Posted by on Jul 12, 2016 in Library | Comments Off on THE SYRIAC LANGUAGE


Mor Ignatius Aphram Barsoum

Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa

The Aramaic (Syriac) language is one of the Semitic tongues in which parts of the Holy Bible, such as the Prophecy of Daniel and the Gospel according to St. Matthew, were revealed.1 Some scholars consider it the most ancient of the languages of the world; even the more moderate ones consider it one of the oldest.2 The first established evidence of its ancient use is the passage in Genesis 37:47 about 1750 B.C.3 The Syriac language consists of twenty-two letters, six of which have double sounds, hard and soft,4 which according to our terminology, are identified by certain signs.
Syriac is a graceful and rich language. It is adequate for the expression of ideas and portrayal of feelings, besides the comprehension of all types of ancient knowledge. Syriac was the vernacular of the inhabitants if Iraq, the Jazira of Mesopotamia and Syria. It penetrated into inner Persia and spread among the peoples neighbouring the Syrians.5 For many years it remained the official language of the states that occupied the Near East. It also extended to Egypt, Asia Minor and northern Arabia,6 and reached southern China and the Malabar coast in India, where it is still used. It was still widely spoken until rivaled by Arabic at the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century, at which time it retreated from the towns and found refuge in the villages and mountains. It was, nevertheless, still used by writers and scholars.
The homeland of the classical Syriac included al-Ruha (Edessa), Harran, Hims, Apamea and the rest of the country of al-Sham.7 The Sabeans of Harran used it in their writings until the end of the ninth century.8 The language also remained in this high state in many parts of the Jazira and Armenia until the end of the thirteenth century, and in some other places until the fifteenth century. This language may rightfully be considered superior to other languages of the world, as it was the spoken language of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Apostles. It was the first language in which the Christian Church celebrated the liturgy. Furthermore, the Syrians had great excellence in translating Greek writings into Syriac and in turn into Arabic. It has also become our ritual language to this day and, to a small extent, the means of communication among our clergy.
At the beginning of the sixth century A.D. Syriac was divided according to its pronunciation and script into two dialects, known as the Western and the Eastern “traditions”. Each of these traditions was attributed to the homeland of the people who spoke it, i.e., Western for those who inhabited al-Sham, and Eastern for those living in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Azerbayjan. However, the Syrian Orthodox community in Iraq is excluded from the Eastern part.

The most important writings in this language that reached us are the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Pshitto translation. If we accept some of the changes in the dialects into which it was subdivided, Syriac did not undergo change after it became settled. The Old Testament passages in this language and what remains of the poetry of the philosopher “Wafa” indicate that this language is the same that we use today. However, some of its terminology was forgotten through time and became unattractive to some, as observed by Anton of Takrit.9 On the other hand, others were lost through negligence, but were preserved in Arabic, as has been asserted by Jacob of Bartulli.10
Syriac had neither grammar nor philological books, because the native Syrians spoke it with instinctive eloquence as the Arabs spoke their tongue. The first grammatical rules for Syriac were set at the end of the seventh century, as shall be seen later.