Syriac language

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This article is about the Classical Syriac language. For contemporary Syriac languages, see Northeastern Neo-Aramaic.
"Syrian language" redirects here. For the modern language, see Languages of Syria.
ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐLeššānā Suryāyā
Syriac - Estrangelo Nisibin Calligraphy.png
Leššānā Suryāyā in written Syriac (Esṭrangelā script)
Pronunciation /lɛʃʃɑːnɑː surjɑːjɑː/
Region Upper Mesopotamia, Eastern Arabia[1][2]
Era Dramatically declined as a vernacular language after the 14th century[3]
Syriac abjad
Language codes
ISO 639-2 syc
ISO 639-3 syc
Glottolog clas1252[4]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
Page from a Melkite Hermologion (Hymnal), 11th-century manuscript from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Syriac /ˈsɪriæk/ (also known as Classical Syriac, or Syriac-Aramaic, Syro-Aramaic, Syrian; natively ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Leššānā Suryāyā or ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyā "literary [language]") is a Middle Aramaic language used across much of the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia during Late Antiquity.[1][2][5] It is written in the Syriac alphabet, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet.

Classical Syriac is one of the three major literary languages of Early Christianity, alongside Latin and Greek.[6] It developed during the early centuries of the Christian era in Edessa,[7] and it became a major literary language of Eastern Christianity during the 4th to the 8th centuries, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature.[8] [9] Syriac became the vehicle of Syriac Christianity and culture, and the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, and it remains the liturgical languages of the contemporary churches following either the East Syrian Rite or the West Syrian Rite.

Literary corpus[edit]

Main article: 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.'

The early churches in Edessa began to use Syriac as their liturgical language by the 3rd century. The Syriac translation of the Bible, known as the the Peshitta (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ Pšīṭtā) was compiled in the 2nd century, and by the 5th century had a wide circulation. It had a great missionary influence in Asia, the Armenian, Georgian, Arabic and Persian versions of the Bible are all significantly indebted to the Syriac version. The presence of the Syriac Bible in China is established for the 7th century. The Diatessaron is an early Syriac Gospel harmony compiled by Tatian still in the 2nd century.

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.

Bardaisan was a 2nd-century Gnostic author from Edessa; his works are mostly known from later references.

The works of the Syriac theologians are edited in the Patrologia Orientalis (PO). Substantial contributions to the Syriac portions in PO are due to Addai Scher. One of the most prolific early Syriac writer was Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373). Other notable early authors include Aphrahat (d. c. 345), Isaac of Antioch (5th century), Narsai (5th-century poet), Jacob of Serugh (d. 521)

The Nestorian Schism of 431 led to the division of Syriac into distinctive western and eastern varieties, which persisted even after the schism was resolved in 544. Eastern and Western Syriac became the liturgical languages of the East Syrian rite and the West Syrian rite, respectively.

A number of important works originally written in Greek survive only in Syriac translation. Among these are several works by Severus of Antioch (d. 538), translated by Paul of Edessa (d. 526). A Life of Severus was written by Athanasius I Gammolo (d. 635). An important Ecclesiastical History is due to John of Ephesus (d. 588). Babai the Great (d. 628) and Isaac of Nineveh (d. 700) are important theologians in the Church of the East.

Syriac literature declines graually following the Islamic conquest of the 7th century. An important author of this later period is Jacob of Edessa (d. 708). The Zuqnin Chronicle is a Syriac historiographical work of the late 8th century. Later Syriac Christian authors mostly wrote in Arabic, such as Theodore Abu Qurrah (d. 823)[10] A Syriac work on rhetoric was written by Anthony of Tagrit in the 9th century.


Many Syriac words, like those in other Semitic languages, are built out of triliteral roots, collations of three Syriac consonants with variable vowel (and some consonant) sets as a "glue". For example, the root ܫܩܠ, ŠQL, has the basic meaning of taking, and the following are some 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"


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, person", 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".


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.


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.


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-
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


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/



Syriac is a form of Eastern Middle Aramaic. It developed from the Late Old Eastern Aramaic or "Old Syriac" spoken in the kingdom of Osroene, centred on Edessa and founded in 132 BC,[11] ultimately derived from local variants of the Old Aramaic language used as lingua franca in the Achaemenid Empire.

