Introduction. Mandaic is the term for the Aramaic dialect of the last remaining non-Christian Gnostics from Late Antiquity, the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Ḵuzestān). It belongs to the Southeastern Aramaic dialect group with Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic (Babylonian Jewish Aramaic) and Koiné Babylonian Aramaic. Mandaic and Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic have been formerly classified with Syriac as Eastern Aramaic, but this Southeastern Aramaic branch has now to be kept separate on account of clear isoglosses in phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicography according to the latest insights on both dialects. The roots of the Mandaic language go back to the early Parthian period (not Sasanian: Rosenthal, 1938, pp. 238-54). Its users and speakers, the Mandaeans, recruit from a former Babylonian Aramaean population. Leaving aside the constant debate on the origin of their religious doctrine and their background (see above sections), there exist no Western Aramaic linguistic traces in the Mandaic idiom which could be convincingly proven. However, Mandaic can be considered with its pre-classical text corpus (magic literature) as one of the purest Late Aramaic dialects of the Southeastern branch (Nöldeke, 1875, p. VI) comparable to Christian Palestinian Aramaic of the Western branch (see ARAMAIC).

So far no dialectal forerunners of Mandaic are known, since the Aramaic relics of the pre-Parthian times and Parthian period in Babylonia and neighboring Ḵuzestān are rather limited (a few scattered inscriptions, Middle Iranian ideograms, an incantation in syllabic cuneiform script and in Eastern standardized Aramaic from Uruk [Warka]). Nevertheless, Mandaic inherited abundantly phonetic, grammatical, and lexicographic features from Akkadian (Late Babylonian) that point to the fact that the Mandaeans’ origin cannot have been anywhere else than in Mesopotamia (Kaufman, 1974, pp. 163-64; Müller-Kessler, 2004). Only in the matter of loanwords Iranian had an impact on Mandaic. Pre-Pahlavi lexemes and, in the late literary period and Modern spoken Aramaic, contemporary Modern Persian words were integrated. With the growing corpus of early magical texts, Mandaic can be now subdivided into three language stages: pre-Classical Mandaic (incantation literature), 4th-7th centuries C.E.; Classical Mandaic (religious literature; astronomical omens, late incantations), from the 7th-8th centuries onwards, and Modern Spoken Mandaic or Neo-Mandaic (idioms of Ahvāz). According to the archeological data of the written artifacts on clay and metal (4th-7th centuries), certain topographical, cultural, and historical information indicate that Mandaic was a spoken dialect in the Central Babylonian cities (Babylon, Borsippa, Kutha, Khuabir, Nippur, Uruk), in the South Babylonian localities (Abu Shudhr, el-Qurna, Kashkar, Kish, Mesene), and in the province of Khuzistān (Shush, Shushtar, Matiene), Gedrosia, Media, and Persia (Müller-Kessler, 1999a, p. 201). The magic bowl and metal amulet texts, in part, have been found in situ, and some of them contain large demon accounts with geographical names. These magic text sources have turned out to be far more representative than the mythological accounts of scribes in colophons of late manuscript copies and the Haran Gawaitha myth. The latter story has often been used to claim Harran (Upper Mesopotamia) as an intermediate homestead of the Mandaeans (Müller-Kessler, 2004).

Orthography. Mandaic is written in a special alphabet of 23 graphemes, which are considered to be based on the script appearing in the Elymaean rock inscriptions (Tang-e Sarvak, Shimbar) and in legends of tetradrachm coins from Elymais and of coins from Characene (Mesene) dating to the 2nd-3rd centuries C.E. The sequence of the alphabet follows the Hebrew and other Aramaic ones (e.g., Syriac; cf. EIr. II/3, p. 255), except that the grapheme takes the place of h and vise versa. Each letter has a name, and the complete alphabet is called abāgādā. Frequently, the alphabet is written at the beginning of a text in a manuscript with magic content, since writing a Mandaic text is taken as a sacred, magical art in itself. The total breakdown of the pronunciation of the gutturals in the Mandaic phonemic inventory has reduced the consonant signs to seventeen plus two half consonants /w/ and /y/, and three graphemes ʾ, (former /h/), and ʿ, which only serve as matres lectionis, as do w and y. In this respect the sound system of Classic Mandaic is more completely represented in writing than are those of contemporaneous Aramaic dialects and its own pre-Classic texts, but there exists no distinction between the quality and quantity of the vowels. An extra ligature for the relative/genitive particle dy is taken as one grapheme. The second ligature kḏ serves as the conjunction “when, as.” Inscriptional writings on metal strips and earthenware bowls show less regular signs, whereas the letters in standard manuscript script can be considered quite consistent in form. On pre-Classic epigraphic writing material (clay, metal) the letter is a descender and is never connected to the right. The other writing rules have been fully observed in all periods up to the present with the exception of the final vowel marker , used for /ē/ and [ī], which tends to become confused with the letter ʾ in late manuscripts.

