Gabriel Afram’s logical fallacies:
The Jews remembered their adopted Aramaic script as ‘Assyrian’.
Ergo, we can call our original Aramaic script and language accordingly.
Johny Messo (22 April, 2006)
On March 27, 2006, I was sent an e-mail which contained a brief article
written by Gabriel Afram. The text which was signed by him in Aramaic,
Arabic and Swedish was accompanied with an English translation (by
Hikmet Ego) and a Turkish one (by Feyyaz Kerimo).
I have numbered the
paragraphs of the English translation (click
here) and based on this version I will make some critical remarks.
This way, readers can easily compare and judge the arguments of Gabriel
Afram and yours truly. (I assume that the text forms part of Gabriel
Afram’s Swedish-Assyrian dictionary, on which see
Most scholars credit the Sumerians, who were non-Semites, for having
invented writing in South-Mesopotamia in about 3,200 BC. Their cuneiform
(wedge-shaped) writing system was soon adopted and adapted by, among
others, the Semitic Akkadians. The first Akkadian texts go back to ca.
2,500 BC and some 500 years later two Akkadian dialects emerged and
evolved into two distinct languages. The language in the south of
Mesopotamia was called Babylonian, while the northern/central one was
named Assyrian. Assyriologists are agreed that the Assyrian tongue died
out centuries before the Christian era. Babylonian, however, seems to
have been preserved until at least the third century AD.
Assyrian and Aramaic, it is
true, belong to the same language family. But whereas Assyrian is
usually grouped as East Semitic, Aramaic can be classified as Northwest
Semitic. Unlike Assyrian, however, Aramaic still exists today among
various communities and in different varieties. Indeed, it is
universally accepted that Aramaic has been spoken and written,
uninterruptedly, over 3,000 years.
Gabriel Afram appears to
ignore these and similar
facts which are common knowledge to almost every student of
Semitic languages. Clearly, the insinuation that only “theologians
and clergy” employ and promote the name ‘Aramaic’ for the language he
wishes to call ‘Assyrian’ is pitifully wrong.
I fail to see any sound
reasons for renaming our Aramaic language, or any of its dialects,
‘Assyrian’ – a name that is already reserved for an ancient language.
If Mr. Afram honestly cared about avoiding confusions of names, he
should end precisely this kind of futile attempts which unnecessarily
mix up these two entirely different names and make matters even more
complicated than they already are. In what follows, I will try to
demonstrate that his own conclusions are illogical, unfounded and
If we assume, for argument’s sake, that the Assyrians were indeed proud
of their newly acquired Aramaic language, as Mr. Afram seems to imply,
how much more should the multitudes of Arameans, who outnumbered the
genuine Assyrians, have prided themselves with their sacred
mother tongue? Particularly in regard to the elevation of their national
language, which enjoyed an official
status in three successive empires, viz. Neo-Assyria (ca. 130 years),
Neo-Babylonia and Persia (ca. 200 years), for administrative,
diplomatic, commercial and even literary purposes.
Even the Neo-Assyrians
themselves always clearly distinguished their language from that of
their Aramean subjects. For instance, they could readily recognize an
“Aramaic letter” (egirtu Armītu) or an “Aramaic document” (nibzu
Armaya); obviously in contrast to their Assyrian counterparts.
Moreover, less than a century before Assyria’s collapse, after nearly
all the Aramean principalities had been overpowered and incorporated
into the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Assyrians had distinct professions for
the “Assyrian scribe” (tupšarru Aššuraya) and the “Aramean
scribe” (tupšarru Aramaya).
Mr. Afram is not clear as
to which Aramaic dialect(s) should be called ‘Assyrian’ and he seems to
be stuck in the Neo-Assyrian past. Is he really convinced that all the
written and spoken Aramaic dialects should be dubbed ‘Assyrian’, only
because Aramaic was the second official language in the final
hours of Assyria’s existence? Or does he want to confine the term
‘Assyrian’ solely to the Aramaic idiom of the Edessan area and/or the
dialects which are still in use among the Middle Eastern Christians? If
this being the case, then how will he validate his selective choice?
