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ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ leššānā Suryāyā
Spoken in Roman Syria
Language extinction marginalized by Arabic from the 8th century, evolved into Neo-Aramaic vernaculars around 1200 AD (conventional date).
Language family Afro-Asiatic
  West Semitic
   Central Semitic
    Northwest Semitic
      Eastern Aramaic
Writing system Syriac abjad
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 syc (classical)
ISO 639-3 syc – Syriac (classical)

An eleventh-century Syriac manuscript.

Syriac (ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ leššānā Suryāyā) is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent. Classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries,[1] the classical language of Edessa, preserved in a large body of Syriac literature.

It became the vehicle of Christianity and culture, spreading throughout Asia as far as Malabar and Eastern China and was the medium of communication and cultural dissemination for Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Persians. Primarily a Christian medium of expression, Syriac had a fundamental cultural and literary influence on the development of Arabic which replaced it towards the end of the eighth century. Syriac remains the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity.

Syriac is a Middle Aramaic language, and as such a language of the Western branch of the Semitic family.

Syriac is written in the Syriac alphabet, a derivation of the Aramaic alphabet.

Geographic distribution

Syriac was originally a local Aramaic dialect in northern Mesopotamia. Before Arabic became the dominant language, Syriac was a major language among Christian communities in the Middle East, Central Asia and Kerala.


The history of Syriac can be divided into three distinct periods:

  • Old Syriac (the language of the kingdom of Osroene),
  • Middle Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kṯāḇānāyâ: Literary Syriac), which divided into:
    • Western Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language of Syriac and Maronite Christians),
    • Eastern Middle Syriac (the literary and ecclesiastical language of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians).


Syriac began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Old Aramaic in northern Mesopotamia. The first evidence we have of such dialects is their influence on the written Imperial Aramaic from the 5th century BC. After the conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects became written languages in a reaction to Hellenism.[dubious ] Syriac orthography is drawn from Arsacid Aramaic.

In 132 BC, the kingdom of Osroene was founded in Edessa with Syriac as its official language. Syriac-speakers still look to Edessa as the cradle of their language. There are about eighty extant early Syriac inscriptions, dated to the first three centuries AD (the earliest example of Syriac, rather than Imperial Aramaic, is in an inscription dated to AD 6, and the earliest parchment is a deed of sale dated to AD 243). All of these early examples of the language are non-Christian. As an official language, Syriac was given a relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects.

Literary Syriac

The sixth beatitude (Matthew 5:8) from an East Syriac Peshitta.
Ṭûḇayhôn l'aylên daḏkên b-lebbhôn: d-hennôn neḥzôn l'allāhâ.
'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.'

In the third century, churches in Edessa began to use Syriac as the language of worship. There is evidence that the adoption of Syriac, the language of the people, was to effect mission. Much literary effort was put into the production of an authoritative translation of the Bible into Syriac, the Peshitta (ܦܫܝܛܬܐ Pšîṭtâ or). At the same time, Ephrem the Syrian was producing the most treasured collection of poetry and theology in the Syriac language.

In 489, many Syriac-speaking Christians living in the Roman Empire fled to Persia to escape persecution and growing animosity with Greek-speaking Christians. The Christological differences with the Persian church led to the bitter Nestorian schism in the Syriac-speaking world. As a result, Syriac developed distinctive western and eastern varieties. Although remaining a single language with a high level of comprehension between the varieties, the two employ distinctive variations in pronunciation and writing system, and, to a lesser degree, in vocabulary.

Western Syriac is the official language of the West Syrian rite, practiced by the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Eastern Syriac is the liturgical language of the East Syrian rite, practiced by the Assyrian Church of the East (including the Chaldean Syrian Church), the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malabar Church.

Syriac literature is by far the most prodigious[clarification needed] of the various Aramaic languages. Its corpus covers poetry, prose, theology, liturgy, hymnody, history, philosophy, science, medicine and natural history. Much of this wealth remains unavailable in critical editions or modern translation.

From the 7th century onwards, Syriac gave way to Arabic as the spoken language of the region. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century further contributed to the rapid decline of the language. In many places, even in liturgy, it was replaced by Arabic.

Revivals of Syriac in recent times have led to some success with the creation of newspapers in literary Syriac (ܟܬܒܢܝܐ Kthābānāyā), and the translation of many Arabic and western books into Syriac.

Among the Syriac churches of Kerala, Malayalam often replaces Syriac. Literary Syriac is often used as a spoken language by clerics who do not speak the vernacular dialects.


