The Semantic Depth of the Syriac Language

By Yusuf Beğtaş

Syriac is an ancient language that takes its place within the Semitic language family. This language, which carries the past to the future, has served as a vehicle of understanding the meaning of what constitutes “the boundaries of our universe”. It has functioned as an important bridge in inter-cultural interaction since its beginnings and throughout its history.

Syriac, by its very nature of rich and layered vocabulary, has its own concepts and notions of meaning. In Syriac, words can have multiple meanings. Meaning and interpretation in the Syriac language go back to the fruitful and deeply rooted culture that has emerged and thrived in ancient Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia).

It was in this cradle of civilization called Mesopotamia, and in the stratums of its ancient wisdom, that this different “system of meaning” about “Life” itself, captivated us. With its broad semantic dimension and interpretation capacity, the Syriac language manifests its existence and stature in all aspects. If Syriac is the subject of research, the researcher enters a sweet and long marathon, and dives into the deep seas and corridors of thought of words.

The concepts of “understanding” and “interpretation”

Like in other languages, when it comes to studying the concepts of “understanding” and “interpretation”, in Syriac, it is not always easy to comprehend the “root-meaning” of concepts. Although linguists for some centuries now, have made admirable progress in and many studies of Semitic languages in general and Syriac in particular, I think the secrets hidden in the depths of this ancient language have not yet been brought fully to the light.

The purpose of my article is to examine, in brief, the semiotic and semantic marking, and the hermeneutic world of the Syriac words ‘Nosho / Nasha’ and ‘Barnosho / Barnasha’, or ‘Human’. And derive its philosophical meanings.

It is in the processes of interpretation and conceptualization, that the nature of each language shapes the boundaries of meaning. Pointing out something in a language as an object or subject, is based on the meanings attributed to particular concepts. Hence, throughout time and history, a “word” can gain meanings according to its use, (new) contexts and hidden underlying notions. It can also have different usages and ways of expression according to social change and development.

“Understanding” and “Interpreting” of the word ‘Human’

As it can be understood from the Syriac meanings of the word “Human”, which I will do below, the development of every language is measured by the richness of hidden meanings in words and concepts of that language. The more meaning is imposed on a word, the richer that language is considered. Moreover, the richness of meaning in concepts, and the imposition of meaning that a language carries with it from the past, indicates how ancient that language is.

In other words; the only thing that gives a language an organic structure, is words and the world of their “meaning-value”, parallel to the conceptual inner balance of those words. If this “meaning-value universe” erodes and loses its meaning, then it means that this language has lost its creative-constructive and interpreting effect. Erosion and loss of meaning are like a disease to every language. It causes the conceptual identity of the words to weaken or completely die out over time.

The conceptual identity of words in a language emphasizes the context, the origin of the words, i.e. the spirit of the words. When it comes to the creative power of words, then the matters we mentioned above on words in a language, explain both meaning and value.

Context, meaning and value, have very important functions. They determine actions and motivations. The semantic identity of concepts improves mindscapes and, by elevating comprehension, augments existing meanings. It even adds new meanings to those words. And this positively enhances the ability of interpretation – the evaluation system of humans. The languishment of the ability to interpret is the biggest calamity that could ever happen to a human and thus to a language. The conceptual development of a language strengthens the vitality of that language and the socio-cultural formation. It raises the level of comprehension of the speakers of that language.

When it comes to the classical Syriac language, although the meaning of the particular concept can have changed over time for a familiar word,  the “root meaning”, the authentic richness of meaning that often is inspired from deep historical connection, can be isolated and determined- even if in the most secluded corners of the language.

The spirit of concepts found in today’s classical Syriac language is so coherent and reconciled, that it is possible to see that spirit in close relation and contact with each piece of its life mosaic. Because each word, each noun in the Syriac language has very different and sometimes completely opposite usages and details than its semantic origin.

Unosho / Unasha

In Syriac, the words Unosho / Unasha are created from the word Anesh, which means ‘to humanize’. And from this word the nouns Nosho / Nasha and Barnosho / Barnasha are derived. Furthermore, from this three-letter root and verb, the words Barnesh, Burnosho / Burnasha and Barnosho / Barnasha, ‘humanizing’, are derived.

In Syriac the following words mean:

  • Nosho / Nasha – Human (n), person;
  • Barnosho / Barnasha – Male human (man);
  • Brathnosho / Brathnasha – Female human (woman);
  • Noshoyuthu / Nashayutha – Humanity, mankind;
  • Noshutho / Nashutha – Humanity and the human nature;
  • Barnoshoyo / Barnashaya – Human (adj), humanistic;
  • Barnoshutho / Barnashutha – The human nature.