(Surely, none of these dialects descended directly from ‘Official
Aramaic’.) It is further known that Aramaic prevailed for a much longer
period of time practically as the main official state language
and on a far more intensive scale during the Persian epoch. Would it be
accurate or acceptable if someone would currently identify the Aramaic
language, or any of its offshoots, as ‘Persian’? I think not. Such
behavior is perhaps to be expected from ignorant or biased people, but
not from respected men like malpono Gabriel Afram.
We should always bear in
mind that because of the many migrations, conquests, annexations and
deportations of numerous Aramean tribes in Syro-Mesopotamia, Aramaic,
which had more advantages than Assyrian, would naturally become the
second standard language in Assyria. And seen from the perspective of
the subdued nations, like the Arameans, it is not astonishing that at
least some of them wanted to cast off “the yoke of Assyria,” as the
Assyrian kings described it. We know, for example, that shortly before
Assyria’s downfall there were massive revolts in the Assyrian-dominated
It is quite imaginable, therefore, that after the empire succumbed to
the rebellious nations, the liberated peoples, at least those who
resisted imperial assimilation and who had not been (fully) Assyrianized,
finally could renounce their formerly politicized Assyrian identity and
maintain their own identities.
What is more, the true
Assyrians were now faced with a serious dilemma. After the disruption of
their once powerful empire they were suddenly confronted with new
identity questions. For instance, where and how would they be able to
retain their native Assyrian identity in an anti-Assyrian milieu? Thus
it does not surprise me that even the real Assyrians, who were still
bilingual or only Assyrophone (who presumably also included the common
people), eventually relinquished no less than their mother
tongue shortly after their empire, which could no longer protect
and sponsor the Assyrian language, was forever eliminated as a political
power – a fate that befell other great nations too before and after
Assyria in Ancient Mesopotamia. It is precisely in this regard that the
Persians had learned a good lesson from the suicidal mistake of their
Assyrian predecessors, for they retained their mother tongue.
It should be clear that the
Aramaic language was never fully adopted by Assyrian society. And it is
wrong to hijack, as it were, the tongue of the Aramean people and
bequeath it to the Assyrian nation;
recall that the Assyrian language survived the fall of the Assyrian
Empire at least for a few decades.
This is not to deny that Aramaic evolved from a national into an
international language at around 700 BC. But neither should we overlook
the countless Aramean tribes who swarmed all over Assyria and for whom
Aramaic undoubtedly still remained the holy language of their
ancestors. In consideration to their inferior position (politically,
that is), each Aramean generation may very well have retold the
memorable, unique and inspiring story of the unforeseen
internationalization of their mother tongue. Surely, even after
this achievement it still remained their native language, as it
always had been.
What, then, should we make
of Mr. Afram’s argument that it is usually “mighty nations” who force
“their language” upon the subjected peoples? Again, Aramaic could not be
‘forced upon’ the Aramean city-states, since it was already theirs.
Their spoken and written language, which Aramaicized the Neo-Assyrian
Empire for a good deal, was an intrinsic and substantial part of their
Aramean identity. Not only before and during the Neo-Assyrian era, but
also in post-Assyrian times, until this very hour. So if Mr.
Afram believes that he can use the Aramaic language to push his
unfounded Assyrian case, it needs little imagination to realize how
Aramaic is far more apt to substantiate the Aramean one.
That there have been, still
are and always will be governments who superimpose on their citizens the
official language of the state at the expense of the minority languages,
is true. But it is equally true that despite such assimilation politics
there are many cases to prove that indigenous tongues manage(d) to
survive; we ourselves, who have preserved our Aramaic language, are
living witnesses in this respect. Hence I do not follow his way of
thinking here and his examples do not support his conclusion either. The
emergence of the independent republics after the
break-up of the USSR, such as Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia or
Ukraine, demonstrate that Soviet language policies failed to obliterate,
at least, the (ethno-)linguistic identities of
the former ‘Russian’ citizens. Actually, modern Russia still counts tens
of non-Russian indigenous minority languages. And so do both of the
Americas and Australia.
