Syriac alphabet

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Syriac alphabet
Type Abjad
Spoken languages Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic (Garshuni)
Time period ~200 B.C. to the present
Parent systems
Child systems Sogdian

  →Orkhon (Turkic)
    →Old Hungarian
Nabataean alphabet
  → Arabic alphabet

Georgian (disputed)
ISO 15924 Syrc (Syriac)
Syre (Esṭrangelā variant)
Syrj (Western variant)
Syrn (Eastern variant)
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.
Note: This article contains special characters.

The Syriac alphabet is a writing system primarily used to write the Syriac language from around the 2nd century BC. It is one of the Semitic abjads directly descending from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet and shares similarities with the Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew alphabets.


[edit] 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. ’Ālaph (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 Yōdh (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.

[edit] Forms of the Syriac alphabet

11th century book in Syriac Serṭā.

There are three major variants of the Syriac alphabet. The oldest and classical form of the alphabet is Esṭrangelā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ; the name is thought to derive from the Greek description στρογγύλη, strongylē, 'rounded'). Although Estrangelā is no longer used as the main script for writing Syriac, it has received some revival since the tenth 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.

The West Syriac dialect is usually written in the Serṭā (ܣܪܛܐ 'line') form of the alphabet, also known as the Pšīṭā (ܦܫܝܛܐ 'simple'), 'Maronite', or the 'Jacobite' script (although the term Jacobite is considered derogatory). Most of the letters are clearly derived from Estrangelā, but are simplified, flowing lines. A cursive, chancery hand is evidenced in the earliest Syriac manuscripts, but important works were written in Estrangelā. From the eighth century, the simpler Sertā 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:

  • Α (capital alpha) represents a (ܦܬܚܐ, Pṯāḥā),
  • α (lowercase alpha) represents ā (ܙܩܦܐ, Zqāp̄ā; pronounced as an o in the West Syriac dialect),
  • ε (lowercase epsilon) represents both e and ē (ܪܒܨܐ, Rḇāṣā),
  • H (capital eta) represents ī (ܚܒܨܐ, Ḥḇāṣā),
  • and a combined symbol of Υ (capital upsilon) and ο (lowercase omicron) represents ū (ܥܨܨܐ, ‘Ṣāṣā).
The opening words of the Gospel of John written in Serṭā, Madnḥāyā and Esṭrangelā (top to bottom) — brēšîṯ îṯau[hy]-[h]wâ melṯâ, 'in the beginning was the word'.

The East Syriac dialect is usually written in the Madnḥāyā (ܡܕܢܚܝܐ 'Eastern') form of the alphabet. Other names for the script include Swādāyā (ܣܘܕܝܐ 'contemporary'), 'Assyrian' (not to be confused with the traditional name for the Hebrew alphabet), 'Chaldean', and, inaccurately, 'Nestorian', a term that was originally used to disparage Christians living in the Persian Empire. The Eastern script resembles Estrangelā 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 (ܦܬܚܐ, Pṯāḥā),
  • Two diagonally-placed dots above a letter represent ā (ܙܩܦܐ, Zqāp̄ā),
  • Two horizontally-placed dots below a letter represent e (ܙܠܡܐ ܦܫܝܩܐ, Zlāmā pšīqā; often pronounced i in the East Syriac dialect),
  • Two diagonally-placed dots below a letter represent ē (ܙܠܡܐ ܩܫܝܐ, Zlāmā qašyā),
  • A letter Yōḏ with a dot beneath it represents ī (ܚܒܨܐ, Ḥḇāṣā),
  • A letter Wāw with a dot below it represents ū or u (ܥܨܨܐ ܐܠܝܨܐ, ‘Ṣāṣā allīṣā),
  • A letter Wāw with a dot above it represents ō or o (ܥܨܨܐ ܪܘܝܚܐ, ‘Ṣāṣā rwīḥā).

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

When Arabic began to be the dominant spoken language in the Fertile Crescent, texts were often written in Arabic with the Syriac script. These writings are usually called Karshuni or Garshuni (ܓܪܫܘܢܝ). Garshuni is often used by Assyrians and Chaldeans today in nonverbal communication such as in letters and fliers.

[edit] Short table

The Syriac alphabet consists of the following letters. Some letters have a different form used at the ends of words: these are shown in the table below the normal form. When isolated, the initial forms of the letters Kāp̄, Mīm, and Nūn are usually shown connected to their final form (see below).

Note that the table arranges the letters in order from left to right.

