What is Galilean Aramaic?


By Damien Cowl

“Suriston” (JPA. סוריסטון), colloquially known in English as Galilean Dialect, formed as a variant of the Western Aramaic languages in the Levant around the time of Roman rule in the region. It was spoken by the people of Galilee in northern Judea, somewhat distinct from the Samaritans or the Jews from Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers spoke in this language, for He grew up and spent most of His life in Galilean towns such as Nazareth and Capernaum.

Where it shares a great deal of core vocabulary and grammar with other Aramaic dialects (as all dialects do) there are a large number of quirks and differences that make it unique. The term Galilean dialect generally refers to the form of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic spoken by people in Galilee during the late Second Temple period, for example at the time of Jesus and the disciples, as distinct from a Judean dialect spoken in Jerusalem.

Decades after Jesus' death, in the aftermath of the failed Jewish revolts against the Romans, some Jewish communities moved to Galilee where they began to further develop the Galilean Aramaic dialect with new linguistic techniques and rules. The various versions of the Aramaic language, including Suriston, continued to be spoken by the people of the Levant, Jews, Assyrians and Christians alike, under Byzantine protection until the Arab Islamic conquests throughout the Middle East in 7th century caused almost all variants of Aramaic to die out to the point where the only surviving Western Aramaic language over a thousand years later is Western Neo-Aramaic, spoken by a few thousand people in the mountains in Syria.

During Roman times, Galilean Aramaic was written in the Hebrew alphabet using the Herodian script (which is what the Qumran scrolls are written in), just like many other versions of the language that prospered in Judea during the Second Temple era.

Parts of the Jerusalem Talmud, of the aggadic Midrashim, the Aramaic documents of the geonic period (found in the Cairo Genizah ), and numerous synagogue inscriptions discovered in Israel are attributed to this dialect. The Palestinian Targum and the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of the Pentateuch are written in a dialect which, for all practical purposes (except for a few details), is that of Galilean Aramaic. Its closest contemporary cousins were Samaritan Aramaic and Christian Palestinian Aramaic (CPA), all of which share similar features. While there are a number of modern Eastern Aramaic dialects, the only dialect of Western Aramaic that survives to this day is spoken in the three villages of Ma’loula, Bakh’a, and Jub’addin in Syria (collectively known as the Ma’loula dialect). Sadly with current events and violence in the middle east, the fate of this dialect is uncertain.

John Lightfoot and Johann Christian Schöttgen identified and commented on the Galilean Aramaic speech. Schöttgen's work, Horae Ebraicae et Talmudicae, which studied the New Testament in the context of the Talmud, followed that of Lightfoot. Both scholars provided examples of differences between Galilean and Judean speech. S. Lieberman's works – including his studies on tannaitic texts (e.g., Tosefta ki-Feshutah) – have improved this aspect of the research. See now Sokoloff 's dictionary on Jewish Palestinian Aramaic.

The Name

Galilean Aramaic was regarded as an appropriate name because most of the known texts in this dialect originate in the Galilee. The Bar Kokhba letters, originating in Judea, are linguistically closer to the Onkelos Targum, while the Aramaic of synagogue inscriptions, e.g., from Jericho and Noʿaran in Judea, is identical to the language of those of Galilee (cf. the ending of the perfect third pers. plur., which in good texts and in the above inscriptions always appears with a קטלון – in the printed versions this form was "corrected" to קטלו). The קטלו form is employed in the Palestinian Targum fragments published by Kahle. The language of these fragments is yet uncorrected, but since the ל״י verbs even there have a final ־ן (in contrast to the printed "corrected" versions of the Palestinian Targum), it seems clear that the Palestinian Targum fragments represent a dialect which is slightly different from Galilean Aramaic.

