Compendious Syriac Grammar/Introduction

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From the time the Greeks came to have a more intimate acquaintance with Asia, they designated by the name of "Syrians" the people who called themselves "Aramaeans". Aramaic or Syriac, in the wider sense of the word, is a leading branch of the Semitic speech-stem,—particularly of the Northern Semitic. This language, extending far beyond its original limits, prevailed for more than a thousand years over a very wide region of Western Asia, and farther did duty as a literary language for less cultivated neighbouring populations. It separated into several dialects, of which some have been preserved for us in literary documents, and others only in inscriptions.—It is one of these Aramaic dialects which we purpose to describe in the present work. This particular dialect had its home in Edessa and the neighbouring district of Western Mesopotamia, and stretched perhaps as far as into Northern Syria. Accordingly it is called by the authors who make use of it, the "Edessan" or "Mesopotamian tongue", but usually it lays claim to the name of Syriac pure and simple, as being the chief Syriac dialect. Occasionally indeed it has also been designated Aramaic, although, in Christian times, the name "Aramaic" or "Aramaean" was rather avoided, seeing that it signified much the same thing as "heathen".

Syriac, in the narrower meaning,—that is to say, the dialect of Edessa—, appears to have come somewhat nearer to the Aramaic dialects of the Tigris regions, than to those of Central Syria and Palestine. As far, however, as our imperfect knowledge goes, the dialect stands out quite distinctly from all related ones.

In Edessa this dialect was employed as a literary language, certainly long before the introduction of Christianity. But it attained special importance, from the time the Bible was translated into it (probably in the 2nd century) and Edessa became more and more the capital of purely Aramaic Christianity (in a different fashion from the semi-Greek Antioch). With Christianity the language of Edessa pushed its way even into the kingdom of Persia. By the 4th century, as being then Syriac pure and simple, it serves (and that exclusively) the Aramaean Christians on the Tigris as their literary language. During that period, so far as we know, it was only in Palestine that a local Aramaic dialect was—to a certain extent—made use of by Christians, for literary purposes. The Syriac writings of the heathen of Harrān, the neighbouring city to Edessa,-—of which writings, unfortunately, nothing has been preserved for us—, must have exhibited but a trifling difference at the most from those of the Christians.

The language and its orthography already present such a settled appearance in the excellent manuscripts of the 5th century, that we can hardly doubt that scholastic regulation was the main factor in improving the popular tongue into the literary one. The Greek model has been effective here. The influence of Greek is shown directly, not merely in the intrusion of many Greek words, but also in the imitation of the Greek use of words, Greek idiom and Greek construction, penetrating to the most delicate tissues of the language. Numerous translations and imitations (such as the treatise on Fate, composed after Greek patterns by a pupil of Bardesanes, about the beginning of the 3rd century) furthered this process. But we must carefully distinguish between Greek elements which had made good their entry into the language, and such Graecisms as must have been forced upon it by pedantic translators and imitators. Many Hebraisms also found their way into Syriac through the old translations of the Bible, in which Jewish influence operated strongly.

The golden age of Syriac reaches to the 7th century. The Syrians of that day belonged partly to the Roman empire, and partly to the Persian. The cleavage was made more pronounced by the ecclesiastical divisions, occasioned specially by the unhappy Christological controversies. The Persian Syrians decided mostly for the teaching of the Nestorians,—the Roman Syrians for that of the Monophysites or Jacobites. And when the Academy of Edessa, the intellectual capital, was closed (489) to the former as declared heretics, they founded educational institutions of their own,—of which in particular the one at Nisibis attained to high repute. This separation had as a consequence an abiding severance of tradition, even with respect to the language and the mode of writing it. Assuredly the variety of the common dialects in olden time cannot have been without influence upon the pronunciation of Syriac, in the mouths even of cultivated persons in different localities,—just as in Germany the Upper-Saxon language of polite intercourse assumes a very perceptible colouring, conditioned by the local dialect it meets with, in the case of the inhabitant for instance of Holstein or the Palatinate or Upper Bavaria,—or as in Italy the Tuscan tongue is similarly modified, in the case of the native of Lombardy, Genoa or Naples. Many of these differences, however, rest doubtless upon rules of art laid down by the Schools. So far as we find here a genuine variety in the forms of the language, it is sometimes the Eastern, sometimes the Western tradition, which preserves the original with the greater fidelity. Naturally the more consistent of the two is the Western, which as a whole restores to us the pronunciation of the Edessans, in the remodelled form in which it appeared about the year 600 or 700,—that is, at a time subsequent to the golden age of the language.

The conquest of the Aramaean regions by the Arabs brought the commanding position of Syriac to a sudden close. True, it lived on for sometime longer in Edessa, and Aramaic dialects long maintained themselves in remote districts, as they partly do up to the present day; but Syriac speedily lost its standing as a language of cultivated intercourse extending over a wide region. The very care which was now devoted to the literary determination of the old speech is a token that men clearly perceived it was passing away. It can hardly be doubted that about the year 800 Syriac was already a dead language, although it was frequently spoken by learned men long after that time. The power of tradition, which keeps it up as an ecclesiastical language, and the zealous study of ancient writings,—had the effect of leading even the later Syriac authors, among whom were several considerable men, to wield their ancestral speech with great skill. Besides, the influence of the actually living tongues—the Aramaic popular dialects and the Arabic—did not attain its prevalence with such a disturbing effect as might have been expected. But on the whole, for more than a thousand years, Syriac—as an ecclesiastical and literary language—has only been prolonging a continually waning existence.