Phonology. In phonemic inventory and phonetic laws, Mandaic holds an isolated position within the range of Late Aramaic dialects. Typical is the non-existence in Mandaic of the Semitic guttural phonemes /ʿ/, /ḥ/, /h/, and /ʾ/, which are, however, fully represented by the Mandaic script. These signs are also well known in the Middle Persian (Inscriptional and Pahlavi) ideograms (see IDEOGRAPHIC WRITING): Mand. šwbʾ “seven” = Pahl. ŠBʾ /haft/ < *šbʿ, tynʾ “fig” = TYNʾ /anjīr/ < *tʾnʾ, tʾlʾ “fox” = TʿLH /rōbāh/ < *tʿlʾ; but they are not written [?] in the dialects closely related to Mandaic, such as Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic and koiné Babylonian Aramaic. The former etymological glottal /h/ and pharyngeal /ḥ/ are conventionally transliterated by h, but they are written in the script with the grapheme h—a practice comparable to the usage in Pahlavi ideograms, e.g., ḤYMN-WN /wurrōy-/ “believe, trust” < hafel *hymn; ZḤBʾ/DḤBʾ /zarr/ “gold” < *zʾhbʾ < dhbʾ; LḤT-WN /daw-/ “run”< •rhṭ. Spelling conventions show preservation of the Proto-Semitic interdental */ḏ/ in hʾzyn “this (masc.),” hʾzʾ “this (fem.)” and in the ideograms, e.g., zyqnʾ = Pahl. ZYQNʾ /rēš/ “beard.” In a secondary stage, */ḏ/ induced pseudo-spellings in Mandaic and Middle Persian: e.g., zʾhbʾ “gold” = Pahl. ZḤBʾ/DḤBʾ < *dhbʾ, zmʾ “blood,” < *dmʾ or dmʾ = Pahl. DM(Y)ʾ /xōn/. This effect is not seen in the relative/genitive particle - < *zy.

Another archaizing spelling represents as q (rarely as g, in ghk = ʿhk “to laugh”; Greenfield, 1962, p. 290) the still undefined Aramaic phoneme /?/ from Proto-Semitic */ḍ/ in ʾrqʾ /arā/ “earth” = Pahl. ʾRQʾ /zamīg/ < *ʾrḍ, qmrʾ /qamrā/ “wool” < *ḍmr, and ʾqnʾ /aqnā/ “small cattle” = Pahl. KYNʾ /gōspand/ and Parth. QYN < *ḍʾn. Two other examples are only attested in the Pahl. ideogram ʿLKTʾ /pahlūg/ ”rib” = *ʿlqtʾ < *ʿlḍ and in the Eastern Aramaic Uruk incantation iq “wood” < *ʿḍ (Müller-Kessler, 2002, pp. 196-98). Frequently the voiceless phoneme /t/ is dissimilated to the voiced /d/ in hdm “to seal” < *ḥtm, kdš “to fight” < *ktš, or kdpʾ “shoulder” < *ktpʾ. The interchange of /n/ and /1/ as positional variants in the imperfect prefix regularly occurs only in the pre-Classic literature. A Late Babylonian phonetic relic is the intervocalic shift of /w/ to /m/ or /b/ in the emphatic plural forms of dmwmʾtʾ “images” < *dmʾwʾtʾ and ʿwmʾwʾtʾ “oaths” < *ʿwmʾwʾtʾ, and in the Hebrew loan ṣbʾbwt, ṣbʾbtʾ “Ṣebaot” < *ṣybwʾt (Müller-Kessler, 2002b, p. 98). The opposite shift occurs as well: /b/ > /w/ in ʾwyl “to bring,” < *ʾwbl, šwš “to confuse” < šbš; /m/ > /w/ in šwʾlyʾ “servant” < Akk. šamallû. Characteristic is the regressive influence of labials on vowels (< Late Babylonian): hwmyʾnʾ < Mid. Pers. himiān- “belt”; hwtʾmʾ, hwdʾmʾ “seal” < */hātamā/; pwgdʾmʾ “word, instruction” < Old Pers. *patigāma-; šwbʾ “seven” < */šabʾā/; šwmʾ “name” < /šemā/. Another sound shift inherited from Babylonian (Geer’s law) is the dissimilation of the first emphatic consonant (in a root with two emphatic phonemes) to a phoneme, which may be voiced (gṭl “to kill” < *qṭl) or unvoiced (kwšṭʾ “truth” < qwšṭʾ; cf. Pahl. KḤMʾ /ard/ “flour” = Mand. qʾhmʾ < *qmh). Further, the Late Babylonian tendency to dissimilate the double consonants /dd/, /bb/, and /zz/ has been retained as phonetic law in Mandaic: to /nd/ in mʾndʾ “knowledge,” to /nb/, /mb/ in zrn/mby “to shake” and hmbl “to destroy,” to /nz/ in mʾnzyʾ “hair” The dissimilation of consonants in reduplicated roots is a feature that Mandaic partially shares with Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic: /r/ < /l/ in grglʾ “wheel” < *glglʾ •gll, /r/ < /q/ in drdqyʾ “small children” < *dqdqyʾ •dqq, /r/ mrmyṣyʾ “sucklings, infants” < *mrmyṣyʾmṣs. Regressive assimilation occurs in the composite noun byzrʾ = Pahl. BZRʾ <*br zrʿʾ “seed” (Utas, 1988, p. 65).