I correlate Anesh with Nash, lexicologically and etymologically on the basis of root letters. From this verb – of which the last two root letters are the same – i.e. verb-stem Nash or ‘to languish’, ‘to weaken’, ‘to get or become weak’, ‘to debilitate’, the word Nshosho / Nshasha has been created.

In the form of participle or deponent verb of this word, there is the word Nashisho / Nashisha which means ‘weak’, ‘powerless’, ‘miserable’, ‘sick’. And from the word Nsho / Nsha of which the letter is “the infirm verb” that means ‘to forget’, ‘not to remember’, the word Neshyono / Neshyana has been created, which means ‘forgetfulness’, ‘remissness’, ‘oblivion’.

The Akkadian Language as Mainstay for Syriac

It is known from history that Syriac, which is the extension of Eastern Aramaic, has enriched its lexical treasure from the Assyrian, the Babylonian and, primarily, from the Akkadian language. The relation of Syriac with other Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, is based on sharing this common lexical treasure. The Akkadian language in this respect has an important role as source and stratum for the Syriac language in terms of etymology. The Akkadian language is therefore the mainstay in research on the Semitic languages of Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic.

The Akkadian language, which is inherited by the Assyrian and Babylonian languages, was the language that took the position of lingua franca of the Ancient Middle East. Many writings have been written and commercial agreements have been signed in this language. Because of its status as an official language, Laws have been issued in this language. And disciplines as Algebra, Astronomy and witchcraft have developed through this language. Therefore, works and tablets in the Akkadian language, which is considered as an Assyrian-Babylonian language, constitute a rich source of information for today’s modern world. Since Akkadian was a language used in intercommunication among civilizations, it plays a key role in the analysis of many ancient languages.

In the Akkadian language, Anshu, Enashu, Enshutu, Eneshu mean ‘human’ and ‘humanity’. This shows us the historical etymological and ancient connection, interaction, and closeness of the Akkadian language to the Syriac language. As in the meanings described above, the origin of usages and meanings of the Syriac words Anesh, Nash, Nosho / Nasha extends to the historical roots of the rich lands of Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia), in other words it hinges on the Akkadian language.

In Akkadian Eneshu, Enashu, Enishtu means ‘weak’, Enshutu means ‘weakness’, Eneshu means ‘to languish’, ‘to get or become weak’. What I am bringing forward here is that the Syriac word ‘Nosho’ (human) and its derivatives, evokes semantic meanings to the degree that we can establish real etymological relationalities – as can be seen from above explanations where the Syriac word ‘Nosho’ (human) and its derivatives, evokes meanings such as ‘weakness’, ‘weak’, and ‘exhausted’.

If language is a constructional activity, a civilization, a way of thinking and realization of a human, then by new awareness, it is necessary to build accordingly a new “area of consciousness”. It seems impossible for the mindset that does not see and feel this need for a new consciousness, to be successful in carrying the Syriac language to the future.

Making the intellectual contribution to the concepts of Nosho / Nasha, Barnosho / Barnasha in Syriac, we establish these relationalities. Expanding the range of meanings that the words Barnesh, Burnosho / Burnasha and Barnosho / Barnasha imply, and through formulating ideas on them, we contributes to humanization. Of course, to find comfort in life, we must fill the inner sources with the subtle meanings that exist in a language, so that the external protrusions are flattened by the connections with this meaning and given an aesthetic appearance. When the Akkadian words Anshu, Enashu, Enshutu, Eneshu, ‘weakness’, ‘to languish’, are comprehended better, human perception will expand more

And life will find more meaning!

As has been shown, the word ‘human’ can be correlated with meaning such as ‘to get or become weak’, ‘to get loose’, ‘to forget’, ‘not to remember’, ‘to neglect’ and ‘oblivion’. Besides, isn’t it like that in “life” too? All meanings that exist in Syriac do not contradict human nature. On the contrary, it is in accordance with human psychology and physiology because we, as human beings, always struggle in weakness and deficiency. When we feel and assimilate the desired complementary understanding, it will add more meaning to our world meaning. When we are fed from this area of consciousness, our comprehension will become richer. Only then will everything become more beautiful! Thus, we will embrace and adopt both our culture and life more differently. And we will develop and carry to the future our values more differently.

As it is said, “Each term, each word, opens a window to another culture.”

Yusuf Beğtaş is the president of the Syriac Language, Culture and Literature Association – Mardin, Turkey

PS: I would like to express my gratitude and respect to researcher and writer Nineb Lamassu. From his Akkadian knowledge I have benefited from. Thanks to Mardin-Artuklu University faculty member and associate professor Dr. Mehmet Sait Toprak, for his complementary, academical and linguistic contributions.

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