( ) is a dialect of Middle Aramaic
that was once spoken across
much of the Fertile Crescent
became a major literary language
throughout the Middle East
from the 4th
to the 8th centuries. It was the classical language of Edessa, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature.
the vehicle of Eastern
Christianity and culture, spreading throughout Asia as far as Malabar and
Eastern China and was the
medium of communication and cultural dissemination for Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Persians.
Primarily a Christian medium
of expression, Syriac had a fundamental cultural and literary
influence on the development of Arabic
replaced it towards the end of the eighth century. Syriac remains
the liturgical language
Syriac is a Middle Aramaic
and as such a language of the Western
of the Semitic
Syriac is written in the Syriac
, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet
Syriac was originally a local Aramaic dialect in northern Mesopotamia
. Before Arabic became the dominant language,
Syriac was a major language among Christian communities in the
Middle East, Central Asia and Kerala.
The history of Syriac can be divided into three distinct periods:
- Old Syriac (the language of the kingdom of Osroene),
- Middle Syriac ( : Literary Syriac), which divided into:
- Western Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language
of Syriac and Maronite Christians),
- Eastern Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language
of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians).
Syriac began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Old Aramaic
in northern Mesopotamia
. The first
evidence we have of such dialects is their influence on the written
Imperial Aramaic from the 5th century BC. After the conquest of
Syria and Mesopotamia by Alexander
, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects became written
languages in a reaction to Hellenism
.Syriac orthography is
drawn from Arsacid
In 132 BC,
the kingdom of Betnovin was founded in Edessa with Syriac as its official language.
Syriac-speakers still look to Edessa as the cradle of their
language.There are about eighty extant early Syriac inscriptions,
dated to the first three centuries AD. The earliest example of
Syriac, rather than Imperial Aramaic, is in an inscription dated to
6 AD, and the earliest parchment is a deed of sale dated to 243 AD.
early inscriptions were found at Sumatar Harabesi.
All of these early examples of the language
are non-Christian. As an official language, Syriac was given a
relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in
other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects.
In the third century, churches in Edessa began to use Syriac as the
language of worship. There is evidence that the adoption of Syriac,
the language of the people, was to effect mission. Much literary
effort was put into the production of an authoritative translation
of the Bible into Syriac, the Peshitta
or). At the same time, Ephrem the
was producing the most treasured collection of poetry
and theology in the Syriac language.
In 489, many Syriac-speaking Christians living in the Roman Empire
fled to Persia to escape persecution and growing animosity with
Greek-speaking Christians. The Christological differences with the
Persian church led to the bitter Nestorian schism in the Syriac-speaking
As a result, Syriac developed distinctive western and
eastern varieties. Although remaining a single language with a high
level of comprehension between the varieties, the two employ
distinctive variations in pronunciation and writing system, and, to
a lesser degree, in vocabulary.
Western Syriac is the official language of the West Syrian rite
, practiced by the Syriac Orthodox Church
, the Syrian Catholic Church
, the Maronite Church
, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian
, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox
, the Mar Thoma Church
and the Syro-Malankara
Eastern Syriac is the liturgical language of the East Syrian rite
, practiced by the Assyrian Church of the East
(including the Chaldean Syrian
), the Ancient
Church of the East
, the Chaldean Catholic Church
, and the
Syriac literature is by far the most prodigious of the various
. Its corpus
covers poetry, prose, theology, liturgy, hymnody, history,
philosophy, science, medicine and natural history. Much of this
wealth remains unavailable in critical editions or modern
From the 7th century onwards, Syriac gave way to Arabic
as the spoken language of the region.
invasions of the 13th century
further contributed to the rapid decline of the language. In many
places, even in liturgy, it was replaced by Arabic.
Revivals of Syriac in recent times have led to some success with
the creation of newspapers in literary Syriac (
), and the translation of many Arabic and
western books into Syriac.
Among the Syriac churches of
Syriac. Literary Syriac is often used as a spoken language by
clerics who do not speak the vernacular dialects.
Syriac words, as with those in other Semitic languages
, are built out of
roots, permutations of three
Syriac consonants. For example, the root ܫܩܠ, ŠQL
, has the
basic meaning of taking
, and so we have the following
words that can be formed from this root:
- ܫܩܠ — šqal: "he has taken"
- ܢܫܩܘܠ — nešqûl: "he takes"
- ܫܩܠ — šaqqel: "he has lifted/raised"
- ܐܫܩܠ — ašqel: "he has set out"
- ܫܩܠܐ — šqālâ: "a taking, burden, recension, portion or
- ܫܩ̈ܠܐ — šeqlē: "takings, profits, taxes"
- ܫܩܠܘܬܐ — : "a beast of burden"
- ܫܘܩܠ — šûqālâ: "arrogance"
Most Syriac nouns
are built from triliteral
roots. Nouns carry grammatical gender
feminine), they can be either singular or plural in number (a very
few can be dual) and can exist in one of three grammatical states.
These states correspond, in part, to the role of grammatical cases
in some other languages.
- The absolute state is the basic form of the noun — ܫܩܠܝ̈ܢ,
- The emphatic state usually represents a definite noun — ܫܩ̈ܠܐ,
šeqlē, "the taxes".
- The construct state marks a noun in relationship to another
noun — ̈ܫܩܠܝ, šeqlay, "taxes of...".