To date, only two inscriptions were found which do not have ן: one at Um-el-ʿAmed, in the north of Galilee, and the other at Maon (near Nir Yiẓḥak), in the south of the country; they, therefore, apparently do not represent the main dialect. This assumption is supported by the fact that the Um-el-ʿAmed inscription has additional linguistic forms alien to Galilean Aramaic, e.g., "the gate" is given as תרעא =) תרה without the ע); "the sky" as שומיה (and not שמיא). Both forms are typical of Samaritan Aramaic where laryngeals have almost completely disappeared and are therefore liable to be dropped in writing altogether. On the basis of most of the inscriptions found outside Galilee, it is possible to assume that at the time when the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled (third–fifth century C.E.) there was one common standard language in almost all of (Jewish) Palestine. However, this cannot be clearly proven since the material is scanty – the name Galilean Aramaic has, therefore, remained, though many today prefer the name Jewish Palestinian Aramaic.


One of the signs of good Galilean Aramaic manuscripts is the fact that ā, at the end of a word, was ordinarily indicated by ה (the same applies to the inscriptions). Spelling tends to be plene, especially in the case of ו (vav) which indicates even the short vowel ו׳, and sometimes י which also indicates a short vowel; in manuscripts, the א indicates ā in the middle of a word. Consonantal ו and י might be spelled יי, וו.


The Eastern Aramaic speakers who were prominent in Judea prided themselves on articulate speech and viewed Galileans “loose” pronunciation with contempt. Where they would pronounce what are known as the Emphatic Consonants and Gutterals with exactness, such sounds were softened in Galilean. Several consonants that were distinct in Eastern Aramaic were blurred or interposed by Galileans and any unstressed vowel tends to be reduced to a simple shwa |ə|, which is pronounced like the 'u' in the English word up.

Vowels also tended to be different in places than most would expect in a Judean dialect. For example, where the Talmudic word שַׁבְּתָא (i.e. “sabbath”) is romanized as šabbəṯāˀ, Galilean speaking Jews on the other hand would've rendered it as שבתה|šəbṯáh|.

Contrary to common opinion, only a few examples in the manuscripts hint at the weakening of the laryngeals and pharyngeals. There is however one remarkable shift – the ח may become an ע. The Midrash states clearly: "In Galilee they call a snake (עִוְיָא (חִוְיָא. That is why Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi referred to Rabbi Ḥiyya as ".בעִיּיָא (without the dagesh) merged with ו (cf., e.g., the spelling of חַבְרָן with חַוְרָן, the name of a country, and the reverse יַבְנֶה = יַוְונֵי (Yavneh), a place name). The final ם (mem), may appear as ן, e.g., חכים = חכין ("clever"). An open syllable at the end of a word may be closed with a ן, e.g., כְּמָן (instead of כְּמָה "how many").

The vocalization found occasionally in fragments indicates that the short i and the short u have disappeared almost completely. Instead we find e and o, e.g., מִן =) מֶן, "from") and גֻבָּא =) גוֹבּא, "pit"). The e also appears as a variant of a; e.g., יַמָּא =) יֶמָא, "sea"). These phenomena remind us of the Greek transliteration of the Septuagint and of the Hexapla as well as of the Latin transliteration of Jerome from the Hebrew—There may be remnants of this pronunciation in various manuscripts of Mishnaic Hebrew. The labials and the ר in a closed preceding syllable tend to turn a into o, e.g., שׁוּבָה ‡ (= "Sabbath"); שׁוֹרִי ‡ (paʿel perfect of < ‡ šarrī "he began").

The diphthong ay was preserved rather widely, e.g., בַיתֵה "his house." There also appears the diphthong aw, e.g., טַוְרָה, "the mountain" (= טוּרא in the other dialects).


Besides את "you" (fem. sing.), אתי also survived. The other forms are אַתּוּן, אתין "you" (masc. plur.); אֲנַן "we" (masc. plur.); הִ(י)נוּן, אֶ(י)נוּן, אִ(י)נּוּן "they" (masc. plur.); הינין, אינין "they" (fem. plur.). With various prepositions (prefixes) these pronouns (and others) may undergo change, e.g., ונן “and we”. There is also a third person plural (as opposed to biblical Aramaic and other Aramaic dialects).