These statements either expose an abysmal ignorance of Syriac literature
on the part of Mr. Afram or his agenda. I assume that with “our
language” he means the one he is writing in. But this language is widely
known in academia as “(Classical) Syriac” and virtually all linguistic
experts describe it as an Aramaic dialect; since this
dialect originated in the milieu of Edessa, “Edessan Aramaic” or simply
“Edessan/Edessene” may turn out to be a much better and a less confusing
It is an obvious truism
that the name Syrian (Suryoyo) does not resemble Aramaic (Oromoyo)
in speech or in writing. But neither do Suryoyo (‘Syrian’) and
Oturoyo (‘Assyrian’) in Aramaic. Yet it is asserted
that these two names are equivalents based on an alleged linguistic
evolution that should have taken place in Aramaic. This is certainly not
to deny the linguistic reality that in certain Aramaic dialects the
letter t has evolved into s. So, for instance, in
the speech of the Arameans of Beth-Qustan; some of the younger Tur
‘Abdinians who have grown up in western countries also tend to pronounce
s in place of t (e.g., “daughter” is pronounced as
barso instead of barto). In fact, it is this
supposed etymological explanation of the Aramaic name Suryoyo
that lacks sufficient evidence. Hence critical comments such as those of
the late Prof. Rudolf Macuch are to be expected. “This simple
philological equation,” he rightly noted, “is doubtful.”
But Mr. Afram’s logic is flawed at two more levels.
I fully agree with the
admonishment of Prof. Wolfhart P. Heinrichs that “the basic identity of
the names does not necessarily imply the identity of the people(s) named
by them.”That is, even if we take it for granted that the etymology of the
term ‘Syria(ns)’ was derived from ‘Assyria(ns)’ in Greek, it does
not automatically follow that the people(s) who in later periods were
known under the name of Syrians must be ‘Assyrians’ (see section 4,
below). Conversely, the second point to clarify is that there are good
examples to show that two entirely different names, whatever their
independent etymologies, can indeed be used for one group of people.
Take, for example, British/English and Persian/Iranian. So, after closer
examination, the reasoning that the appellation Aramaic is erroneous
just because it does not look or sound like Syrian, also appears to be
no argument at all. As we shall presently see, Mr. Afram’s assertion is
even contradicted by cold, hard facts.
What I find most disturbing
is the idea that “our language” was never called Aramaic in history. Let
us ignore, for a moment, the renowned scholars and the fact that even
the Bible speaks of “Aramaic.” But what about the centuries-old
literature, written in “our language,” which we inherited from our
intellectual predecessors? In the writings of Mor Afrem (d. 373) up to
at least those of Bar ‘Ebroyo (d. 1286) and Bishop Tuma Audo
(see next paragraph), our language and people were consciously
named ‘Aramean’ and even cherished as such! In like manner did the
“Suryane of Nestorian Iraq,” according to the correct observation of the
two authors of Hagarism, “quite frequently speak of themselves
and their language as Aramean.”
(Emphasis added by me.) If Mr. Afram really was ignorant of these
well-known and irrefutable facts, too, how much credence should we give
to his overall claims?
4. Like Mr. Afram, I have read the preface to the cited
dictionary of Tuma Audo (1853-1917) with keen interest. Since this
Chaldean Bishop of Urmia, Iran, was cited selectively by Mr. Afram,
other statements by Audo (quoted from Cicek’s edition) may be of equal,
if not more, interest to the reader.
importance Audo may have attached to the said etymology of the Aramaic
name Suryoyo, about which see the preceding paragraph, his
foreword shows undoubtedly that he was consciously aware of the fact
that the language he spoke and wrote in was Aramaic. Although he
knew that the Jews called the Aramaic characters ‘Assyrian’ (p. 6), he
also remarked (p. 9) that “Syria, Mesopotamia, Assyria, the land of
Sinear and their surroundings” were called “Aram” by the Jews, “because
Aram, the son of Shem, ruled over them and populated them with his
descendants. For this reason, the language is not called Suryoyo
in the Old [Testament], but ‘Aramaic’, which is its genuine and original
name, as it appears to us.” Then he goes on to explain that the adopted
name Suryoyo is of Greek origin and that “all those from
the land of Aram [Bet-Orom],” who are identified as
“Aramean tribes,” when they converted to Christianity and believed in
Jesus Christ “were called Suryoye.”