Syriac words, as with those in other Semitic languages, are built out of triliteral roots, permutations of three Syriac consonants. For example, the root ܫܩܠ, ŠQL, has the basic meaning of taking, and so we have the following words that can be formed from this root:

  • ܫܩܠ — šqal: "he has taken"
  • ܢܫܩܘܠ — nešqûl: "he takes"
  • ܫܩܠ — šaqqel: "he has lifted/raised"
  • ܐܫܩܠ — ašqel: "he has set out"
  • ܫܩܠܐ — šqālâ: "a taking, burden, recension, portion or syllable"
  • ܫܩ̈ܠܐ — šeqlē: "takings, profits, taxes"
  • ܫܩܠܘܬܐ — šaqlûṯā: "a beast of burden"
  • ܫܘܩܠ — šûqālâ: "arrogance"


Most Syriac nouns are built from triliteral roots. Nouns carry grammatical gender (masculine or feminine), they can be either singular or plural in number (a very few can be dual) and can exist in one of three grammatical states. These states correspond, in part, to the role of grammatical cases in some other languages.

  • The absolute state is the basic form of the noun — ܫܩܠܝ̈ܢ, šeqlîn, "taxes".
  • The emphatic state usually represents a definite noun — ܫܩ̈ܠܐ, šeqlē, "the taxes".
  • The construct state marks a noun in relationship to another noun — ̈ܫܩܠܝ, šeqlay, "taxes of...".

However, very quickly in the development of Classical Syriac, the emphatic state became the ordinary form of the noun, and the absolute and construct states were relegated to certain stock phrases (for example, ܒܪ ܐܢܫܐ/ܒܪܢܫܐ, bar nāšâ, "man", literally "son of man").

In Old and early Classical Syriac, most genitive noun relationships are built using the construct state. Thus, ܫܩܠܝ̈ ܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlay malkûṯâ, means "the taxes of the kingdom". Quickly, the construct relationship was abandoned and replaced by the use of the relative particle ܕ, d-. Thus, the same noun phrase becomes ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlē d-malkûṯâ, where both nouns are in the emphatic state. Very closely related nouns can be drawn into a closer grammatical relationship by the addition of a pronominal suffix. Thus, the phrase can be written as ܫܩܠܝ̈ܗ ܕܡܠܟܘܬܐ, šeqlêh d-malkûṯâ. In this case, both nouns continue to be in the emphatic state, but the first has the suffix that makes it literally read "her taxes" ("kingdom" is feminine), and thus is "her taxes, those of the kingdom".

Adjectives always agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify. Adjectives are in the absolute state if they are predicative, but agree with the state of their noun if attributive. Thus, ܒܝܫܝ̈ܢ ܫܩ̈ܠܐ, bîšîn šeqlē, means "the taxes are evil", whereas ܫܩ̈ܠܐ ܒܝ̈ܫܐ, šeqlē ḇîšē, means "evil taxes".


Most Syriac verbs are built on triliteral roots as well. Finite verbs carry person, gender (except in the first person) and number, as well as tense and conjugation. The non-finite verb forms are the infinitive and the active and passive participles.

Syriac has only two true morphological tenses: perfect and imperfect. Whereas these tenses were originally aspectual in Aramaic, they have become a truly temporal past and future tenses respectively. The present tense is usually marked with the participle followed by the subject pronoun. However, such pronouns are usually omitted in the case of the third person. This use of the participle to mark the present tense is the most common of a number of compound tenses that can be used to express varying senses of tense and aspect.

Syriac also employs verb conjugations such as are present in other Semitic languages. These are regular modifications of the verb's root to express other changes in meaning. The first conjugation is the ground state, or Pə`al (this name models the shape of the root). form of the verb, which carries the usual meaning of the word. The next is the intensive state, or Pa``el, form of the verb, which usually carries an intensified meaning, The third is the extensive state, or Ap̄`el, form of the verb, which is often causative in meaning. Each of these conjugations has its parallel passive conjugation: the Eṯpə`el, Eṯpa``al and Ettap̄`al respectively. To these six cardinal conjugations are added a few irregular forms, like the Šap̄`el and Eštap̄`al, which generally have an extensive meaning.


Phonologically, like the other Northwest Semitic languages, Syriac has 22 consonants and 3 vowels. The consonantal phonemes are:

transliteration ʾ b g d h w z y k l m n s ʿ p q r š t
letter ܐ ܒ ܓ ܕ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܝ ܟ ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܥ ܦ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ
pronunciation [ʔ] [b], [v] [g], [ɣ] [d], [ð] [h] [w] [z] [ħ] [tˁ] [j] [k], [x] [l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p], [f] [sˁ] [q] [r] [ʃ] [t], [θ]

Phonetically, there is some variation in the pronunciation of Syriac in its various forms. The various Modern Eastern Aramaic vernaculars have quite different pronunciations, and these sometimes influence how the classical language is pronounced, for example, in public prayer. Classical Syriac has two major streams of pronunciation: western and eastern.


