Chapter 2 of My Classical Syriac Grammar

Classical Syriac Grammar

I have just posted chapter 2 of my free online grammar of Classical Syriac in the Estrangela Script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  This chapter covers vowels in East Syriac, BeGaDKePhaT Letters, Consonant Clusters, Diphthongs, and when to pronounce Waw and Yodh as consonants.  The most difficult part of learning classical Syriac is mastering how to pronounce and write words in Syriac.  Make sure that you learn the material in this chapter well – it will pay dividends in the future.

The plan is to complete chapter 3 of the grammar in the Estrangela script and then go back and do chapters 1, 2, and 3 in the Serto script and then the East Syriac script.

Practice sheets for chapter 2 will be posted as they become available.  Once again, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

 

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Quick Correction – A Syriac Grammar by Michael Sokoloff

Syriac Lexicon - Sokoloff

*Note: From time to time on this site I will be posting corrections or helpful additions to reference works that I regularly use.  If you own these works, simply pencil in the addition or correction if you feel that it is helpful.

On page 384 of Michael Sokoloff’s A Syriac Lexicon (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns; Piscataway, New Jersey, 2009), the term ܙܠܵܡܵܐ is defined as the West Syriac vowel e with a note in brackets that the East Syrian version of the vowel is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ.  The opposite, however, is the case.  The West Syriac vowel e is called ܪܒܵܨܵܐ while the two vowels that correspond to it in East Syriac are called ܙܠܵܡܵܐ.  The ܙܠܵܡܵܐ in East Syriac can be either short or long.  The long and short version of ܙܠܵܡܵܐ and are written with separate vowel signs and are considered to be separate vowels.

Mark Steven Francois

Classical Syriac Grammar – Chapter 1 (Estrangela)

Classical Syriac Grammar

In my free time (as a hobby) I am writing a free online grammar for Classical Syriac, which will eventually appear in all three Syriac scripts.  I have just posted chapter 1 of the grammar in the Estrangela script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  Three of the practice sheets for this chapter have already been posted – the rest will appear as soon as they are ready.  As always, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

Syriac Alphabet (Estrangela) Tracing Sheets

Syriac Grammar - Aphabet Tracing Sheets - Estrangela

I have just uploaded tracing sheets for the Syriac alphabet (Estrangela) for chapter 1 of the online grammar I am writing and plan to post on this website as the work progresses.  You can find the tracing sheets here under chapter 1: https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/.  Feel free to use them but don’t alter them or republish them in any other format, including other websites.  Enjoy!

 

What is Classical Syriac?

What is Classical Syriac?Note: This post will form part of chapter 1 of a free online Syriac Grammar that I will be writing and posting in stages on Between the Perfect and the Doomed.  Check out https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/ for practice sheets and chapters of the grammar as they become available.

What is Classical Syriac?

There are a number of different answers that can be given to the question, “What is Classical Syriac?” depending on the perspective of the person who is either asking or answering the question.

  • For the person interested in ancient Semitic languages, Classical Syriac is a late dialect of Aramaic that was widely used in what is now Southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran from the beginning of the common era all of the way into the medieval period and beyond.
  • For the person interested in church history, especially in the patristic period, Classical Syriac is a welcome and, in some cases, even a surprising addition to the better known languages of the early church (i.e. Greek and Latin) that were used to produce material that was formative for the life and faith of the Christian church.
  • For the person interested in the rise and spread of Islam or in the history of the Crusades, Classical Syriac is a language that opens up lesser-known resources that are of incredible value for understanding the people, beliefs, and events of these time periods.
  • For members of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and others, Classical Syriac is the language used in their Bibles and in the liturgy of their church.[1]
  • For modern-day Assyrians in the Middle East and spread throughout the world through immigration and, in far too many cases, because of war, systematic persecution, and even genocide, Classical Syriac is the ancestral language of their people that, even though not always understood, helps to define them as a people.

Syriac is all of these things and more. But, for this chapter, our focus needs to be on Syriac as a language. What can be said about Syriac from a linguistic perspective?