However, very quickly in the development of Classical Syriac, the
emphatic state became the ordinary form of the noun, and the
absolute and construct states were relegated to certain stock
phrases (for example, ܒܪ ܐܢܫܐ/ܒܪܢܫܐ, bar nāšâ
literally "son of man").
In Old and early Classical Syriac, most genitive
noun relationships are built using
the construct state. Thus, ܫܩܠܝ̈ ܡܠܟܘܬܐ, , means "the taxes of the
kingdom". Quickly, the construct relationship was abandoned and
replaced by the use of the relative particle ܕ, d-
the same noun phrase
ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, , where both nouns are in the emphatic state. Very closely
related nouns can be drawn into a closer grammatical relationship
by the addition of a pronominal suffix. Thus, the phrase can be
written as ܫܩܠܝ̈ܗ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, . In this case, both nouns continue to
be in the emphatic state, but the first has the suffix that makes
it literally read "her taxes" ("kingdom" is feminine), and thus is
"her taxes, those of the kingdom".
always agree in gender and
number with the nouns they modify. Adjectives are in the absolute
state if they are predicative
but agree with the state of their noun if attributive
. Thus, ܒܝܫܝ̈ܢ ܫܩ̈ܠܐ,
, means "the taxes are evil", whereas ܫܩ̈ܠܐ
ܒܝ̈ܫܐ, , means "evil taxes".
Most Syriac verbs are built on triliteral
roots as well. Finite verbs carry person
(except in the first person) and
number, as well as tense
. The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive
and the active
Syriac has only two true morphological
tenses: perfect and
imperfect. Whereas these tenses were originally aspectual
, they have become a truly temporal
tenses respectively. The present tense
is usually marked with the
followed by the subject pronoun
However, such pronouns are usually omitted in the case of the third
person. This use of the participle to mark the present tense is the
most common of a number of compound
tenses that can be
used to express varying senses of tense and aspect.
Syriac also employs verb conjugations
such as are present
in other Semitic languages
are regular modifications of the verb's root to express other
changes in meaning. The first conjugation is the ground state, or
(this name models the shape of the root). form of
the verb, which carries the usual meaning of the word. The next is
the intensive state, or Pa``el
, form of the verb, which
usually carries an intensified
The third is the extensive state, or , form of the verb, which is
in meaning. Each of these
conjugations has its parallel passive
conjugation: the , and respectively. To these six cardinal
conjugations are added a few irregular forms, like the and , which
generally have an extensive meaning.
|Person & gender
Phonologically, like the other Northwest Semitic languages, Syriac
has 22 consonants and 3 vowels. The consonantal phonemes are:
Phonetically, there is some variation in the pronunciation of
Syriac in its various forms. The various Modern Eastern Aramaic
vernaculars have quite different pronunciations, and these
sometimes influence how the classical language is pronounced, for
example, in public prayer. Classical Syriac has two major streams
of pronunciation: western and eastern.
Syriac shares with Aramaic
a set of
lightly contrasted plosive
pairs. In different variations
of a certain lexical root, a root consonant might exist in plosive
form in one variation and fricative form in another. In the
, a single letter is
used for each pair. Sometimes a dot is placed above the letter ( ,
; equivalent to a dagesh
mark that the plosive pronunciation is required, and a dot is
placed below the letter ( , or softening
) to mark that the
fricative pronunciation is required. The pairs are:
As with other Semitic languages
Syriac has a set of five emphatic
. These are consonants that are articulated or
released in the pharynx
or slightly higher.
The set consists of:
Syriac also has a rich array of sibilant consonants
As with most Semitic languages
the vowels of Syriac are mostly subordinated to consonants.
Especially in the presence of an emphatic consonant
, vowels tend to become
Classical Syriac had the following set of distinguishable vowels:
In the western dialect, has become , and the original has merged
with . In eastern dialects there is more fluidity in the
pronunciation of front vowels
, with some
speakers distinguishing five qualities of such vowels, and others
only distinguishing three. Vowel length is generally not important:
tend to be longer than
The open vowels
with the approximants
and . In almost all
dialects the full sets of possible diphthongs collapses into two or
three actual pronunciations:
- Journal of Sacred Literature, New Series [Series 4] vol. 2
(1863) pp. 75-87, The Syriac Language and
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and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN
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Introduction to Syriac Studies. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
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Lexicon Syriacum. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard;
Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Healey, John F (1980). First studies in Syriac.
University of Birmingham/Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN
- Maclean, Arthur John (2003). Grammar of the dialects of
vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan,
north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul: with notices of the
vernacular of the Jews of Azerbaijan and of Zakhu near Mosul.
Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-018-9.
- Nöldeke, Theodor and Julius
Euting (1880) Kurzgefasste syrische Grammatik. Leipzig:
T.O. Weigel. [translated to English as Compendious Syriac
Grammar, by James A. Crichton. London: Williams & Norgate
1904. 2003 edition: ISBN 1-57506-050-7].
- Payne Smith, Jessie (Ed.) (1903). A compendious Syriac
dictionary founded upon the Thesaurus Syriacus of Robert Payne Smith. Oxford
University Press, reprinted in 1998 by Eisenbraums. ISBN
- Robinson, Theodore Henry (1915). Paradigms and exercises in
Syriac grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN
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Elementary Grammar With Readings from Syriac Literature.
Bethesda, MD: Ibex Publishers, ISBN 0936347988.