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.