Classical Syriac as a Language

As was mentioned earlier, Classical Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This means that Classical Syriac, along with Hebrew, Phoenician, and other Canaanite dialects, belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages.[2] This means that Syriac, like other dialects of Aramaic, shares a great deal in common with Hebrew, including cognate vocabulary, a similar manner of forming verbs, and other grammatical features. As part of the wider family of Semitic languages, Syriac also shares a great deal in common with Arabic and Akkadian (i.e. the various dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian). This means that Syriac is much easier to learn for someone who already knows the grammar of one of these other languages.

(For speakers of modern dialects of Syriac, it should be kept in mind that words in modern Syriac might not always have the same meaning as the same words in Classical Syriac. For those who know one of these other Semitic languages, it should be kept in mind that cognate words in these other languages do not always have the same meaning in Classical Syriac.)

As a dialect of Aramaic, Classical Syriac is quite similar to Imperial Aramaic (e.g. the Aramaic of Ezra, Daniel, and the Jewish papyri from the Egyptian fortress at Elephantine), both in its vocabulary and structure as a language. Students with a background in Classical Syriac will have a distinct advantage when learning Imperial Aramaic and vice versa. That being said, there was a significant amount of development between Imperial Aramaic and Classical Syriac so the differences between the two phases need to be studied carefully. The closest dialects to Classical Syriac in the Aramaic branch of the Northwest Semitic family are Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic.[3]

One of the most fascinating things about Syriac as a language is the influence that Greek has had on the language. The traditional areas where Syriac was spoken were taken over by the Macedonian and Greek armies of Alexander the Great and were ruled for centuries by the Greek-speaking Seleucid Empire and the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire.[4] While the dominance of Greek on an everyday level was largely isolated to the Greek-speaking cities of these empires,[5] the Greek language left an incredible mark on the development of Syriac as a language. This can be seen especially in the vocabulary of Syriac, which has many words that are simply taken over directly from Greek (e.g. ܦܪܘܿܠܘܿܓܼܝܲܐ [prōlōgyā] = προλογία [prologia] = prologue; ܐܲܩܘܼܠܘܼܬܼܝܲܐ [’aqūlūtiyā] = ἀκολουθία [akolouthia] = order, sequence).

Thus, in many ways, Syriac is a fusion of several different worlds: the ancient with the classical; the near eastern with the Mediterranean; the Christian with the pre-Christian (both Jewish and pagan); and the Christian with the Islamic. The traces of this fusion have left an unmistakable and indelible mark on both the language and literature of Classical Syriac, which is part of the excitement of studying this language.

Mark Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] For a concise description of the various churches from the Syriac tradition see Sebastian Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (Gorgias Handbooks 4; 2nd ed.; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 67-78.

[2] Note that Steven C. Hallam, in a recent grammar of classical Syriac, confusedly classifies Classical Syriac as an East Semitic Language (Basics of Classical Syriac [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016],13). While Classical Syriac certainly was used in the eastern part of what is now known as the Middle East and falls under the category of Eastern Aramaic, as a dialect of Aramaic it clearly belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages. At present there are only two languages that are classified as East Semitic: Akkadian and Eblaite.  For a discussion of Aramaic in the context of Northwest Semitic languages, see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Semitic Background of the New Testament, Volume 2: A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 63-74.

[3] See Takamitsu Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy (2nd ed.; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), §1.

[4] It should be kept in mind that Greek was the common language for culture and administration in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Even in the western part of the Empire, where Latin predominated, Greek was still used by a sizeable portion of the population and even came to have an impact on the development of Latin itself. See Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (2nd ed.; Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 125-6.

[5] J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 2.

Practice Sheets for the Syriac Alphabet

syriac-practice-sheets

I have just posted practice sheets for the Syriac alphabet on the Syriac Grammar page on Between the Perfect and the Doomed (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  These letters are in the Estrangela script and show how letters are written when they are not attached to other letters.

There are three main scripts that are used to write Syriac: the Estrangela script, the Serto script (also referred to as the Jacobite script), and the Nestorian script.  The Estrangela script is the oldest script and is the script used in most scholarly editions of Syriac texts, including the Leiden Syriac Peshitta (the standard critical edition of the Syriac Old Testament) and the various writings in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series (e.g. works of Ephrem the Syrian, Syriac historical chronicles, etc.).  It is also the script used in Sokoloff’s A Syriac Lexicon (i.e. the updated version of Brockelmann’s Lexicon Syriacum).

