By Joseph Sopholaus Lebanese writer and translator specialized in Arabic Linguistics, and Analytic philosophy
Syriac occupies a unique linguistic position amid its Semitic relatives not only in terms of distinctive linguistic features, but also in its intellectual lexicon, since Syriac is rich with philosophical Greek loanwords. These loanwords were the offspring of Hellenization, which began with the establishment of the Seleucid Empire, and reached its summit with the institutionalization of Christian thought, and later with the translation movement during the Abbasside reign.
Undoubtedly, Syriac translators borrowed many Greek philosophical concepts, such as ܐܰܢܰܢܩܺܝ ,ܐܽܘܣܺܝܰܐ, and ܓܶܢܣܳܐ (meaning necessity, essence, and genus respectively). These loanwords took the plural stem of the donor language (since Greek is inflectional they took the plural stem of the nominative case), as in ܕܽܓܡܰܐ , ܕܽܘܓ̈ܡܰܐܛܰܐ (from Gr. “Δόγμα” meaning dogma, doctrine), or ܠܶܟܣܺܝܩܳܘܢ ܠܶܟܣܺܝ̈̈ܩܰܐ (from Gr. “λεξικόν”, meaning lexicon). It is worth noting that East Syriac plural formation of the loanwords is quite different from that of the West’s (which is the focus of this paper). Yet some of these terms undertook a Syriac word formation, i.e. according to the rules of Syriac plural formation, as in ܐܶܦܺܝܣܩܽܘ̈ܦܶܐ (bishop) and ܠܽܘܟܳܝܬܳܐ (spear) etc. thus one might observe the flexibility of Syriac, so to speak, in bending its Semitic morphology to incorporate new Indo-European loans.
In that spirit of linguistic acculturation, can we incorporate the suffix –ism into Syriac? If possible, then, what will be the effects of such incorporation?
Syriac translators and the untranslatable
The Syriac translators did not shy from using Greek concepts in their translation into the language, although they seldom calqued, yet the idea of a Syrio-centric purist translation was not their approach. The Syriacs adopted an open-minded interpretation of the “Hellenic” philosophical literature, as attested in the different translated versions of Aristotelian books, such as the Categories.
The early translators noticed the distinctive connotation that these words have in their original language; the Syriac tongue cannot mimic such semantic value. Given that sense is metaphysical (in line with the Platonic tradition within the Christian thought), any attempt to translate key concepts, e.g. ܐܽܘܣܺܝܰܐ  (essence), meant the devaluation of their meaning. Thus, rather than relying on their Syriac near equivalents they transliterated these terms. And by that action, the problem of untranslatability seems to be overpassed, although this is a debatable issue in translation theories termed by Le Blanc as “le complexe d’Hermès”. Following the early Syriac translators can we not incorporate the suffix –ism into Syriac?
Towards a Syriac «-ισμός»
The Greek suffix «-ισμός» played a significant role in each language’s intellectual history. It usually designates a set of belief(s), a system, a doctrine, a dogma. The word “-ism” itself holds ideological connotations (in a Cold War context). Sometimes it is used as a damning stigma, such as Wokeism, Islamism…, while it is in other contexts a sign of intellectual superiority, e.g. Jesuism. The colorfulness of “-ism” never ceases to amaze any historian of ideas, to the extent that one might reflect that this suffix is a driving force in the collective imagination. However, there is little room for such speculation in this article, and one might be drawn by hyperbolic interpretations, nevertheless this does not undermine in any sense the significance of “-ism”.
But, not all languages possess such a bound morpheme. A near relative of Syriac, i.e. Arabic, do not contain a specific morpheme to refer to such diversity of meanings that “-ism” conveys, rather it is the context that mainly reveals the connotation of the word. Obviously, this might lead to semantic ambiguity and might weaken its original signification. Yet how could we apply “-ism” in Syriac? A straightforward answer might be adding the equivalent letters as a suffix on the Syriac noun by accordance to the linguistic features of Syriac, i.e. one cannot simply add an «-ισμός» on a Syriac noun that seems as an apparent alien stem within the language. Rather one should incorporate the term to flaw naturally in the language, taking into consideration its linguistic specificity, e.g. the French «-ισμός» is “-isme”, the English «-ισμός» is “-ism”, and the German is “-ismus” (identical with the Latin use (nominative case)). For that reason I propose that the Syriac «-ισμός» should be “ܺܣܡ”. However, such use must be restricted and organized by a certain rules.
Rules for using the Syriac “-ism”?
- To refer to a strand of thought, a system of ideas, a theory, and a doctrine.
- Not to refer to an act, or a behavior.
- Not to refer to any phenomenon, or condition.
Take the following examples:
In the arduous course to revive the Syriac language one should not hesitate in reframing the grammatical rules of the past in order to secure the linguistic continuity in the future. In the case of the suffix “-ism”, the subject of this paper, the long-term effects of such an incorporation are structural for any future attempts to translate into the language. This might also serve as a foundational example for the reconstruction of Syriac on solid grounds that will allow the intellectual development of its speakers.
