Compendious Syriac Grammar/Preface to the First Edition

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This book does not claim to be in any respect a complete Syriac Grammar. It is true that with the material at my disposal I might have added very considerably to not a few sections; but any treatment of grammatical phenomena which aimed at completeness in every detail required quite other manuscript studies, than were at all open to me. Practical considerations too imposed a severe limitation. I trust however, that even within restricted limits, I have succeeded in producing something which may be of use.

I have taken my material from the best sources within reach, entirely disregarding Amira and the other Maronites. Besides the Jacobite and Nestorian grammarians and lexicographers now in print, I have made use of Severus of St. Matthaeus (usually, but incorrectly, styled "of Tekrit") as he appears in the Göttingen manuscript. The Directorate of the Göttingen Library, with their accustomed liberality, farther sent me, at my request, from their manuscript treasures, the large grammar of Barhebraeus together with his Scholia; and, with no less readiness, the Library-Directorate of Gotha sent me the Vocabulary of Elias of Nisibis. These manuscripts yielded produce of many kinds. It would have been an invaluable assistance to me, if I had had before me the Masoretic tradition of the Syrians, with some degree of completeness. Of this, however, I had at command at first—in addition to the epitomes which are found in printed works—only a few extracts, which I had myself noted down in earlier years, from the well-known Nestorian Masora of the year 899 (Wright's Catalogue 101 sqq.) and from the London "Qarqafic" manuscripts (Rosen-Forshall 62 sqq.; Wright 108 sqq.). The deficiency was made up, at least to some extent, by the amiability of Wright, Zotenberg and Guidi, who—in answer to a host of questions about the mode of writing this or that word in the Masoretic manuscripts in London, Paris and Rome—furnished me with information which in many cases had been gained only after prolonged search. A careful collation of the entire Masoretic material, allowing for the chance mistakes of individual scribes, especially if it were accompanied by an attentive observation of good, vocalised manuscripts of the Bible, would let us know pretty accurately and fully how the Jacobites on the one hand, and the Nestorians on the other, were wont to pronounce Syriac in the Church use. Any point in which these two traditions are found to be in agreement must have been in use prior to the separation of the two Churches, that is, at the latest, in the 5th century. Although in the recitative of the Church Service there was doubtless a good deal of artificiality, yet we have in it a reflex at least of the living speech. The Grammar of Jacob of Edessa (circa 700) is unfortunately lost, all but a few fragments. What the later systematisers give, has, generally speaking, no more authority than can be traced to the Church tradition. Even the observant Barhebraeus, towering as he truly does by a head and shoulders over the rest of his countrymen, has not always surveyed this tradition completely, while sometimes he explains it incorrectly. Now and then too, following mere analogy, he presents forms which can with difficulty be authenticated in the genuine speech. Accordingly if here and there I do not notice Barhebraeus' data, I trust it will not be attributed to a want of acquaintance with them on my part. Still less could editions like Bernstein's "Johannes", or Joseph David's "Psalter" (Mosul 1877)—which unfortunately gives an "improved" text of the Peshitā—constitute an absolute authority for me, although I am greatly indebted to them. I need hardly mention that in the matter of vocalisation I have made large use of the well-known complete editions of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and of both the Nestorian and the Jacobite-Maronite tradition. In this process, however, I have endeavoured to observe a due spirit of caution. Even the examination of the metrical conditions found in the old "poets" (sit venia verbo!) has not been without results for determining grammatical forms.

Still, even when all authoritative sources have been disclosed, a good deal will continue to be obscure in the Phonology and Morphology of Syriac, as it is only for the Bible and a few ecclesiastical writings that an accurate tradition of the pronunciation exists. So much the less will the expert be disposed to find fault with me, for having left here and there, upon occasion, a mark of interrogation.

As regards the Orthography of the consonantal writing, we are very favourably situated at the present time, when a long series of texts reproduces for us with accuracy the style of writing followed in manuscripts, from the 5th century onwards.

The Syntax I have based wholly upon original authors belonging to the age in which Syriac was an absolutely living speech. I have relied specially upon prose works, and among the poets I have given preference to those who write a simple style. Only a very few of my supporting-passages come down as far as the 7th century: the others range from the 2nd to the 6th. To bring in Barhebraeus or Ebedjesu for the illustration of the Syntax, is much the same as if one sought to employ Laurentius Valla, or Muretus, as an authority for original Latin. All the examples I have myself collected, with the exception of about a dozen. Naturally I have made much less use of strongly Graecising writings, than of those which adhere to a genuine Aramaic style. From the ancient versions of the Bible I have, without farther remark, adduced such passages only as are free from Hebraisms and Graecisms. Looking to the great influence of the Peshitǎ on the style of all subsequent writings, I might perhaps have gone somewhat farther in quoting from it. All the citations from the O. T. I have verified in Ceriani's edition, so far as it has proceeded. Other translations from the Greek I have used only very exceptionally,—in fact almost never except to illustrate certain Graecisms which were in favour. No doubt even the best original writings in Syriac give evidence of the strong influence of Greek Syntax; but, on the other hand, everything is not immediately to be regarded as a Graecism, which looks like one. The Greek idiom exercised its influence with all the greater force and effect, precisely at those points where Syriac itself exhibited analogous phenomena.