There are about eighty extant Old Syriac inscriptions, dated to the first three centuries AD. The earliest attestation of what is unambiguously Old Syriac, as opposed to Imperial Aramaic, is in an inscription dated to AD 6; the record of Syriac in manuscript form is a deed of sale dated to AD 243.[citation needed] All of these early examples of the language are non-Christian. As an official language in Osroene, Syriac was given a relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects.

Literary and liturgical language[edit]

Most Syriac literature dates to between the 4th and the 8th centuries. The Nestorian Schism of the 5th to 6th centuries led to a division of Syriac into a western variety used by the Syriac Orthodox Churchs in upper Mesopotamia and western Syria, and an eastern dialect used in the Sassanid controlled east used by the Church of the East:[12] Eastern Syriac is the liturgical language of the East Syrian Rite, and Western Syriac is the liturgical language of the West Syrian Rite.

Following the Muslim conquest of the Levant and of Sassanid Persia in the mid-7th century, Aramaic gradually gave way to Arabic as the spoken language of much of the region, althogh there remained substantial pockets where Aramaic remained current, and developed into the various Neo-Aramaic variants in the course of the medieval period. Literary production of Syriac works was stifled. In the later medieval period, the Mongol invasions and the persecution of Christians under Tamerlane further contributed to the rapid decline of the language.

Contemporary use[edit]

Syriac is spoken as the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, as well as by some of its adherents.[13] Syriac has been recognised as an official minority language in Iraq.[14] It is also taught in some public schools in Iraq, Israel, Sweden,[15][16] Augsburg (Germany) and Kerala (India).

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]


Distribution of spoken Aramaic in the Middle East, and of Syriac Christianity throughout Asia.
A warning sign: Please! Let's be quiet!', in Syriac and Turkish languages.

Attempts at revival of literary Syriac in have led to some success with the creation of newspapers in written Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyā), similar to the modern standard 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.[17]

In 2014, an Assyrian nursery school could finally be opened in Yeşilköy, Istanbul[18] after waging a lawsuit against the Ministry of National Education which had denied it permission, but was required to respect non-Muslim minority rights as specified in the Treaty of Lausanne.[19]

Neo-Aramaic descendants[edit]

Classical Syriac developed into Neo-Aramaic languages. "Modern Syriac"/"Modern Syriac Aramaic" is a term occasionally used to refer to the modern Eastern Aramaic languages (see e.g. Lipinski 2001:70[20]). Even if they cannot 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:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Holes, Clive (2001). "Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia: Glossary". pp. XXIV–XXVI. 
  2. ^ a b Cameron, Averil (1993). "The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity". p. 185. 
  3. ^ Angold 2006, pp. 391
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Classical Syriac". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  5. ^ Smart, J R (2013). "Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature". p. 253. 
  6. ^ Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-300-11884-1. 
  7. ^ Cameron, Averil; Garnsey, Peter (1998). "The Cambridge Ancient History". p. 708. 
  8. ^ Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic Language: its distribution and subdivisions. John F. Healey (trans.). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. p. 44. ISBN 3-525-53573-2. 
  9. ^ " Syriac literature comprises roughly 90% of the extant Aramaic literature" Tannous, Jack (2010). Syria Between Byzantium and Islam (phd). Princeton University. p. 1. 
  10. ^ Abu Qurrah is said to have written in Syriac as well as in Arabic, but only his Arabic works are extant. See J. C. Lamoureaux, 'Theodore Abū Qurra', in Bibliographical History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Brill, 2009), p. 417-60.
  11. ^ Drijvers, H. J. W. (1980). Cults and beliefs at Edessa. Brill Archive. p. 1. ISBN 978-90-04-06050-0. 
  12. ^ Stefan Weninger (2011). The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. p. 652. ISBN 9783110251586. 
  13. ^ Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Elsevier. 6 April 2010. pp. 58–. ISBN 978-0-08-087775-4. 
  14. ^ Anbori, Abbas. "The Comprehensive Policy to Manage the Ethnic Languages in Iraq" (PDF): 4–5. 
  15. ^ Dorit, Shilo (1 April 2010). "The Ben Yehudas of Aramaic". Haaretz. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  16. ^ "Syriac... a language struggling to survive". Voices of Iraq. 28 December 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ Assyrian School Welcomes Students in Istanbul, Marking a New Beginning
  19. ^ Turkey Denies Request to Open Assyrian-Language Kindergarten
  20. ^ a b Lipinski, Edward. 2001. Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. P.70


External links[edit]