Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa in Mesopotamia. Today it is the classical tongue of the Nestorians and Chaldeans of Iran and Iraq and the liturgical language of the Jacobites of Eastern Anatolia and the Maronites of Greater Syria. Syriac is also the language of the Church of St, Thomas on the Malabar Coast of India. Syriac belongs to the Levantine group of the central branch of the West Semitic languages.
Syriac literature flourished from the third century on and boasts of writers like Ephraem Syrus, Aphraates, Jacob of Sarug, John of Ephesus, Jacob of Edessa, and Barhebraeus. After the Arab con-quests, Syriac became the language of a tolerated but disenfranchised and diminishing community and began a long, slow decline both as a spoken tongue and as a literary medium in favor of Arabic.
Syriac played an important role as the intermediary through which Greek learning passed to the Islamic world. Syriac translations also preserve much Middle Iranian wisdom literature that has been lost in the original.
Here, the language is presented both in the Syriac script and in transcription, which is given so that the pronunciation of individual words and the structure of the language may be represented as clearly as possible.
The majority of the sentences in the exercises-and all of the readings in later lessons-are taken directly from the Pšitta, the Syriac translation of the Bible. Most students learn Syriac as an adjunct to biblical or theological studies and will be interested primarily in this text. Biblical passages also have the advantage of being familiar, to some degree or other, to most English speaking students.
For many of those whose interest in Syriac stems from Biblical studies or from the history of Eastern Christianity, Syriac may be their first Semitic language. Every effort has been made in the presentation of the grammar to keep the Semitic structure of the language in the forefront and as clear as possible for those who have no previous experience with languages of that family. Syriac is structurally perhaps the simplest of all the Semitic languages. A chart of correspondences among Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac is given.
WHEELER M. THACKSTON is Professor of Persian and other Near East Languages at Harvard University.