Although, in the composition of this book, I have continually kept an eye upon kindred dialects and languages, I have nevertheless refrained almost wholly from remarks winch touch upon Comparative Grammar. Not a few observations of that character, however, will be found in my "Grammar of the New-Syriac Language" (Leipzig 1868) and my "Mandaean Grammar" (Halle 1876). Here and there, besides, I have tacitly rectified a few things which I had said in those works. The great resemblance of Syriac to Hebrew—and that especially in Syntax—will, I hope, be brought into clearer light than heretofore, by the mere description of the language given in this book. A similar remark may be made with regard to special points of contact in the case of Syriac and Arabic.

I have been obliged to avoid almost entirely any reference to my authorities in the Phonology and the Morphology. I have also refrained from quoting the works of modern scholars. A brief manual cannot well separate between widely-known facts and special stores either of others or of one's own. But yet I do not mean to miss this opportunity of referring to the fact, that I am peculiarly indebted to Prof. G. Hoffmann's essay, contained in ZDMG XXXII, 738 sqq., even as I am farther under deep obligation to tins dear friend of mine, for many an epistolary communication and encouragement, with reference to the present work. Prof. Hoffmann also enabled me to make some use, at least for the Syntax, of his edition of the Julianus-Romance (Leyden 1880) before it was given to the public. Unfortunately it was then too late to permit my utilising that story still more thoroughly. I have farther expressly to declare my adherence to the conception of the roots עו׳ and עע׳, which Prof. August Miiller has set forth in ZDMG XXIII, 698 sqq., and which Prof. Stade coincidently follows in his Heb. Gramm., although I am not blind to the difficulties which cling even to that theory.

As I wished to avoid extreme prolixity, I was obliged to seek for some adjustment between the two systems of vowel-marking. Whoever weighs the practical difficulties, and particularly the typographical difficulties, will, I trust, find the plan which I have adopted here, to be fairly suitable, although I cannot myself regard it as entirely satisfactory. In the latter part of the Syntax I have made an attempt to employ the One-point System, occasionally introducing the Two-point System, and applying proper Vowel-signs only where they seemed to be required in order to ensure clearness. That attempt was bound to show a certain amount of arbitrariness and vacillation. The reader may always reflect, that in many cases different ways of marking have prevailed according to place and time, and that very seldom indeed does an old manuscript, which employs the points with any degree of fulness, continue to be perfectly consistent in this matter. As regards the carrying-out of this marking, I must apologise for the circumstance that the points are not of the same size throughout: distance from the place of printing made it difficult to correct this slight inequality.

The division into paragraphs aims in nowise at logical consistency: still less is this to be looked for in the process of subdivision which has been applied to not a few of the paragraphs. In every case my sole concern was to break up the subject-matter into comparatively small sections, so as to facilitate the survey and the reference from one passage to another.

I take for granted in those who mean to use this Grammar some acquaintance at least with Hebrew. Whoever desires to learn Syriac from it, without the help of a teacher, will do well to impress upon his memory at first merely the fundamental characteristics of the Orthography, the Pronouns, something of the Flexion of the Nouns, the Paradigm of the Strong Verb, and the most important deviations of the Weak Verbs,—as also to acquire some acquaintance with the attachment of the Pronominal Suffixes. Then let him read easy, vocalised texts, next, extracts from the Bible, as they are to be found, for example, in Rödiger's "Chrestomathia"—a compilation to be highly commended even on other grounds. The learner may at first pass many difficulties by, but in time he should with increasing care try to find out in the Grammar the explanation of anything which may arrest his attention. If, at a later stage, he goes systematically over the whole of the Grammar, including the Syntax, there will no longer be so much that is strange in appearance to him. And even to a teacher—dealing with beginners in Syriac, or any other Semitic language, who already understand something of Hebrew—an analogous procedure may be recommended. Familiarity with the Nestorian punctuation will be gained most readily from Urmia- [and New York-] editions of the Bible, although these do not give the system in completeness—doubtless for typographical reasons—and, besides, are not free from mistakes.

The Table of Characters, from Euting's master-hand, will suffice to exhibit the development of the Aramaic Character, at least in several of its leading types, from its earliest form up to the oldest Estrangelo, and the farther development of this last, up to the more modern script.

In conclusion I beg once more to tender an emphatic expression of my warmest thanks to the Library-Authorities, as well as to the personal friends, who have been helpful to me in the composition of this book.


Strassburg i. E. 30th Septr., 1880.

Th. Nöldeke.


  1. Somewhat shortened at the close.—The first edition (1880) was dedicated to J. P. N. Land (Died 30. Ap. 1897).