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Syriac

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Syriac

Three post-Achaemenid Aramaic dialects achieved the status of major literary languages: Syriac, Jewish Aramaic, and Mandaic. [See Aramaic Language and Literature; Mandaic.] After the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire, the widely used “Imperial” Aramaic failed to act as a unifying political force and local areas developed their own dialectal forms and scripts. [See Imperial Aramaic.] Syriac was originally the dialect of the Edessa area (Urfa in modern Turkey, and in antiquity known as Osrhoene), but its importance increased with the spread of Christianity in the region after about 200 CE. By the thirteenth century it had declined in literary importance, giving way to Arabic.

Although Syriac may be fairly characterized as a Christian language, the earliest inscriptions from the Edessa region which show distinctively Syriac characteristics in language and script are pagan. The earliest is dated to 6 CE (from Birecik), and they extend to the middle of the second century CE (especially inscriptions from Sumatar Harabesi near Harran).

Several features distinguish Syriac from earlier forms of Aramaic. The Proto-Semitic /ś/, which in earlier Aramaic was represented by the letter śin, came to be written with the Syriac sign for /s/ (semkat). The early inscriptions give evidence of this transition. The construct ceased to be a productive form, even though it was retained in numerous fixed expressions. Instead, the particle de is used in an analytical possessive construction: sūsyā de malkā, “the horse of the king.” It is also characteristic of Syriac to add an anticipatory pronoun to the first noun in such expressions: sūsyeh de malkā, literally “his horse of the king.” The Aramaic substantival ending -ā (originally marking definiteness) ceased to have any significance in contrast with the nonsuffixed form. The imperfect of the third-person masculine singular and plural has a n(e)- prefix, in contrast with the earlier y-(l- in some Aramaic dialects). The causative stem is formed with ῾a- (except in a few archaic fossilized cases). The definite direct object of the verb is regularly marked with the particle l-.

The earliest inscriptions use a recognizable form of what became the esṭrangelā (from Gk., strongúlē, “rounded, compact, carved”) script derived from the earlier Aramaic tradition. As with the other early West Semitic writing systems, this script was essentially consonantal. The earliest examples of the script on soft materials are found on legal parchments from the area of the Middle Euphrates River, dated to 240–243 CE. Literary manuscripts were already in existence by that date, although the earliest dated literary manuscript (British Library Add. MS. 12150) comes from 411 CE. This manuscript already displays a mature and elegant calligraphy.

Syriac-speaking Christians became divided during the centuries of christological debate, and as a result the script forms developed separately. Esṭrangelā remained the traditional and most formal script, but alongside it there developed Western (sometimes called Jacobite, or serṭō, “character”) and Eastern (Nestorian) scripts. The confessional titles are traditional but not really appropriate. Unlike previous scripts, the Eastern and Western scripts each developed methods of indicating vowels for the first time. The Eastern system consists of dots; the Western adapted Greek vowel letters for the purpose. As in Hebrew and Arabic, the new marks were placed above and below the consonants.

Dialectal differences also developed which were at first slight, consisting of little more than variations in vowel pronunciation. Thus, the original ā of Aramaic came to be articulated as o/ō in Western Syriac, while its original value was retained in the East. Western Syriac also effectively merged o with u.

Syriac survives as a spoken language in the area where modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq meet. Its religious heartland is the Ṭur ῾Abdin in Turkey, and the modern language is marked by considerable phonological innovation and heavy interference from Turkish and Arabic.

Syriac literature is too vast to be outlined here. The main collections are in the Patrologia Orientalis (Paris, 1907– ) and Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (Paris, 1903– ) series and in Baumstark (1968) is found the most comprehensive survey. Note should be taken, however, of the outstanding early writer, Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373 CE). Ephrem was a great poet, although he has not always been fully appreciated because of the complexity of his poetry. Syriac literature gradually came more and more under Greek influence, and it may be fairly said that few of its later theologians could be described as original thinkers. However, another branch of Syriac literature became more important and remains invaluable to modern scholarship: chronicles. At first these seem to have been little more than city archives recounting series of events, but historiography developed and culminated in the major works of writers such as Michael the Syrian (d. 1199 CE) and Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286 CE).

Bibliography

  • Baumstark, Anton. Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (1922). Berlin, 1968.
    The fundamental history of Syriac literature (there is no satisfactory English equivalent)
    .
  • Brock, Sebastian P. “An Introduction to Syriac Studies.” In Horizons in Semitic Studies, edited by J. H. Eaton, pp. 1–33. Birmingham, 1980.
    Invaluable survey article covering the whole wealth of Syriac studies in a brief compass
    .
  • Brockelmann, Carl. Lexicon Syriacum. 2d ed. Halle, 1928.
    The best portable dictionary, though its translations are into Latin; contains references to particular Syriac texts
    .
  • McCullough, William S. A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of Islam. Chico, Calif., 1982.
    Good, clear introduction to the subject
    .
  • Nöldeke, Theodor. Compendious Syriac Grammar. London, 1904. The standard reference grammar of the language, essential to all serious study. The English is a translation of the second German edition, Kurzgefasste Syrische Grammatik (Leipzig, 1898; reprint, Darmstadt, 1977). All teaching grammars depend to a large extent on Nöldeke; note should be taken of widely used teaching grammars by Theodore H. Robinson, Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar, 4th ed. (
    Oxford
    , 1962), and John F. Healey, First Studies in Syriac (
    Birmingham
    , 1980).
  • Payne Smith, Jessie. A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Oxford, 1903. Based on the more extensive treatment by Robert Payne Smith, The-saurus Syriacus (Oxford, 1879–1901), this work is an English equivalent to Brockelmann, (above) though its information is generally more sparse.
  • Segal, Judah B. Edessa, “The Blessed City.” Oxford, 1970.
    Primarily concerned with the history of Edessa, but in effect a history of the cultural background of Syriac
    .

John F. Healey

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