The first universal language

30 Oct 2023

“The history of Aramaic shows how literature emerges,” says Professor Holger Gzella. In an interview, Gzella talks about the role of Aramaic in antiquity and reconstructs what Jesus’ last words on the cross probably sounded like.

Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic. We also find Aramaic words in the Bible, including Jesus’ last words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Why was Aramaic spoken in the Bible?

Holger Gzella: “Eli eli lama sabachthani”, are the aramaic words Jesus says in the New Testament. The psalm he is quoting was originally written in Hebrew – which immediately plunges us into the multilingual context of Palestine under the Romans. At the time, people used different languages in different situations. The Bible testifies to the practice of translating religious literature into Aramaic; the New Testament itself was written in Greek.

Were different languages spoken in everyday life, too?

Gzella: Yes. It depended on the situation, and also on the social setting. In most everyday situations in Syria and Palestine, people would talk to each other in Aramaic, or possibly in Hebrew, which had a role to play in the interpretation of laws. The Roman occupying forces – the soldiers, but also the administrators – would converse with each other in Latin. In the oriental provinces, Greek was spoken in the Roman courts. So, you had a colorful mixture.

On the tracks of a world language

Prof. Holger Gzella also uses manuscripts from the collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in his research on the Aramaic language and its distribution.

© Stephan Hoeck / LMU

In the biblical narrative, Jesus was on the fringes of society. As a man of the people, is it likely that he spoke a dialect?

Gzella: The Aramaic that Jesus and his disciples spoke was not of a high literary standard. It was a dialect – probably the Galilean dialect. In the few words of Jesus that have been handed down to us in writing, we find a degree of sloppiness in the pronunciation, with vowels being rounded, for example. This wasn’t the pronunciation of the scholars: It was how people would talk to each other on the street. That is the exciting thing about the New Testament: On the one hand it has a cosmopolitan orientation whose universal message addresses the whole of humanity. Yet at the same time, it is grounded in the normality of everyday life. The advice given and even the parables told in the Bible are all rooted in everyday life. Farming and administrative matters are very prominent. Again and again, the text speaks of loans, of wise stewards, of financial transactions, of people saving money. So, this wasn’t just a world of outsiders and hippies. It also conveyed what normal civic life was like.

What is so fascinating about Aramaic that you concern yourself so intensively with this language?

Gzella: Its nuanced complexity. Aramaic cropped up everywhere in the ancient world and even in the Middle Ages in widely differing contexts – from the city-states of Syria in the early Iron Age to the ancient eastern kingdoms and the Hellenistic-Roman period to the literate religious cultures of Jews, Christians and others, up to the modern era. There is an element of understatement in Aramaic, which, in many cases, was not people’s main language. I am genuinely fascinated by this combination of omnipresence and an almost shadowy existence. Many texts are dry, obviously: contracts, receipts and so on. But other contexts bring them to life. One central aspect is the variety of materials texts were written on: Sometimes you have parchment, sometimes stone, sometimes clay fragments.

Are you also interested in the origins of language in general?

Gzella: The history of Aramaic shows how literature emerges. It takes you back to the origins. The European literature of the Middle Ages presupposes the Latin literature of the ancient world. The very earliest Latin literature in turn builds on Greek texts. And Greek literature is shrouded in an element of the mysterious. Many of its epics and much of its lyrical poetry probably grew out of oral tradition. Aramaic did not have direct role models to the same extent.

Since when do we have evidence that Aramaic was spoken?

Gzella: From what we can see, Aramaic was already established as a living language in the 10th century before Christ. Since then, the language has changed repeatedly in an organic process, although its basic shape remains recognizable – like the metamorphosis of plants. Aramaic was originally a Semitic language, a sibling of Hebrew. We do not know precisely how it originated. In the second millennium, too, people in Syria undoubtedly spoke a related language. And the language obviously did not come into existence overnight: It was an evolutionary process. It probably originates from places like Aleppo and Damascus, which later became city-states and are today part of Syria.

In your book, you write that Aramaic was originally an administrative language that did not belong to any religion or world empire. How did the language spread?

Gzella: There comes a point when societies are so complex that some form of annotation becomes necessary. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a fully developed written language, but some form of documented memory is needed. In this context, supraregional written languages grew out of regional vernaculars. The correct orthography was agreed and the alphabet was standardized – even as far as defining the angles of inclination for letters and characters.

Excerpt from a seven and a half meter long Aramaic paper scroll with illustrated mythological texts from the 17th century as a fold-out book.

