Syriac alphabet

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Syriac alphabet
Syriac Alphabet Sample.svg
Type Abjad
Languages Aramaic (Classical Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Turoyo, Christian Palestinian Aramaic), Arabic (Garshuni)
Time period
~200 BC to the present
Parent systems
Child systems

Sogdian   →Orkhon (Turkic)
    →Old Hungarian
  →Old Uyghur
    →Mongolian
Nabataean alphabet
  →Arabic alphabet

    →N'Ko alphabet
ISO 15924

Syrc, 135
Syre (138, ʾEsṭrangēlā variant)
Syrj (137, Western variant)

Syrn (136, Eastern variant)
Direction Right-to-left
Unicode alias
Syriac

The Syriac alphabet is a writing system primarily used to write the Syriac language from the 1st century AD.1 It is one of the Semitic abjads directly descending from the Aramaic alphabet and shares similarities with the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and the traditional Mongolian alphabets.

General remarks

Syriac is written from right to left. It is a cursive script where some, but not all, letters connect within a word. The alphabet consists of 22 letters, all of which are consonants. The vowel sounds are supplied by the reader's memory or by pointing (a system of diacritical marks to indicate the correct reading).

In fact, three letters act as matres lectionis: rather than being a consonant, they indicate a vowel. ʾĀlap̄ (ܐ), the first letter, represents a glottal stop, but it can also indicate a vowel at the beginning or the end of a word. The letter Waw (ܘ) is the consonant w, but can also represent the vowels o and u. Likewise, the letter Yōḏ (ܝ) represents the consonant y, but it also stands for the vowels i and e.

In addition to the sounds of the language, the letters of the Syriac alphabet can be used to represent numbers in a system similar to Hebrew and Greek numerals.

When Arabic began to be the dominant spoken language in the Fertile Crescent, texts were often written in Arabic with the Syriac script. Malayalam was also written with Syriac script and was called Suriyani Malayalam. These writings are usually called Karshuni or Garshuni (ܓܪܫܘܢܝ). Garshuni is often used today by Neo-Aramaic speakers in written communication such as letters and fliers.

Forms of the Syriac alphabet

11th century book in Syriac Serṭā.

There are three major variants of the Syriac alphabet.

Classical ʾEsṭrangēlā

The oldest and classical form of the alphabet is ʾEsṭrangēlā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ; the name is thought to derive from the Greek adjective στρογγύλη (strongylē, 'rounded'),2 though it has also been suggested to derive from ܣܪܛܐ ܐܘܢܓܠܝܐ (serṭā ’ewangēlāyā, 'gospel character')3). Although ʾEsṭrangēlā is no longer used as the main script for writing Syriac, it has received some revival since the 10th century. It is often used in scholarly publications (for instance, the Leiden University version of the Peshitta), in titles and inscriptions. In some older manuscripts and inscriptions it is possible for any letter to join to the left, and older Aramaic letter forms (especially of Ḥeth and the lunate Mem) are found. Vowel marks are usually not used with ʾEsṭrangēlā.

East Syriac Maḏnḥāyā

The East Syriac dialect is usually written in the Maḏnḥāyā (ܡܲܕ݂ܢܚܵܝܵܐ‎, 'Eastern') form of the alphabet. Other names for the script include Swāḏāyā (ܣܘܵܕ݂ܵܝܵܐ‎, 'conversational', often translated as 'contemporary', reflecting its use in writing modern Neo-Aramaic), 'Assyrian' (not to be confused with the traditional name for the Hebrew alphabet), 'Chaldean', and, inaccurately, 'Nestorian' (a term that was originally used to refer to the Church of the East in the Persian Empire). The Eastern script resembles ʾEsṭrangēlā more closely than the Western script, being somewhat a midway point between the two. The Eastern script uses a system of dots above or below letters, based on an older system, to indicate vowels:

