The Place of Syriac among the Aramaic Dialects

By Sebastian Brock

Within the Semitic languages Aramaic belongs to the group of North West Semitic languages which comprises Eblaitic, Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew and Moabite, besides Aramaic. By the end of the second millennium B.C. two distinctive sub-groups among the North West Semitic languages had emerged, Aramaic and Canaanite, the later consisting of Phoenician, Hebrew and Moabite (some scholars would classify Ugaritic, too, as Canaanite).

The term “Aramaic” in fact covers a multitude of different dialects, ranging in time from the early first millennium B.C. (isolated inscriptions) to the present day when various modern Aramaic dialects are still spoken in certain areas of Syria, Eastern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Of the several written dialects of Aramaic we have extensive literatures produced, mainly in the course of the first millennium B.C., by three different religious groups in the Middle East, Jews, Christians and Mandeans. Of these three, the Christian and Mandean dialects of Aramaic developed their own distinctive script, and it is largely for that reason that these two dialects have come to be called by the separate names of “Syriac” and “Mandean” (or “Mandaic”). The various dialects of Jewish Aramaic, on the other hand, were written in that form of the old Aramaic script which was adopted by the Jews after the exile for writing Hebrew (and hence now known as “square Hebrew,” as opposed to the abandoned “palaeo-Hebrew” script). Today it is customary to use “square Hebrew” in printing all dialects of Aramaic other than Syriac and Mandean (although texts from both these dialects have occasionally also been printed in Hebrew script).

The correct classification of the Aramaic dialects still remains a matter of dispute among scholars, and the following division of the dialects into four chronological groups follows the general schema put forward by J.A. Fitzmyer:

(1) Old Aramaic. This comprises the oldest surviving texts in Aramaic; all are inscriptions, and among them are the famous Sefire treaty texts. This period, when several different dialects are already discernible, is generally regarded as lasting from the tenth to the end of the eighth century B.C. (it should be remembered, of course, that the dividing lines between the different periods are inevitably somewhat arbitrary).

(2) Official Aramaic (sometimes also known as Imperial Aramaic, or Reichsaramäisch).

Under the late Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires Aramaic came to be used more and more as a chancery language (see J.B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures (Princeton, 1954), where one scribe is writing cuneiform Akkadian with a stylus, and the other Aramaic, using a pen) and as such was inherited by the Achaemenid empire. From this period, we have both inscriptions on stone and, from Egypt, documents and letters on papyrus and leather deriving from three different archives, the most famous, of which is the Jewish one from Elephantine. The Aramaic of the book of Ezra in its essentials belongs to this period.

(3) Middle Aramaic. The various texts that survive from the half millennium following Alexander’s conquests in the Middle East (in other words, the Hellenistic and early Roman Empire, up to about A.D. 200) are today often lumped together as “Middle Aramaic”; in fact the dialects represented are very disparate, for, on the one hand there are archaizing literary texts like the Aramaic of Daniel and some of the fragmentary Qumran texts in Aramaic, while, on the other hand, there are the various local dialects, known mainly from inscriptions, which emerged around the turn of the Christian era at various points on the edge of the fertile crescent—Petra (Nabatean), Palmyra (Palmyrene), Hatra, and Edessa (the earliest pagan Syriac inscriptions belong to this period). From further afield, Armenia, Georgia and Afghanistan, come further inscriptions in what is often a very corrupt form of Aramaic.

(4) Late Aramaic. The period spanning the later Roman Empire and the beginnings of Arab rule (approximately A.D. 200–700) saw the emergence of a distinct division between Eastern and Western dialects of Aramaic. Western Aramaic includes Samaritan Aramaic, various Palestinian Jewish Aramaic dialects, and Christian Palestinian Aramaic (also known as Palestinian Syriac, since it employs the Syriac Estrangelo script). Eastern Aramaic comprises Mandean, Babylonian Jewish Aramaic dialects, and Syriac (what emerged as the classical literary dialect of Syriac differs in some small details from the Syriac of the earlier pagan inscriptions from the Edessa area).

(5) Modern Aramaic. The Arab conquests effected the gradual elimination of Aramaic as a spoken language in most areas, and it is only in outlying mountainous regions that Aramaic has survived up to the present day, spoken by small groups of Christians, Jews and even a few Muslims. A Western Aramaic dialect survives only in three villages in the Anti-Lebanon (two Muslim, and one Christian – Ma‘Lula), although the accounts of seventeenth and eighteenth century travellers indicate that it was much more widespread a few centuries ago. Eastern Aramaic dialects, however, enjoy a rather wider use: a Jewish dialect from North Iraq (Zakho) is still spoken by some immigrants to Israel from that area, while several somewhat differing Christian dialects are still in common use in the mountainous area formed today by East Turkey, North Iraq, North West Iran and Azerbaijan. In the area of South East Turkey known as Tur Abdin the local Syrian Orthodox Christians employ a dialect called Turoyo, the “mountain” language, which is hardly ever written. In Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan the Chaldeans and East Syrians speak a rather different dialect (or rather, group of dialects); this is sometimes also written, and the earliest texts in Modern Syriac, all poetic ones, belong to the seventeenth century and come from the Alqosh area, but it was only in the nineteenth century, with the establishment of a printing press at Urmia (modern Rezaiyeh) by the American Presbyterian mission, that a real impetus was given to the use of Modern Syriac for literary purposes. That the dialect spoken in Iraq (variously called Fellihi, Soureth, or Swadaya) is still a force for politicians to take note of was shown by the action of the Iraqi government in 1972 when, in a decree of the 22nd April, it granted “cultural rights to the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syrian Orthodox citizens who speak Syriac.” How extensive a literature there now is in modern Syriac is indicated by R. Macuch’s recent Geschichte der spät- und neusyrischen Literatur (Berlin, 1976).

