Syriac Identity of Lebanon – part 4: Why is Spoken Lebanese a Syriac Dialect?

ܗܺܝܝܘܬܐ ܣܘܪܝܳܝܬܐ ܕܰܒܠܶܒܢܳܢ

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

Is today’s spoken Lebanese originally a dialect of the Syriac language? 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.

Famous Syriac historian Gregory Bar Hebraeus from the thirteenth century wrote about the people of Lebanon and their habits. He said that the Syriacs of Lebanon pronounce the letter Qouf as an Ouf. His remark is very valuable to us today because it explains why the Lebanese still pronounce it in 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 seminary 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.

Besides the Qouf we also notice the absence of interdentals, i.e., 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 also not 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 e.g. Mathalan becomes Matalan.

The main musical difference between Syriac and Arabic is noticed in the vowels. Syriac has five vowels whereas Arabic knows only three Harakah: al-Dammah, al-Fathah, al-Kassrah. The five 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 clearly contains the é of Lébnon or Lévnon. In Arabic this is replaced by Loubnan.

This linguistic reality makes it impossible to translate Maronite hymns from Syriac into Arabic. By keeping only three vowels out of five, the Arabic version loses two 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 typical for Syriac and still a 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 names of nationalities like Lébnéniyyé (Lebanese people) or Frenséwiyyé (French people). In Arabic it would be Loubnaniyyoun and Faransiyyoun.

The Origins

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 corresponds to 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 clearly shows its Syriac origin.

Garshouné and the Arabic Hamza

Syriac makes use of only the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet. Arabic has 28 letters, 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 script – 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, which 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 instances, 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. 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 instances, the Hamza just disappears and is not replaced. Like Ra’s (head) that becomes Ras and Mar’ah (woman) that becomes Mara.

Matriarchal Vocabulary

Lebanese has mostly been Arabized through its contact with the outside and professional world. Inside the homes, the mothers were mostly able to maintain the Syriac traditions and vocabulary. To begin with, the Maronite mothers established clear distinction between the outside world and the inside world, a shelter for heritage. Maronite mothers insisted on distinguishing the inside and the outside with the Syriac words Jouwa and Barra. The following examples, show eight words typically used by Lebanese mothers:

1) exterior – interior
• Lebanese:  jouwabarra
• Syriac: gawbar

• Arabic: al-dakheldal-kharej

2) baby
• Lebanese: bobbo
• Syriac: bobo (or bobousso)

• Arabic: tofel

3) kind (used for kind little dogs
• Lebanese: bobi
• Syriac: bobi

• Arabic: 7assan

4) juice
• Lebanese: zoum
• Syriac: zoumo

• Arabic: ăçyr

Women turning millstone to crush grain.
A Lebanese grandmother spinning, Tur Levnon

5) provisions
• Lebanese:  Zouwédé
• Syriac: Zwodé

• Arabic: al-zad

6) to undress
• Lebanese: shlaħ
• Syriac: shlaħ

• Arabic: inzaă, ikhlaă

7) house
• Lebanese:  Beit
• Syriac: Beit

• Arabic: Dar, Manzel

8) family
• Lebanese: Beit
• 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 today, the first words of a Lebanese child are Syriac words.

Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2.

For the article in Spanish. Also read Part 1, 2, 3

You can also watch episode 3 of the associated TV-series as broadcast by Nour Al-Sharq Tv.