dialect spoken around Jerusalem. Aramaic originated in Damascus, Syria, not Assyria which is modern day Iraq. Aramaic was used by the conquering Assyrians and Persians in their occupied lands because it was easier to teach than their own languages. Hebrew stopped being spoken and written after the Exile. Aramaic became the lingua franca. Later replaced by Greek.

Ezra's copyists transferred the Hebrew content of the OT to newer manuscripts with Aramaic script! But everyone spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew!

Torah was recopied during Ezra's time using a different script. Different reasons are given for the change:

  • the change of script had nothing to do with the "Samaritans", but was a purely practical measure because after living for 70 years in Babylon the people had become used to reading ashuri script and couldn't read the old ivri script any more.

  • The original script was Ashuri script, it was the holy script with which the first Tablets were inscribed and also the Torah-scroll that was kept in the Holy of Holies, but never used for mundane purposes. Torahs written for mass study and synagoge use were written in Ivri script, out of reverence for the holy. Only a few sages passed on the tradition of the Ashuri script. The people didn't even know of its existence. That's why when the "handwriting on the wall" appeared not even the king's Jewish advisors could read it because it was written in Ashuri, only Daniel could. Then it became known that there was an ancient truly Jewish script that had become forgotten. The people were anxious to renew this link with the giving of Torah. And that's why Ezra taught it to them and they choose to use it in all their sacred writings from that time on.


  • As of this question being updated, this is the best answer.
    – Dan
    Mar 16, 2014 at 21:49
  • 1
    Dan, do you actually know any Aramaic? How do you know if this is the best answer? Hebrew is "older" than Aramaic? Aramaic originated in Damascus? It was written in "Ashuri" (Assyrian? Cuneiform?) script?
    – fdb
    Mar 16, 2014 at 22:06
  • 1
    The oldest known Aramaic texts date from c. 850BCE. While the evidence implies that Hebrew was in use at that time and before, I'm not aware of any Hebrew texts older than that, so I'm not sure on what basis you can claim that Hebrew is 200 years older than Aramaic.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 16, 2014 at 22:36
  • The so-called "Gezer Calendar" is still generally thought of as "Hebrew", and from the 10th C. If of interest, Huehnergard & Hackett, "Hebrew and Aramaic Lanugages" in Barton (ed) The Biblical World (Routledge, 2002), vol. 2, pp. 3-24 is accessible and reliable, comparing Hebrew and Aramaic. Also, A. Rubin, "Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages" Lang & Lit Compass 2 (2008) 61-84 is recent, relevant, expert, and online. See also Brock's 1999 "Aramaic Handout". FWIW.
    – Dɑvïd
    Mar 19, 2014 at 23:44
  • 1
    We linguists do not ever talk about one language being “older” than another (unless they are stages of the same language). All languages are equally old. You can, however, say that language A is attested at an earlier time than language B. This is a measure of the history of writing, not of any intrinsic oldness of the two languages.
    – fdb
    Mar 21, 2014 at 12:43

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