Syriac language

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This article is about the Classical Syriac language. For contemporary "Syriac" dialects, see Northeastern Neo-Aramaic. For other uses, see Syriac (disambiguation).
Syriac
ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Leššānā Suryāyā
Syriac - Estrangelo Nisibin Calligraphy.png
Leššānā Suryāyā in written Syriac (Esṭrangelā script)
Pronunciation /lɛʃʃɑːnɑː surjɑːjɑː/
Region Upper Mesopotamia
Ethnicity Assyrian/Syriac
Extinct Disappeared as a vernacular language after the 14th century.[1]
Syriac abjad
Language codes
ISO 639-2 syc
ISO 639-3 syc
Glottolog clas1252[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Syriac /ˈsɪriæk/ (ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Leššānā Suryāyā) is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia.[3][4][5] Having first appeared as a script in the 1st century AD after being spoken as an unwritten language for five centuries,[6] Classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries,[7] the classical language of Edessa, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature.

It became the vehicle of Syriac Christianity and culture, spreading throughout Asia as far as the Indian Malabar Coast and Eastern China,[8] 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,[9] which largely replaced it towards the 14th century.[1] Syriac remains the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity.

Syriac is a Middle Aramaic language, and, as such, it is a language of the Northwestern branch of the Semitic family. It is written in the Syriac alphabet, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet.

Geographic distribution[edit]

The distribution of the Syriac language in the Middle East and Asia
Although once a major language in the Fertile Crescent and Bahrain, Syriac is now limited to enclaves in the Nineveh plains, Tur Abdin, the Khabur plains and around the Syrian town of Ma'loula
An 11th-century Syriac manuscript.

Syriac was originally a local Aramaic dialect of northern Mesopotamia that has evolved under the influence of Christianity into its current form. Before Arabic became the dominant language, Syriac was a major language among Christian communities in the Middle East, Central Asia and Kerala.

History[edit]

The history of Syriac can be divided into three distinct periods:

  • Old Syriac (the language the kingdoms of Adiabene and Osroene),
  • Middle Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyā, "Literary Syriac"), which is divided into:
    • Eastern Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians),
    • Western Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language of Syriac and Maronite Christians).
  • "Modern Syriac" is a term occasionally used to refer to the modern Eastern Aramaic languages (see e.g. Lipinski 2001:70[10]). Even if they can't be positively identified as the direct descendants of attested Middle Syriac, they must have developed from closely related dialects belonging to the same branch of Aramaic, and the varieties spoken in Christian communities have long co-existed with, and been influenced by, Middle Syriac as a liturgical and literary language. In this terminology, Modern Syriac is divided into:

The name "Syriac", when used with no qualification, generally refers to Middle or Old Syriac, but not to the various present-day Eastern and Central Neo-Aramaic languages that are descended from it or from close relatives. The modern varieties are, therefore, not discussed in this article.

Origins[edit]

Syriac began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Old Aramaic in northern Mesopotamia. The first evidence of such dialects is their influence on the written Imperial Aramaic from the 5th century BC. After the conquest of Mesopotamia and Aramea (Syria) by Alexander the Great, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects lost their status as imperial languages but continued to flourish as lingua francas alongside Ancient Greek.

In 132 BC, the kingdom of Osroene was founded in Edessa with Syriac as its official language. Syriac-speakers still look to Edessa as the cradle of their language.[11] 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 AD 6, and the earliest parchment is a deed of sale dated to AD 243). 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.

Literary Syriac[edit]

Further information: Syriac literature
The sixth beatitude (Matthew 5:8) from an East Syriac Peshitta.
ܛܘܼܒܲܝܗܘܿܢ ܠܐܲܝܠܹܝܢ ܕܲܕ݂ܟܹܝܢ ܒܠܸܒ̇ܗܘܿܢ܄ ܕܗܸܢ݂ܘܿܢ ܢܸܚܙܘܿܢ ܠܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ܂
Ṭūḇayhōn l-ʾaylên da-ḏḵên b-lebbhōn: d-hennōn neḥzōn l-ʾalāhā.
'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.'

In the 3rd 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 (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ Pšīṭtā). At the same time, Ephrem the Syrian 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.[citation needed] The Christological differences with the Church of the East led to the bitter Nestorian schism in the Syriac-speaking world. 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, practised by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Malabar Independent Syrian Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Eastern Syriac is the liturgical language of the East Syrian rite, practised in modern times by the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Syrian Church, the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Church.

Syriac literature is by far the most prodigious of the various Aramaic languages. 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 translation.

From the 7th century onwards, Syriac gave way to Arabic as the spoken language of the region. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century further contributed to the rapid decline of the language. In many places outside of northern Mesopotamia, even in liturgy, it was replaced by Arabic.

