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An Introduction to the Aramaic Alphabet

Categories Online Courses Old Testament

Most Bible readers wouldn’t be surprised to hear that most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but it might surprise them to find out just how much of the Old Testament is written in Aramaic. Old Testament passages written in Aramaic include:

  • Genesis 31:47
  • Jeremiah 10:11
  • Ezra 4:8-6:18
  • Ezra 7:12-26
  • Daniel 2:4-7:28

The Zondervan Academic online course Basics of Biblical Aramaic introduces you to the Aramaic language so that you can use it to better understand and teach God's Word. Video lectures and exercises accompany each lesson’s instruction, providing a rich, interactive experience that goes well beyond a stand-alone textbook. Learning to read the 269 verses of Aramaic in the Old Testament has never been easier!

The following introduction to the Aramaic alphabet is adapted from this course.

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Learn to read the Aramaic text of the Bible
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The Aramaic alphabet

The Aramaic alphabet is identical to the Hebrew alphabet. It consists of twenty-three consonants, and it is written from right to left. For the purpose of review, this alphabet is presented below.

CONSONANT NAME    PRONUNCIATION
א Alef    (silent)
ב Bet    b as in boy
ג Gimel    g as in God
ד Dalet    d as in day
ה He    h as in hay
ו Waw    w as in wow
ז Zayin    z as in Zion
ח Chet ch as in Bach
ט Tet    t as in toy
י Yod    y as in yes
כ Kaf    k as in king
ל Lamed    l as in lion
מ Mem    m as in mother
נ Nun    n as in now
ס Samek    s as in sin
ע Ayin    (silent)
פ Pe    p as in pastor
צ Tsade    ts as in boots
ק Qof    k as in king
ר Resh    r as in run
שׂ Sin    s as in sin
שׁ Shin    sh as in ship
ת Taw    t as in toy

Aramaic final forms

Like Hebrew, five of the Aramaic consonants have final forms. Remember, when one of these letters occurs at the end of a word, it is written differently than when it appears at the beginning or in the middle of a word. The changing of a letter’s form does not change its pronunciation. The five final forms are listed below.

REGULAR FORM FINAL FORM EXAMPLE TRANSLATION
כ ך מֶ֫לֶךְ king
מ ם יוֹם day
נ ן שְׁמַ֫יִן heaven
פ ף כְּסַף money, silver
צ ץ קְרַץ charge, accusation

Begadkephat letters

Like Hebrew, six of the Aramaic consonants have two possible pronunciations. These are the so-called begadkephat consonants (בּגּדּכּפּתּ). To distinguish between the two pronunciations, a dot called a Daghesh Lene is inserted into the consonant. The presence of the Daghesh Lene indicates a hard pronunciation, and its absence denotes a soft pronunciation. A Daghesh Lene will only appear in begadkephat letters.

BEGADKEPHAT LETTER     PRONUNCIATION
בּ     b as in boy
ב     v as in vine
גּ     g as in God
ג     gh as in aghast
דּ     d as in day
ד     dh as in the
כּ     k as in king
כ     ch as in Bach
פּ     p as in pastor
פ     ph as in alphabet
תּ     t as in toy
ת     th as in thin

Guttural consonants in Aramaic

The Aramaic gutturals are identical to the Hebrew gutturals. The four main guttural consonants are א, ע, ה, and ח. The consonant ר is considered a semi-guttural. It will not double with Daghesh Forte (like a guttural), but it may appear with Vocal Shewa (unlike a guttural).

Consonantal variation in Aramaic

So far, everything about the Hebrew alphabet has applied to the Aramaic alphabet system. There is, however, one interesting point of variation that requires our attention. This variation occurs at the level of phonetic representation (how words sound).

At times, some of the Aramaic words that share a common Hebrew root may be spelled, at the consonantal level, with slight variation. A knowledge of the possible changes will help you to see a connection between these two Semitic dialects and aid in your memorization and recall of Aramaic vocabulary. Some of the more common types of variation are presented below with examples. You will also observe variations in vocalization or vowel patterns.

  1. Hebrew ז may be represented in Aramaic by ד.
HEBREW   ARAMAIC   TRANSLATION
זָהָב   דְּהַב   gold
זָבַח   דְּבַח   to sacrifice
  1. Hebrew צ may be represented in Aramaic by ט.
HEBREW   ARAMAIC   TRANSLATION
קַ֫יִץ   קַ֫יִט   summer
צוּר   טוּר   mountain
  1. Hebrew צ may be represented in Aramaic by ע.
HEBREW   ARAMAIC   TRANSLATION
אֶ֫רֶץ   אַרְעָה   land, earth
עֵץ   אָע   tree

On one occasion, in Jer 10:11, the Aramaic noun אַרְעָה is spelled אַרְקָה, with ק in the third root letter position. This spelling variation preserves another phonetic option that derives from proto-Semitic and it is well represented in Old Aramaic (cf. Steinmann, 292; Johns, 6).

The Hebrew noun עֵץ should have been spelled as עָע in Aramaic, with Hebrew צ represented by Aramaic ע in the second root letter position. The shift from ע to א in the first root letter position (אָע) was a secondary development in Aramaic.

  1. Hebrew שׁ may be represented in Aramaic by ת.
HEBREW   ARAMAIC   TRANSLATION
שׁוֹר   תּוֹר   bull
יָשַׁב   יְתִב   to dwell

In addition to the types of possible variations detailed above, certain Aramaic consonants appear to be used interchangeably, principally א and ה, and שׂ and ס. A few examples appear below by way of illustration.

  1. The consonants א and ה are sometimes used interchangeably.
OPTION 1   OPTION 2   TRANSLATION
לָא   לָה   no, not
נַהֲרָא   נַהֲרָה   the river [3]

In Hebrew, the definite article is ּ הַ (He-Pathach-Daghesh Forte) and it appears as a prefix on the word it determines. In Aramaic, the definite article is א ָQamets-Alef) and it appears as a suffix on the word it determines.

  1. The consonants שׂ and ס are sometimes used interchangeably.
OPTION 1   OPTION 2   TRANSLATION
אַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתְּא   אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא   Artaxerxes, Artaxerses
שַׂבְּכָא   סַבְּכָא   harp

Summary Vowel Chart: Long, Short, and Reduced Vowels

  A E I O U
Long בָּ

Qamets

בֵּ

Tsere

בֹּ

Holem

   
Short בַּ

Pathach

בֶּ

Seghol

בִּ

Hireq

בָּ

Qamets Hatuf

בֻּ

Qibbuts

Reduced בֲּ

Hateph Pathach

בֱּ

Hateph Seghol

בֳּ
Hateph Qamets
   

Learn more about biblical languages

If you’re interested in learning more basics of biblical languages, check out the following posts:

Learn to read the Aramaic text of the Bible
Sign up for the Basics of Biblical Aramaic online course

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