The Estrangela script is a semi-cursive script, meaning that many of the letters are joined together to allow for continuous writing.  However, in certain situations the various letters of the Estrangela script will appear unattached and sometimes have a form that looks different from the form they would normally take when attached to other letters.  If you are learning Syriac, it is important to master these unattached forms.

While the Estrangela script can be written with a normal pen or pencil, you may want to purchase a calligraphy pen/marker in order to make the lines thinner or thicker when needed.  I use a Tombow calligraphy pen.

For those of you who know Hebrew, the fonts used for the Estrangela script are basically identical with how they look in manuscripts.  This is quite different from Hebrew where handwritten letters often look somewhat different from how they appear in printed editions of the Hebrew Bible.  This means that you will have little difficulty reading actual Syriac manuscripts if you master this script.  It also means that your own writing has the potential to look like Syriac writing as it appears in manuscripts.

Just a quick note.  Not everyone forms letters in the Estrangela script in the same sequence that I do for every letter of the alphabet, though most will be the same.  I have chosen this particular order because it allows my letters to be neater and, in the forms that are identical to how they look when they are attached to other letters, they allow the letters to be connected to the next letters more easily.

Enjoy!

 

Introuction to the Anonymous Chronicle of Edessa (Part 2)

3. The Plight of Edessa Under the Persians 

     Sections ninety-six and ninety-seven describe plight of the Edessans living under Persian rule.  Khusro, the Persian king, plundered the churches of Edessa because the people slandered Cyrus, the governor whom he had appointed over the city when he captured it in 609 C.E.[1]  Next Khusro decided to send the people to exile in Persia.  He ordered the Marzban, the military governor of the region,[2] to evacuate the city immediately.  But the Marzban, hoping that the king would rescind his order, evacuated the city little by little.  When Herakleios, the Byzantine emperor, heard the news he mounted an offensive against the Persians and liberated the city around 628 C.E.[3]  The events recorded in section ninety-seven took place after the siege of Constantinople in 626 C.E.  In this instance the sequence of events is thematic rather than chronological.

 4. The Siege of Constantinople

     Section ninety-eight describes the siege of Constantinople by the Persians in 626 C.E. [4]   Khusro sent his armies, under Shahrbaraz and Kardigan, to wage war against the Byzantines.  The account of the siege given in the chronicle varies significantly from other accounts of the siege.[5]  According to the chronicle, the Persian army besieged Constantinople for nine months.  The siege was finally lifted when Shahrbaraz revolted against Khusro through Byzantine subterfuge.  In reality, Constantinople was under siege for ten days, the Persians were not even involved, and Herakleios was not even in the city.  The siege was undertaken by the Avars, Persia’s allies, while the Persian armies attacked Herakleios in the north-eastern part of Asia Minor, preventing him from relieving the capital.[6]  Herakleios defeated the Persian army under Shahrbaraz and the balance of power shifted in his favour, which enabled him to launch a counter-offensive into Persian-held territories.  The chronicle is correct, however, in noting that Shahrbaraz did make a treaty with the Byzantines, but this was only after the death of Khusro in 628 C.E.[7]

5. The Fall of Khusro and the Expulsion of the Persians from Byzantine Territory

      Sections ninety-nine to one hundred and one describe the fall of Khusro and the expulsion of the Persians from Byzantine territory.  After making an agreement with Shahrbaraz, Herakleios marched from Constantinople and raided Media and Azerbaijan from his sanctuary in Armenia.  The Persian Army, led by Ruzbihan, attacked Herakleios but was defeated.  Khusro fled but was killed by his son Shiroe.  Shiroe made a treaty with Herakleios and agreed to return all of the territory that had once belonged to the Romans and that all of the Persians living in Byzantine territory should return to Persia, an agreement which he had already made with Shahrbaraz.  Unbeknownst to him, Herakleios’ defeat of the Persians created a vacuum that would soon be filled by the Arab Muslims and would ultimately lead to the loss of Byzantine hegemony over that entire region.

