1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Syriac Language

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SYRIAC LANGUAGE. Syriac is the eastern dialect of the Aramaic language which, during the early centuries of the Christian era, prevailed in Mesopotamia and the adjoining regions. Its main centres were at Edessa and Nisibis, but it was the literary language of practically all the Christian writers in the region east of Antioch, as well as of the Christian subjects of the Persian empire.

All the Semitic languages[1] are built up from triliteral roots: that is, the great majority of the words are derived from a simple verbal form, of which the essential elements are three consonants. This form is seen in the 3rd pers. sing. perf. of the verb, e.g. Aram. q‘ṭal or ḳ‘ṭal (“he killed”), which corresponds to Heb. qāṭal and Arab. qatala. The vowels play no part in differentiating the roots, for the vowels are practically the same in the corresponding forms of every root. The form q‘ṭal illustrates one main peculiarity of Aramaic, as opposed to the other Semitic languages, viz. its paucity of vowels: for where Hebrew has two full vowels—a long and a short—in qāṭal, and Arabic has three short vowels in qatala, Aramaic has only one short vowel, the sound ‘ between q and being merely a half vowel which is not indicated in Syriac writing. Another chief characteristic of Aramaic appears in nouns, viz. the entire absence of a prefixed definite article. Aramaic gives to the noun instead an ending ti, making the so-called “emphatic” state. In the older Aramaic dialects this is used exactly as the noun with prefixed article is used in other languages; but in Syriac the emphatic state has lost this special function of making the noun definite, and has become simply the normal state of the noun. The main grammatical distinction between Syriac and all the west Aramaic dialects is that in Syriac the 3rd person of the imperfect (singular and plural) of the verb begins with n, but in west Aramaic, as in the other Semitic languages, it begins with y.

When, in the 5th century A.D., owing to theological differences the Syriac-using Christians became divided into Nestorians or East Syrians and Jacobites (Monophysites) or West Syrians, certain differences of pronunciation, chiefly in the vowels, began to develop themselves. The East Syrians in most cases kept the more primitive pronunciation: e.g. the old Semitic ā with them remained ā, but with the Jacobites passed into ō. One very tangible difference appears in the fact that the name Jesus was by the East Syrians written and pronounced Īshō‘, by the West Syrians Yeshū.

The Syriac alphabet, which derived its letters from forms ultimately akin to those of the Old Hebrew and Phoenician alphabets, has the same twenty-two letters as the Hebrew. And as in Hebrew, the six letters b g d k p t are aspirated when immediately preceded by any vowel sound. On the other hand, the guttural letters affect the vowels much less than in Hebrew: their chief effect is when final to change the preceding vowel, if other than a or ā, into a, but even this is not always the case.[2] The vowels, which are ten in number (ā a ē e ī i ō o ū u), were, as usual in the Semitic languages, indicated only partially by the use of consonants as vowel-letters[3] and by means of certain diacritical points, so long as Syriac remained a living language. But about the time when it began to be supplanted by Arabic, two systems of vowel-signs were invented, one for the West Syrians, who borrowed the forms of Greek vowels, and the other more elaborate for the East Syrians, who used combinations of dots. Neither system completely differentiates long and short vowels; the Nestorian scheme is the more satisfactory, though more cumbrous.

Where the same root exists in Arabic, Syriac and Hebrew, its fundamental consonants are usually the same in all three languages. But letters belonging to the same group occasionally interchange. As regards the dentals and sibilants there are one or two rules which govern the interchange, in the manner of a Grimm's Law. (1) Where Arabic has an ordinary dental, Syriac and Hebrew have the same; but where Arabic has an aspirated dental (e.g. th), Syriac has an ordinary dental t, but Hebrew has a sibilant (sh). (2) Hebrew has one more sibilant than Arabic or Syriac: thus, as corresponding to s (sāmekh), s (sīn) sh in Hebrew, Arabic has only s (sīn) sh, while Syriac has a different pair s (sāmekh) sh. Hebrew sāmekh is represented by Ar. sīn and Syr. sāmekh; but Heb. sīn (Syr. sāmekh) is represented by Ar. sh, while Heb. and Syr. sh is represented by Ar. sīn. As regards this crossing of s and sh, Arabic has with it the other south Semitic language, Ethiopic: the evidence as to the other north Semitic language, Assyrian, is conflicting.

In vowel-sounds Syriac is clearly more primitive than Hebrew (as pointed by the Massoretes), less so than Arabic. Thus Ar. and Syr. a is often thinned in Hebrew into i (ē when accented), as in the first syllable of Ar. qattala = Syr. qaṭṭtēl = Heb. qiṭtēl. But the second syllable of the same word shows Syriac siding with Hebrew against Arabic. Again the primitive ā of Arabic is in the older (Nestorian) pronunciation of Syriac maintained, while in Jacobite Syriac and in Hebrew it passes into ō: thus Ar. qāṭil Nestorian qāṭēl = Jacobite and Hebrew qōṭēl. Again Syriac maintains the diphthongs ai and au, which in Hebrew have usually passed into ē and ō.