  • A dot above and a dot below a letter represent [a], transliterated as a or ă (ܦܬ݂ܵܚܵܐ‎, Pṯāḥā),
  • Two diagonally-placed dots above a letter represent [ɑ], transliterated as ā or â or å (ܙܩܵܦ݂ܵܐ‎, Zqāp̄ā),
  • Two horizontally-placed dots below a letter represent [ɛ], transliterated as e or ĕ (ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ ܐܲܪܝܼܟ݂ܵܐ‎, Rḇāṣā ărīḵā or ܙܠܵܡܵܐ ܦܫܝܼܩܵܐ‎, Zlāmā pšīqā; often pronounced [ɪ] and transliterated as i in the East Syriac dialect),
  • Two diagonally-placed dots below a letter represent [e], transliterated as ē (ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ ܟܲܪܝܵܐ‎, Rḇāṣā karyā or ܙܠܵܡܵܐ ܩܲܫܝܵܐ‎, Zlāmā qašyā),
  • A letter Yōḏ with a dot beneath it represents [i], transliterated as ī or i (ܚܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ‎, Ḥḇāṣā),
  • A letter Waw with a dot below it represents [u], transliterated as ū or u (ܥܨܵܨܵܐ ܐܲܠܝܼܨܵܐ‎, ʿṢāṣā ălīṣā or ܪܒ݂ܵܨܵܐ‎, Rḇāṣā),
  • A letter Waw with a dot above it represents [o], transliterated as ō or o (ܥܨܵܨܵܐ ܪܘܝܼܚܵܐ‎, ʿṢāṣā rwīḥā or ܪܘܵܚܵܐ‎, Rwāḥā).
  • A combination of Rḇāṣā karyā (usually) followed by a letter Yōḏ represents [e] (possibly *[e̝] in Proto-Syriac), transliterated as ē or ê (ܐܲܣܵܩܵܐ‎, ʾĂsāqā).

It is thought that the Eastern method for representing vowels influenced the development of the Niqqud markings used for writing Hebrew.

In addition to the above vowel marks, transliteration of Syriac sometimes includes ə, or superscript e (or often nothing at all) to represent an original Aramaic schwa that became lost later on at some point in the development of Syriac. Some transliteration schemes find its inclusion necessary for showing spirantization (see below) or for historical reasons. Whether because its distribution is mostly predictable (usually inside a syllable-initial two-consonant cluster) or because its pronunciation was lost, neither the East nor West variants of the alphabet have a sign to represent the schwa.

The opening words of the Gospel of John written in Serṭā, Maḏnḥāyā and ʾEsṭrangēlā (top to bottom) — brēšiṯ iṯaw[hy]-[h]wā melṯā, 'in the beginning was the word'.

West Syriac Serṭā

The West Syriac dialect is usually written in the Serṭā (ܣܶܪܛܳܐ‎, 'line') form of the alphabet, also known as the Pšīṭā (ܦܫܺܝܛܳܐ‎, 'simple'), 'Maronite', or the 'Jacobite' script (although the term Jacobite is considered derogatory). Most of the letters are clearly derived from ʾEsṭrangēlā, but are simplified, flowing lines. A cursive, chancery hand is evidenced in the earliest Syriac manuscripts, but important works were written in ʾEsṭrangēlā. From the 8th century, the simpler Serṭā style came into fashion, perhaps because of its more economical use of parchment. The Nabataean alphabet (which gave rise to the Arabic alphabet) was based on this form of Syriac handwriting. The Western script is usually vowel-pointed with miniature Greek vowel letters above or below the letter which they follow:

  • Capital Alpha (Α) represents [a], transliterated as a or ă (ܦܬ݂ܳܚܳܐ‎, Pṯāḥā),
  • Lowercase Alpha (α) represents [ɑ], transliterated as ā or â or å (ܙܩܳܦ݂ܳܐ‎, Zqāp̄ā; pronounced as [o] and transliterated as o in the West Syriac dialect),
  • Lowercase Epsilon (ε) represents both [ɛ], transliterated as e or ĕ, and [e], transliterated as ē (ܪܒ݂ܳܨܳܐ‎, Rḇāṣā),
  • Capital Eta (H) represents [i], transliterated as ī (ܚܒ݂ܳܨܳܐ‎, Ḥḇāṣā),
  • A combined symbol of capital Upsilon (Υ) and lowercase Omicron (ο) represents [u], transliterated as ū or u (ܥܨܳܨܳܐ‎, ʿṢāṣā).
  • Lowercase Omega (ω), used only in the vocative interjection ʾō (ܐܘّ‎, 'O!').