Based on the loss of the gutturals, Mandaic tends to frequent metatheses in words with former pharyngeal /hg/ as third radical: ʿwrhʾ “way” < *ʿwhrʾ, qhd “to scream”< *qdḥ, mhlʾ “salt” < *mlḥʾ (Malone, 1971, pp. 407-9); this also occurs in cases of former /ḥ/ as second root consonant: hmy “to strike” < *mḥy (Müller-Kessler, 2002c, p. 206). Similar metatheses are attested in the Middle Persian ideograms, e.g., Pahl. MḤŠYʾ /rōγn/ “oil” and Parth. MHŠʾ = myšʾ < *myḥšʾ, or KḤMʾ “flour” = qʾhmʾ < *qmḥʾ (Nyberg, 1978, p. 64; Voigt, 1989, pp. 381-83). It can be observed also in other metatheses: ydl “to give birth, beget” = Pahl. YLYDWN /zāy-/, but in pre-Classic texts mostly yld, yldʾtʾ or ydlʾtʾ “a woman giving birth” (Müller-Kessler, 2001-02, pp. 131-32), mylʾd yʾldyʾ “to give birth.” Epenthesis of /y/ is a specific feature of Mandaic roots and nouns, e.g., kwyhtʾ “blindness” < *khywtʾ •khy, sʾynʾ “hateful” < *snyʾ •sny, and qynʾ < *qnyʾ “reed.” Elision of consonants between vowels occurs in trnʾwlʾ “rooster” < *trnʾgwlʾ, zywʾ “spouse” (Gk. zugos) < *zwgʾ. Characteristic for Central Southeastern Aramaic, therefore for Mandaic, is the loss of the final short unstressed vowels in the pronouns of 2nd singular, in the perfect suffixes of the 3 person plural masculine, and in the imperative suffixes of the masculine plural form.

Morphology. Classical Mandaic shows individual forms for the pronouns. The modern dialect forms diverge and are indicated below in brackets. The independent personal pronouns are: hw [hay, hūy] “he”; hʿ(yʾ) [hid] “she”; ʾnt/ʾnʾt [at, at] “you (masc./fem. sing.)”; ʾnʾ [ana, an, ān] “I”; hynwn [honnī] “they (inanimate)”; ʿnyn, hynyn [hanni/ī] “they (fem.); ʾn(ʾ)twn [a/åton] “you (masc./fem. plur.)”; ʾnyn, ʾnʿn [a/āni/ī] “we.” The enclitics based on the independent pronouns are employed with the active and passive participles or adjectives: [-ye/a] (3rd sing. masc.); [-ī] (3rd sing. fem.); -t, -ʾt [ya/āt] (2nd sing. masc.); -yt [-yet] (2nd sing. fem.); -nʾ [-nån] (1st sing. common); [-nån, -no/ōn] (3rd plur. masc.); [-nen] (3rd plur. fem.); -twn [-(o)xon] (2nd plur. masc./fem.); -nyn [-an] (1st plur. com.). The possessive and object pronominal suffixes are: -ẖ [ī/i] “his/him”; -h(ʾ) [-a/ā] “her/her”; -ʾk [-ax] “your/you (inanimate sing.)”; -yk [-ex] “your/you (fem. sing.); -yʾ/nyʾ [ -e/ē/ey] “my/me”; -(h)wn [ -ū/u] “their/them (masc.)”; -(h)yn “their/them (fem.)”; -kwn [ -(o)xon] “your/you (masc.)”; -kyn “your/you (fem.); -ʾn [-an] “our/us.”

