By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The vast area from the Levant to Upper Mesopotamia was not always culturally and linguistically uniform. There was a time when people lived side by side, each rich in its traditions, religion and language. This cultural and linguistic diversity survives in our times only in certain local pockets and with minority groups on either side of the Turkish-Syrian and Turkish-Iraqi borders, as well as in Lebanon and some adjacent Syrian regions. It is the Christian religion that has been the vehicle that has ensured the survival of this rich heritage that dates back to the heyday of eastern Antiquity to this day. This linguistic treasure has reached us either as a living idiom or as a liturgical language, but also in the form of substrates and phrases within modern speech. To provide a concise overview, below follows background information and a simplified summary of four Syriac language forms to East and West.
Sureth (East Syriac)
In the east, the first of the spoken Syriac languages is East Syriac or Sureth. The Syriac speakers of Sureth denominationally united with Rome are called Chaldeans, and Assyrians when they are not.
Where does Sureth come from, and why is it often called Assyrian? In the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the language of the Mesopotamians, during their Assyrian (736-609) and then Chaldean (605-539) Empires when they dominated the Middle East as far as the Levant, undergoes influence from the Aramean population they had subjugated. The Persians come to power after 539 BC. Instead of imposing their own language, which was completely foreign to the local populations, the Persians opted for Aramaic as it was already partially mastered by all. They make it the diplomatic and commercial language of their empire, and the Aramaic influence on the local languages increases significantly from Canaan to Upper Mesopotamia. In this process, a new form of Assyrian emerges but now in an Aramaic form. This language evolves constantly over time to give rise to the current spoken Sureth. It is spoken by the Assyro-Chaldean Christians in the East and the Diaspora.
Turoyo (West Syriac)
The second spoken language is a form of West Syriac, called Turoyo because it relates to the region of Tur Abdin, in present-day southeast Turkey. While Sureth evolved from ancient Mesopotamian, Turoyo is seen as a Christian form of Aramaic. Its speakers define themselves quite often as Arameans. They too are divided into two Churches, one united with Rome (Syriac Catholic) and the other the Syriac Orthodox Church, known in the Middle Ages as Jacobite.
Surien (West Syriac from Canaan)
The third form is also part of West Syriac but is located further west. It is of particular interest to us here because it is the language spoken in the mountains of Lebanon. It is from Canaanite (Phoenician) which, like Sureth, was Aramaicized from the seventh and sixth centuries BC onwards under the Mesopotamian and then Persian empires. Some authors mention it in the medieval period. William of Tyre, a twelfth-century Latin bishop and chronicler, mentions the ‘Suriens’ descending from the mountains of Lebanon to help the Franks. Their Surien language is described in the thirteenth century by the Jacobite Syriac historian from the Tripoli school, the Maphrian Gregory Bar Hebraeus. He recounts that the letter ‘Qouf’ is pronounced by them as if it were a simple ‘A’. Qadisha thus gives the Adisha sound, without Qouf. As with Sureth and Turoyo, we also see the existence of two churches for this language: one recognizing papal primacy (the Syriac Maronite Church) and the other known as Roum or Greek. In the Middle Ages, there were also Jacobites in Lebanon.
Ktovonoyo (Liturgical Syriac)
A fourth form of Syriac is that known as “Edessan Aramaic” or “Christian Aramaic”. It asserts itself in the first and second centuries AD and establishes its own writing, based on the 22 characters of the Phoenician alphabet. Having become the literary form of the Syriac language, it is today known as Ktovonoyo or ‘the Written.’
The four Syriac linguistic forms
The question that now arises is to understand why languages such as the Sureth of the Assyro-Chaldeans or the Surien of the Syriac Maronites and the Roums are defined as Syriac dialects when they originate from Mesopotamian (Assyrian) and Canaanite (Phoenician)? While there is a predominance of Aramaic in Sureth and Surien, the justification for calling them Syriac is more cultural than linguistic. The Sureth of the Mesopotamians, the Turoyo of the Arameans, and the Surien of the Canaanites have never been written down. Or rather, when they were written, they did not use writing characters of their own. Their Churches therefore did not adopt any of these three languages for their liturgy and literature but used the fourth (written) form which is the Syriac of the city of Edessa (Urhoy). This is how three idioms that come from Mesopotamian, Aramaic, and Canaanite respectively are now considered dialects of the Syriac language, because Syriac (Ktovonoyo), or the Aramaic of Edessa, became their only form of writing, liturgy and thus literary expression.
The Lebanese have never spoken Ktovonoyo, but it was and is the liturgical language of the Syriac Maronite Church. This language was taught in their schools until 1943 and it is the only language they wrote and the one they still sing in the form of hymns. It is the language taught in schools that defines the identity of the people and their land. And it is because of their language that William of Tyre had identified them and called them Suriens.
It is important to emphasize that the Surien language is Aramaicized and Christianized Canaanite, that Sureth is Aramaicized and Christianized Assyrian, that Turoyo and the Ktovonoyo are Christianized Aramaic. All these forms are closely related and similar. In addition, one cannot ignore the centuries-long teaching of Ktovonoyo and its chanted form in the parish churches. Ktovonoyo therefore has had a very deep influence on the Sureth of Upper Mesopotamia and on the Surien of Mount Lebanon..
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
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