When he tries to explain
(p. 11) that the Jews at the turn of the Christian era no longer “spoke
in the Hebrew tongue, the tongue of their fathers, but in Suryoyo,”
and that their contemporary teachers called their language “Aramaic or
Suryoyo and sometimes they call it Assyrian,” he erred. First,
the Hebrew language was beyond doubt still alive in those centuries in
the Holy Land. Secondly, like Mr. Afram the Chaldean Bishop did not
distinguish between script and language (see section 6,
At the close of his preface
(p. 14), Audo calls upon his readers, whom he identified as “every one
of the children of the Aramean race,” to care for, learn and sponsor
“the precious Aramaic language.”
interesting is the dictionary itself which is still popular in the
Syriac-Orthodox community. Under the entry Oromoyo readers can
find this explanation: “Arameans, that is, Suryoye. Aramaic
language, [that is,] Suryoyo”! This clarification, I would like
to add, is in full keeping with Audo’s predecessors in earlier
centuries. Besides, readers will search in vain for the names Oturoyo
and Suryoyo, for these were not included by Bishop Audo. Unless
these, too, were excluded by the late Bishop Cicek in the reprint of
1985. I doubt this, but those who promulgate this idea may prove it.
Although the linguistic
hypothesis that the Greeks may have extracted ‘Syria(ns)’ from ‘Assyria(ns)’
in Greek is arguable, it seems not far-fetched to me; but
consider my remarks in the preceding section. However, that the
linguistic development of these names also should have taken place
simultaneously or at least independently in the Aramaic
language is, I dare say, plain wrong. There is no significant evidence
to prove or argue cogently that the terms Suryoyo and Suroyo
go back to an original Aramaic form Oturoyo or Ašuroyo,
and this premise is shaky at best; cf. section 9, below.
Finally, I would like to
return to Mr. Afram. First, it must be said that his selective way of
quoting and his denial of the facts we cited from Audo’s dictionary are
inappropriate for a man of his stature. Secondly, it is both
self-contradictory and awkward if he expects his readers to accept
Bishop Audo as an authority, while this truly learned clergyman belongs
exactly to Mr. Afram’s dismissive category of “theologians and clergy”
(see his section 1). If Mr. Afram really considers Tuma Audo as a
specialist, we should expect him to recognize – and eagerly promote –
that we Suryoye are Arameans and that the “true and
original name” of our language and script is Aramaic, as Tuma
Audo asserted in his lexicon.
It is indeed true that the late Archbishop Cicek omitted this sentence
from the reprinted dictionary. Whatever its cause, that line definitely
should have been included by the Syriac-Orthodox prelate.
Elsewhere I have already briefly discussed the issue of ktab
Ašuri (“the Assyrian script”),
as the rabbinical scholars dubbed the Aramaic characters; it
probably goes back to Greek “Assýria [or Sýria] grámmata,” i.e.
With ktab Ašuri the Jews referred to the script
that Ezra the scribe, according to rabbinical traditions, brought
back from the Babylonian exile. Hence the explanation of Wilhelm
Gesenius that the Jews lost their original script, commonly known as
Palaeo-Hebrew. But what else did Gesenius declare in a clarifying
footnote about the expression “Assyrian characters”? “The name
he explained, “is here used in the widest sense, to include the
countries on the Mediterranean inhabited by Aramaeans.”
This script, he continued on the following page, was retained by the
Samaritans “after their separation from the Jews, while the Jews
gradually (between the sixth and the fourth century) exchanged it for an
Aramaic character. From this gradually arose (from about the fourth to
the middle of the third century) what is called the square character.”
