What is Syriac and what is Aramaic according to Syriac grammarians (8th-16th cent.)

Margherita Farina
Histoire des Théories Linguistiques (Paris)

What is Aramaic? In modern linguistic terms, we can say that Aramaic is a linguistic group, composed by dialectal varieties defined on a geographical, chronological and socio-cultural basis. For example, we speak about Imperial (or Official) Aramaic (6th-3rd cent. B.C.), for the Aramaic used at the Achemenid court and in the official documents of the Achemenid Empire, of Christian Palestinian Aramaic for the language spoken by the Chalcedonian Christian community of Palestine and Transjordan between the 5th-14th cent. A.D.[1]

When we say “Aramaic”, we make an abstraction on the basis of a number of common linguistic features, that are defined in opposition to other surrounding North-West Semitic languages and that cluster together, such as the form bar to say “son” as opposed to Hebrew and Phoenician ben or to Arabic bin/ibn, or the suffix form definite article –ā against the prefix definite article ha– in Hebrew or al– in Arabic, and so forth.[2]

However, Aramaic has accumulated through the centuries and the millennia a number of socio-linguistic (cultural, ethnical, religious) connotations, becoming the identity mark, and almost the flag of a number of different social groups, and it still plays a strong role in contemporary identity issues, as we can see in this interesting interview of a Syriac-Orthodox monk in Tur ‛Abdin (South-Eastern Turkey) :

MargheritaAmong the different dialects of Aramaic, Syriac has a special place for its great diffusion as a literary language, and for the richness and extent of its corpus. Originally the dialect of the city and of the region of Edessa (in Syriac Urḥāy, modern-day Urfa in Turkey, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Edessa), Syriac is first attested in inscriptions and legal texts from the 2nd cent. A.D. Due to the prestige and diffusion of the translation of the Old and New Testament (see https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Old-Syriac-Version and https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Peshitta), achieved between the 2nd-3rd cent., and that became standard version for all Eastern Christian communities around the 5th cent., Syriac progressively spread as the religious, liturgical and eventually literary language of the Middle East, from the Levant up to Iran and even Central Asia (before the rise of Islam).

Syriac (East Syriac suryāyā, West Syriac suryoyo) thus became the linguistic identity mark of Middle Eastern Christians, throughout the Middle Ages until modern times (although its position in liturgy, literature as well as everyday life was progressively undermined by Arabic, which eventually became predominant in some communities).

Moreover, Syriac is subdivided into two different dialect, an eastern and a western one, that differentiate mostly on the basis of phonological features. The western dialect is also called Edessene (urḥoyo) is proper of the Syriac-Orthodox communities and of the Maronites, whereas the eastern dialect is proper of the Church of the East.

In the regions of its greatest literary fortune, Syriac got into contact with other Aramaic dialects, in some cases mere spoken varieties, in other cases literary languages of other groups, such as the Christian Palestinian Aramaic that we saw above, or the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. Such dialects were proper to other Christians or to Jewish communities, but also to other groups usually defined in ancient sources as “pagans” (Syr. ḥanpē) or sometimes “Chaldeans” (kaldāyē). The latter often seem to designate at the same time the last survivors of an ancestral Aramaic language and culture, but also the unfaithful, pagan and less cultivated neighbours.

This article deals with how this linguistic alterity was perceived by Syriac authors and more particularly by Syriac grammarians, and with how the categories of Aramaic, Syriac and Chaldaic were used through the centuries to describe the linguistic and cultural puzzle of medieval Syro-Mesopotamia.

8th cent. Jacob of Edessa

The first Syriac grammarian to provide us with some dialectal observations and with an explicit discourse on Aramaic is the Syro-Orthodox Jacob of Edessa (d. 708 A.D. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Yaqub-of-Edessa). Jacob himself was most probably a native speaker of a Western variety of Aramaic (whereas Syriac belongs to the Eastern Aramaic sub-group), being born in the province of Antioch. In various works devoted to the Syriac language, Jacob gives us relevant information on varieties of Aramaic other than Syriac.

Jacob’s Syriac grammar, the Tūroṣ mamllo has come to us in the form of a few fragments preserved in two palimpsests of the British Library. Only few sections have survived, including part of the introduction.

