By Michael Frey originally published on Nov. 25, 2008 in The Daily Star Lebanon
BEIRUT – Did you speak any Syriac today? If you had an extended conversation in colloquial Lebanese Arabic, chances are you did. Although most languages are governed by rigid grammatical and orthographic rules, they are actually something very vivid, especially in their spoken forms. Spoken languages or dialects pick up vocabulary from other languages, often when the foreign term is more accurate to describe something.
Today, one usually thinks in terms of English and French terms invading the colloquial Arabic spoken by Lebanese, but colloquial itself has borrowings from other languages. One key element of this heritage is the influence of Syriac or Aramaic terms and even grammatical structures on the Lebanese dialect of Arabic.
Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East from about the 12th century BC until the 9th century AD, when the spread of Islam allowed Arabic to take its place. Syriac, an Aramaic dialect originally spoken in the cities of Edessa and Antioch, was the predominant form of Aramaic from the second century AD onward and the only Aramaic dialect which existed in a written form.
According to Mario Kozah, a professor of Syriac language and literature at the American University of Beirut, “Aramaic is a little bit like saying Arabic. When you say Arabic, you could mean Moroccan, Egyptian or Lebanese. In the same way, Aramaic is a general word that includes many different dialects,” he explained.
Some of the most important contacts of Syriac and Arabic took place at Beit al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), a center of science in Baghdad which flourished under the rule of the Abbasid caliph al-Maamun (d. 833). In this center, Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic, under Mamun’s directives.
“This school [Beit al-Hikma] was mainly a translation school where texts would be translated either from Syriac into Arabic or from Greek via Syriac into Arabic,” Kozah said. “The Syriac translators first translated the Greek into a Syriac draft and then from the Syriac draft into Arabic.”
Syriac was selected because it had the technical terminology that aided the translation of Greek philosophy. Syriac and Arabic had a similar vocabulary, which then aided the translation of the Syriac draft into Arabic. But after Arabic established its own philosophical terminology, the translation via Syriac became unnecessary, Kozah explained.
Today, it is difficult to determine exactly how much Syriac is left in what is called Classical Arabic. “They are both Semitic languages, and therefore a word is naturally being shared by these two languages,” Kozah said. “Classical Arabic has been shaped over the centuries and smoothed over and developed in its own right, to such an extent that it isn’t easy to really pick out the Syriac vocabulary in Classical Arabic.”
However, it is easier to catch the influence of the Syriac version of Aramaic in today’s Lebanese colloquial Arabic.
“Whatever it [the Lebanese dialect] picked up, it kept,” and was not formalized like in Classical Arabic, Kozah explained.
Today, it’s not too difficult to pick up Aramaic traces in the Lebanese vocabulary.
Kozah cited the example of “eimata” (or when) as being closer to the Syriac equivalent “emat” than the Classical Arabic expression “mata.”
The word “bobo” (baby) in Lebanese is a Syriac word without an equivalent in Arabic.
The colloquial Lebanese Arabic expression “to be late” is “ta’awa‘” which comes from the Syriac “et’aouaq.”
And from the realm of baby or toddler talk, “wawa” (“ouch” or “it hurts”) happens to be quiet close to the Syriac “wawo,” meaning pain. The words for inside and outside, “jawwa” and “barra,” are Syriac too, Kozah said. In Syriac, “jaw” means inside, “bar” outside.
Also, many place-names today in Lebanon are originally Aramaic, while different theories exist about what they really mean, Kozah said. These words mostly describe certain local geographic features that might be invisible today.
Stefan Wild, a German linguist who penned a book about Lebanese place-names, wrote that “the spectrum of Lebanese place-names show us an enthralling and extraordinary vivid picture of yesterday.”
According to Wild, the town of Broummana means “House of the Pomegranate tree,” (Beit al-Rumman), while another interpretation holds that the original meaning is potentially much older, as in Beit al-Rammana, the “house” of the Assyrian god of air, storm and thunder. Turzayya, to name another example, means “Mountain of Cedars.”
Even in Lebanese grammar, traces of Aramaic are still obvious. “Lebanese is not just Arabic without grammar,” Kozah said. “You might think that a certain Lebanese structure [of a sentence] appears ungrammatical if you think about it in Classical Arabic terms. But if you go back to Syriac, you find that this Lebanese sentence is perfectly normal.”
Robert Gabriel, Syriac professor and president of the Association of Syriac Language Friends, agreed, saying that about 50 percent of the Lebanese grammatical structure is due to Syriac influences.
The common Levantine expression is “ijul-uwlad,” meaning “the children came.” In this sentence, the verb “iju,” which precedes the subject “al-uwlad” is in the plural form. In classical Arabic, such a sentence would be wrong, because a verb preceding the subject remains in the singular, even with a plural subject.
“In Syriac, plural goes with plural, masculine goes with masculine, feminine with feminine,” Gabriel said.
Kozah said that in general, the word order in a Syriac sentence is very flexible, whereas in Classical Arabic, the sentence should start with a verb.
“Sometimes, you emphasize something [in Lebanese dialect] by putting it at the beginning of the sentence. You can’t really do that in Classical Arabic; you have to emphasize in a different way,” he said.
Furthermore, the sound of Syriac is preserved in some Lebanese dialects. Hany Touk, a Syriac teacher from Bsharri, explained that the “o” vowel in his village’s dialect is typical of Syriac. He added that the preservation of this sound in the Bsharri dialect is due to Bsharri’s long isolation from the outside world and the relatively low level of interaction with other languages.
Kozah said the “e” vowel in the Lebanese dialect also comes from Syriac. This vowel, called “rboso” in Syriac, is not to be found in the Classical Arabic, he added. This vowel is preserved in the Lebanese pronunciation of “Lebanon,” i.e. “Lebnen” and not “Lubnan” as in Classical Arabic.
Finally, Syriac is still present in Lebanese poetry.
“Some of the Syriac metrical system is still to be found in Lebanese zajal, in Lebanese popular poetry,” Kozah said. “We find the influence there of early Syriac metrical systems.”
Although these examples might suggest that Arabic “borrowed” quiet a bit from Syriac, the two languages had a complex relationship.
“We see very often examples of Arabic taking things further, absorbing them and then developing them,” Kozah said.
He stressed repeatedly that further research needs to be done in the field, where many theories still remain unproven, while citing some encouraging signs of public interest in Syriac.
Kozah said that the language was being taught at AUB, in the beginner’s course that has been growing increasingly popular. Syriac classes are also offered at Universite Saint-Esprit de Kaslik and St. Joseph’s University, while it is a staple Sunday school offering among several Syriac Christian churches: the Chaldean Church, the Assyrian Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church.