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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic: An Endangered Language Unusually Rich in Synchronic and Diachronic Attestation



Eleanor Coghill


The Aramaic language family has survived into modern times in pockets across the Middle East. The remaining branches are Western Neo-Aramaic, Ṭuroyo, North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic and Neo-Mandaic. The largest branch, North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic, contains many dialects, with a high degree of mutual incomprehensibility between many, despite being indigenous to a relatively small region in the borderlands of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

War, persecution, and ethnic cleansing have driven most dialects into near-extinction, with some already extinct. In the last few decades, however, scholars have made a concerted effort to document them, and today we have a great deal of data on a wide variety of dialects, though much remains to be done.

North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic is also blessed with an unusually long written history. While many Aramaic-speaking communities continued to write in the classical languages, long after the spoken language had moved on, certain Christian and Jewish communities in Iraq began to write religious literature also in their local vernacular. The earliest texts date as far back as the late 16th century: Christian manuscripts from the region around Mosul and Jewish manuscripts from the town of Nerwa near the border with Turkey. In addition to these we have documentation by missionaries active in the region in the 19th century.

We are thus in an enviable position of being able to compare the dialects reflected in the early texts with our data on the dialects spoken in the same areas. We find that the manuscripts clearly reflect the regional variety, but, at the same time, they retain archaic features and lack certain constructions (such as new perfects) which must have emerged in the intervening time (see, e.g. Mengozzi 2012, Coghill 2016: 280–83, 285–86).

Nevertheless, only a small minority of dialects are documented before the 19th or 20th centuries. Thus, in establishing diachronic developments in North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic, we depend to a very large extent on synchronic dialectal variation. That is, for a given construction or form, by comparing its form, function and distribution in various dialects, while drawing on cross-linguistic parallels, we can reconstruct its emergence and development.

This has proved very fruitful, as I have shown in my work on the recent development of a new future tense (Coghill 2010, 2012), which drew upon my own fieldwork, and the development and decline of ergativity in eastern Aramaic (Coghill 2016), which would not have been possible without the documentation carried out by my colleagues, in particular Geoffrey Khan.

In this talk I will discuss another construction found in many North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects and its possible diachronic development, and show how detailed dialectal documentation, together with cross-linguistic parallels, enables us to reconstruct an unusual grammaticalization path: that of a verb of movement to a verbal prefix marking the past perfective.

The verbal prefix concerned takes various forms, according to dialect: qam-, kəm-, qəm-, gəm- etc. It is attached to the so-called Present Base, a stem derived from an old Active Participle. When unprefixed, this stem has an irrealis function, but it may take a prefix to express the indicative present and another to express the future. For past perfective forms, another stem, the Past Base is used. Yet qam- with the Present Base may be used with an equivalent past perfective function, except that it is normally restricted to transitive verbs, and in some dialects is the only past perfective form to allow a full set of object suffixes.

There have been various theories as to the origin of qam-: an origin in earlier Aramaic qḏām ‘before’ (Nöldeke 1868: 296–97), in the earlier Aramaic verb qaddem ‘he was/did before’ (Maclean 1895: 82), and in the verb qym I ‘to get up’ in the form qāʾəm ‘he gets up’ (Pennacchietti 1997). Most recently, Fassberg (2015), finding these theories lacking, has suggested it results from the metanalysis of the present indicative prefix k- with an initial m- of some Present Base stems. I will argue, however, that dialectal data showing qym I as an auxiliary verb with a similar function to the qam- prefix make Pennacchietti’s theory far more plausible, and that Fassberg’s arguments against it can be rejected. Moreover, as Pennacchietti showed, this is backed up by cross-linguistic parallels, in particular with the Catalan/Occitan go-past (Detges 2004, Jacobs 2011).


Coghill, Eleanor (2010a). ‘The grammaticalization of prospective aspect in a group of Neo-Aramaic dialects’, Diachronica 27:3, 359–410.

Coghill, Eleanor. 2012. ‘Parallels in the grammaticalisation of Neo-Aramaic zil- and Arabic raḥ- and a possible contact scenario’, Grammaticalisation in Semitic, Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement Series. Oxford University Press, 127–144.

Detges, Ulrich. 2004. ‘How cognitive is grammaticalization? The history of the Catalan perfet perifràstic. In Olga Fischer, Muriel Norde and Harry Perridon (eds) Up and down the Cline: The Nature of Grammaticalization. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Fassberg, Steven E. ‘The Origin of the Periphrastic Preterite kəm/qam-qāṭəlle in North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic.’ In Geoffrey Khan and Lidia Napiorkowska (eds), Neo-Aramaic and its Linguistic Context. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Jacobs, Bart. 2011. ‘Present and historical perspectives on the Catalan go-past’, Zeitschrift für Katalanistik 24, 227–255.

Maclean, Arthur J. (1895). Grammar of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mengozzi, Alessandro (2012). ‘The contribution of early Christian vernacular poetry from northern Iraq to Neo-Aramaic dialectology: Preliminary remarks on the verbal system’, ARAM Periodical 24 (Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth International ARAM Conference on Neo-Aramaic Dialects, Oxford, 6–7 July 2

Nöldeke Theodor. 1868. Grammatik der neusyrischen Sprache am Urmia-See und in Kurdistan. Leipzig: T.O. Weigel.

Pennacchietti, Fabrizio A. (1997). ‘On the etymology of the Neo-Aramaic particle qam/kim’ [in Hebrew]. In Moshe Bar-Asher (ed.), Gideon Goldenberg Festschrift (Massorot: Studies in Language Traditions and Jewish Languages 9–11). Jerusalem: Magnes, 475–82.

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