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.

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