Mandaic has one set of demonstrative pronouns to denote the near object: hʾzyn “this (in.)”; rarely hʾdyn, hʾzʾ “this (fem.)”; rarely hʾdʾ, hʾzʾy ḏ- “this, which (fem.)”; h(ʾ)lyn “these (plur. common)”; only late hʾy “this (in.).” There are three sets for the far deixis: (1) the near demonstrative augmented by -k, hʾzʾk “that (in.)” and the shortened classical form hʾk “that (inan.)”; hʾzyk “that (fem.)”; hnyk “that (plur. com.)”; (2) the near demonstrative augmented by -hʾ plus the independent pronoun, hʾhw “that (in.)”; hʾhʿ “that (fem.)”; (3) a set which is only restricted to Mandaic without any comparable forms in other Aramaic dialects, hʾnʾtẖ “that (sing. com.)”; hʾnʾtwn “those (plur. masc.)”; hʾnʾtyn “those (plur. fem.)”.

The interrogative pronouns are the common Aramaic ones: mʾn [ma/ān] “who” and [ma/ā, mo/ō/u] “what.” The reflexive pronoun is derived from the noun npš- [nāḇš-, nāfš-] “soul.” The indefinite pronouns are ʾnš [enšī] “someone” and the dissimilated form mʿ/yndʾm [me/indī, ḇād, ḇādī] = Pahl. ideogram MNDʿM /tis/ “something.”

As in Aramaic in general, there is no evidence for cases. The article is suffixed to the noun: -ʾ /-ā/. For the noun one distinguishes between three states: absolute (undetermined), construct (dependent), emphatic (determined); two numbers: singular, plural, very rarely in fixed forms dual; two genders: masculine and feminine which are indicated by endings accordingly (TABLE 1).

An exception to the above is the feminine ending -tyʾ for the emphatic state of certain adjectives and, rarely, nouns: rbtyʾ “large” (sing.), hdʾtyʾ “new” (plur.), sbty “old women.”

The Mandaic verbal system is based on the Semitic triliteral root and distinguishes the following stems: peal = basic stem qtʾl /qtal/, pael = intensive qtyl /qattel/, afel = causative ʾqtyl /aqtel/, šafel = causative šqtyl /šaqtel/, the rare safel = causative sqtyl /saqtel/, and their respective passive-reflexive stems: itpeel ʿyqtyl /itqtel/, itpaal ʿytqtl itqattal/, ittafal ʿtqtl /ittaqtal/, and the even rarer ištafal ʿštqtl /ištaqtal and istafal ʿstqtl /istaqtal/.

Mandaic has three finite verbal conjugations: perfect (past), imperfect (present-future), and imperative, three non-finite forms, an active and a passive participle, and one infinitive form (verbal noun; see TABLE 2).

The two participles are active participle gʾṭyl “killing” and passive participle gṭyl “killed.” On the base of the two participles, two new tenses are formed, respectively active participle present (present future) gṭlnʾ “I kill, I am going to kill” or as historical present “I killed.” and the passive participle present (past action) gṭylnʾ “I am/was killed.” Later the last two developed into a complex tense system in Modern Mandaic.

The infinitive of the ground stem is nzygṭʾl “to kill,” and those of the derived stems: pael lhrwbyʾ “to destroy,” afel ʿwhdwryʾ “to return,” itpeel ʿwʾdkwryʾ “to remember,” itpaal ʿytgrwbyʾ “to rob.”

Noteworthy is the particle of existence ʾykʾ, ʿkʾ, mod. ext- “there is” and the negated variant lykʾ, mod. lexa- “there is not.” Mandaic shares this feature with Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, and it was retained in some Iraqi colloquial Arabic dialects (Müller-Kessler, 2003).

In the group of Central Southeastern Aramaic, the number of prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions is very small. They did not increase as in Western Aramaic. The prepositions are the enclitics: b– “in, with, by,” l– “to,” and the independent ones: ʾkwʾt “as, like,” bynyʾ, byt “between,” lwʾt “with,” mn “from, with” (ʾ)mnṭwl, ʿl mnṭwl “on account,” ʿl, ʾ1 “on, upon, against, ʿlʾwʾ “on,” ʿqʾdʾ, qʾd “with, to,” qwdʾm “in front of,” (ʾ)twtyʾ “under, beneath,” bʾtʾr “after”. The most frequent adverbs are: hʾštʾ “now,” hʾyzʾk “then,” twin “again,” “here,” lʿhwryʾ “behind,” tytyʾ “beneath,” hʾtʾm “there,” hdʾdyʾ “one another,” šʾpyr, ṭʾb “well” or the ones combined with l–, e.g., lbyš “evilly,” The coordinating conjunctions are w “and,” ʿw “or,” ʾp “also”; subordinating conjunctions: ḏ-, ʾ1mʾḏ- “until,” hyn, ʿyn “if,” kʾmʾḏ- “as, how,” kḏ “when,” (ʾ)m(y)nṭwl ḏ- “since.”