Summary table

The Syriac alphabet consists of the following letters, shown in their isolated (non-connected) forms. When isolated, the letters Kāp̄, Mīm, and Nūn are usually shown with their initial form connected to their final form (see below). The letters ʾĀlap̄, Dālaṯ, , Waw, Zayn, Ṣāḏē, Rēš, and Taw (and, in early ʾEsṭrangēlā manuscripts, the letter Semkaṯ4) do not connect to a following letter within a word when written. These are marked with an asterisk (*).

Name Letter Sound Value Numerical
Value
Phoenician
Equivalent
Hebrew
Equivalent
Arabic
Equivalent
ʾEsṭrangēlā Maḏnḥāyā Serṭā Transliteration IPA
ʾĀlap̄* (ܐܠܦ) Syriac Estrangela alap.svg Syriac Eastern alap.svg Syriac Serta alap.svg ʾ or nothing ʔ
or silent
1 𐤀 א ا
Bēṯ (ܒܝܬ) Syriac Estrangela bet.svg Syriac Eastern bet.svg Syriac Serta bet.svg hard: b
soft: (also bh, v, β)
hard: b
soft: v or w
2 𐤁 ב ب
Gāmal (ܓܡܠ) Syriac Estrangela gamal.svg Syriac Eastern gamal.svg Syriac Serta gamal.svg hard: g
soft: (also , gh, ġ, γ)
hard: ɡ
soft: ɣ
3 𐤂 ג ج
Dālaṯ* (ܕܠܬ) Syriac Estrangela dalat.svg Syriac Eastern dalat.svg Syriac Serta dalat.svg hard: d
soft: (also dh, ð, δ)
hard: d
soft: ð
4 𐤃 ד د, ذ
* (ܗܐ) Syriac Estrangela he.svg Syriac Eastern he.svg Syriac Serta he.svg h h 5 𐤄 ה ه
Waw* (ܘܘ) Syriac Estrangela waw.svg Syriac Eastern waw.svg Syriac Serta waw.svg consonant: w
mater lectionis: ū or ō
(also u or o)
consonant: w
mater lectionis: u or o
6 𐤅 ו و
Zayn* (ܙܝܢ) Syriac Estrangela zayn.svg Syriac Eastern zayn.svg Syriac Serta zayn.svg z z 7 𐤆 ז ز
Ḥēṯ (ܚܝܬ) Syriac Estrangela het.svg Syriac Eastern het.svg Syriac Serta het.svg ħ, x, or χ 8 𐤇 ח ح, خ
Ṭēṯ (ܛܝܬ) Syriac Estrangela tet.svg Syriac Eastern tet.svg Syriac Serta tet.svg 9 𐤈 ט ط, ظ
Yōḏ (ܝܘܕ) Syriac Estrangela yod.svg Syriac Eastern yod.svg Syriac Serta yod.svg consonant: y
mater lectionis: ī (also i)
consonant: j
mater lectionis: i or e
10 𐤉 י ي
Kāp̄ (ܟܦ) Syriac Estrangela kap.svg Syriac Eastern kap.svg Syriac Serta kap.svg hard: k
soft: (also kh, x)
hard: k
soft: x
20 𐤊 כ ך ك
Lāmaḏ (ܠܡܕ) Syriac Estrangela lamad.svg Syriac Eastern lamad.svg Syriac Serta lamad.svg l l 30 𐤋 ל ل
Mīm (ܡܝܡ) Syriac Estrangela mim.svg Syriac Eastern mim.svg Syriac Serta mim.svg m m 40 𐤌 מ ם م
Nūn (ܢܘܢ) Syriac Estrangela nun.svg Syriac Eastern nun.svg Syriac Serta nun.svg n n 50 𐤍 נ ן ن
Semkaṯ (ܣܡܟܬ) Syriac Estrangela semkat.svg Syriac Eastern semkat.svg Syriac Serta semkat.svg s s 60 𐤎 ס
ʿĒ (ܥܐ) Syriac Estrangela 'e.svg Syriac Eastern 'e.svg Syriac Serta 'e.svg ʿ ʕ 70 𐤏 ע ع, غ
(ܦܐ) Syriac Estrangela pe.svg Syriac Eastern pe.svg Syriac Serta pe.svg hard: p
soft: (also , , ph, f)
hard: p
soft: f
80 𐤐 פ ף ف
Ṣāḏē* (ܨܕܐ) Syriac Estrangela sade.svg Syriac Eastern sade.svg Syriac Serta sade.svg 90 𐤑 צ ץ ص, ض
Qōp̄ (ܩܘܦ) Syriac Estrangela qop.svg Syriac Eastern qop.svg Syriac Serta qop.svg q q 100 𐤒 ק ق
Rēš* (ܪܝܫ) Syriac Estrangela res.svg Syriac Eastern res.svg Syriac Serta res.svg r r 200 𐤓 ר ر
Šīn (ܫܝܢ) Syriac Estrangela sin.svg Syriac Eastern sin.svg Syriac Serta sin.svg š (also sh) ʃ 300 𐤔 ש س, ش
Taw* (ܬܘ) Syriac Estrangela taw.svg Syriac Eastern taw.svg Syriac Serta taw.svg hard: t
soft: (also th, θ)
hard: t
soft: θ
400 𐤕 ת ت, ث

