Syriac/Aramaic language and
Johny Messo (2005)
SYRIAC & ARAMAIC
The introduction of the
name ‘Syriac’ has, admittedly, created a certain amount of ambiguity.
Not only as regards the Aramaic language and culture, but also with
respect to the Aramean people.
One the one hand, ‘Syriac’
has often been used as a synonym for the ‘Aramaic’ language/ culture. On
the other hand, this term frequently has been applied to the literary
Aramaic dialect of Edessa (and its near environment)
as well as to the Aramaic parlances still spoken today by various Syriac,
Jewish and Mandean religious communities originating from Mesopotamia.
It is to be noted, however,
that already in 1871 the renown Prof. Th. Nöldeke
asserted that the only correct name for the Syriac people and their
language/culture is ‘Aramean/Aramaic’. For ‘Syria(ns)’ is indeed, as
Nöldeke pointed out, originally a Greek loanword that denotes the
Aramaic name ‘Aram(eans)’.
The late Jonas C.
another eminent scholar in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies,
expressed a similar thought: “The use of [the name] Aramaic, rather than
Syriac, has merit, since it is far from sure that these [modern Aramaic]
dialects are the descendants of Syriac as known to us from the literary
language of the Syriac texts.”
Camden Professor of Ancient History emeritus at Oxford University, would
certainly agree with these views:
“Though Christian writers
call the native language of Syria ‘Syrian’ it was actually what we call
Aramaic, and it will save confusion to reserve ‘Syriac’ for the
[Aramaic] dialect of Edessa, the script associated with it, and the
literary language developed from it.”
It would, therefore, be
helpful to avoid this lack of clarity by distinguishing the later
offshoots of the Aramaic language above all according to their
respective geographical settings. In the case of the literary Aramaic
dialect stemming from Edessa, for example, ‘Edessene’ or ‘Edessan
Aramaic’ would be preferable instead of the by now accustomed
description of ‘(Classical) Syriac’.
the doyen of Syriac-Aramaic Studies, basically supports this appeal when
he remarked that “Ancient writers use a variety of different terms for
Syriac, the most precise being ‘Edessene’ and ‘the language of
ARAMAIC LANGUAGE & CULTURE
Within the family of the
so-called Semitic languages, Aramaic is generally grouped as a
North-western Semitic entity. There has been much written about the
classification of the Aramaic dialects and, notwithstanding some of its
delimitations, the taxonomy of Fitzmyer
is still widely used for the lack of better alternatives. Fitzmyer
distinguishes the following five phases.
Old Aramaic (to ca. 612)
(to ca. 200 BC)
Middle Aramaic (to ca. 250 AD)
Late Aramaic (to ca. 1200 AD)
Modern Aramaic (to the present day)
The ‘Edessan Aramaic’ or
simply ‘Edessene’ is usually considered to belong to the Middle Aramaic
phase. Although this period is commonly divided into an East and West
divide, discussion exists as to whether Edessan Aramaic really belongs
to the Eastern group or rather should be placed somewhere on the Eastern
borderline nearing the contemporary Western Aramaic dialects.
As already observed (see n.
1), Edessan Aramaic is still in use today among the Christian Arameans.
It is not only widely utilized as a literary vehicle and a liturgical
language, but this idiom continues to serve as a vital spoken form in
certain Aramean circles, albeit to a smaller extent.
None of the present-day
Aramaic dialects, often labelled as “Modern Aramaic” or “Neo-Aramaic,”
seem to have been derived from the Edessene dialect. The question
concerning the exact predecessor(s) of these dialects, though, is still
being researched. But based on certain salient linguistic traits, the
approximate origin of these vernaculars appears to date from 500-1000
A.D.; of course, this is not to deny that the Neo-Aramaic dialects have
preserved much older features as well.
The contributors to The
Hidden Pearl (see n. 2) have done a superb job in showing the role
and the significance of the Aramaic language in history – the influence
of which can be felt even in our modern days. A few noteworthy remarks
of scholars in the field may suffice to support this fact.