Current status[edit]

A warning sign: Please! Let's be quiet!', in Syriac and Turkish languages.

Revivals of literal Syriac in recent times have led to some success with the creation of newspapers in written Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyā), similar to the Arabic Fuṣḥā has been used since the early decades of the 20th century. Modern literary Syriac has also been used not only in religious literature but also in secular genres often with nationalistic themes.[12]

Syriac has been recognised as an official minority language in Iraq.[13] It is also taught in some public schools in Iraq, Israel, Sweden[14][15] and Kerala.

Among the Syriac churches of Kerala, Malayalam often replaces Syriac. Literary Syriac is often used as a spoken language by clerics who do not speak the vernacular dialects.[citation needed]

Grammar[edit]

Many Syriac words, like those in other Semitic languages, are built out of triliteral roots, collations of three Syriac consonants with variable vowel sets as a "glue". 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:

  • ܫܩܠšqal: "he has taken"
  • ܢܫܩܘܠnešqōl: "he will take"
  • ܫܩܠšāqel: "he takes, he is taking"
  • ܫܩܠšaqqel: "he has lifted/raised"
  • ܐܫܩܠʾašqel: "he has set out"
  • ܫܩܠܐšqālā: "a taking, burden, recension, portion or syllable"
  • ܫܩ̈ܠܐšeqlē: "takings, profits, taxes"
  • ܫܩܠܘܬܐšaqlūṯā: "a beast of burden"
  • ܫܘܩܠܐšūqqālā: "arrogance"

Nouns[edit]

Most Syriac nouns are built from triliteral roots. Nouns carry grammatical gender (masculine or 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 should not be confused with grammatical cases in other languages.

  • The absolute state is the basic form of the noun – ܫܩ̈ܠܝܢ, šeqlīn, "taxes".
  • The emphatic state usually represents a definite noun – ܫܩ̈ܠܐ, šeqlē, "the taxes".
  • The construct state marks a noun in relationship to another noun – ܫܩ̈ܠܝ, 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 nāšā, "man", literally "son of man").

In Old and early Classical Syriac, most genitive noun relationships are built using the construct state, but contrary to the genitive case, it is the head-noun which is marked by the construct state. Thus, ܫܩ̈ܠܝ ܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlay malkūṯā, means "the taxes of the kingdom". Quickly, the construct relationship was abandoned and replaced by the use of the relative particle ܕ, d-, da-. Thus, the same noun phrase becomes ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlē d-malkūṯā, 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 ܫܩ̈ܠܝܗ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlêh d-malkūṯā. 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".

Adjectives 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, bīšīn šeqlē, means "the taxes are evil", whereas ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܒܝ̈ܫܐ, šeqlē ḇīšē, means "evil taxes".

Verbs[edit]

Most Syriac verbs are built on triliteral roots as well. Finite verbs carry person, gender (except in the first person) and number, as well as tense and conjugation. The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive and the active and passive participles.

Syriac has only two true morphological tenses: perfect and imperfect. Whereas these tenses were originally aspectual in Aramaic, they have become a truly temporal past and future tenses respectively. The present tense is usually marked with the participle 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. These are regular modifications of the verb's root to express other changes in meaning. The first conjugation is the ground state, or Pəʿal (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 Paʿʿel, form of the verb, which usually carries an intensified meaning, The third is the extensive state, or ʾAp̄ʿel, form of the verb, which is often causative in meaning. Each of these conjugations has its parallel passive conjugation: the ʾEṯpəʿel, ʾEṯpaʿʿal and ʾEttap̄ʿal respectively. To these six cardinal conjugations are added a few irregular forms, like the Šap̄ʿel and ʾEštap̄ʿal, which generally have an extensive meaning.

Phonology[edit]

The Lord's Prayer, ʾAḇōn d-ḇa-šmayyā, sung in Syriac using the western dialect pronunciation

Problems playing this file? See media help.

Phonologically, like the other Northwest Semitic languages, Syriac has 22 consonants and 3 vowels. The consonantal phonemes are:

transliteration ʾ b g d h w z y k l m n s ʿ p q r š t
letter ܐ ܒ ܓ ܕ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܝ ܟ ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܥ ܦ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ
pronunciation [ʔ] [b], [v] [ɡ], [ɣ] [d], [ð] [h] [w] [z] [ħ] [tˤ] [j] [k], [x] [l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p], [f] [sˤ] [q] [r] [ʃ] [t], [θ]

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.

