About the origin of the Lebanese language (II)

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on March 5, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

The Syriac vernacular of the Lebanese mountains, called Surien in the Middle Ages, is strongly influenced by the liturgical Syriac language called Ktovonoyo (meaning ‘the written’). However, the original basis of Surien remains the Canaanite language and serves as a pillar for subsequent linguistic contributions. How then can we recognize the vocabulary and grammatical traces of Canaanite and Ktovonoyo in this neo-Canaanite form called Surien? To analyze the evolutionary process of contemporary Surien is less obvious because it requires to peel the many layers of Arabization of Surien (or current Lebanese), especially influential in the 20th century. The analysis is complicated but not impossible. It should also be kept in mind that much of our current vocabulary appears both in Ktovonoyo – the liturgical language of the Syriac Maronite Church – and in Canaanite, more rarely too in Arabic. It makes it therefore superfluous to want to systematically determine the origin of words.

Terms common to Canaanite and liturgical Syriac

Among the words used in Surien (Lebanese Syriac) and which are common to both Canaanite and Ktovonoyo (liturgical Syriac), we can provide the following examples: ard Baal (land irrigated by Baal or naturally), neder (vow), barra (outside – kharej in Arabic), jouwa (inside – dakhel in Arabic), la (towards – ila in Arabic), ptah or ftah (open – iftah in Arabic), beit (house – dar in Arabic), kfar (village), basal (onion), nahr (river), kelb (dog), ‘ayn (eye and spring/well,), qarn (horn and summit), shlah (send, undress), hosheb or hsob (think), sheresh (root – juzour in Arabic), zéré’ (seed), qaber (tomb – madfan in Arabic), rabba (enta rabba – you are great), barekh (to bless), kohen or kehen (priest), shqol (raise – erfa’ in Arabic). Note that the letter q is not pronounced in Surien or modern Lebanese. Qaber is pronounced aber, and shqol is pronounced sh’ol.

Also Read: About the origin of the Lebanese language (I)

Terms originating exclusively from Canaanite

The Surien (Lebanese Syriac) vocabulary which comes exclusively from Canaanite (Phoenician) is significant and demonstrates an impressive continuity crossing millennia. Thus, until today, we use hess for to feel (in Phoenician) and not rogesh (in Ktovonoyo) nor ash’ur (in Arabic). Similarly, we say mnih (well, in Phoenician) and not shapir (in Ktovonoyo), nor jayyid (in Arabic). Morning is called ‘a bokra, or bakir, from the Phoenician boker (safro in Ktovonoyo, and sabah in Arabic). The word mosquito, par’ash, has survived until now in the form of barghash. The same for hon (here), honik (there), abét or abété (abbot or father), qarash or qarqash (freeze), lél (night, lilyo in Ktovonoyo) and yom (day, yawmo in Ktovonoyo). The bi-syllabic word ta’a (come) has long been considered as an intermediate form between the Arabic ta’ala (3 syllables) and the Ktovonoyo ta (one syllable). But it is in fact a purely Canaanite verb. Elsewhere, the words changed slightly in meaning, such as mahshur whose meaning changed from wanting to pressing.

Historian Fouad Ephrem Boustani identifies dozens of Lebanese words and terms that are specifically Canaanite as attested by writings on tablets from the Royal Library of Ugarit. Noteworthy is the title of Sitt for the princesses of Mount Lebanon, equivalent to Mart in Ktovonoyo and Sayyidah in Arabic. Ba’dén (after), in Ktovonoyo Botar, and in Arabic Ba’da IthanEjer (leg), in Ktovonoyo Reglo, and in Arabic Saq. Ja’ar (screaming), in Ktovonoyo G’o, and Sarakha in Arabic. This is also the meaning of the Canaanite verb Fa’arRass (compact) is equal to Ktovonoyo Labéd and Arabic Radda.

According to malphono F. Ephrem Boustani, more Canaanite terms are still in use today: Samdé (the scepter of Baal) used for samdét el érbén (exhibition of the Holy Sacrament); Rabbéb (to thicken, to make a paste); ‘erz (berth) which gives the current ‘erzél (tree hut); and finally, ‘ors (ball or unit) as for ‘ors kebbé.


Syriac manuscript in Estranguélo (monumental) script.