“[T]he history of Aramaic
represents the purest triumph of the human spirit as embodied in
language (which is the mind's most direct form of physical expression)
over the crude display of material power … Great empires were conquered
by the Aramaic language, and when they disappeared and were submerged in
the flow of history, that language persisted and continued to live a
life of its own … The language continued to be powerfully active in the
promulgation of spiritual matters. It was the main instrument for the
formulation of religious ideas in the Near East, which then spread in
all directions all over the world … The monotheistic groups continue to
live on today with a religious heritage, much of which found first
expression in Aramaic.”
“The Greeks and Romans knew
the Near East mainly through the Arameans, for it was they who united
and canalized the sources of its culture, bringing together Babylonian,
Persian and Hebrew elements and transmitting them to Christianity, and
with Christianity to the West. From the West, at a later date, the
Arameans [sc. Syriac-Orthodox & ‘Nestorians’] were to bring to
the East Greek culture, especially philosophy, which became known to the
Arabs through the medium of Aramaic.”
historical significance” of the Aramaic language and its literature,
wrote the already cited leading authority
in Syriac-Aramaic studies,
Prof. Brock, “might be said to lie in the fact that they provide the
main link in the chain between the civilization of Antiquity (Greek as
well as Mesopotamian) and that of the Arabic-speaking world today.”
Not to forget, O’Leary
similarly wrote that “Greek scientific thought had been in the world for
a long time before it reached the Arabs, and during that period it had
already spread abroad in various directions. So it is not surprising
that it reached the Arabs by more than one route. It came first and in
the plainest line through Christian Syriac writers, scholars, and
Without the Aramaic tongue,
declared another specialist, “the expansion of Christianity in the
Orient would have been unthinkable.” And this remarkable fact in itself
is, indeed, among other things, “the historical debt which the world
owes the Arameans.”
In a voluminous book about
the Arameans, yet another expert highlighted that “[w]e see the
Aramaeans as a nation that represents one of our cultural ancestors, as
one of the points of departure for us in the West … [because] western
civilization originated in the Middle East.”
in the words of one more notable scholar, “is
the only Semitic language spoken today whose history can be traced back,
as a living language, to about 1000 B.C.”
As of this writing, it is
really deplorable to observe that too little attention has been and is
being paid to the still living Neo-Aramaic dialects and the
national heritage of the ancient Christian Arameans. The more so,
because the final breath of life of the once so glorious Aramaic
language, which has contributed so much to our world, is almost entirely
When this lack of interest
in the living Aramaic parlances and Aramean people continues, in the
near future only a handful of interested specialists probably will
continue to study parts of what hitherto has been documented about these
extinct dialects – just as few experts are currently already doing so
with other previously living Aramaic dialects that are, we regret to
conclude, no more...
[Originally written for
the official website of the
Syriac Universal Alliance]
See his review
of K. Tsereteli, Grammatik der modernen assyrischen Sprache (Neuostaramäisch)
(Leipzig, 1978) in Journal of the American Oriental Society
102:1 (1982), p. 209.
J.A. Fitzmyer, “The
Phases of the Aramaic Language” in A Wandering Aramean. Collected
Aramaic Essays (Missoula: Scholars, 1979), pp. 57-84.
referred to as ‘Imperial Aramaic’ (from the German ‘Reichsaramäisch’)
or ‘Standard Aramaic’.
De Lacy O’Leary,
How Greek science passed to the Arabs (London, 1949), p. 2.
To explain his use of “Syriac-Aramaic” on p. 8, O’Leary gives a
detailed explication about Aramaic and the Arameans in a note on p.
It further should be clarified here that the book does not once
mention the name ‘Assyrians’ and that its writer conceives of the
Syriacs as descendants not of the ‘Assyrians’ but rather of the
‘Arameans’ (cf. pp. 7f, 67f., 182, 185 and 187). This
misunderstanding might have arisen in the reader’s mind due to a
misinforming book review spread on the Internet by
Hebrew and Aramaic Studies (Jerusalem, 1977), p. 90.