Contextual forms of letters

Letter ʾEsṭrangēlā (classical) Maḏnḥāyā (eastern)
Normal
form
Final
connected
Final
unconnected
Normal
form
Final
connected
Final
unconnected
ʾĀlap̄ Aramaic alap.png     SyriacAlaph.png SyriacAlaph2.png 1  
Bēṯ Aramaic beth.png Aramaic beth c.png   SyriacBeth.png SyriacBeth2.png  
Gāmal Aramaic gamal.png Aramaic gamal c.png   SyriacGamal.png SyriacGamal2.png  
Dālaṯ Aramaic daleth.png     SyriacDalath.png    
Aramaic heh.png     SyriacHe.png    
Waw Aramaic waw.png     SyriacWaw.png    
Zayn Aramaic zain.png     SyriacZayn.png    
Ḥēṯ Aramaic kheth.png Aramaic kheth c.png   SyriacKheth.png SyriacKheth2.png  
Ṭēṯ Aramaic teth.png Aramaic teth c.png   SyriacTeth.png SyriacTeth2.png  
Yōḏ Aramaic yodh.png Aramaic yodh c.png   SyriacYodh.png SyriacYodh2.png  
Kāp̄ Aramaic kap.png Aramaic kap c.png Aramaic kap f.png SyriacKaph.png SyriacKaph2.png SyriacKaph3.png
Lāmaḏ Aramaic lamadh.png Aramaic lamadh c.png   SyriacLamadh.png SyriacLamadh2.png  
Mīm Aramaic meem.png Aramaic meem c.png   SyriacMeem.png SyriacMeem2.png  
Nūn Aramaic noon.png Aramaic noon c.png Aramaic noon f.png SyriacNun.png SyriacNun2.png SyriacNun3.png
Semkaṯ Aramaic simkath.png Aramaic simkath c.png   SyriacSimkath.png SyriacSimkath2.png / SyriacSimkath3.png  
ʿĒ Aramaic ain.png Aramaic ain c.png   Syriac'E.png Syriac'E2.png  
Aramaic payin.png Aramaic payin c.png   SyriacPe.png SyriacPe2.png  
Ṣāḏē Aramaic tsade.png     SyriacSadhe.png    
Qōp̄ Aramaic qoph.png Aramaic qoph c.png   SyriacQop.png SyriacQop2.png  
Rēš Aramaic resh.png     SyriacResh.png    
Šīn Aramaic sheen.png Aramaic sheen c.png   SyriacSheen.png SyriacSheen2.png  
Taw Aramaic taw.png     SyriacTaw.png    