Syriac shares with Aramaic a set of lightly contrasted plosive/fricative pairs. In different variations of a certain lexical root, a root consonant might exist in plosive form in one variation and fricative form in another. In the Syriac alphabet, a single letter is used for each pair. Sometimes a dot is placed above the letter (qûššāyâ, or strengthening; equivalent to a dagesh in Hebrew) to mark that the plosive pronunciation is required, and a dot is placed below the letter (rûkkāḵâ, or softening) to mark that the fricative pronunciation is required. The pairs are:

  • Voiced labial pair — /b/ and /v/
  • Voiced velar pair — /ɡ/ and /ɣ/
  • Voiced dental pair — /d/ and /ð/
  • Voiceless velar pair — /k/ and /x/
  • Voiceless labial pair — /p/ and /f/
  • Voiceless dental pair — /t/ and /θ/

As with other Semitic languages, Syriac has a set of five emphatic consonants. These are consonants that are articulated or released in the pharynx or slightly higher. The set consists of:

  • Voiceless pharyngeal fricative/ħ/
  • Pharyngelized voiceless dental plosive/tˁ/
  • Voiced pharyngeal fricative/ʕ/
  • Pharyngealized voiceless alveolar fricative/sˁ/
  • Voiceless uvular plosive/q/

Syriac also has a rich array of sibilant consonants:

  • Voiced alveolar fricative/z/
  • Voiceless alveolar fricative/s/
  • Pharyngealized voiceless alveolar fricative/sˁ/
  • Voiceless postalveolar fricative/ʃ/
Table of Syriac consonants
Place of articulation Labial Coronal Dorsal Radical (none)
Manner of articulation Bi­labial Labio-
Den­tal Alveo­lar Post-
Pala­tal Ve­lar Uvu­lar Pharyn-
Plosive voiced b d ɡ  
voiceless p t k q   ʔ   
Nasal m n  
Trill r    
Fricative voiced v ð z ɣ ʕ
voiceless f θ s ʃ x ħ h
Approximant l j w (ʕ)


As with most Semitic languages, the vowels of Syriac are mostly subordinated to consonants. Especially in the presence of an emphatic consonant, vowels tend to become mid-centralised.

Classical Syriac had the following set of distinguishable vowels:

  • Close front unrounded vowel/i/
  • Close-mid front unrounded vowel/e/
  • Open-mid front unrounded vowel/ɛ/
  • Open front unrounded vowel/a/
  • Open back unrounded vowel/ɑ/
  • Close-mid back rounded vowel/o/
  • Close back rounded vowel/u/

In the western dialect, /ɑ/ has become /o/, and the original /o/ has merged with /u/. In eastern dialects there is more fluidity in the pronunciation of front vowels, with some speakers distinguishing five qualities of such vowels, and others only distinguishing three. Vowel length is generally not important: close vowels tend to be longer than open vowels.

The open vowels form diphthongs with the approximants /j/ and /w/. In almost all dialects the full sets of possible diphthongs collapses into two or three actual pronunciations:

  • /aj/ sometimes monophthongized to /e/
  • /aw/ usually becomes /ɑw/
  • /ɑj/ usually becomes /aj/, but the western dialect has /oj/
  • /ɑw/ sometimes monophthongized to /o/


  • Journal of Sacred Literature, New Series [Series 4] vol. 2 (1863) pp. 75-87, The Syriac Language and Literature
  • Beyer, Klaus (1986). The Aramaic language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53573-2.
  • Brock, Sebastian (2006). An Introduction to Syriac Studies. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-349-8.
  • Brockelmann, Carl (1895). Lexicon Syriacum. Berlin: Reuther & Reichard; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • Healey, John F (1980). First studies in Syriac. University of Birmingham/Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 0-7044-0390-0.
  • Maclean, Arthur John (2003). Grammar of the dialects of vernacular Syriac: as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, north-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul: with notices of the vernacular of the Jews of Azerbaijan and of Zakhu near Mosul. Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-59333-018-9.
  • Nöldeke, Theodor and Julius Euting (1880) Kurzgefasste syrische Grammatik. Leipzig: T.O. Weigel. [translated to English as Compendious Syriac Grammar, by James A. Crichton. London: Williams & Norgate 1904. 2003 edition: ISBN 1-57506-050-7].
  • Payne Smith, Jessie (Ed.) (1903). A compendious Syriac dictionary founded upon the Thesaurus Syriacus of Robert Payne Smith. Oxford University Press, reprinted in 1998 by Eisenbraums. ISBN 1-57506-032-9.
  • Robinson, Theodore Henry (1915). Paradigms and exercises in Syriac grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926129-6.


  1. Beyer, Klaus; John F. Healey (trans.) (1986). The Aramaic Language: its distribution and subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. pp. 44. ISBN 3-525-53573-2. 

See also


External links