The accent plays much less part in lengthening and altering the vowels in Syriac than in Hebrew, but there are well-marked cases of lengthening from this cause.

A few words may now be said about the three main parts of speech—pronouns, nouns and verbs.

1. Pronouns.—As in the other Semitic languages, these stand almost entirely outside the system of triliteral roots, being mainly derived from certain demonstrative letters or particles. Each of the personal pronouns (except the 3rd plur.) exists in a longer and a shorter form: the one is used as a nominative and is a separate word, the other is attached to verbs and (in a slightly different form) to nouns to express the accusative or genitive. These pronominal suffixes are of much the same form as in Hebrew, but produce less change in the vowels of the words to which they are attached. Demonstrative adjectives and adverbs are formed by prefixing the syllable ( = ecce, “behold”) to other pronominal elements, and interrogatives similarly by prefixing the interrogative syllable ay; but there are other interrogative pronouns. The relative consists only of the letter d (indeclinable) prefixed to words.

2. Nouns and Adjectives.—The Syriac noun has three states—the absolute (used chiefly in adjectival or participial predicates, but also with numerals and negatives, in adverbial phrases, &c.), the construct (which, as in Hebrew, must be immediately followed by a genitive), and the emphatic (see above). There are only two genders and two numbers: the neuter gender is entirely wanting, and the dual number is not recognized in Syriac grammar, though there are plain traces of it in the language. The fem. sing. ending is absolute ā, construct ath, emphatic or ‘tha: thus the fem. sing. abs. is always identical in form with the masc. sing. emph. The plural endings are—masc. abs. īn, const. ai, emph. ē; fem. abs. ān, const. āth, emph. āthā. Syriac is not, like Arabic and Hebrew, confined to the use of the construct for the ordinary expression of the genitive or possessive relation: for it has a preposition (d) which expresses “of,” “belonging to.” The noun preceding this preposition may be in the emphatic state or may (as is usually the case when the noun is definite) have a pleonastic suffix. Thus “the son of the king” is more commonly expressed by b‘rā dh‘malkā or b‘rēh d‘malkā than by bar malkā, whereas the latter type would alone be permissible in Hebrew. And a genitive with prefixed d does not require the governing noun to precede it immediately, as must be the case when the construct is used. This is one of the many respects where Syriac has gained greater flexibility in syntax than Hebrew.

3. Verbs.—The Syriac verb is remarkable for having entirely lost the original passive forms, such as in Arabic can be formed in every conjugation and in Hebrew are represented by the Pual and Hophal. For these Syriac has substituted middle or reflexive forms with prefixed eth and a change in the last vowel. The simple active q‘ṭal makes its passive ethq‘ṭel; the intensive qaṭṭēl makes ethqaṭṭal; and the causative aqṭēl makes ettaqṭal. The inflexion of the verbs is, on the whole, more regular than in Hebrew: thus, to take one instance, the 3rd plur. fem. impf. neqṭ‘lān corresponds better to 3rd plur. masc. neqṭ‘lūn than does the equivalent Hebrew form tiqṭolnā to yiqṭ’lū. But the most important peculiarity of Syriac verbs is again in the sphere of syntax, and shows the same progress towards flexibility which we found in the nouns. Whereas the Hebrew verb is devoid of real tenses, and only expresses an action as completed or as in process without indicating time past, present or future, Syriac has by the help of an auxiliary verb constructed a set of tenses. Thus we have—

Pres. qāṭel, “he kills,” “he is killing” (sometimes “he is about to kill”).

Impf. qāṭel wā, “he was killing.”

Fut. neqṭōl, “he will kill.”

Pf. or Aor. q‘ṭal “he has killed,” “he killed.”

Plup. or Aor. q‘ṭal wā, “he had killed,” “he killed.”

The same progress towards flexibility in syntax is seen in the copious supply of conjunctions possessed by Syriac. No doubt the tendency towards a more flowing construction of sentences was helped by the influence of Greek, which has also supplied a large stock of words to the Syriac vocabulary.

(N. M.)
  1. On the place of Aramaic among the Semitic languages, and of Syriac among the various dialects, see Semitic Languages.
  2. It may indeed be remarked that Syriac, which is generally more primitive in its sounds than Hebrew, shows a more advanced stage of weakening as regards the gutturals: thus in a good many forms it has substituted ālef for initial , and often shows a dislike for the presence of two gutturals in the same word, weakening one of them to ālef. A much more advanced stage of weakening is seen in some of the other dialects.
  3. With regard to this, Syriac has one great difference from Hebrew, viz. that final ā is indicated not by , but by ālef.