Joseph Sopholaus is a Lebanese writer and translator specialized in Arabic Linguistics, and Analytic philosophy. You can follow him @josephsopholaos
– The Earliest Syriac Translation of Aristotle’s Categories, translated and commented by Daniel King, Brill: Leiden, 2010.
– Seneca, Epistles, Vol. 1, translated by Richard M. Gummere, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library: London, 1925.
– Valla, Lorenzo, Dialectical Disputations, Vol. 1, translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta, Harvard University Press, I Tatti Renaissance Library: USA, 2012.
– Le Blanc, Charles, Le Complexe D’Hermès: Regards Philosophiques sur la Traduction, Les Presses de L’Université D’Ottawa: Canada, 2009.
– فولوس غبريال وكميل أفرام البستان، اللّغة السّريانيّة الأدب والنّحو، منشورات الجامعة اللّبنانيّة: بيروت، 1966.
– يوحنّا يشوع الخوري، قواعد اللّغة السّريانيّة الصّرف، منشورات الرّسل: جونية، 1994.
– إقليميس يوسف داود الموصليّ، اللّمعة الشّهيّة في نحو اللّغة السّريانيّة على كلا مذهبَيْ الغربيّين والشّرقيّين، دير الآباء الدّومنكيين: الموصل، 1879.
Notes For an account of plural stem formation rules for the loan nouns, see:
– فولوس غبريال وكميل أفرام البستان، اللّغة السّريانيّة الأدب والنّحو، منشورات الجامعة اللّبنانيّة: بيروت، 1966، ص 116-117.
– يوحنّا يشوع الخوري، قواعد اللّغة السّريانيّة الصّرف، منشورات الرّسل: جونية، 1994، ص 40-41. For a survey of the differences between the two dialects on that matter, see:
– إقليميس يوسف داود الموصليّ، اللّمعة الشّهيّة في نحو اللّغة السّريانيّة على كلا مذهبَيْ الغربيّين والشّرقيّين، دير الآباء الدّومنكيَين: الموصل، 1879، ص 119-121. There are three main translated versions of Aristotle’s Categories: the anonymous version, Jacob of Edessa’s version, and George of the Arabs’ version. For more discussion, see The Earliest Syriac Translation of Aristotle’s Categories, translated and commented by Daniel King, Brill: Leiden, 2010, pp. 18-38.  This philosophical problem does not concern us in this paper, yet it is worth of some scholarly attention. For some classical discussions of the problem in the literature, see Frege’s two seminal papers “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” & “Der Gedanke”, Russell’s “On Denoting”, and Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity”.  It is worth noticing that this philosophical term had its own share of debate among the Latin authors. Seneca once wrote: “Quanta verborum nobis paupertas, immo egestas sit, numquam magis quam hodierno die intellexi… Quid enim fiet, mi Lucili? Quomodo dicetur ουσία res necessaria, natura continens fundamentum omnium? Rogo itaque permittas mihi hoc verbo uti. [The Latin word is essentia]” (Seneca, Epistles, Vol. 1, translated by Richard M. Gummere, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library: London, 1925, pp. 386-391). Yet the problem of translating “Ουσία” persisted even to the renaissance, see Lorenzo Valla, Dialectical Disputations, Vol. 1, translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta, Harvard University Press, I Tatti Renaissance Library: USA, 2012, pp. 62-67.  For the discussion of such theories in Western Thought and the dynamic relation/conflict between creativity and literality in translation (or as in Le Blanc’s terms between Apollo and Hermes), see Charles Le Blanc, Le Complexe D’Hermès: Regards Philosophiques sur la Traduction, Les Presses de L’Université D’Ottawa: Canada, 2009.  In Arabic there is no specific morpheme, although one might consider the suffix “iyyat” (ـِ يَّة) as a potential equivalent to «-ισμός» (along with its variants such as “awiyyat” (ـَ وِيَّة), as in “nasawiyyat, insanawiyyat”, and “āniyyat” (انِيَّة) as in “masiḥāniyyat”, “rouḥāniyyat”). Yet such use might create confusion between: (1) the quality/characteristic of being the thing (e.g. dense density / blood bloody), and (2) the doctrine centering or studying the thing (deity deism / alcohol alcoholism / anarchy anarchism). Take the following example: the Arabic word for socialism is “ishtirākiyyat”, while the word might refer in a different context for a “socialist” (feminine), e.g. “socialist girl” “fatāt ishtirāqiyya”. For this reason the Arabic version of “-ism” is context-dependent.  The formation of the Syriac “-ism” should consist of adding a ܣܡ to the root or stem (e.g. an adjective) of the Syriac word, in which one adds a “ḥboso” (the vowel [i]) on the last letter, along with ܣܡ e.g. ܦܠܰܛܳܘܢ (Plato) ܦܠܰܛܳܘܢܺܣܡܳܐ (Platonism). It is worth noting that the Syriac article ܐ is used as a definite and an indefinite article, therefore it is more preferable to use ܣܡܳܐ rather than ܣܡ.