Independent Possessive Pronoun. It is formed from the base דִּיד ‡ + the possessive suffix דִּידִּי "mine," etc. The demonstrative pronoun of proximity is הָדֵ(י)ן, דֵין (masc. sing.); הָדָה, הָדָא (fem. sing.); אֵלֵּין, אֶלֵּיִן, הָאֶלַּין (masc. and fem. plur.), etc. Forms without the ד in the masculine are: אָהֵין, הָהֵ(י)ן, etc.; demonstrative pronouns of distance: masculine ההוא, feminine ההיא. The form אֶלַּין, etc., is unique in Aramaic; in biblical Aramaic it appears as אִלֵּ(י)ן, in Aramaic inscriptions as אלן. (e) The Interrogative used attributively. The forms of "which" are היידן (sing. masc.), הָיְידָה (sing. fem.), הָיְלֵין (masc. and fem. plur.). (f) The relative pronouns. The form ד׳ (rare) and דַּ, דְּ (cf. Syriac) – also written plene: דאיתמין ("of orphans"). The presentative is הָא.

The Perfect and Imperfect of qal. The perfect of qal (mainly of the strong verb) has only two types: פְּעַל, פְּעֵל e.g., תְּקֵף כְּתַב. In the imperfect the vowel o spreads at the expense of a, e.g., יִזְבֵּן יֶתְקֹף ("he will buy") is a survival of the third type (which has an i > e). The vocalic structure of the verb resembles, but is not identical with, biblical Aramaic, and is totally different from the Onkelos Targum, e.g., instead of כְתַבִית (perfect first per. sing. in Onkelos), we find כַּתְּבֵת. These forms even look more archaic than those of biblical Aramaic: כִּתְבֵת which seems to go back to כַתְבֵת. The third person feminine plural ending is thus identical (except the ־ן) to the suffix of Samaritan and Christian Aramaic.


As in biblical Aramaic, there is, alongside the regular construct, also a construct + ד used often with a proleptic suffix. Before a proper noun, a demonstrative pronoun may appear: הדא טבריה = Tiberias.


The participle + conjugated הוה is used in the past and in the future to indicate repetition, durativity, etc. When the direct object is a determined noun (noun with a definite article) ל is added and when a pronoun ית is added, the latter may fuse with the verb and form one word, i.e., חמה יתה = חמתיה ("he saw him"). A proleptic suffix may precede both the direct and the indirect object, e.g., נסתיה לשליחה ("he took the messenger"). A verb may take as an object ם and infinitive: בעי ממרוד ("he wants to rebel"), also an imperfect plus בעי דיזעוף ("he wanted to rebuke"), or a participle שורי בכי ("he started to weep").


Like the differences inherent between British and American English, Galilean differed in its choice of words, as well as many of the meanings of words held in common. For example, the Aramaic verb סום (which means “to put” or “to place”) is completely ubiquitous in most Aramaic dialects. It is even recorded in the Syriac Peshitta as part of Jesus' last words: ܐܳܒ݂ܝ ܒ݁ܺܐܝܕ݂ܰܝܟ݁ ܣܳܐܶܡ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܪܽܘܚܝ ܀, i.e.|ʔābb b-iḏaiḵ saˀēm ˀnā rūḥ(y)|= “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, and this appears in the same volume in nearly 800 other places. However, סום is completely absent in Galilean. It does not occur even once in the entire known corpus. In the original Galilean Jesus probably would have said: אבא בידך אמני אנה רוחי |ˀabba bayəḏáḵ amánei ˀənáh rûḥí|= “Father into your hands I entrust my Spirit”.

