Syriac /ˈsɪriæk/ (ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ Leššānā Suryāyā), also known as Syriac Aramaic, is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia. Having first appeared in the early first century AD in Edessa, classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries, the classical language of Edessa, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature. Indeed, Syriac literature comprises roughly 90% of the extant Aramaic literature.
Old Aramaic was adopted by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC) when they conquered the various Aramean city-kingdoms to its west. The Achaemenid Empire, which rose after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, also adopted Old Aramaic as its official language and Old Aramaic quickly became the lingua franca of the region. During the course of the third and fourth centuries AD, the inhabitants of the region began to embrace Christianity.
Along with Latin and Greek, Syriac became one of "the three most important Christian languages in the early centuries" of the Christian Era. From the 1st century AD Syriac became the vehicle of Syriac Christianity and culture, and the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church and subsequently the Church of the East, along with its descendants: the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Saint Thomas Christian Churches, and the Assyrian Pentecostal Church.
Syriac Christianity and language spread throughout Asia as far as the Indian Malabar Coast and Eastern China, and was the medium of communication and cultural dissemination for the later Arabs and, to a lesser extent, the Parthian Empire and Sassanid Empire Persians. Primarily a Christian medium of expression, Syriac had a fundamental cultural and literary influence on the development of Arabic, which largely replaced it towards the 14th century. Syriac remains the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity to this day.
Syriac is a Middle Aramaic language and, as such, a language of the Northwestern branch of the Semitic family. It is written in the Syriac alphabet, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet.
Yəšūʿ or ʾĪšōʿ, the Syriac name of Jesus
The oldest and classical form of the alphabet is ʾEsṭrangēlā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ; the name is thought to derive from the Greek adjective στρογγύλη (strongylē, 'rounded'), though it has also been suggested to derive from ܣܪܛܐ ܐܘܢܓܠܝܐ (serṭā ʾewwangēlāyā, 'gospel character')). Although ʾEsṭrangēlā is no longer used as the main script for writing Syriac, it has received some revival since the 10th century. It is often used in scholarly publications (for instance, the Leiden University version of the Peshitta), in titles and inscriptions. In some older manuscripts and inscriptions it is possible for any letter to join to the left, and older Aramaic letter forms (especially of Ḥeth and the lunate Mem) are found. Vowel marks are usually not used with ʾEsṭrangēlā.
East Syriac Maḏnḥāyā
The East Syriac dialect is usually written in the Maḏnḥāyā (ܡܲܕ݂ܢܚܵܝܵܐ, 'Eastern') form of the alphabet. Other names for the script include Swāḏāyā (ܣܘܵܕ݂ܵܝܵܐ, "conversational", often translated as "contemporary", reflecting its use in writing modern Neo-Aramaic), "Assyrian" (not to be confused with the traditional name for the Hebrew alphabet), "Chaldean", and inaccurately, "Nestorian" (a term that was originally used to refer to the Church of the East in the Sasanian Empire). The Eastern script resembles ʾEsṭrangēlā more closely than the Western script, being somewhat a midway point between the two. The Eastern script uses a system of dots above or below letters, based on an older system, to indicate vowels:
A dot above and a dot below a letter represent [a], transliterated as a or ă (called ܦܬ݂ܵܚܵܐ, Pṯāḥā),
Two diagonally-placed dots above a letter represent [ɑ], transliterated as ā or â or å (called ܙܩܵܦ݂ܵܐ, Zqāp̄ā),
Two horizontally-placed dots below a letter represent [ɛ], transliterated as e or ĕ (called ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ ܐܲܪܝܼܟ݂ܵܐ, Rḇāṣā ărīḵā or ܙܠܵܡܵܐ ܦܫܝܼܩܵܐ, Zlāmā pšīqā; often pronounced [ɪ] and transliterated as i in the East Syriac dialect),
Two diagonally-placed dots below a letter represent [e], transliterated as ē (called ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ ܟܲܪܝܵܐ, Rḇāṣā karyā or ܙܠܵܡܵܐ ܩܲܫܝܵܐ, Zlāmā qašyā),
A letter Yōḏ with a dot beneath it represents [i], transliterated as ī or i (called ܚܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ, Ḥḇāṣā),
A letter Waw with a dot below it represents [u], transliterated as ū or u (called ܥܨܵܨܵܐ ܐܲܠܝܼܨܵܐ, ʿṢāṣā ălīṣā or ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ, Rḇāṣā),
A letter Waw with a dot above it represents [o], transliterated as ō or o (called ܥܨܵܨܵܐ ܪܘܝܼܚܵܐ, ʿṢāṣā rwīḥā or ܪܘܵܚܵܐ, Rwāḥā).
A combination of Rḇāṣā karyā (usually) followed by a letter Yōḏ represents [e] (possibly *[e̝] in Proto-Syriac), transliterated as ē or ê (called ܐܲܣܵܩܵܐ, ʾĂsāqā).
It is thought that the Eastern method for representing vowels influenced the development of the niqqud markings used for writing Hebrew.
In addition to the above vowel marks, transliteration of Syriac sometimes includes ə, e̊ or superscript e (or often nothing at all) to represent an original Aramaic schwa that became lost later on at some point in the development of Syriac. Some transliteration schemes find its inclusion necessary for showing spirantization (see below) or for historical reasons. Whether because its distribution is mostly predictable (usually inside a syllable-initial two-consonant cluster) or because its pronunciation was lost, neither the East nor West variants of the alphabet have a sign to represent the schwa.
The opening words of the Gospel of John written in Serṭā, Maḏnḥāyā and ʾEsṭrangēlā (top to bottom) — brēšiṯ iṯaw[hy]-[h]wā melṯā, 'in the beginning was the word'.
West Syriac Serṭā
The West Syriac dialect is usually written in the Serṭā (ܣܶܪܛܳܐ, 'line') form of the alphabet, also known as the Pšīṭā (ܦܫܺܝܛܳܐ, 'simple'), 'Maronite', or the 'Jacobite' script (although the term Jacobite is considered derogatory). Most of the letters are clearly derived from ʾEsṭrangēlā, but are simplified, flowing lines. A cursive, chancery hand is evidenced in the earliest Syriac manuscripts, but important works were written in ʾEsṭrangēlā. From the 8th century, the simpler Serṭā style came into fashion, perhaps because of its more economical use of parchment. The Nabataean alphabet (which gave rise to the Arabic alphabet) was based on this form of Syriac handwriting. The Western script is usually vowel-pointed with miniature Greek vowel letters above or below the letter which they follow:
Capital Alpha (Α) represents [a], transliterated as a or ă (ܦܬ݂ܳܚܳܐ, Pṯāḥā),
Lowercase Alpha (α) represents [ɑ], transliterated as ā or â or å (ܙܩܳܦ݂ܳܐ, Zqāp̄ā; pronounced as [o] and transliterated as o in the West Syriac dialect),
Lowercase Epsilon (ε) represents both [ɛ], transliterated as e or ĕ, and [e], transliterated as ē (ܪܒ݂ܳܨܳܐ, Rḇāṣā),
Capital Eta (H) represents [i], transliterated as ī (ܚܒ݂ܳܨܳܐ, Ḥḇāṣā),
A combined symbol of capital Upsilon (Υ) and lowercase Omicron (ο) represents [u], transliterated as ū or u (ܥܨܳܨܳܐ, ʿṢāṣā).
Lowercase Omega (ω), used only in the vocative interjection ʾō (ܐܘّ, 'O!').