© Stephan Hoeck / LMU

The common conception is that language accompanies the spread of governments or religions.

Gzella: That is so. Normally, language accompanies the expansion of empires and cultural movements, religions, literary fashions and certain modes of behavior, as was later the case with French. Or it accompanies new ideas, like English when it later became the language of science. But Aramaic doesn’t really fit the same pattern. Especially right at the start, other factors would appear to have been involved. The Assyrian Empire enjoyed very considerable mobility and open borders. Conditions were relatively peaceful, trade flourished, people were mobile and ideas spread. The Assyrians themselves consciously invested in infrastructure and road networks, for example. It is very clear to see how, as of the eighth century before Christ, Aramaic increasingly pushed back Akkadian, hitherto the dominant spoken and written language in the Assyrian Empire.

What dynamic forces were behind its spread?

Gzella: In my opinion, the acceptance of Aramaic has to do with the fact that this language provided access to geopolitically important areas: the Levant, Syria, what is now Israel, Jordan, Lebanon – areas with a typical Mediterranean climate, coastlines, fertile lands with access to the sea. The Mesopotamian heartland did not have the access to the sea that was so important to long-distance trade, as it opened up links to breadbasket regions and trade networks. The administrations in this part of the world had bureaucracies and languages that were alphabet-based and were very close to Aramaic.

In other words, people aligned their language system with that of a different and economically attractive region, and they did so for economic purposes?

Gzella: Exactly. Doing so was much more efficient than setting up extensive parallel bureaucracies in Akkadian, which used cuneiform script. Nor was there any need to export whole phalanxes of colonial officials.

… which means that dissemination also had something to do with efficiency?

Gzella: That is indeed a very important factor. In the ancient world, you couldn’t enforce a change of language from the top down. There were no mass media. There was no centralized schooling. The ancient eastern kingdoms were highly efficient: They had to be able to oversee huge areas like those we know today with no e-mails, no telecommunications and no Internet. It was the efficiency of the new language, not the guiding hand of central policy, that led to its acceptance. Later on, the same thing happened with the shift toward Arabic.

Prof. Holger Gzella with the reprint of an Aramaic scroll


How important were literary texts to the spread of Aramaic?

Gzella: The new written language spread above all in the administrative apparatus. Independent writers didn’t exist. The development of literature was more of an epiphenomenon practiced by people who earned their bread with another occupation, as during the German Romantic period. Most of them will have exercised a profession that confronted them with writing and texts. It is likely that, at some point, notaries or administrative staff began experimenting with language and establishing it in the context of education.

What did education look like back then?

Gzella: We can only piece together a vague outline. It was a multi-tiered system. Exercises involving the letters were the starting point. As in our elementary schools, there were boards – made of potsherds, in this case – showing the individual letters of the alphabet. To practice these letters, the pupils would draw lines, circles and texts and then repeatedly note lists of names. In official forms, names were the most important variable. There was a model text for promissory notes, for example, so that only the name and the numbers had to be filled out. We have also found arithmetic exercises, as well as model letters. Advanced pupils would study texts of a more literary standard by copying them down. These were texts expressing useful words of worldly wisdom: One example was: “Keep a secret, watch your tongue, even in the presence of your superiors or the king!” They included codes of conduct for professional practice, for instance.

That sounds like practical advice for the entire professional group.

Gzella: It does. There was a notion of what made a good scribe. Linguistically, these texts were very sophisticated early on. I once measured the sentence lengths, for example, and I counted the subordinating conjunctions and the number of synonyms used. What did I find? Using statistical methods, the complexity shows us that we are dealing with what today we would call a higher level of language or literature, one that emerged in the context of education. Education is always more than what you need in practice. It provides autonomy, the ability to reflect and a feel for things that transcend everyday concerns.

At some point, Aramaic script was also used for religious texts. Was there some particular issue that prompted this new kind of religious literature in Aramaic?

Gzella: The development of religious literature, in Aramaic as in other languages, was a reaction to times of crisis. It was the literature of the resistance. There were tensions between global cultures, imperial languages and regional differences. Literary resistance sprang up in the slipstream of empires. That is also of relevance to understand the world of today. The infrastructure of religions – by which I mean the creation of institutions, schools, monasteries, centers of education, curricula, religious literature, Bible translations, Bible commentaries, liturgical texts and chronicles – is likewise a reaction to crises. The biblical literature as we know it was a reaction to the conquest of Jerusalem, to the elimination of the kingdom and the destruction of the temple. What emerged was a decentralized religion that created a counter-world for itself in written texts – a world in which the temple and the kingdom continue to exist in spiritual form.