The distinction between
script and language is evident in the Babylonian Talmud.
Sanhedrin 21b records: “Originally, the Torah was given to [the
people of] Israel in the Hebrew script and the sacred [Hebrew] language.
But in the time of Ezra, the Torah was given to them in the Assyrian
script and the Aramaic language. They selected for Israel the Assyrian
script and the sacred language, while they left the Hebrew script and
the Aramaic language for the ordinary people [Samaritans].”
Folio 22a notes: “Why was it called
Assyrian? Because it was brought with them from Assyria [Ašur]”;
the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon is meant here. In
the same folio another notable tradition explained: “Because its script
was upright [a pun on the Hebrew passive verb me’ušeret].” (My
The Jewish rabbis did not
call each and every one of their written and/or spoken Aramaic idioms
‘Assyrian’, nor did they call the cognate dialects, such as Edessan
Aramaic, thus. Other names in use among Jewish writers were ‘the
[Aramaic] translation’ (targum), ‘Aramaic’ (Arammi) and
‘Syrian’ (Sursi; probably a loanword from the Septuagint
Suristi; it denoted esp. Jewish Palestinian Aramaic).
According to their holiest
book, called the Old Testament (OT) in Christian parlance, the Jewish
people described our homeland as Aram-naharaim, i.e. “[the land
of] Aram of the (two) rivers.” Today, however, many among us use the
name Bet-nahrin which is a loan translation of the Greek
Mesopotamia. We inherited this by now popular term from our fathers, but
how many of us know that our intellectual forefathers also employed the
appellation Orom-nahrin, as does our Aramaic Bible?
Furthermore, the OT also
gives testimony to the fact that the Jewish people have Aramean
ancestry! One scholar aptly commented that it “is extraordinarily
interesting that the Israelites thought they were related to the
Aramaeans.” Like many others, he believes “that the Israelites were part
of the same movement of population as the Aramaeans and were conscious
of a close relationship with that population group… The biblical writers
are so strong on the point…that it must have some basis in fact.”
Prof. Edward Lipiński came to a similar conclusion: “The biblical
tradition assuming the parentage of the Hebrew patriarchs with the
Aramaeans of the Harrān area is thus explainable in the historical
context of the 10th century B.C. … The other tradition, which links
Abraham’s clan with Ur of the Chaldees, is obviously more recent [sc.
after the seventh century BC].”
Finally, some parts of the
OT were written “in Aramaic” (Daniel 2:4), while others were visibly
influenced either by the Aramaic language or their Aramean neighbors;
popular terms in this respect are ‘Aramaisms’ and ‘Aramaization’. In
later times, the Jews even produced their books and prayers, such as the
Targumim, the Talmudim and the Kaddish prayer, either in whole or in
part in Aramaic.
The historical achievements of the Arameans perhaps may be overshadowed
by, among others, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks. But
only uninformed or prejudiced people will downplay the significant role
of the ancient Aramean people, let alone the invaluable contributions
made by their converted descendants in the first millennium of the
Christian era, in world history.
Notice, for example, the
testimony of an admired and renowned Semitist: “The Greeks and Romans
knew the Near East mainly through the Arameans, for it was they who
united and canalized the sources of its culture, bringing together
Babylonian, Persian and Hebrew elements and transmitting them to
Christianity, and with Christianity to the West. From the West, at a
later date, the Arameans [sc. Syriac-Orthodox & ‘Nestorians’]
were to bring to the East Greek culture, especially philosophy, which
became known to the Arabs through the medium of Aramaic.”
In section 2, above, some
attention has already been paid to the non-military conquest of Assyria
by the Aramaic language. This “development seems incomprehensible to”
Mr. Afram, but it proves to me a conspicuous lack of knowledge about
Assyro-Aramean history on his part. Since the linguistic capture of
Assyria by the Aramaic language can only be understood in the light of
the “Aramaization of Assyria,” as this process is generally called, I
will quote three more Assyriologists on this topic.
