In the lesson How Difficult Is Biblical Aramaic To Learn?, we saw that a knowledge of Hebrew can be leveraged to learn Aramaic, and Biblical Aramaic in particular. It should be noted that Hebrew and Aramaic are different languages and not dialects of the same language. One is not an ‘ancient version’ of the other. Being different languages, they are not mutually understandable (i.e. someone who speaks or understands Hebrew would not automatically be able to understand Aramaic without studying it, and vice versa). In the same way, Hebrew and Aramaic are both different languages to Arabic.
However, Hebrew and Aramaic have much in common. At first they appear totally different. But if you know Hebrew well, when you start studying Aramaic, that appearance of being different starts to evaporate. You start to understand that the differences are more at the surface level rather than being fundamental. The grammar of Aramaic has parallels in Hebrew grammar, and vice versa.
Here are some areas where Hebrew and Aramaic are strongly correlated:
At a rough guess, perhaps a third of the vocabulary is common to both languages. Sometimes there are systematic differences in certain letters, making a word appear different – until you realize it is an old friend in unfamiliar clothes.
Perhaps another third of the vocabulary is related, where it is possible to see connections between a Hebrew and an Aramaic word.
Maybe about a third of the vocabulary is new or different, or not easy to relate between the two languages.
Almost all the grammar is common to both languages, or at least has parallels in both languages. There are obviously differences, but an understanding of Hebrew grammar is easy to apply to Aramaic – and vice versa.
The structure of Hebrew and Aramaic is very similar – e.g. the word order, and the way you ‘think’ in both languages.
Both Hebrew and Aramaic are based on roots with three letters.
Both Hebrew and Aramaic have the same number of letters in their alphabets. The scripts are sometimes different, but the alphabets correspond.
Thus, once you get over how different Aramaic initially appears from Hebrew, it doesn’t take long before someone who knows Hebrew makes massive progress in learning Aramaic. It is like meeting a school-friend after 25 years. At first you don’t recognize them. You don’t know who they are. Then slowly the penny drops and you realize you do know this person. Then you become fascinated by them, wondering if it can really be the same person, and desperate to know what happened to them after all these years. Then you are delighted that this really is your old familiar friend that you already know. After the initial awkwardness and learning curve, your mind carries you and it feels like you always knew this person and they have been with you all through the intervening years.
If you know Hebrew, that’s what it feels like when you start learning Aramaic. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s easy to see why Jews felt it easy to adopt Aramaic in the exile to Babylon, why they had no resistance to it, and why the Maccabees fought long and hard against the Greek influence and the Greek language and culture. Greek, by contrast, is a completely foreign language.