1 In the final position following Dālaṯ or Rēš, ʾĀlap̄ takes the normal form rather than the final form.

Ligatures

Name ʾEsṭrangēlā (classical) Maḏnḥāyā (eastern) Unicode
character(s)
Description
Normal
form
Final
connected
Final
unconnected
Normal
form
Final
connected
Final
unconnected
Lāmaḏ-ʾĀlap̄ Aramaic lamadh alap.png     Lamadh-alaph.svg     ܠܐ Lāmaḏ and ʾĀlap̄ combined
at the end of a word
Taw-ʾĀlap̄ Aramaic taw alap.png     SyriacAlaph.png SyriacTaw.png SyriacTawAlaph.png SyriacTawAlaph2.png / SyriacTawAlaph3.png ܬܐ Taw and ʾĀlap̄ combined
at the end of a word
Hē-Yōḏ         SyriacHeYodh.png   ܗܝ and Yōḏ combined
at the end of a word
Taw-Yōḏ         Tawyodh.svg   ܬܝ Taw and Yōḏ combined
at the end of a word

Letter alterations

In modern usage, some alterations can be made to represent phonemes not represented in classical orthography. A mark similar in appearance to a tilde, called Majlīyānā (ܡܓ̰ܠܝܢܐ), is placed either above or below a letter in the Maḏnḥāyā variant of the alphabet to change its phonetic value (see also: Geresh):

In addition to foreign sounds, a marking system is used to distinguish qūššāyā (ܩܘܫܝܐ, 'hard' letters) from rūkkāḵā (ܪܘܟܟܐ, 'soft' letters). The letters Bēṯ, Gāmal, Dālaṯ, Kāp̄, , and Taw, all plosives ('hard'), are able to be spirantized into fricatives ('soft'). The system involves placing a single dot underneath the letter to give its 'soft' variant and a dot above the letter to give its 'hard' variant (though, in modern usage, no mark at all is usually used to indicate the 'hard' value):

Name Plosive Translit. IPA Name Spirant Translit. IPA Notes
Bēṯ (qšīṯā) ܒ݁ b [b] Bēṯ rakkīḵtā ܒ݂ [v] or [w] [v] has become [w] in most modern dialects.
Gāmal (qšīṯā) ܓ݁ g [ɡ] Gāmal rakkīḵtā ܓ݂ [ɣ]
Dālaṯ (qšīṯā) ܕ݁ d [d] Dālaṯ rakkīḵtā ܕ݂ [ð] [d] is left unspirantized in some modern Eastern dialects.
Kāp̄ (qšīṯā) ܟ݁ܟ݁ k [k] Kāp̄ rakkīḵtā ܟ݂ܟ݂ [x]
Pē (qšīṯā) ܦ݁ p [p] Pē rakkīḵtā ܦ݂ or ܦ̮ [f] or [w] [f] is not found in most modern Eastern dialects. Instead, it either is left unspirantized or sometimes appears as [w]. is the only letter in the Eastern variant of the alphabet that is spirantized by the addition of a semicircle instead of a single dot.
Taw (qšīṯā) ܬ݁ t [t] Taw rakkīḵtā ܬ݂ [θ] [t] is left unspirantized in some modern Eastern dialects.

The mnemonic bḡaḏkp̄āṯ (ܒܓܕܟܦܬ) is often used to remember the six letters that are able to be spirantized (see also: Begadkefat).

In the East Syriac variant of the alphabet, spirantization marks are usually omitted when they interfere with vowel marks. The degree to which letters can be spirantized varies from dialect to dialect as some dialects have lost the ability for certain letters to be spirantized. For native words, spirantization depends on the letter's position within a word or syllable, location relative to other consonants and vowels, gemination, etymology, and other factors. Foreign words are not always subject to the rules for spirantization.

Unicode

The Syriac alphabet was added to the Unicode Standard in September, 1999 with the release of version 3.0.

