Syriac is an Eastern Aramaic language that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent. 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.
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.
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, Turkey, Iraq, Iran 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 Osrhoene),
- Middle Syriac (Kthâbânâyâ: 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 Osrhoene 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.
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 a authoritative translation of the Bible into Syriac (the Pšittâ or Peshitta). At the same time, Ephrem the Syrian was producing the most treasured collection of poetry and theology in the Syriac language.
The sixth beatitude
(Matthew 5:8) from an East Syriac Peshitta.Tuvayhon l'aylên dadkên blebhon: dhenon nehzon l'alâhâ.
'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.'
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 separate western and eastern literary languages, with distinct pronunciation, scripts and grammar.
Western Middle Syriac is the official language of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Eastern Middle Syriac is the liturgical language of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syro-Malabar Catholic 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 this wealth remains not available 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. Among the Syriac churches of Kerala, Malayalam often replaces Syriac.
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, Mlahso 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.
- Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53573-2.
- 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.
- Payne Smith, Jessie (Ed.) (1903). A compendious Syriac dictionary founded upon the Thesaurus Syriacus of R 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 0199261296.