The influence of liturgical Syriac on Surien

At risk of stating the obvious, every living language evolves over time. This has also been the case with Surien (Neo-Canaanite) under the effect of the millennial teaching of Ktovonoyo (liturgical Syriac) as the liturgical and literary language of the Syriac Maronites, but also the language of the Roum (especially of the Melkites until the seventeenth century). This evolutionary process explains the domination of Syriac Ktovonoyo words, syntax and grammar in medieval Surien to today. Thus, we use D where Canaanite (Phoenician or Hebrew) uses Z, and where Arabic uses Dh. We also use T where Canaanite uses Sh and Arabic opts for Th.

Consonant matching

For example, in Surien as well as in liturgical Syriac, we say dehab (gold), daqen (beard) and madbah (altar), whereas in Canaanite it is zahabzaqen and mazbah. In Arabic it is dhahabdhaqen and madhbah. We also say tlété (three) and tméné (eight) where Canaanite would give shalosh and shmoné. In Arabic thalatha and thamaniya.

Plurals in “n” and “é”

Our plurals are in N whereas Canaanite and Arabic use M. We then say kellon and kelkon (all), and not kulhém and kulkém in Canaanite, nor kullahum and kullakum in Arabic. This form of the Syriac plural in N is characteristic of medieval Surien and of the current language in Lebanon. Another Syriac peculiarity is the plural in “é” that we find in lébnéniyyél’massihiyyél’frensewiyyé (the Lebanese, the Christians, the French), and not al-lebneniyyinal-massihiyyinal-faransiyyin.

It is when the words differ significantly between these three Semitic languages that the origin becomes more easily detectable. Thus ‘atme (darkness in Surien) is clearly related to Ktovonoyo ‘amtono and not to Canaanite heshuk, nor to Arabic al-thalam. Similarly, natour (guardian) contrasts with Canaanite shmar and Arabic haress.

Frankish influences on Surien

Certain terms exist exclusively in Surien (the Syriac language of Mount Lebanon) and not in liturgical Syriac or in Canaanite. The reason is that they are of European origin. Indeed, the Frankish period did not fail to influence the speech of the county of Tripoli as is still demonstrated today by the use of the verb zette. The J being non-existent in Syriac, was replaced in the Middle Ages by Z; the word throw then makes zette. Later, under the principality of Fakhreddine II, and thanks to the foundation in 1584 of the Maronite College in Rome, there was a profusion of Tuscan and Roman words.

Statue of Mor Maron in Bkerké, with Syriac inscription. ©Amine Jules Iskandar

Italian influence

Like Maltese, modern Surien is a form of Semitic strongly influenced by Italian, as demonstrated by the rich lexicon composed by malphono F. Ephrem Boustani. Among the hundreds of words he collected, we give a small exemplary sample: nomra (number), lista (list), arma (coat of arms – sign), veranda, capella (chapel), sagristia (sacristy), sbirto (spirito – alcohol), sala (room), s’alé (scala – ladder), sofa, berdéyé (portale – curtain), tawlé (tavola – table), maschera (mascera – masquerade), falso (false), awanta (benefit), antica (old), scarbiné (scarpina – shoe), limonada (lemonade), banc (bank), farmachia (farmacia – pharmacy), rachetta (ricetta – prescription), englizé (inglese – English), babour (vapor – boat ), machcina (macchina – machine).

The current language of Lebanon is the result of all these phases where the Christianized neo-Canaanite language generated the Surien or Syriac language of Mount Lebanon. As a living language, it never stopped evolving and enriching itself with Italian, Turkish, Arabic and French vocabulary. It is very regrettable that, since the 1990s, these words, which have been present for centuries, have been successively suppressed out of an alleged linguistic purification attempt. But the history of men and cultures is inscribed in the land and in the culture of its territory. Words that give the impression of having disappeared during their crossing of six millennia, are actually still here among us. Sometimes in toponyms, sometimes in anthroponyms, they refute the theory of historical discontinuity based on the smallness of the Lebanese territory and its numerous invasions.

Statue with Phoenician inscription, National Museum, Beirut. @Amine Jules Iskandar.

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

For the article in French see Ici BeyrouthFor the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org.

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The Mysterious Origins of the Language of the Maronites