From these remains it emerges that Jacob refers to the Syriac language with the expression lešono nahroyo, that is “Mesopotamian language” (Bodl. 159 fol. 1v coll.1-2).[3] The adjective nahroyo comes from Bēt nahroyn, lit. “between the two rivers”, the Syriac toponym designating Late Antique and Medieval Mesopotamia, that is the area between upper Tigris and Euphrates, including territories of South-Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq and Western Syria. Further down the text he refers to the “Syriacs (suryoyē), I mean [those speaking] the Edessene (urḥoyo) language” (Bodl. 159 fol. 2r col. 1). Finally, he identifies the Edessene and the Mesopotamian language as one: “the Edessenians (Urḥoyē), that is those who speak correctly this Mesopotamian speech (mamllo nahroyo)” (Bodl. 159 fol. 2v coll. 1-2).

To sum up, we have Mesopotamian = Edessene = Syriac.[4]

In the same introduction, Jacob also makes explicit reference to the mistakes in the pronunciation of Syriac, made by people who do not master the Edessene language: “all the Westerners and others who live in other regions, and who do not speak this Edessene language properly”. There are some Western people, most probably speaking western dialects of Aramaic (as Jacob himself) who have trouble in pronouncing Syriac correctly.

In at least one case, however, we find the opposite case of a pronunciation feature of the Edessene dialect that is stigmatized, in favour of a more general and widespread pronunciation: “this form should be taken away from the Mesopotamian language, as in most cases it is not pronounced with the vowel i, but a: indeed, only the Edessenians say ʾḥritā, whereas most people say ʾḥrānyātā” (Add 17217, fol. 38v).

From this passage it becomes clear that Jacob is writing a grammar of the Mesopotamian language, a more general category, which is largely based on Edessene Syriac language, but can in some cases include feature from other majoritarian dialects.

Besides these precise and hierarchically organized denominations, a more generic identification of Syriac with Aramaic is also found in Jacob’s writing, although not in a grammatical writing: in a marginal note to his translation (from Greek) of Severus of Antioch’s Homeliae Cathedrales, Jacob writes “We Arameans, that is Syriacs”.[5] Here Aramaic and Syriac are considered as equivalents, but at the same time we observe that almost none of these glottonyms/ethnonyms are considered as self-sufficient connotations. They always need to be mutually specified.

11th cent. Elias of Tirḥān

Another important Syriac grammarian providing us with some observation on Syriac and Aramaic dialects is the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Elias of Tirḥān (d. 1049 https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Eliya-I-of-Tirhan), who lived and worked in an area along the upper Tigris river. Elias wrote the first grammar of Syriac using the metalinguistic categories elaborated by Arabic linguistics. In the only surviving manuscript of this work (Berlin Petermann 9, fols. 207v-228r, dated 1260, https://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht?PPN=PPN61858949X&PHYSID=PHYS_0005&DMDID=DMDLOG_0001), the title is Tūrāṣ mamllā sūryāyā “The correction of the Syriac language”.[6]  In the introduction to his grammar, Elias draws a picture of his linguistic and metalinguistic environment.
Petermann 9 207vFirst, he informs us that he ventured in composing his grammar after having mastered the studies “on this Syriac and Aramaic language” (lešānā sūryāyā w-ārāmāyā), and he specifies “I do not mean the childish (ṭalyūsāyā) and local (atrāyā) one, but rather the one that is (practiced) in gymnasia and schools”. Once more, we find Aramaic and Syriac coupled together in the definition of the language to be described. Moreover, from this remark we may infer that those gottonyms could be understood also as referred to some local varieties, that Elias of Tirḥān considers as lower, uncultivated or in any case not proper of the learned milieu.

Elias then goes on explaining that he has read several books on Syriac, Greek and Arabic grammar and, as much as possible, he has consulted native speakers (including for Greek!) versed in such sciences.

The comparison with his Arab and Jewish neighbours has pushed him to focus not only on the written texts, but to recover the potential of Syriac as a spoken language: “I will explain and clarify the main meanings hidden in this Syriac language, even in conversation and not according to the rule in the writings, as did the Arabs of the first beliefs and the Jews, who spoke correctly and without mistakes. This is because they did not intermingle with different languages and their language is not corrupted”. His goal is thus to describe the proper Syriac language as it is “in natural speech, that is in conversation” (kad … kyānāʾīt mamllīn, hānaw ʿīdānāʾīt).

The term sūryāyā is predominant in Elias’ text, and it seems to be referred mostly to a diastratic distinction. Syriac is a higher variety, a learned language.