Syriac emerges as an independent Aramaic dialect in the early first century and is first attested in a pagan inscription dated 6 A.D., from Birecik on the river Euphrates, some 45 miles west of Edessa (whose modern name, Urfa, is derived from the Syriac Urhay), the cultural center of Syriac literature. To early writers Syriac is actually known as “Edessene,” an indication that it started out simply as the local Aramaic dialect of Edessa. That it came to be adopted as the literary language of Aramaic speaking Christians all over Mesopotamia may in part be due to the prestige enjoyed by Edessa as a result of its claim to possess a letter written by Jesus to its king (of Arab stock) named Abgar the Black (this was translated into Greek by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, I.13).

It is a remarkable fact that written Syriac, in the form that had become fossilized by the fourth century, differs hardly at all in morphology from the written classical Syriac still employed today by Syrian Orthodox clergy and some others. Nevertheless, although the language remained the same, there emerged two different pronunciations of Syriac, usually known as the “Eastern” and the “Western.” The Eastern, which is essentially the more archaic, came to be used by members of the Church of the East, living mainly in what is now Iraq and Iran, while the Western is employed in the Maronite and the Syrian Orthodox tradition whose homeland is further west (modern Syria and SE Turkey). The most obvious difference between the two consists in the pronunciation of original ā: the Eastern pronunciation preserves it (e.g. malkā “king”), while the Western alters it to ō (malkō).

Syriac Scripts

The earliest Syriac inscriptions of the first and second centuries A.D. (all pagan) employ a script with many similarities with Palmyrene cursive writing, but by the time of our earliest manuscripts (early fifth century A.D.) this script has taken on a more formalized character, known as “Estrangelo” (from Greek strongulos, “rounded”). The British Library preserves many superb pieces of calligraphy in this hand. Although the script continued to be used well into the Middle Ages (and indeed enjoyed a dramatic local revival in Tur Abdin in the twelfth century), during the course of the eighth century there emerged, side by side with it, a new and more compact script developed from Estrangelo. The correct name for this new script is Serto (literally “a scratch, character”), but in European works it is often designated “Jacobite,” since it became the normal script employed by the “Jacobites” (i.e. Syrian Orthodox); it is in fact also used by the Maronites as well. A few centuries later, among the East Syrians, we see the gradual emergence from Estrangelo of the other distinctive Syriac script, today employed by Chaldeans and “Assyrians;” it is generally called the “Nestorian” or “Chaldean” script by European writers.

The study of Syriac palaeography is still in its infancy, and the dating of manuscripts on the basis of the hand alone can be a matter of great uncertainty. The only guidance available is the excellent photography in W.H.P. Hatch’s An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts (Boston, 1946).

The early centuries of Arab rule witnessed the emergence of various vocalization systems to assist the reading and pronunciation of the unvowelled Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac scripts. For Syriac we know that one of the early experimenters in this field was the great Syrian Orthodox scholar Jacob of Edessa (died 708), fragments of whose grammar, setting out his suggestions, survive.

What finally emerged were two different systems, one used by Syrian Orthodox and Maronites (the so-called Jacobite vowel signs), and the other employed by East Syrians (the so-called Nestorian vowel signs); the former consist of symbols derived from Greek letters, the latter of different combinations of dots. In practice today West Syrian scribes (using Serto) rarely bother to insert the vowel signs, while East Syrian ones quite frequently give them.

Many Syriac scribes, right up to the present day (manuscripts still continue to be copied), have been very fine calligraphers. A few have also been illuminators, and by far the most famous illustrated Syriac manuscript is the so-called “Rabbula Gospels” in the Laurentian Library, Florence. According to the long colophon the scribe Rabbula completed this magnify cent work on the sixth of February “in the year 897 of Alexander,” that is A.D.586, at the Monastery of St. John of Beth Zagba, probably somewhere in North Syria. But this is by no means the only illuminated Syriac manuscript to survive, as can be readily seen by anyone who consults Jules Leroy’s Les manuscripts syriaques à peintures (two volumes, one of text, one of plates; Paris, 1964).

Sebastian Brock

Sebastian Paul Brock (born 1938, London) is generally acknowledged as the foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language today. He is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute and currently a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. Sebastian Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil (doctor of philosophy) at Oxford. He is the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates and has been awarded the Medal of Saint Ephrem the Syrian by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. He is a widely published author on Syriac topics. His bestselling book is The Luminous Eye: the Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian.

Originally published in 2008 in Sbouthan Magazine (“Our Cause”) by the Universal Syriac Union Party in Lebanon.