According to Prof. Albert
Kirk Grayson, “there were Arameans within Assyria itself, and their
numbers gradually increased as time went by. This in turn had a major
cultural impact upon Assyrian civilization. … The reason for this major
Aramaic presence [sc. that Aramaic was widespread in Assyria] was
the increasing number of Arameans living in Assyria from the 9th century
“It was surely through the penetration of Arameans into Assyrian society
at all levels,” noted another scholar, “that the greatest impact
Still another specialist confirmed this, saying that the Assyrians “were
capable of constant Assyrianization of foreigners only in their core
country, namely Assyria proper and certain adjacent regions…whereas in
the periphery…the West-Semitic (practically Aramean) majority
prevailed and even increased in the last generation of the Assyrian
empire…There is no doubt that after the fall of the Assyrian
empire Assyria proper has been completely Aramaicized within a few
(In the last two quotations the emphasis was added by me.)
In The Hidden Pearl: The
Aramaic Heritage and the Syriac-Orthodox Church (Rome, 2001),
supervised by Prof. Sebastian P. Brock, a parallel was drawn with the
linguistic capture of the Roman Empire by the Greek language. The
authors recalled this famous utterance by the Roman poet Horace:
“Captured Greece took captive her captor.” This analogy is truly
appropriate, for the Roman armies who had subjugated the Greeks were in
reality conquered by the Greek culture, language, arts, etc. Similarly,
the Assyrian army had deprived scores of Aramean city-states of their
political freedom so as to integrate them into the Assyrian Empire.
Because of this massive influx of Arameans, it only would be a matter of
time before the political rulers would be conquered linguistically,
culturally and demographically. So, ultimately, the Aramean people who
had lost their freedom had the last laugh.
I would like to stress
another point. But first we have to realize that there is an enormous
difference between a script and a language. The Aramaic
alphabet contained no more than 22 consonants, still less than many
western languages. In contrast, the Assyrian cuneiform script
used no fewer than 600 to 700 signs. This explains for a great part why
the Aramaic script was so appealing to the Assyrians. Further, we
have to remember that Assyrian and Aramaic, being Semitic languages,
belong to one and the same family; linguistically, they may be
considered as ‘cousins’ to one another.
These facts beg the
question of why the superior Assyrians did not borrow just the Aramaic
writing system from the inferior Arameans and adapt it according
to their speech. After all, both languages were akin to each
other! But they did not do so, for Aramaic finally replaced their
native language too. Both the Aramaic script and language relegated
the status of Assyrian sooner or later to a language solely employed by
the elite. After this happened, the once dominated language was becoming
the dominating language and it gained prestige throughout the
Assyrian, Chaldean and Persian empires. Eventually, the loss of their
mother tongue (not their script ) would be catastrophic to
In addition, there are
examples of non-Aramean nations who did adopt the Aramaic alphabet
without losing their own ethno-linguistic identity;
recall the notion of Garšuni that is familiar to many of us. In
the same way, the Persians later took over the Arabic script without
giving up their language, the Turks dropped the Arabic alphabet in 1928
when they switched over to the Latin one, certain Kurdish groups in Arab
countries are still using the Arabic characters to write their language
See section 6 on the Aramean ancestry of the Jews, which is testified by
their and our Bible. Again, Mr. Afram prefers to focus on just
one historical phase, but seems to ignore other established facts.
The Assyrians conquered
Damascus in 732 BC by which they removed the final serious Aramean
stronghold in order to carry on their western expansions. But this does
not mean that this monarchy, which roughly corresponds to modern Syria,
was either the sole heartland of the ancient Arameans or the only region
where the Arameans were to be found in large numbers. They were also
significantly present in northern and southern Mesopotamia, and even
within Assyria proper, as we noted above.
If it turns out that Mr.
Afram did not know these facts, it becomes clear why he (mistakenly)
presupposes that the Assyrians subjugated the distant Arameans of
Damascus, easily assimilated them, forcibly confiscated their Aramaic
script and language, and finally patented them as ‘Assyrian’.