With respect to Jacob of Edessa, we see that there is no mention neither of Mesopotamian nor of Edessene speech, and that the object of the grammar is always referred to as Syriac, at first also identified as Aramaic.

13th cent. Barhebraeus

The Syriac-Orthodox polymath Barhebraeus (d. 1286 https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Bar-Ebroyo-Grigorios) is the author of two Syriac grammars, where he addresses the issue of the different dialectal varieties several times.

The first one, Grammar in the Meter of St. Ephrem or Metrical grammar, is a grammar in verses, accompanied by long explanatory glosses in prose. In the proem, Barhebraeus declares the object of his composition:[7]

“With your hyssop, my Lord, purify my tongue,
that I may speak with eloquence
about the Aramaic speech (leksis ʾoromoyo),
in the meter of Saint Ephrem.
That is the Syriac language (mamllo suryoyo),
and no foreign element can intervene in it.”

Once again, we find the identification of Aramaic with Syriac. Further on in the grammar, in the paragraph devoted to vowels, Barhebraeus speaks of the “The lordly language (mamllo men moronoyo), that is Edessene Syriac (suryoyo urḥoyo)”. In a marginal gloss to this verse, he provides an explanation that is the richest specimen of the Aramaic varieties that we find in any Syriac grammar:

“One must know that the Syriac language (lešono suryoyo), being scattered and spread in remote places, has suffered great confusion and has undergone all sorts of transformations, more than all other languages. And this up to the point that those who converse in the same [language] do not understand one another, but an interpreter is needed, as [for] those who converse in foreign languages. That is, the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Orientals[8] (bnē sūryo … palesṭīnī w-madnḥoyē). The language of these latter suffers corruption more than the others and is connected and related to Chaldaic (kaldoyūto). And it is evident that it is a noble and correct language the one in which from the beginning to the end in our day the Syrians (bnē sūryo) communicate.
First of all, the name lets us know this: the reason why sometimes the book says Syriac and sometimes Mesopotamian (nahroyo), according to the use. And it is known to everyone what Syria is and what Mesopotamia (bēt nahroyn) and what kind of speech there is over there.
And secondly, that only in that western language can we distinguish vocalizations.[9] (…) And for these characteristics it appears that the western speech, in which [speak] the children of Edessa, Melitene and Mardin and the rest of the places near them, it is the lordly Syriac. It is right to stick to it and preserve his canons and neglect others.”

In this very long passage, there is no mention of Aramaic. The equivalence Syriac = Mesopotamian seems to hold, in spite of the laconic hint to “what kind of speech there is over there”.

Moreover, several different languages are evoked and described as being interrelated: Syriac, Palestinian and the language of the Orientals. A hierarchy is established among them, according to the categories of confusion, transformation and corruption, as opposed to correctness, prestige and antiquity. Syriac is once again considered as the highest form of speech, but this time it is not identified as just the language of Edessa, but of a slightly larger area, corresponding to the region of Tur ʿAbdin (of course, Barhebraeus came from the city of Melitene). On the contrary, being close to the “Chaldaic” language is considered as a defect of the “Oriental” variety. This latter observation seems to contradict another statement that Barhebraeus makes in the paragraph devoted to the vowel system, where he refers to “the venerable Orientals, the first children of the Chaldeans (tamīhē dēn madnḥoyē bnayo qdomē d-kaldoyē)”. In this case, the proximity to the Chaldeans seems a mark of antiquity and of prestige.

In a later manuscript copy of Barhebraeus’ Metrical grammar, produced in Mosul in 15th-16th cent. (CFMM 503, https://www.vhmml.org/readingRoom/), we read a marginal gloss in garshuni (that is Arabic written in Syriac script), added by a later scribe, saying that “It is appropriate to keep the Edessene Syriac (al-suryānī al-urḥāwī) and to leave aside the rest, that is the oriental (al-mašriqī), the Nestorian (al-nisṭūrī)[10] and the Chaldaic (al-kaldānī) ”.

The aversion to Chaldaic language is strongly state in the Preface to Barhebraus’ larger Syriac grammar, the Ktobo d-ṣemḥē (Book of explanations).[11] In an invocation to the Lord, Barhebraeus thanks Him: “You did not let me get lost in Chaldaic Aramaic (kaldoyūto oromoyto) proper of the indistinct speech, but you the Syriac Aramaic (sūryoyūto oromoyto) proper of the Gospel”.

