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Extensive Definition

See Syriac (disambiguation) for other uses.
Syriac ( leššānā Suryāyā) is an Eastern Aramaic language that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent. It was a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the second to the eighth century AD. At its broadest definition, Syriac is often used to refer to all Eastern Aramaic languages spoken by various Christian groups; at its most specific, it refers to the classical language of Edessa, which became the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity.
It became the vehicle of 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 which replaced it towards the end of the eighth century.


Syriac is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, the Semitic language sub-family, the West Semitic language branch, and the Aramaic language group.
Syriac is written in the Syriac alphabet.

Geographic distribution

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 southern India. It is now spoken as a first language in small, scattered communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These communities have, over the years, settled throughout the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Australia.


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),
  • Modern Syriac (a Modern Eastern Aramaic language), which remains divided:


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 fifth century BC. After the conquests of Syria and Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects became written languages in a reaction to Hellenism. Old Syriac orthography is drawn from Arsacid Aramaic. 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. There are about eighty extant Old 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, Old Syriac was given a relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects.

Literary Syriac

see Syriac literature 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 or Peshitta). 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. The dubbing of the Persian church as 'Nestorian' heretics by the West led to a bitter division in the Syriac-speaking world. Thus, 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.
Eastern Middle Syriac is the liturgical language of the Assyrian Church of the East (including the Chaldean Syrian Church), 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 seventh century onwards, Syriac gave way to Arabic as the spoken language of the region. The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century led 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 ( Kthābānāyā), and the translation of many Arabic and western books into Syriac. 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.

Modern Syriac vernaculars

Classical Syriac mixed with various local, unwritten Eastern Aramaic dialects throughout northern Mesopotamia over time. These Neo-Syriac vernaculars are only partly based on the classical language, and are diverse enough to impede clear communication between speakers of different Modern Syriac languages.
The main language of Modern Western Syriac is Turoyo, the mountain tongue of Tur Abdin in eastern Turkey. A related but distinct language, Mlahsô is now believed to be extinct.
Modern Eastern Syriac has much in common with the Jewish languages of Eastern Aramaic. This group of languages, spread from Lake Urmia to Mosul, is diverse. Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (with numerous dialects) and Chaldean Neo-Aramaic are the major Christian languages.
Due to the upheavals of the region over the last two centuries, many speakers of Modern Syriac languages have moved south into Syria and Iraq, north into Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and throughout the world.


Syriac words, as with those in other Semitic languages, are built out of triliteral 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 syllable"
  • 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 (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 correspond, in part, to the role of grammatical cases in some other languages.
  • The absolute state is the basic form of the noun — ܫܩܠܝ̈ܢ, šeqlîn, "taxes".
  • 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, "man", 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-. Thus, the same noun phrase becomes ܫܩ̈ܠܐ 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".
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, bîšîn šeqlē, 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, 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 Pə`al (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 meaning, The third is the extensive state, or , form of the verb, which is often causative 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.


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. Pronunciation has also been affected by other languages.


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 (, or strengthening; equivalent to a dagesh in Hebrew) to 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: Some Syriac speakers, however, reduce each of these pairs to a single unvarying consonant. For example, an Arabic-influenced speaker of Western Syriac might reduce the set to /b/, /ɣ/, /d/, /f/ and /t/, with only the /k/-/x/ pair remaining.
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:
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