By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon
Is today’s spoken Lebanese originally a dialect of Syriac? To answer this question in an academic way we need to consider the analysis of the following linguistic approaches:
• The Syntax: the structure of the phrases;
• The Syntax: the structure of the word;
• The Grammar;
• The Vocabulary.
A famous Syriac historian from the 13th Century, Gregory Bar Hebraeus, wrote about the people of Lebanon and their habits. He said, the Syriacs of Lebanon pronounce the letter “Qouf” as an “Ouf”. This remark is very valuable to us today because it explains why the Lebanese still pronounce it the same way, even when they use Arabic words in their modern dialect. This tradition was even more visible when Maronite priests used to learn Syriac in their villages, not in the Seminar school.
The Qadishat or the Trisagion was always pronounced: “Adishat Aloho, Adishat Hayeltono, Adishat Lomoyouto”. And until today, the Qadisha valley is called Adisha by the Maronites.
After the Qouf we also notice the absence of interdentals: roukokho of Dolat and of Taw that are very common in the Syriac of Tur Abdin. This roukokho of the D becoming Dh, and the T becoming Th, never existed in Tur Levnon (Mount Lebanon). Not only were they never used in Syriac, but neither in the Arabic words of the Lebanese modern dialect. So in Syriac Maronite, the altar is called Madebho, not Mathbho; and it is Btulto Maryam not Bthulto Maryam. This is also applied for Arabic words where Mathalan becomes Matalan.
The main musical difference between Syriac and Arabic is noticed in the vowels. Syriac has 5 vowels whereas Arabic knows only 3 Harakah: al-Dammah, al-Fathah, al-Kassrah. The 5 Syriac vowels still used in modern Lebanese are: A – é – I – O – OU. We hear the O and the OU in “Aloulo” meaning “they told him”. Arabic doesn’t possess this distinction. The French i and the French é are also notable in the word “Idé” meaning “my hand”. Even the Lebanese name of Lebanon “Lébnén” contains clearly the é of “Lébnon or Lévnon”. In Arabic this is replaced by Loubnan.
This linguistic reality is what makes it impossible to translate Maronite hymns from Syriac to Arabic. By keeping only 3 vowels out of 5, the Arabic version loses 2 movements in the melody’s rhythm. This is compensated by vocal virtuosities that are completely incompatible with the values of simplicity of the Christian Syriac tradition.
Syntax: the structure of the phrases and words
The Syriac syntax of Lebanese words is visible in the absence of vowel on the first letter. We say Knissé (church), Trablos (Tripoli), tlaa (go up), nzal (go down), Ktéb (book). In Arabic, where the Harakah is mandatory on the first letter, the equivalent would be: Kanissah, Tarabulus, itlaa, inzal, Kitab.
Another phenomenon is the absence of vowel on the end letter T. This is typically Syriac and still characteristic of the Lebanese dialect. It is used for the first person of the singular. We say nzélét (I went down), tlo3’ét (I went up), jé’ét (I starved), akalét (I ate). In Arabic it would be: Naziltou, Sa’adtou, jou’tou, akaltou.
Concerning the syntax of the phrase. In Lebanese we would say “Bayto la Daniel”. Translated to English it would be “His house of Daniel” meaning “Daniel’s house”. It is as much incorrect in Arabic as it is in English. Because this is properly a Syriac grammatical form like “Baytéh d Daniel”.
Also the H in Syriac is sometimes muted. Like in “Baytéh d Daniel” pronounced “Bayté d Daniel”. The same goes for modern Lebanese where we would say “Bayto” (his house) instead of the Arabic form “Baytuhu”.
The grammar of modern Lebanese is also Syriac. Like the plural of the possessive form always ending with N whereas in Arabic it is with M.
Kélkun (all of you); in Syriac Kulkun; in Arabic Kullalum.
Baytkun (your house, plural); in Syriac Baytkun; in Arabic Baytukum.
Elkun (to you, plural); in Syriac lkun; in Arabic lakum.