In this passage a clear hierarchy is sketched, where Aramaic encompasses different. The main opposition, however, seems to lie on religious grounds. The message of the Gospel, which is enunciated in Syriac, makes this language clearer than Chaldaic, which is the language of unclear (pagan) discourses.

16th cent. George Amira

The Syriac grammarian George Amira (https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Amira-Jirjis), who published the first complete grammar of Syriac in Latin (Grammatica Syriaca sive Chaldaica, Rome 1596 https://archive.org/details/GrammaticaSyriacaSiveChaldaica/page/n5/mode/2up ) extensively dealt with the issue of identification, denomination and localization of the three glottonyms Syriac, Chaldaic and Aramaic.[12]

In the 16th century, the identification of the lingua Syriaca, Chaldaica and Aramaica was at the core of the discussion on the original (pre-Babelic) language of humankind, which opposed partisans of Hebrew, Aramaic (or Chaldean/Chaldaic), different European languages and even Chinese.[13]

Amira clearly takes the side of Syriac, which he identifies with Chaldaic. In four different sections of the preface to his grammar (De linguae Chaldaicae, seu Syriacae nominibus ac discrimine, De linguae Chaldaicae sive Syriacae antiquitate, De linguae Chaldaicae sive Syriacae dignitate, ac praestantia, De Chaldaicae linguae utilitate), the Maronite scholar accumulated arguments taken from Syriac authors, Greek and Latin Patristic texts and also from his contemporaries.

One of Amira’s models and sources of information for the classification of Syriac is certainly Barhebraeus, that he quotes quite faithfully in the section De linguae Chaldaicae, seu Syriacae nominibus ac discrimine: “Some Syriac grammatical writings have related that this language that we are talking about was diffused (propagatam) more than all other languages in many and diverse places and in vast and remote regions”.

The idea of dispersion and corruption, that Barhebraeus evokes to describe the differences between Syriac, Palestinian[14] and Oriental speech, is explicitly connected by Amira to the Babelic confusion (which he rather conceptualizes as dispersion), and projected in an ancestral era.

Also from Barhebraeus derives the idea that the plurality of denominations is a consequence of dispersion: “And so it happened that, because of the diversity of places and regions in which it flourished (…) it was given various names”.

Amira then sketches a chronological hierarchy of the denominations, which are associated with the different geographical areas in which the same language ended up being spoken: “First it was called Chaldaic (Chaldaica), from Chaldea, the region in which it ruled (Principatum habuit) in those primeval times, when the confusion and division of languages was made. (…) For the same reason, it was called Babylonian (Babylonica), from Babylon, the most noble city of Chaldea and the first of all cities in the world. Then from Aram, that is Syria, it was named Aramaic (Aramaea), that is Syriac (Syriaca), as well as Assyrian (Assyriaca), from Assyria, because in those places it flourished the most. At times, it was also called Hebrew, not because it were that Mosaic language in which the Old Testament was given to the Jews, but because the Jewish people used it as a vernacular, at times. In analogous manner, now it is rightly called by some Christian (Christiana), because our saviour Christ honoured it by his mouth”.

In this brief overview, we saw that different criteria intervene, over time, in the way Syriac grammarians organize their linguistic space. For Jacob of Edessa Syriac is clearly a simple spoken variety, in a larger cluster that he geographically identifies as “Mesopotamian”, which has some literary prestige for which it is generally (but not universally) to be preferred to other local dialects.

Elias of Tirḥān seems to be looking for an equivalent of what we call Classical Arabic, that is of the literary language that his Arab contemporaries praised above all language. Elias looks for unity and for an aulic but versatile language, to be used in learned conversation. His Syriac Aramaic is an abstraction from all other concrete spoken manifestations.

Barhebraeus seems to re-introduce some geographical criteria, with his distinction between (western) Mesopotamian Syriac, Palestinian and Oriental dialects. However, at a closer look such distinctions rather correspond to religious and cultural categories: Mesopotamian Syriac, which is the “lordly” language to be preferred, is proper of the Syriac-Orthodox community to which Barhebraeus belonged, Palestinian Aramaic was proper of the Chalcedonians and the “Oriental” dialect was used the adversaries of the Church of the East. The latter are teased, being associated with the pagan Chaldeans. The predominance of a cultural perspective on all linguistic or geographic considerations is most evident in the opposition between Chaldaic and Syriac Aramaic.