     Herakleios sent his brother Theodore to Syria in order to expel the Persians who were living in his territory.  When he came to Edessa the Persians would not surrender the city.  The Jews of the city joined the Persians in rejecting Theodore’s demands.  The Jews of the city were most likely in sympathy with the Persians because of their strong religious ties to Nisibis, which was then in Persian territory.[8]  When the city capitulated to the Byzantines, Theodore planned to exterminate the Jews because of the insults they hurled at him from the wall.  Theodore was stopped when a Jew named Joseph, who had escaped from the city and pleaded with Herakleios to spare the Jews, arrived with a letter commanding Theodore not to molest the Jews.[9]

6.  Herakleios’ Persecution of the Monophysites of Edessa

     Section one hundred and two describes Herakleios’ persecution of the Monophysites of Edessa.  The Monophysites believed that the human and divine natures of Christ were undivided and that they were united in one person during the incarnation.  The Dyophysites, also known as Nestorians, believed that the human and divine nature of Christ, though present in one person, were divided.  The Council of Chalcedon formulated a compromise between these two positions and stated that the two natures of Christ were both distinguishable and inseparable.[10]  Those who held to the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon were called Chalcedonians.

     The Chalcedonians and the Monophysites were bitter opponents in Edessa.  Section one hundred and two describes an incident that was typical of this animosity.  When Herakleios came to the Cathedral to take the Eucharist, the Metropolitan of the city, a Monophysite, foolishly refused to give it to him unless he condemned the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo, which formed the basis of the Council’s decision.  Herakleios was filled with rage and handed over the cathedral to the Chalcedonians.[11]  The conquest of Edessa by the Arab Muslims brought an end to Herakleios’ oppression but the cathedral remained in the hands of the Chalecedonians because the Muslims wished to maintain the status quo.  Nonetheless, the Monophysites attributed the Muslim victories to the judgment of God, who was punishing the Byzantines for persecuting them.

7.  The Victories of Abu Bakr

     The remainder of the chronicle being dealt with here describes the defeat of the Byzantine army by Abu Bakr, the successor of Muhammad and leader of the Muslim armies.  The chronicler again expresses the belief that the Byzantines were defeated because of their persecution of the Monophysites.  There is a telling incident in section one hundred and ten involving three people: Theodore, a Chalcedonian stylite, and a Monophysite servant.  Theodore, the brother of Herakleios encountered the stylite standing on a pillar, who asked Theodore to promise to persecute the Monophysites when he returned victoriously from battle against the Muslims.  Theodore was more than willing to acquiesce to the stylite’s request.  Meanwhile, the Monophysite servant overheard this conversation but was too afraid to say anything.  When Theodore returned from battle in defeat, this same servant mocked him for failing to defeat the Muslim armies and, as a result, the promises he made to persecute the Monophysites upon his victory.

     The sections of the chronicle translated in my next post give a fascinating glimpse into how the fall of the Persian and Byzantine Empires were viewed by the Monphysite Christians of Syria.  For them, the Muslims were sent by God to punish the Byzantines for their wickedness.  Although the Monophysites had much more in common with the Byzantines than the Muslims in terms of beliefs and practices, the Monophysites welcomed the Muslims as liberators from an oppressive empire and, with it, an oppressive church.


[1] Segal, Edessa, 114.

[2] Beae Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186 n. 60.  Marzban was the “the title of the governor of a border province and military commander of the Sasanian border troops.”

[3] Segal, Edessa, 114.

[4] For a full account of the siege see Cyril Mango and Gilbert Dargon, eds., “The siege of Constantinople in 626” in James Howard-Johnston, ed., East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006), VII 131-142.

[5] G. Gnoli, ed., “Pride and fall: Khusro II and his regime, 626-628,” in James Howard-Johnston, ed., East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, IX 106, n. 29.

[6] Mango and Dargon, eds., “The siege of Constantinople in 626,” VII 133-134.

[7] Tourjai Daryaee, Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2008), 90-91.

[8] Segal, Edessa, 101.

[9] Cf. Ibid, 104.

[10] Dignas and Winder, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity, 274.

[11] Segal, Edessa, 99.  “The refusal of the intolerant Bishop Isaiah to give the sacrament to Heraclius at the Cathedral of Edessa and the harsh reaction of the Emperor was not an isolate incident.