Endangered Alphabets: Syriac

International Mother Language Day, 21 February

This article was originally published by www.endangeredalphabets.net

It hard to think of another endangered alphabet that has been used to write as many languages, and over as wide a geographical area as Syriac.

The Syriac language is a variety of Aramaic, the lingua franca of much of the Near East from about 7th century BC until the 7th century AD. Aramaic was thus also the the language spoken by Jesus, and as the Syriac script superseded the Aramaic script over the first four or five centuries AD, Syriac became the official script of Christianity wherever Aramaic was spoken — a large and diverse area that included modern-day Syria, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and parts of Turkey and Iran.

It was used by so many different language communities, in fact, three different Syriac scripts evolved: Estrangela (derived from the Greek strongulos, meaning “rounded,” and used today as an ornamental display style for headers, titles, cards and engravings), Serto (or West Syriac, the most cursive form of the three) and Madnḥāyā or East Syriac (used for East Syriac and Neo-Aramaic texts).

As Eastern Christianity expanded it took the Syriac script eastwards, establishing communities in India (the Saint Thomas Christians), among the Mongols in Central Asia, and in China, which became home to a thriving community under the Tang dynasty from the seventh to the ninth century. Between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, the Church of the East was, in terms of sheer acreage, the world’s largest Christian church, and the Syriac script appears in an astonishing number and variety of documents of the time.

As the de facto script of learning, Syriac was the script used for many of the documents of early Judaism and many translations of works translated from Arabic, in addition to Christian hagiographies, chronicles, and numerous theological works.

But having a script whose fate is tied to a religion is both a strength and a potential weakness. The rise of Islam saw Syriac replaced by Arabic in much of the Middle East, and when the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongols, Christians were expelled from China.


Syriac-Madnhaya-Script. Image: Atlas of endangered Alphabets

Today, then, the Syriac script is in an ambiguous position. It is still the active liturgical script of many communities in the Middle East (Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Maronite, Syrian Catholic and Chaldaean Catholic), Southeast India (including adherents of those churches as well as the SyroMalabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches), and wherever Syrians have established religious communities overseas, especially in Europe, Australia and the Americas. As such it enjoys a protected status within the church, like Siddham in Shingon Buddhism, for example, or Coptic. Moreover, the wealth of historical documents in Syriac makes them an important field of study, so unlike other endangered alphabets, the cultural freight of Syriac is unlikely to be lost.

Any language that has a sanctuary (so to speak) in a church, but falls out of everyday use, becomes like Latin, which to many is just a meaningless mutter. When a language is in everyday use, it contributes to a sense of connection to the rest of the community, and to that community’s past, and its identity.

Very few Syrian or Aramaic speakers use the script on a day-to-day basis, and it is very seldom taught. This in itself is a sign of the degree to which Syrian Christians have been increasingly displaced — especially by the recent conflict in Syria — and the Syrian Christian communities worldwide are inevitably isolated and in danger of erosion.

The future of the Syriac script, like the future of Syria itself, remains uncertain. It’s worth noting, though, that a number of organizations in Syria have included Syriac script on their signage, another illustration of the way in which a script can have an iconic richness that transcends the meanings of words.


Syriac-Aramaic-Blocks. Image: Atlas of Endangered Alphabets


“Dedicated to the memories of Yousef Maroun ‘Joe’ El-Khouri and Rose Marie El-Khouri (née Isaac)”
—Michael Shiver