Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 2: Syriac Language and Alphabet

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union–Tur Levnon

What is exactly the Syriac language? What are its characteristics? And what is the difference between Syriac, Aramaic and Garshouné?

The entire northern part of the Middle East was an Aramaic speaking region with many different dialects and cultures. But only the upper part, highlighted in map 1 in red, was the Syriac speaking area. As we see in the map, this Syriac zone stretched from Canaan to Upper Mesopotamia. The language spoken on the Mediterranean side was Canaanite-Aramaic. But during the Greek period it was Hellenized, and then during the Roman period, it was Christianized.

Map 1: Topography of the Levant and the Middle East

This Canaanite-Aramaic, Hellenized and christianized-language, needed a new name and a new Christian identity. The area highlighted in red was an administrative Roman province called Provincia Syria. So the Christians used this name to identify with their new language and identity. This is how this Hellenized and Christianized Canaanite-Aramaic became the Syriac language. In the Eastern part of the Syriac land, called Upper Mesopotamia, the language is Eastern Syriac, and in the Western part called Canaan, the language is Western Syriac.

Western Syriac has something very specific, that is the letter ‘Olaph’ pronounced as an ‘O’. This particularity was noticed by the Jesuit Fathers Fr Fleisch, and later Fr Jean Aucagne. They noticed that this ‘O’ is very unique to Phoenician and to the Western Syriac language. And that it appears precisely where the Gemination or Chaddeh disappears. Nevertheless, this Gemination or Chaddeh is fundamental in all Semitic languages, even in Eastern Syriac. Only Phoenician, and its Christian version «Western Syriac», do not make use of the Gemination, and seem to replace it by an ‘O’ on the following letter. This is still the case in today’s North Lebanon.

But Syriac has other particularities in comparison to Aramaic. It has its own alphabet, syntax and grammar. For example, the plural in Aramaic would be in « In », like ‘Tannourin’ and ‘Ain-Tourin’. In Syriac, plural however is « é » like in ‘ilono’, a ‘tree’, that becomes iloné.

Image 1: Bsharré, Lebanon

On the other hand, Syriac is a mix between Canaanite-Aramaic dialect and Greek. This makes Syriac a modern language capable of expressing philosophical and scientific concepts as well as modern terms. It is easy for a Lebanese to recognize the Syriac words with Greek origin, as they resemble French or English words. Like:

Ped-to = pied = foot (‘Pied’ is written with a ‘d’ in french)
Qlidé = clés = keys
Esphiro = sphere
Firé = fruits
Muséion : Museum
Théatron : theater
Hypodromos : Hyppodrome

Matématiqi : mathematics
Grammatiqi :  grammar
Lampido = lamp
Oar = air
tupso = type,
philosophisé = (philosopher),
guéographia = geography
Kronos = Chronic
qomino = chemney, fireplace or a stove
tonos = tuna,
makino = machine,

Then, we have ecclesiastical words like:

Patriarko = patriarch
Episcoupo = bishop
Ukharistia  : Eucharist :
Liturguia : Liturgy
Youqno = Icon

A question often asked is: what is Garshouné? Gar Shom was the son of Moses. His name in Hebrew is Gar sham, meaning ‘to live there’ opposite ‘to live here’. In other words: the Foreigner. Garshouné is therefore a Foreign language, like Arabic, written in Syriac letters. A Garshouné document is something we read in Arabic while its script is Syriac.

What about the Syriac Alphabet? The word Alphabet is a Syriac word that comes from the Phoenician « Olaph – bét », the names of the 2 first letters of the Alphabet. Syriac uses the Phoenician alphabet of 22 letters with its specific rules. Some letters for instance have a hard and a soft pronunciation. Like the ‘P’ that becomes an ‘F’ after a vowel; The ‘B’ that becomes a ‘V’; And the ‘K’ that becomes a ‘Kh’.

Image 2: The three Syriac scripts

Image 2 shows the evolution of the Phoenician script into 3 different Syriac scripts. The first line is the Phoenician script, the line just below is the monumental script or capital letters called Estranguélo. The last line is the cursive script called Serto. And in between is the intermediate script called Madenkhaya.

Image 3: The Lord’s Prayer: “Avoun dva Shmayo” or “Our Father”.

Image 3 depicts the Lord’s Prayer “Avoun dva Shmayo” or “Our Father” written once in the monumental Estranguélo (left) and again in the small Serto cursive script (right). The cursive script in use by the Maronites is Serto, while for the Eastern Syriacs it is Madenkhaya. Yet, the monumental script called Estranguélo is the same for all Syriacs, whether Maronites, Orthodox or Eastern Syriacs. It Unifies them all.

Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

For the article in Spanish and you can also watch episode 2 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.