Amira’s classification is essentially based on the categories of space and time. Making abstraction from all labels, he introduces at first the idea of an abstract language “this language we are talking about” (linguam hanc de qua sermo est), which has received different names according to the areas in which it was spoken during time. Chaldaic then becomes its name par excellence, because it corresponds to the cradle of civilizations, the first place inhabited by humankind.

Only two labels escape from this system: Hebrew (when the term designates a kind of Chaldaic spoken by the Jews at a given time) and Christian, defining Chaldaic as the language of Jesus.

After all, Amira’s explanation of the variety of names attributed to the “Chaldaic” language is not too different from our modern criteria for classifying “Aramaic” dialects.

But when did the term “Aramaic” take over? This is another story…


[1] For the different Aramaic dialects and their place within Semitic, see Weninger, Stefan, Geoffrey Khan, and et al, eds. 2011. The Semitic languages an international handbook. Berlin / Boston: Mouton De Gruyter.

[2] See, for example, Garr, William Randall. 1984. Dialect Geography of Syria – Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E. Reprint ed. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

[3] The fragments of Jacob’s Tūrāṣ mamllā  are published in Wright, William. 1871. Fragments of the Turras mamlla nahraya or Syriac Grammar of Jacob of Edessa. London.

[4] The same identification is stated in Jacob’s Letter on Syriac orthography (Phillips, George. 1869. A letter by Mar Jacob, bishop of Edessa, on Syriac orthography… London: Williams and Norgate, p. 11*).

[5] Brock, Sebastian. 2010. “Jacob the Annotator: Jacob’s Annotations to his Revised Translation of Severus’ Cathedral Homilies.” In Studies on Jacob of Edessa, edited by George Kiraz and Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, 1-13. Piscataway (NJ): Gorgias Press, p. 7, fn. 6.

[6] Bäthgen, Friedrich. 1880. Syrische Grammatik des Mar Elias von Tirhan. Leipzig.

[7] Syriac text edited by Martin, Jean-Pierre-Paul, ed. 1872. Œuvres grammaticales d’Abouʼlfaradj dit Bar Hebreus. Paris: Maisonneuve.

[8] By “Orientals” Barhebraeus means the Syriacs of the Church of the East, dwelling mostly in North-Eastern Mesopotamia and Iran. Elias of Tirḥān, as we mentioned above, was Patriarch of this Church.

[9] Barhebraeus means here that, in his opinion, the western vowel system is more precise and efficient.

[10] The members of the Church of the East, using the eastern variety of Syriac (the “Orientals” in Barhebraeus’ text), where called “Nestorians”, with reference to their Christological doctrine, that their adversaries attributed to Nestorius.

[11] Syriac text published by Moberg, Axel. 1922. Le livre des splendeurs. La grande grammaire de Grégoire Barhebraeus. Texte syriaqe édité d’après les manuscrits avec une introduction et des notes par Axel Moberg. Lund: Gleerup. German translation: Moberg, Axel. 1907-1913. Buch der Strahlen : die grössere Grammatik des Barhebräus. Leipzig: Harassowitz.

[12] For a very detailed analysis of Amira’s arguments, see Farina, Margherita. in press. “Amira’s Grammatica Syriaca: Genesis, Structure and Perspectives.” In Proceedings of the workshop Typographia Linguarum Externarum – The Medici Oriental Press. Knowledge and Cultural Transfer around 1600 – Florence 11-12 January 2018, edited by Eckhard Leuschner and Gerhard Wolf. Firenze: Olschki. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02115865v1

[13] See, for example, the very detailed reconstruction of the debate in Droixhe, Daniel. 2007. Souvenirs de Babel. La reconstruction de l’histoire des langues de la Renaissance aux Lumières  [en ligne]. Bruxelles: ARLLFB https://www.arllfb.be/ebibliotheque/livres/babel/index.html

[14] As we saw above, Christian Palestinian Aramaic is a dialect proper of Chalcedonian communities of Palestine. This dialect is written in an alphabet that is not too different from the Syriac one, which could be one of the reasons why Barhebraeus has included it in his classification, together with the fact that it was a Christian dialect.

How to cite this post

Farina, Margherita. 2020. What is Syriac and what is Aramaic according to Syriac grammarians (8th-16th cent.). History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2020/03/07/what-is-syriac

Posted in Article, Grammars, Syriac, Uncategorized

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