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
East from the second to the
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
- See Syriac
(disambiguation) for other uses.
It became the vehicle of
and culture, spreading throughout Asia as far as
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
replaced it towards the end of the eighth century.
ClassificationSyriac is a member of the Afro-Asiatic
language family, the Semitic
language sub-family, the West Semitic language branch, and the
Syriac is written in the
distributionSyriac 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,
Asia and southern
India. It is now spoken as a first language in small, scattered
communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Palestine,
These communities have, over the years, settled throughout the
Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and
history of Syriac can be divided into three distinct
- Old Syriac (the language of the kingdom of
- Middle Syriac ( : Literary Syriac), which
- 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
- Modern Syriac (a Modern Eastern Aramaic
language), which remains divided:
began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Old Aramaic in northern
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
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 Syriacsee 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
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
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
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.
vernacularsClassical 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
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
Urmia to Mosul, is diverse.
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
and throughout the world.
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,
- ܫܩܠܘܬܐ — : "a beast of burden"
- ܫܘܩܠ — šûqālâ: "arrogance"
Syriac nouns are built from
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.
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").
- 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
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
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".
Syriac verbs are built on triliteral roots as well.
Finite verbs carry person,
(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
Syriac has only two true
tenses: perfect and imperfect. Whereas these tenses were originally
they have become a truly temporal past and
tenses respectively. The present
tense is usually marked with the participle followed by the
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.
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
ConsonantsSyriac 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
, with only the /k/-/x/
As with other Semitic
, Syriac has a set of five emphatic
s. 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