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Some aspects of verb morphology and syntax in Modern Aramaic

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Aramaic, a language belonging to the Semitic family, was one of the major languages of the Ancient Near East and has survived as a spoken language down to modern times in various dialect groups. The largest and most diverse group of these modern dialects is the North Eastern group, which is generally known as North Eastern Neo-Aramaic (NENA). This consists of dialects spoken by Christian and Jewish communities across a wide area encompassing northern Iraq, north-west Iran, south-eastern Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. The Christian dialects in all cases differ from the Jewish dialects, even where the Christians and Jews lived in the same town or region. In this dialect group radical changes have taken place in the verbal system in comparison with earlier forms of Aramaic.

One of the most conspicuous changes is the acquisition of ergative inflection in the past perfective forms of the verb. This feature developed through contact with Iranian languages, especially the Kurdish dialects, which have, or have had at some stage in their history, ergative syntax in the past forms of verbs. In many respects, however, the ergative construction has developed with a life of its own in NENA in a way that differs from its development in the modern Iranian dialects. There is, furthermore, considerable diversity across the dialect group regarding the way the ergative has developed. Three stages of development are discernible: (1) dialects in which the ergative inflection occurs on past perfective verbs that are high in transitivity due to their having an agent or agent-like argument and punctual–dynamic actionality by virtue of their lexical meaning. (2) dialects in which ergative inflection is generalized to the expression of all actions that are presented by the speaker with past perfective dynamic aspect irrespective of the existence of agent properties in one of the arguments. (3) dialects in which the ergative inflection has been generalized to the expression of all actions that are presented with past perfective aspect irrespective of dynamicity.

The verbal system of the dialect group has also acquired numerous clitic particles, which have evolved from finite auxiliary verbal forms. The function of these particles has undergone considerable diachronic change. Particles that now express the habitual aspect, for example, have developed either from particles that originally expressed the progressive or from those that originally expressed the future.

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