With regard to the Upper
Mesopotamian origins of the Aramean people, Mr. Afram may like to read
Only Hebrew and Aramaic are alphabets and both consist of 22
letters. Assyrian, on the other hand, is a cuneiform script with
literally hundreds of signs. The Assyrian writing system is not an
Assyrian invention either, as we saw above. It was Sumerian in origin,
but the Akkadians adopted it and further developed it. As regards the
Aramaic script, its ancestor was either Phoenician or Proto-Canaanite.
It is true that each of the
22 letters of the Aramaic, Hebrew or Phoenician alphabets have distinct
meanings. But the origin of this phenomenon should not be sought in
Mesopotamia, as Mr. Afram thinks, but in Egypt. In this country, Semitic
people who lived there were inspired by the hieroglyphs before they
invented the alphabetic script around 1900 BC,
and possibly even earlier.
Next comes a short
paragraph that would have made more sense had it been attached to Mr.
Afram’s section 4; although I have already dealt with this issue in
sections 3 and 4, I will pursue the matter a little further here.
The attempt to explain how
the name Suryoyo originated in Aramaic is vague, too concise and
hence unsuccessful. Again, in themselves the two mentioned linguistic
phenomena are true. It is undisputed that the letter t (as
in ‘think’) can develop into s, as is the case in certain
Aramaic vernaculars. Nor is it denied that the consonant š (as in
‘short’) can be pronounced as s in certain languages or
dialects, such as Neo-Assyrian; this occurs mostly among those people
whose alphabets lack this sound, as in Greek.
Be that as it may, my main
point is that it is very unlikely that this alleged development took
place in Aramaic: Oturoyo > (O)suroyo >
Suroyo > Suryoyo or Ašuroyo > (A)šuroyo >
Suroyo > Suryoyo. Indeed, we are not told whether
Sur(y)oyo is supposed to have been derived from Oturoyo
or Ašuroyo – the term was certainly not derived from both these
names, so it must be either one of them.
I hope to return to this
issue in detail in a future study (see n. 4). Then I will also elucidate
on what grounds I believe that Sur(y)oyo can not be traced back
to either Oturoyo or Ašuroyo in Aramaic; nor to
Neo-Assyrian Aššurayu, as Prof. Parpola suggests.
The Aramaic name Sur(y)oyo is, in my view, nothing more than a
borrowing from the Greek vocabulary, as most scholars believe.
Here it suffices to note
that we can easily maneuver ourselves into the position of malpono
Afram or Prof. Parpola (admittedly, his interpretation is creative) if
we resort to existing linguistic rules only. But we should not forget
that linguistic explanations need to be compatible with other known
Mr. Afram’s examples
concerning the letters t, t, s and š
illustrate that the name for ‘Assyria’ was Ašur in Hebrew and
Atur in Aramaic (Otur in Tur ‘Abdin Aramaic) at
least since the Persian epoch. There are also other words to show that
Proto-Semitic t later became t/t; some
words were initially written with š in Aramaic, such as
Ašur. For instance, the equivalents of Hebrew šeleg (‘snow’),
šmone (‘eight’), šub (‘again’) and šeqel
(‘to weigh’) occur in Aramaic as telag, temone, tub
The conclusion is that the script, which the Jewish people
exchanged for their national Hebrew one and which they for one reason or
another remembered as “the Assyrian characters/script,” is
Aramaic. Virtually all scholars recognize this as an undisputed fact.
Gabriel Afram clearly does not.
It is neither sound
reasoning, nor convincing to claim that even when the Jewish designation
for the Aramaic script may be wrong (as it in reality is), the
present-day Aramaic-speaking Christians “more than anyone else” should
have “the right to call their script or language [sic] Assyrian.”
The remarks about the
Chaldean name, which are in no way related to the question as to whether
or not the Aramaic script or language should be called ‘Assyrian’, were
really meaningless. Even so, Mr. Afram probably was unaware that the
Aramaic language really has been called ‘Chaldean’ in previous
centuries under the primary influence of the Latin father Jerome (cf.
his comments on Daniel 2:4).