The plural of the word in é, like ilono (a tree) becoming iloné in the plural form. This structure is still common in Lebanese. We can notice it in nationalities’ names like Lébnéniyyé (Lebanese people) or Frenséwiyyé (French people). In Arabic it would be Loubnaniyyoun and Faransiyyoun.
How to determine the origin of a Semitic language? Each Semitic language uses certain particular letters over a common structure. This means the structure is the same for all Semitic languages but each branch has its own corresponding letter. For example, the Th in Arabic has its correspondent in the Hebrew Sh. This also corresponds to the Syriac T and to the Geez S. If we take the word “three” for instance, its would be Thalatha in Arabic, Shalosh in Hebrew, Tloto in Syriac, and Selase in Geez. Lebanese uses the T in Tlélé, proving it finds its origin in Syriac.
The same phenomenon goes for the letter Dh in Arabic. Its correspondent in Hebrew is Z, and in Syriac it is D. So Dhahab (Gold) in Arabic, is Zahab in Hebrew, and Dahbo in Syriac. Once again, the Lebanese word Dehab using the D shows clearly its Syriac origin.
Garshouné and the Arabic Hamza
Syriac makes use of only the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet. Arabic has 28 letters, brought to 29 if we count the Hamza. That is more than the Latin alphabet that counts 26 letters including its vowels. This means that when Lebanese was written in Syriac letter (which is commonly called Garshouné), it never adopted the interdental letters and the Hamza. And they are still absent from modern Lebanese.
In some cases, the word doesn’t contain the Hamza because it has Syriac origins. Like May (water) in Lebanese and in Syriac, that is Ma’ in Arabic.
Bir (well) in Lebanese and in Syriac, is Bi’ir in Arabic.
Riha (smell) in Lebanese and in Syriac, is Ra’iha in Arabic.
There are also cases where the word is taken from Arabic. In these moments, Garshouné replaces the Hamza with a Y by referring to the tradition of interchangeable letters between Semitic languages. Syriac Y corresponds to the Arabic Hamza. So to give an example, Na’im (sleeping) becomes Néyém; Qa’il (telling) becomes Eyél; Na’ib (deputy) becomes Néyéb; and Ra’is (chef) becomes Rayes. In some occasions, the Hamza just disappears and is not replaced. Like Ra’s (head) that becomes Ras and Mar’ah (woman) that becomes Mara.
Lebanese has mostly been Arabized in contact with the outside and the professional world. Inside the homes, the mothers were mostly able to maintain the Syriac traditions and vocabulary. To begin with, the mothers established a clear limit between the outside world and the inside defined as a shelter for heritage. Maronite mothers insisted on naming the inside and the outside with Syriac the words Jouwa and Barra. The following examples, show 8 words typically used by Lebanese mothers:
• Lebanese: jouwa – barra, (exterior – interior)
• Syriac: gaw – bar
- Arabic: al dakheld – al kharej
• Lebanese : bobbo (baby).
• Syriac : bobo (or bobousso)
- Arabic : tofel.
• Lebanese : bobi (meaning kind. Used for kind little dogs)
• Syriac : bobi
- Arabic : 7assan
• Lebanese: zoum (juice)
• Syriac zoumo
- Arabic: ăçyr
• Lebanese: Zouwédé (provisions)
• Syriac: Zwodé
- Arabic : al-zad
• Lebanese: shlaħ (to undress)
• Syriac : shlaħ
- Arabic: inzaă, ikhlaă
• Lebanese: Beit (house)
• Syriac : Beit
- Arabic: Dar, Manzel
(Beit prosso = Maison d’édition = Dar nasher =Publisher)
• Lebanese: Beit (family)
• Syriac: Beit
- Arabic: Aal
The most famous game played with babies is called Ba’ousé. What is its meaning? In this game, the mother hides her eyes and face with her hands. And then she opens up suddenly saying Ba’ousé. Oussé is a grammatical form aiming to minimize. Like a Bobbo (baby) and Bobousso (small baby). Baq (pronounced Ba’ because Maronites do not pronounce the Q) means to research. And Ba’oussé is a tiny little research.
Until nowadays, the first words of a Lebanese child are Syriac words.
Amine Jules Iskandar is President of Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
For the article in Spanish. You can also watch episode 4 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.