Consonants[edit]

Syriac shares with Aramaic a set of lightly contrasted plosive/fricative 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 Syriac alphabet, a single letter is used for each pair. Sometimes a dot is placed above the letter (qūššāyā, or strengthening; equivalent to a dagesh in Hebrew) to mark that the plosive pronunciation is required, and a dot is placed below the letter (rūkkāḵā, or softening) to mark that the fricative pronunciation is required. The pairs are:

  • Voiced labial pair – /b/ and /v/
  • Voiced velar pair – /ɡ/ and /ɣ/
  • Voiced dental pair – /d/ and /ð/
  • Voiceless labial pair – /p/ and /f/
  • Voiceless velar pair – /k/ and /x/
  • Voiceless dental pair – /t/ and /θ/

As with other Semitic languages, Syriac has a set of five emphatic consonants. 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:

Table of Syriac consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn-
geal
Glottal
plain emphatic plain
Nasal m n
Plosive p b t d k ɡ q ʔ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ x ɣ ħ ʕ h
Approximant w l j
Trill r

Vowels[edit]

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 mid-centralised.

Classical Syriac had the following set of distinguishable vowels:

In the western dialect, /ɑ/ has become /o/, and the original /o/ has merged with /u/. 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: close vowels tend to be longer than open vowels.

The open vowels form diphthongs with the approximants /j/ and /w/. In almost all dialects, the full sets of possible diphthongs collapses into two or three actual pronunciations:

  • /ɑj/ usually becomes /aj/, but the western dialect has /oj/
  • /aj/, further, sometimes monophthongized to /e/
  • /aw/ usually becomes /ɑw/
  • /ɑw/, further, sometimes monophthongized to /o/

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Angold 2006, pp. 391
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Classical Syriac". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia: Glossary". Clive Holes. 2001. pp. XXIV–XXVI. 
  4. ^ "The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity". Averil Cameron. 1993. p. 185. 
  5. ^ "Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language And Literature". J R Smart, J. R. Smart. 2013. 
  6. ^ "Ancient Scripts: Syriac". 
  7. ^ Beyer, Klaus; John F. Healey (trans.) (1986). The Aramaic Language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. p. 44. ISBN 3-525-53573-2. 
  8. ^ Ji, Jingyi (2007). Encounters Between Chinese Culture and Christianity: A Hermeneutical Perspective. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 41. ISBN 978-3-8258-0709-2. 
  9. ^ Beeston, Alfred Felix Landon (1983). Arabic literature to the end of the Umayyad period. Cambridge University Press. p. 497. ISBN 978-0-521-24015-4. 
  10. ^ a b Lipinski, Edward. 2001. Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. P.70
  11. ^ Drijvers, H. J. W. (1980). Cults and beliefs at Edessa. Brill Archive. p. 1. ISBN 978-90-04-06050-0. 
  12. ^ Kiraz, George. "Kthobonoyo Syriac: Some Observations and Remarks". HUGOYE: JOURNAL OF SYRIAC STUDIES. Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute and Institute of Christian Oriental Research at The Catholic University of America. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  13. ^ Anbori, Abbas. The Comprehensive Policy to Manage the Ethnic Languages in Iraq. pp. 4–5. 
  14. ^ Dorit, Shilo (1 April 2010). "The Ben Yehudas of Aramaic". Haaretz. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  15. ^ "Syriac...a language struggling to survive". Voices of Iraq. 28 December 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 

References[edit]

  • Journal of Sacred Literature, New Series [Series 4] vol. 2 (1863) pp. 75–87, The Syriac Language and Literature
  • Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53573-2.
  • Brock, Sebastian (2006). An Introduction to Syriac Studies. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-349-8.
  • Brockelmann, Carl (1895). Lexicon Syriacum. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Healey, John F (1980). First studies in Syriac. University of Birmingham/Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 0-7044-0390-0.
  • 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].
  • Angold, Michael (2006), O’Mahony, Anthony, ed., Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 5, Eastern Christianity, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521811132 .
  • 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 1-57506-032-9.
  • Robinson, Theodore Henry (1915). Paradigms and exercises in Syriac grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926129-6.
  • Rudder, Joshua. Learn to Write Aramaic: A Step-by-Step Approach to the Historical & Modern Scripts. n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. 220 pp. ISBN 978-1461021421 Includes the Estrangela (pp. 59-113), Madnhaya (pp. 191-206), and the Western Serto (pp. 173-190) scripts.

External links[edit]

Alphabet and Calligraphy

Dictionaries

Grammars, Learning Aids, and Related Resources see also Texts in Syrian (below)

Institutions and Organizations

Journals

Language Overviews

Other

Texts in Syrian see also Grammars, Learning Aids, and Related Resources (above)

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