The Mysterious Origins of the Language of the Maronites

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

During the first two centuries of our era, the language spoken in the north of the Fertile Crescent was gradually Christianized. From Upper Mesopotamia to Phoenicia, the language took the new name: Syriac. However, the linguistic transition toward the Syriac language had begun much earlier, already during the Assyrian (736-609 BC) and Chaldean (605-539 BC) eras, when Aramaic gradually began to spread throughout these empires in what is now known as the Middle East. The Persians, arriving in 539, chose to impose Aramaic as the lingua franca for all provinces under their imperial rule.

Like any living language which renews, enriches, and transforms itself, the local (Levantine) languages ​​eventually incorporated Aramaic in their evolutionary course. This inevitable transformation process affected the Canaanean languages, ​​including Phoenician in the North and Hebrew in the South. Both languages were heavily influenced by Aramaic, so much so that it is now common to refer to the Phoenician Aramaic or that of Jesus Christ as “Aramaic”. Despite the “standard-Aramaic” designation, it was essentially the normal evolution of the local Canaanite language over the millennia and therefore it would be no less fair to call it “Neo-Canaanite.”

Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire succeeded the Persian Empire (539 to 333 BC). This transfer of power resulted in more than an occupation in the manner previously practiced by the Persians, the Assyro-Chaldeans, or the Pharaohs before them. The Greek military victory soon gave way to Hellenism, a kind of osmosis between Greek and local cultures. Bilingualism was born in the western provinces of the Fertile Crescent, somewhat reminiscent of modern Lebanon with its French-Lebanese mixture. The local Neo-Canaanite or Aramaic language mixed with Greek in a similar manner as is the case with modern-day French. The transition from one language to another within a single sentence still happens in the most natural way.

The birth of the Syriac language

Another startling phenomenon occurred in the north of the Fertile Crescent. This region, which stretched from Lebanon to Antioch and continued further into Christian Syria and Upper Mesopotamia, converted to Christianity. Apart from the strip of land connecting Lebanon to Aleppo, then Christian Syria is now found mainly in present-day Turkey with Antioch as its spiritual capital, Edessa (Urhoy) as its cultural center and Tur Abdin as its sacred mountain. Christian Upper Mesopotamia too is predominantly located in Turkey. It stretches from the plains and mountains of Nineveh in northern Iraq to Omit, present-day Diyarbakir in Turkey. Christian Upper Mesopotamia also includes Tur Abdin.

In the triangle Phoenicia, Antioch and Edessa, Christianity had a profound impact on the transformation of the local language. Because the local language of pagan culture was unable to provide the sophisticated terminology required by the new Christian culture, it was necessary to appeal to Greek philosophy, and thus to Greek language, to express the new Christian theological concepts. The borrowing of terminology and vocabulary from Greek intensified even more than in pagan times. The local language, Hellenized and Christianized, had thus become a language in its own right and with its own script. And in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the still predominantly pagan Fertile Crescent, the people of the northern Fertile Crescent sought to rename their Christian language. The choice fell spontaneously on the name of this northwestern region that the then Roman administration referred to as Provincia Syria. The language became to be called Syriac.

The Christian populations who adopted it, be it Canaaneans, Arameans or Mesopotamians, thus became Syriacs. In the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, they were called the Eastern Syriacs (today the Assyrians and Chaldeans). In the western part, between Phoenicia and Edessa, they are known as Western Syriacs. The Western Syriacs can be divided into two groups: the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics in Aramean Syria, and the Syriac Maronites and the Rum (Orthodox and Catholics) in Canaan.

The transition to “O”

Most amazingly, the West Syriac form which interests us in particular – since it is the original language of Lebanon – presents a fundamental difference with all other Semitic languages, including East Syriac. And this difference was highlighted in the 1940s by a specialist in Lebanese prehistory, Father Henri Fleisch of the Society of Jesus. He left us writings and analyzes in the form of lecture notes recorded by another Jesuit, Father Jean Aucagne, who continued Henri Fleisch’s work in the 1980s. Father Jean Aucagne tells us that Father Fleisch made the following observation:

“There is no long ‘A’ pronunciation in Phoenician, for the good reason that all moved to the pronunciation in ‘O’.”

Let us now mention that there is also no long ‘A’ in West Syriac since the Western Syriacs also all moved to using the ‘O’ pronunciation instead of ‘A’. The same letter, which is called Alef in Arabic, Aleph in Hebrew and Alaph in East Syriac becomes Olaph in West Syriac. If East Syriac does not know this shift to ‘O’, it is because this phenomenon must be due to a particular characteristic of the Western region. Moreover, Hebrew, neighbor of Lebanon and itself originating from the Canaanite language, presents this same transition to ‘O’, albeit in a less systematic way. Further research enabled Father Henri Fleisch to find this pronunciation in ‘O’ in Phoenician inscriptions. Not in Phoenician letters, since these do not include vowels, but in Phoenician texts transcribed in Accadian cuneiform which do note the vowels. We find that the Phoenicians also leaned towards the ‘O’ and that this contains the origin of this exclusively West Syriac characteristic. One cannot help but think of the remarkable and revealing sentence of Ernest Renan when he said in his “Mission de Phénicie” (1864):

“Under the name of Syriac and identified with the dialect of the populations of Lebanon, the Phoenician language crossed the Middle Ages.”

The importance of geminating

Thus, at a time when the ancient languages ​​of the Middle and Near East were disappearing under the influence of Arab expansions, Phoenician survived in its Christian form as a living and liturgical language. The West Syriac ‘O’ is a Phoenician Canaanean characteristic that is not found anywhere else in the Semitic languages, except of course in Hebrew since it is, as we have just pointed out, one of the language forms of Canaanite.

