Syriac, the self-designations of which are suryāyā, ārāmāyā, and urhāyā, is a dialect of the Aramaic language branch, which is itself a member of the larger Semitic language family. Syriac is generally grouped in the late Aramaic period (ca. 200–1200) despite the fact that it is attested from the 1st cent. AD to the present. Though previously considered an East-Aramaic dialect, some evidence suggests that Syriac should be classified as a separate branch of late Aramaic that is distinct both from East-Aramaic, which includes Mandaic and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, and from West-Aramaic, which includes Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan Aramaic, and Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. In comparison to other late Aramaic dialects, Syriac preserves many features of earlier ‘Standard Literary Aramaic’.
Syriac is by far the best documented Aramaic dialect. Based on the designation urhāyā ‘(the language) of Edessa’, it is likely that Syriac originated in or around Edessa. As the primary language of Syriac Christianity, it spread over much of Mesopotamia and Syria reaching as far as Ethiopia, India, and Central Asia. Syriac is first found in non-Christian tomb inscriptions that date from the 1st to the 3rd cent. These inscriptions display a number of archaic features — some of which also occur in early mss. — that were lost in the standardization of classical Syriac. The majority of Syriac literature stems from the Christian communities that emerged in Mesopotamia and Northern Syria starting in the 2nd cent. AD. The ‘Golden Age’ of Syriac spanned from the 4th to the 7th cent. and produced a considerable corpus of original prose and poetry as well as translations from Greek. After the Islamic conquests in the 7th cent., Syriac was gradually replaced by Arabic though it lived on for several centuries and even witnessed a brief renaissance in the 12th and 13th cent. (see Syriac Renaissance). Alongside the numerous Neo-Aramaic dialects (see Aramaic, Sureth, Ṭuroyo), classical Syriac still functions today as a liturgical and literary language for Syr. Christians both in the Middle East and the worldwide diaspora (see Kthobonoyo Syriac). In addition to the large surviving literary corpus related to Syriac Christianity, Syriac is attested in incantation bowls, amulets, inscriptions, and documentary texts written on papyrus and parchment (for the latter, see Old Syriac Documents).
After the Christological controversies in the 5th and 6th cent., Syriac split into an E.-Syr. and W.-Syr. tradition. The differences between these traditions appear primarily in script and phonology. While the Esṭrangela script continued in restricted use in both traditions, the W.-Syr. tradition adopted Serṭo as its primary script, and the E.-Syr. tradition developed a new script based on Esṭrangela. In phonology, the E.-Syr. tradition employs a seven vowel system, which more closely reflects earlier stages of Aramaic. In the W.-Syr. tradition, however, several vowel changes occurred, e.g., the shifts of *ā to o, *ē to i, and *o to u.
Like all Aramaic dialects, Syriac throughout its long history has been in contact with other languages. In addition to inheriting a number of Akkadian and Persian loanwords from earlier periods of Aramaic, Syriac borrowed lexemes from Middle Persian, Hebrew, and — later in its history — Arabic. The language that had the most significant impact on Syriac, however, is Greek. Greek influence is found in texts from the earliest period, such as the ‘Book of the Laws of the Countries’ (see Bardaiṣan) and the Odes of Solomon, and reached its apex in the 5th through 7th cent. when the translation movements were in progress (see Greek, Syriac translations from). This close contact with Greek had an effect on Syriac not only in its vocabulary where many Greek loanwords are found, but also in syntax and even morphology.
Syriac has enjoyed a long tradition of academic study in Syriac-speaking communities. Yaʿqub of Edessa (d. 708) is traditionally considered the first author of a Syriac grammar. Although this work does not survive in its entirety, portions of it were incorporated into the so-called Syriac Masora (mašlmānutā). This important compilation also contains vocalized texts of the OT, NT, and patristic authors, which serve as a rich source of philological and grammatical material. As is the case with so many of the sciences in Syriac, the grammatical tradition was codified by the polymath Bar ʿEbroyo (d. 1286), who wrote both a small metrical grammar and a much larger opus entitled ‘The Book of Splendors’ (ktobo d-ṣemḥe). Syriac-speaking communities also produced works on lexicography , the most well-known of which are the Syriac-Arabic dictionaries of Bar ʿAli (second half of the 9th cent.) and of Bar Bahlul (fl. 10th cent.).
The study of Syriac in the West, which began in the 16th cent., culminated at the turn of the 20th cent. with the publication of the grammar of Th. Nöldeke (1880; 2nd ed. 1898; ET in 1904) and the lexica of R. Payne Smith (1879–1901), C. Brockelmann (1895; 2nd ed. 1928; ET in 2009 by Sokoloff), and T. Audo (1897), all of which remain standard reference works today. In addition to the grammar of Nöldeke, detailed grammars of Syriac are available in Arayathinal (1957–9) and, more recently, Muraoka (2005). The most common Syriac dictionary for students is J. Payne Smith (1903); M. Sokoloff (2009) has also recently provided an English translation (with correction, expansion, and update) of Brockelmann’s Lexicon. Elementary grammars of Syriac include Coakley (2002), Healey (2005), and Thackston (1999). Useful bibliographies for the study of the Syriac language can be found in Albert (1993), Muraoka (2005), and Brock (2006).
Aaron M. Butts