There are borrowings from Akkadian; from Greek, which since the conquests of Alexander the Great became the dominant tongue in the whole Near East especially among the educated ruling classes; from Latin, as a result of the Roman conquest; and from Hebrew. Borrowings from Akkadian are אריסה ("the tenant farmer"), צמת ("to gather"), etc. There are a great number of borrowings from Greek, e.g., אוירה ("the air"), זוגא ("the pair"), טימי ("price"), ליסטם ("robber," misread as לסטים!). Some have given rise to verbs, i.e., ספג ("to dry oneself "). According to Lieberman, Greek was widely employed, even among the sages.

Not only single words, but whole sentences in Greek may appear in our sources. Borrowings from Latin mainly belong to the governmental and military spheres, e.g., לגיון ("legion"), איסרטה ("road, way"), מונטה ("coin"), ארנונה (a certain "tax"). It is assumed that these borrowings came into Aramaic from Latin via Greek. The Hebrew influence on Galilean Aramaic is very small (it is felt more in the Palestinian Christian Aramaic, see below), e.g., עצה ("advice") and אציק ("felt sorry") are from the Hebrew. Galilean Aramaic vocabulary resembles that of the other two Western dialects and differs markedly from that of Babylonian Aramaic. Even the very same noun may appear in a different form in these dialects, e.g., (דמ(א, in Babylonian Aramaic אדם ("blood"); זעור ("small"); compare Rabbi זעורה in the Jerusalem Talmud as opposed to Rabbi זירא in the Babylonian Talmud. Roots found only in Galilean Aramaic besides חמה ("saw"), are, e.g., אגיב ("answered"), ארתק ("knocked"), גזה ("repaid").


This has as much to do with word order as it does do with how words are used. A very common example is the Present Participle. In Galilean it is used very much like the English Present Tense (“I go.”) rather than a true Participle (“I am going.”) as it appears in other dialects and it is used in much higher frequency. Furthermore, where with most Aramaic dialects, the subject follows the verb (like in the Syriac phrase ܪܳܚܶܡ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܠܶܟ݂|rāḥĕm ˀənā lēḵ|(“I love you” [f]), in Galilean the Participle’s subject always preceeds it, so it would be: אנה רחם לך |ˀənáh raḥem leḵ|. Another good example is the verb/particle אית־ |ˀîṯ|which means “there is.” In Eastern dialects, such as Syriac, אית־ tends to be inflected with endings and used in conjunction with the verb “to be” which would be הווי|həwei|. For example, in Syriac we find the phrase ܐܺܝܬ݂ܰܘܝ ܣܰܒ݂ܪܳܐ |ˀíṯaui sawrāˀ|(“There is hope”). However, in Galilean, אית־ is never inflected, and is usually used on its own regardless of number or gender, therefore אית סבר |ˀîṯ səbar|= “There is hope”.


Like nearly all other Aramaic dialects, Galilean is written without using true vowels. Instead, half-vowel letters (which represent our a, y and w) are used in combinations such as doubling them to indicate diphthongs. This was the precursor to the modern Hebrew vowel system known as “Tiberian” which gets its name from the Sea of Tiberias (better known as the Sea of Galilee). Galileans were also known to interchange א alef and ה he at the end of words, and opted to spell phonetically rather than classically.

With all of these differences, a Galilean speaker tended to stick out with their speech in Jerusalem as much as someone from the American South sticks out in New England (and vice versa), and this is exactly what we see portrayed in the Gospels:


1. Scholars who are proficient in studying the Galilean Dialect:

• Steven Fassberg

• Edward Kutscher

• David Marcus Golomb

• Gustav Dalman

• Hugo Oderberg

• Pablo Carión Arg

• G. Svedlung

• E.Y. Kutcher

• Hadrian Mar Elijah Bar Israel (Bishop of the Nazarani Church)

• Steve Caruso (AramaicNT blogspot)

• Michael Sokoloff

• Caspar Levías

• J.T. Marshall

• Alejandro Diez Macho

2. Textual evidence:

• Bereshit Rabba

• Pesiqta of Rav Kahana

• Cairo Genizah

• Targum Neophiti

• Yerushalmi Talmud

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