In his research, Henri Fleisch further notes that the transition from ‘A’ to ‘O’ occurs at the same time as the disappearance of gemination (the “chaddah” in Arabic). So, Bickfayya becomes Bkifoyo, and Broummana becomes Broumono without the geminate. And this ‘O’-characteristic of West Syriac of Mount Lebanon is persistent. It continues today in the spoken language of the Maronites of northern Lebanon and brings us back deep into the past to the most remote Canaanean periods.

What about this characteristic form so deeply rooted that it was able to cross not only centuries, but millennia? Both Father Fleisch and Father Aucagne stress the fundamental importance of gemination in all Semitic languages. It is such an elementary constituent of Semitic that it is inconceivable without it. The word “father” is Abb in Arabic, Abba in Hebrew, Aramaic, and East Syriac, but it is Abo in West Syriac. “Big” is Rabba in Hebrew, Aramaic, and East Syriac, with an Arabic derivative al-Rabb. In West Syriac, it is Rabo, without the doubling of consonants.

Gemination is therefore an essential component of Semitic languages, ​​which all respect. Only Modern Hebrew has recently abandoned gemination. West Syriac, heir to the Canaanite language in its Phoenician version, is historically the only exception to the Semitic rule of gemination.

Given this linguistic data, could the Canaanean population of Lebanon have non-Semitic origins?

This hypothesis was previously inconceivable since Phoenicia has always been considered part of the core of the Semitic world. Father Fleisch and then Father Aucagne stopped their research there, almost convincing themselves they had taken a wrong path. They ended their research with a question they left to the next generations: “Is the pre-Canaanean population of non-Semitic origin?”

Let us note another feature specific to the West Syriac of Mount Lebanon: the interdentals (consonants requiring the placement of the tongue between the anterior teeth or incisors) are completely absent. We find interdentals in all Semitic languages, including East Syriac and even in the West Syriac of Syria-Upper Mesopotamia. For example, “Altar” is called Madhbho among the Syriac Orthodox, but Madbho among the Syriac Maronites. The number “three” is pronounced tlotho, while among the Maronites, it is tloto.

To this day, the spoken Lebanese language does not know the sounds ‘th’ or ‘dh’, not even in words of Arabic origin. This is a constant characteristic that dates back to Late Antiquity and probably to prehistory. Here the question of Fathers Fleisch and Aucagne concerning this mysterious pre-Canaanean origin comes in again.

The discoveries of Professor Pierre Zalloua

This is where the latest genetic discoveries by Professor Pierre Zalloua provide most unexpected answers. New scientific techniques, not yet available in the time of our two Jesuit linguists, have brought to light the pre-Canaanean phase that was unknown because it predates the emergence of writing. Where archeology lacked epigraphic data, a new method of exploring the human body came up. This scientific method offers, much like an archaeological excavation site, different superimposed strata of genomes. In our genes, we carry history from long before the writing of history. Each genetic layer reveals an era and informs us about crucial events in understanding human movements, encounters and evolutions.

Professor Pierre Zalloua’s team took samples from several thousand individuals from Lebanon to the Phoenician Mediterranean settlements, the Caucasus, and other countries of the Middle East. His study underlined the glaring differences between the Lebanese and the populations of its neighboring countries. Among the Lebanese themselves, one genetic code stands out: haplogroup L1b. It is found in 12.5% ​of the Syriac Maronites of the north of Mount Lebanon, while the Lebanese general average carrying haplogroup L1b remains below 1%. Mount Lebanon is precisely the region where the ‘O’ pronunciation continues to mark popular speech. This population is designated in Professor Pierre Zalloua’s study as NLMM (North Lebanon Mountain Maronite).

In the neighboring countries of Lebanon, the L1b genome is almost non-existent. The study shows that to find such a high proportion of the L1b genome similar to that of Lebanon, one has to travel to the Caucasus region, eastern Turkey and especially Armenia. Thanks to this discovery, we can preliminarily conclude that a people probably left the Caucasus around 7,000 years ago to move towards Lebanon where they found a mountainous territory similar to their land of origin, only more fertile and endowed with a better climate. At the same time, it offered this Caucasian people a variety of seasons depending on the altitudes chosen. Mount Lebanon and its coast had already been inhabited for millennia by a population that enjoyed these different elevations with the natural and agricultural potential that they offered. The new arrivals chose to settle in the high mountains to the north of this Lebanese mountain range. They adopted the local pre-Canaanean Semitic language probably around the fourth millennium, but with a distortion that betrays their Caucasian origin.

While being part of the Canaanean people and while speaking Canaanite, they nevertheless formed, in their mountains and valleys, a group quite isolated from the rest of the country. And it is precisely in this region that the disciples of Saint Simeon and the missionaries of Beit Morun began their preaching between the 4th and 6th centuries AD to form the very first Syriac Maronite nucleus whose faith and liturgy would gradually spread over all the rest of Mount Lebanon.

Surprisingly, the NLMM group remained relatively isolated during the Christian period. Despite the conversion of the rest of Lebanon to the Christian faith in its Maronite rite and the use of the same Syriac language, these Caucasian descendants were able to keep their group largely together in their northern mountains. They thus enabled genetic research through a fairly homogeneous and reliable sample, and this made it possible to detect a characteristic which is an imprint from the past.

It is this identity card, detected by Professor Pierre Zalloua, which allows the origin of this population to be clearly traced back to the current-day Armenian region of the Caucasus. Professor Zalloua’s discovery is in line with the linguistic hypotheses brought forward by Jesuit Fathers Henri Fleisch and Jean Aucagne half a century earlier. It sheds a new light on the West Syriac of Mount Lebanon and on its non-Semitic substrates still present today in the Maronite mountains of the North.

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

Translated from the original French as published on 29 December 2020 by L’Orient-Le Jour