Block

The Unicode block for Syriac is U+0700 ... U+074F:

Syriac[1]
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+070x ܀ ܁ ܂ ܃ ܄ ܅ ܆ ܇ ܈ ܉ ܊ ܋ ܌ ܍ ܏
 SAM 
U+071x ܐ ܑ ܒ ܓ ܔ ܕ ܖ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܜ ܝ ܞ ܟ
U+072x ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܤ ܥ ܦ ܧ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ ܭ ܮ ܯ
U+073x ܰ ܱ ܲ ܳ ܴ ܵ ܶ ܷ ܸ ܹ ܺ ܻ ܼ ܽ ܾ ܿ
U+074x ݀ ݁ ݂ ݃ ݄ ݅ ݆ ݇ ݈ ݉ ݊ ݍ ݎ ݏ
Notes
1.^ As of Unicode version 6.3

The Syriac Abbreviation (a type of overline) can be represented with a special control character called the Syriac Abbreviation Mark (U+070F).

HTML code table

Note: HTML numeric character references can be in decimal format (&#DDDD;) or hexadecimal format (&#xHHHH;). For example, ܕ and ܕ (1813 in decimal) both represent U+0715 SYRIAC LETTER DALATH.

ʾĀlap̄ Bēṯ

ܕ ܓ ܒ ܐ
ܕ ܓ ܒ ܐ
ܚ ܙ ܘ ܗ
ܚ ܙ ܘ ܗ
ܠ ܟܟ ܝ ܛ
ܠ ܟ ܝ ܛ
ܥ ܣ ܢܢ ܡܡ
ܥ ܤ ܢ ܡ
ܪ ܩ ܨ ܦ
ܪ ܩ ܨ ܦ
ܬ ܫ
ܬ ܫ

Vowels and unique characters

ܲ ܵ
ܲ ܵ
ܸ ܹ
ܸ ܹ
ܼ ܿ
ܼ ܿ
̈ ̰
̈ ̰
݁ ݂
݁ ݂
܀ ܂
܀ ܂
܄ ݇
܄ ݇

See also

References

  • Coakley, J. F. (2002). Robinson's paradigms and exercises in Syriac grammar (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926129-1.
  • Hatch, William (1946). An album of dated Syriac manuscripts. Boston: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, reprinted in 2002 by Gorgias Press. ISBN 1-931956-53-7.
  • Michaelis, Ioannis Davidis (1784). Grammatica Syriaca.
  • Nestle, Eberhard (1888). Syrische Grammatik mit Litteratur, Chrestomathie und Glossar. Berlin: H. Reuther's Verlagsbuchhandlung. [translated to English as Syriac grammar with bibliography, chrestomathy and glossary, by R. S. Kennedy. London: Williams & Norgate 1889].
  • Nöldeke, Theodor and Julius Euting (1880). Kurzgefasste syrische Grammatik. Leipzig: T.O. Weigel. [translated to English as Compendious Syriac Grammar, by James A. Crichton. London: Williams & Norgate 1904. 2003 edition: ISBN 1-57506-050-7.
  • Phillips, George (1866). A Syriac grammar. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, & Co.; London: Bell & Daldy.
  • Robinson, Theodore Henry (1915). Paradigms and exercises in Syriac grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926129-6.
  • Rudder, Joshua. Learn to Write Aramaic: A Step-by-Step Approach to the Historical & Modern Scripts. n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. 220 pp. ISBN 978-1461021421 Includes the Estrangela (pp. 59–113), Madnhaya (pp. 191–206), and the Western Serto (pp. 173–190) scripts.
  • Thackston, Wheeler M. (1999). Introduction to Syriac. Bethesda, MD: Ibex Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-936347-98-8.

Footnotes

  1. ^ "Britannica - Syriac alphabet". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved June 16, 2012. 
  2. ^ Hatch, William (1946). An album of dated Syriac manuscripts. Boston: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, reprinted in 2002 by Gorgias Press. p. 24. ISBN 1-931956-53-7.
  3. ^ Nestle, Eberhard (1888). Syrische Grammatik mit Litteratur, Chrestomathie und Glossar. Berlin: H. Reuther's Verlagsbuchhandlung. [translated to English as Syriac grammar with bibliography, chrestomathy and glossary, by R. S. Kennedy. London: Williams & Norgate 1889. p. 5].
  4. ^ Coakley, J. F. (2002). Robinson's paradigms and exercises in Syriac grammar (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-19-926129-1.

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