Eastern Aramaic languages have developed from the varieties of Aramaic that developed in and around Mesopotamia (Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest and southwest Iran), as opposed to western varieties of the Levant (modern Levantine Syria and Lebanon). Most speakers are ethnic Assyrians, although there are a minority of Jews and Mandeans who also speak varieties of Eastern Aramaic.
Numbers of fluent speakers among Assyrians range from approximately 575,000 to 1,000,000, with the main languages being Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (235,000 speakers), Chaldean Neo-Aramaic (216,000 speakers) and Surayt/Turoyo (250,000 speakers), together with a number of smaller closely related languages with no more than 5,000 to 10,000 speakers between them.
Despite their names, they are not restricted to specific churches; Chaldean Neo-Aramaic being spoken by members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and Assyrian Protestant churches, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo being spoken by members of the Chaldean Catholic Church etc.
In addition, there are approximately 25,000 speakers of Jewish Eastern Aramaic dialects, and some 5,000 fluent speakers of Mandaic language among the some 50,000 Mandeans, an ethno-religious Gnostic minority in Iraq and Iran.
Historically, eastern varieties of Aramaic have been more dominant, mainly due to their political acceptance in the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Achaemenid Persian empires. With the later loss of political platforms to Greek and Persian, Eastern Aramaic continued to be used by the population of Mesopotamia.
In Assyria, today's modern northern Iraq, south east Turkey and north east Syria, the local variety of eastern Aramaic, known as Syriac (the terms Syrian and Syriac originally being Indo-European derivatives of Assyrian) had emerged by the 5th century BC, and between the 1st and 4th centuries AD became a standard language among the Eastern Rite Christian Assyrians, being used in the Peshitta and by the poet Ephrem, and in the schools of Edessa and Nisibis, and later by the Saint Thomas Christians in India.
These varieties have widely influenced the less prominent western varieties of Aramaic of the Arameans of The Levant, and the three literary, classical languages outlined above have also influenced numerous vernacular varieties of eastern Aramaic, some of which are spoken to this day, largely by ethnic Assyrians and Mandeans (see Neo-Aramaic languages). Since the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century AD, most of the population of the Middle East has undergone a gradual but steady language shift to Arabic.
However there are still between some 550,000 - 1,000,000 fluent speakers among the indigenous ethnic Assyrians of northern Iraq, northeast Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran, as well as small migrant communities in Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, southern Russia and Azerbaijan. Most of these are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church. A further number may have a more sparse understanding of the language, due to pressures in their homelands to speak Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Kurdish, and due to the Assyrian Diaspora to the Western World.
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Eastern Aramaic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Turoyo at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
- *MacDonald, Kevin (2004-07-29). "Socialization for Ingroup Identity among Assyrians in the United States". Paper presented at a symposium on socialization for ingroup identity at the meetings of the International Society for Human Ethology, Ghent, Belgium. Archived from the original on 2007-06-10.
Based on interviews with community informants, this paper explores socialization for ingroup identity and endogamy among Assyrians in the United States. The Assyrians descent from the population of ancient Assyria (founded in the 24th century BC), and have lived as a linguistic, political, religious, and ethnic minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 608 BC. Practices that maintain ethnic and cultural continuity in the Near East, the United States and elsewhere include language and residential patterns, ethnically based Christian churches characterized by unique holidays and rites, and culturally specific practices related to life-cycle events and food preparation. The interviews probe parental attitudes and practices related to ethnic identity and encouragement of endogamy. Results are being analyzed.
- Modern Mandaic at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)