But already in the 19th
century scholars rightly objected against this name. Notably Prof.
Noldeke, who categorically stated: “Of all the names of this nation and
its language is the use of the original ‘Aramean’ [and ‘Aramaic]’
essentially also the only one, which still strongly fits into
current scholarship. This, however, is hardly true for the name
‘Syrian’. For, as we saw above, this name is essentially not suitable to
describe a particular dialect, since it can be used with equal right by
the most diverse dialects. [Here he allows an exception for the dialect
which I choose to call Edessan Aramaic] … The name ‘Chaldean’ is
altogether to be avoided. For a scientific designation of the particular
Aramaic dialects and dialect groups we have to create for ourselves
In addition to ‘Edessan
Aramaic/Edessan/Edessene’, students of Aramaic dialectology might prefer
to use ‘Tur ‘Abdin Aramaic/Tur ‘Abdinian’, too, as a technical term for
the vernacular of the Tur ‘Abdin area instead of descriptors like
Torani, Turoyo and even Surayt.
In sum, Mr. Afram has not
given us any evidence at all, nor any cogent arguments to support his
grand assertions. Our language, in its spoken and written variants,
is undeniably Aramaic. And neither our language, nor our script have
been descended from Assyrian, as some of the nationalists proclaim.
Really, any Assyriologist can tell how, when and why the Assyrian script
and language are dead for over 2,500 years now. And any Aramaist will
confirm that our script and language truly are Aramaic.
Anyone who denies these
facts, apparently prefers to remain willingly ignorant, to speak
in Biblical terms (2 Pet. 3:5). As a matter of fact, the two main facts
and arguments adduced by Mr. Afram can even be used against him.
True, the Jews termed the
adopted square script (albeit inaccurately) ‘Assyrian’. But they
were always keen to remember the language as ‘Aramaic’. Again,
the most Holy Book of the Jews and the Suryoye calls our
language ‘Aramaic’ and our homeland Aram-naharaim! If Mr. Afram
regards the Jewish traditions as authoritative or inspiring, so as to
discover and suggest proper names for our script, language or people, he
should now promote these original names with equal zeal.
He referred us to Tuma Audo,
but on a closer look it appeared that this Bishop factually stated that
Aramaic is the “genuine and original name” for our language and
script, as Aramean is for our people. This case, too, will prove
how much Mr. Afram really respects and shares the belief of the esteemed
Bishop Tuma Audo
But see esp. R.C. Steiner, “Why the Aramaic script was called
‘Assyrian’ in Hebrew, Greek and Demotic,” Orientalia 62
(1993), pp. 80-82; idem, “The ‘mbqr’ at Qumran, the
‘Episkopos’ in the Athenian Empire, and the Meaning of ‘lbqr’ in
Ezra 7:14; on the Relation of Ezra’s Mission to the Persion Legal
Project,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 120:4 (2001), p.
637 n. 70.
A.K. Grayson, “Mesopotamia (History and Culture of Assyria),” in D.
N. Freedman (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 4 (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), pp. 740 and 741.
Zadok, “The Ethno-Linguistic Character of the Jezireh and Adjacent
Regions in the 9th-7th centuries (Assyria Proper vs. Periphery),” in
Mario Liverani (ed.), Neo-Assyrian Geography (University of
Rome, 1995), p. 281.
See, for example, P. Oktor Skjærvø, “Aramaic Scripts for Iranian
Languages,” pp. 515-535, and György Kara, “Aramaic Scripts for
Altaic Languages,” pp. 536-558, in P.T. Daniels & W. Bright (eds.),
The World’s Writing Systems (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Prof. Parpola (idem, p. 14), who concludes that Suroyo
“cannot be regarded as a loanword but as an indigenous
selfdesignation, which the Aramaic-speaking Assyrians shared
with their Akkadian-speaking fellow citizens.” (The italics are