Syntax. In Mandaic and its related dialects, differentiation between the absolute state and the emphatic state (e.g., “the king”) is given up; therefore the marked (emphatic) form mʾlkʾ /malkā/ can express “a king/the king,” mʾlktʾ “a queen/the queen.” This applies also to the genitive construction, which is replaced by the use of the genitive particle ḏ-, as in mʾlkʾḏ-bbyl instead of mʾlk bbyl “the king of Babel.” In Mandaic, Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, and Syriac, the syntactical passive construction qtyl l– is employed in the sense of the past tense, and it later developed into a complete tense system in the Northeastern Neo-Aramaic dialects. Its Iranian origin stays doubtful, since it is only attested in the mentioned Late Aramaic dialects and not in the earlier ones, Imperial Aramaic and Biblical Aramaic. This construction is not restricted to the verbs of saying and hearing (hʾzylẖ “he saw’) but can be employed with all kinds of verbs: pryqlʾ “she rescued,” gṭyrlʾ “she killed,” mtnʾlhʾ “she placed,” ʿsyrlyʾ “I bound,” mlyʾlyʾ “I filled.” Another syntactical feature is the use of the active and passive participles with the enclitic pronouns. The active participle present often continues the regular perfect as a historical present in sub-clauses. Restricted to Mandaic and Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic is the use of the shortened form of the active participle qʾym, before the active participle; it is hardly noticeable in pre-Classic Mandaic texts, but in the later religious corpus it can express a state or present time or the process of doing something. Modern Mandaic employs it regularly for the present-future (Macuch, 1993, p. 69). The position of the verb in pre-Classic Mandaic is not free. In general, the verb precedes the subject, but in later Mandaic this is given up.

Lexicography. The lexemes in Mandaic and Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic form a distinct group within the Late Aramaic vocabulary. Both dialects show rare and specific verbs. Some of them are early loans from Iranian, e.g., ʾ/hndz “to measure, to overlap,” bšqr “to search, discern,” prhz “to avert, turn away,” šhrz “to tremble.” Others are restricted to Mandaic only, and some are of unknown origin: pndl, pdl < *pld < Syriac plhd “to separate” or zrm/nby and sndr “to quake, tremble.” The safel stem ssṭm “to shackle a demon” is typical for the magic texts of Mesopotamia.

In the area of loanwords, Mandaic inherited from Akkadian an abundance of termini technici concerning religion, but also many words inn other areas. Despite the limitation in its attested lexicon, due to the loss of texts, Mandaic shows more Akkadian borrowings than any other Aramaic dialect. The Mandaean gnostic sect recruited from a Babylonian population, and a stock of Akkadian words had belonged to the idiom of that geographical area for some centuries. Particular borrowings in Mandaic are: priest classes, cult, divination, and magic terms: brʾyʾ < bartū “diviner,” zʾbʾ 2 “esoteric priests,” gynyʾ “sacrifice,” ʿkwrʾ < ekurru “temple,” prykʾ < parakku “altar, shrine,” pyšrʾ < pišru “dissolving of a magic bond,” ʾšp < ašāpu “to bewitch,” šʾptʾ < šiptu “incantation”; terms concerning the gnostic doctrine and cult: gynyʾ < ginû “sanctuaries,” zywʾ < zīmu “brilliance,” nʾndbyʾ < nindabû “offering,” nʾṣwrʾyʾ “watcher of secrets,” nʾṣyrwtʾ “secrecy” < niṣirtu; architectional terms: ʾngrʾ < agāru “wall,”roof,” kšwrʾ < gušūru “beam, post”; body parts: gysʾ 2 “side”; ktʾ < qātu “hand, handle,” šʾyryʾnʾ < “vein, artery”; directions of the wind, name of winds, astronomical terms: šʾrʾ <šārū “direction of the wind,” stʾnʾ < ištānu north(wind), ywniʾ 2 <ūmu 3 “storm,” tʾlyʾ < attala “eclipse.”



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(Christa Müller-Kessler)

Originally Published: July 20, 2009

Last Updated: July 20, 2009

Cite this entry:

Christa Müller-Kessler, "MANDAEANS v. MANDAIC LANGUAGE," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012, available at (accessed on 20 January 2012).