Can you give us a concrete example of how that happened for Aramaic?

Gzella: In this case, we see what happened based on the Aramaic texts in the Old Testament. Take the giant statue with the proverbial feet of clay, for example – the dream of a king in the second chapter of the book of Daniel. The king sees a statue, a very traditional symbol of power, that is made of different metals and is therefore unstable. A stone is then cut out and smashes the statue to pieces; the stone itself grows to become a mountain that fills the whole earth. This is an impressionistic vision. The statue of various metals stands for different earthly kingdoms, and the stone that destroys it is the kingdom of God, which then grows. The authors used common images and transformed them.

How important was the written word to the spread of Christianity?

Gzella: The written form is important for a certain type of religion that initially developed within the Jewish tradition, i.e. the culture of religious scriptures. These are religions whose knowledge is passed on in textual form. These texts create set collections: They are canonical texts, around which a culture of interpretation springs up. In Christianity, that would be the monasteries and convents and the schools for the clerics, as well as the diocesan administrations. In this way, a completely new type of religion that was inseparably intertwined with the Aramaic texts emerged in the third century after Christ. What emerged was a type of religious authority rooted in an intimate knowledge of texts, an authority that knows what things mean and where they are written. That had not previously existed; it is tied up in scriptures and the interpretation of those scriptures. This dovetailing and passing on and repeatedly updating of religious texts was a new kind of religion that had never existed in this form in classical antiquity or in the ancient orient.

Early modern biblical studies

The picture shows the beginning of the handwritten Syriac-Aramaic dictionary of Moses of Mardin with Latin and Arabic translations. Andreas Masius, a European student of Moses of Mardin, published the first ever printed Syriac-Latin dictionary a few years later. Such dictionaries subsequently developed into fundamental tools of early modern biblical scholarship and provided essential impetus both to Oriental linguistic studies and to comparative linguistics as a whole.


Aramaic is, or was, written down as an abjad, or consonantal text. The vowels were left out. So, how do we know what the language sounded like?

Gzella: That is a lot of hard, technical work. Essentially, there are three sources. First, there are markings for long vowels. Long vowels, like I or U, are indicated, as is the long A at the end of a word. This is the best source, because it is visible in the text itself. Second, from later periods we have vocalizations that emerged in the religious context, presumably to specify the pronunciation in worship services, for example. You find this in the Hebrew Bible, in the Syriac translations of the New Testament and in the Qur’an. Transcriptions of Aramaic texts in Greek script, for example, are a third source.

Why did this language decline from one that was spoken around the Mediterranean, in Europe and as far afield as India to a language that has virtually died out?

Gzella: New developments often take shape on the periphery of global cultures. We see that in the Persian Empire and in the Roman Empire. In the case of Aramaic, it was Arabic that arose. Arabic had been around for a long time as a spoken language. However, it was not until the fourth to sixth centuries after Christ that it was given a written form under the influence of Aramaic. Letters and distinctive writing rules were developed that largely emulate Aramaic models.

Are there still people who speak Aramaic today?

Gzella: Yes, there are. All over the world, in communities of the diaspora. It is spoken by the descendants of people who emigrated back in the late 19th century, then again as ‘guest workers’ during the First World War, following the genocide on Aramaic-speaking Christians and, above all, as of the mid-20th century. More recently, this migration has continued with refugees from civil wars. There are sizable Aramaic-speaking communities in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, such as one in Augsburg.

Have you visited these communities to hear what the language sounds like today?

Gzella: I am repeatedly invited to visit Aramaic-speaking communities and talk about this subject, in part because they identify more strongly with the language today. When they understand that their native tongue was once a universal language in the ancient world, that brings recognition for their culture.

Interview: Hubert Filser

Prof. Holger Gzella in his office | © Stephan Hoeck / LMU

Prof. Dr. Holger Gzella holds the Chair of Old Testament Theology at LMU. Prior to this appointment, he was Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

On November 15, 2023, Prof. Holger Gzella will be joined by Beate Kellner, Professor of German Medieval Studies at LMU, at LMU's Center for Advanced Studies, Seestr. 13, as part of the "CAS Showcase: Cross-Cultural Philology. A New Approach in the Humanities." Start time is 6:30 p.m.

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