’Ālap̄ Bēṯ Gāmal Dālaṯ Wāw Zayn Ḥēṯ Ṭēṯ Yōḏ Kāp̄
ܐ ܒ ܓ ܕ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܝ ܟܟ
Lāmaḏ Mīm Nūn Semkaṯ ‘Ē Ṣāḏē Qōp̄ Rēš Šīn Taw
ܠ ܡܡ ܢܢ ܣ ܥ ܦ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ
ܡ ܢ

[edit] Letters of the Syriac alphabet

Letter Esṭrangelā (classical) Madnḥāyā (eastern) Unicode
’Ālap̄ Image:aramaic alap.png     Image:SyriacAlaph.png Image:SyriacAlaph2.png 1   ܐ 1 /ʔ/ (glottal stop)
or silent
Bēṯ Image:aramaic beth.png Image:aramaic beth c.png   Image:SyriacBeth.png Image:SyriacBeth2.png   ܒ 2 hard: /b/ (voiced bilabial plosive)
soft: /v/ (voiced labiodental fricative) or /w/ (labial-velar approximant)
Gāmal Image:aramaic gamal.png Image:aramaic gamal c.png   Image:SyriacGamal.png Image:SyriacGamal2.png   ܓ 3 hard: /g/ (voiced velar plosive)
soft: /ɣ/ (voiced velar fricative)
Dālaṯ Image:aramaic daleth.png     Image:SyriacDalath.png     ܕ 4 hard: /d/ (voiced alveolar plosive)
soft: /ð/ (voiced dental fricative)
Image:aramaic heh.png     Image:SyriacHe.png     ܗ 5 /h/ (voiceless glottal fricative)
Wāw Image:aramaic waw.png     Image:SyriacWaw.png     ܘ 6 consonant: /w/ (labial-velar approximant)
mater lectionis: /u/ (close back rounded vowel) or /o/ (close-mid back rounded vowel)
Zayn Image:aramaic zain.png     Image:SyriacZayn.png     ܙ 7 /z/ (voiced alveolar fricative)
Ḥēṯ Image:aramaic kheth.png Image:aramaic kheth c.png   Image:SyriacKheth.png Image:SyriacKheth2.png   ܚ 8 /ħ/ (voiceless pharyngeal fricative), /x/ (voiceless velar fricative), or /χ/ (voiceless uvular fricative)
Ṭēṯ Image:aramaic teth.png Image:aramaic teth c.png   Image:SyriacTeth.png Image:SyriacTeth2.png   ܛ 9 /tˁ/ (pharyngealized voiceless alveolar plosive)
Yōḏ Image:aramaic yodh.png Image:aramaic yodh c.png   Image:SyriacYodh.png Image:SyriacYodh2.png   ܝ 10 consonant: /j/ (voiced palatal approximant)
mater lectionis: /i/ (close front unrounded vowel) or /e/ (close-mid front unrounded vowel)
Kāp̄ Image:aramaic kap.png Image:aramaic kap c.png Image:aramaic kap f.png Image:SyriacKaph.png Image:SyriacKaph2.png Image:SyriacKaph3.png ܟ 20 hard: /k/ (voiceless velar plosive)
soft: /x/ (voiceless velar fricative)
Lāmaḏ Image:aramaic lamadh.png Image:aramaic lamadh c.png   Image:SyriacLamadh.png Image:SyriacLamadh2.png   ܠ 30 /l/ (alveolar lateral approximant)
Mīm Image:aramaic meem.png Image:aramaic meem c.png   Image:SyriacMeem.png Image:SyriacMeem2.png   ܡ 40 /m/ (bilabial nasal)
Nūn Image:aramaic noon.png Image:aramaic noon c.png Image:aramaic noon f.png Image:SyriacNun.png Image:SyriacNun2.png Image:SyriacNun3.png ܢ 50 /n/ (alveolar nasal)
Semkaṯ Image:aramaic simkath.png Image:aramaic simkath c.png   Image:SyriacSimkath.png Image:SyriacSimkath2.png / Image:SyriacSimkath3.png   ܣ / ܤ 60 /s/ (voiceless alveolar fricative)
‘Ē Image:aramaic ain.png Image:aramaic ain c.png   Image:Syriac'E.png Image:Syriac'E2.png   ܥ 70 /ʕ/ (voiced pharyngeal fricative)
Image:aramaic payin.png Image:aramaic payin c.png   Image:SyriacPe.png Image:SyriacPe2.png   ܦ 80 hard: /p/ (voiceless bilabial plosive)
soft: /f/ (voiceless labiodental fricative) or /w/ (labial-velar approximant)
Ṣāḏē Image:aramaic tsade.png     Image:SyriacSadhe.png     ܨ 90 /sˁ/ (pharyngealized voiceless alveolar fricative)
Qōp̄ Image:aramaic qoph.png Image:aramaic qoph c.png   Image:SyriacQop.png Image:SyriacQop2.png   ܩ 100 /q/ (voiceless uvular plosive)
Rēš Image:aramaic resh.png     Image:SyriacResh.png     ܪ 200 /r/ (alveolar trill)
Šīn Image:aramaic sheen.png Image:aramaic sheen c.png   Image:SyriacSheen.png Image:SyriacSheen2.png   ܫ 300 /ʃ/ (voiceless postalveolar fricative)
Taw Image:aramaic taw.png     Image:SyriacTaw.png     ܬ 400 hard: /t/ (voiceless alveolar plosive)
soft: /θ/ (voiceless dental fricative)

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

[edit] Ligatures

Name Esṭrangelā (classical) Madnḥāyā (eastern) Unicode
Lāmaḏ-’Ālap̄ Image:aramaic lamadh alap.png     Image:SyriacLamadhAlaph3.png     ܠܐ Lāmaḏ and 'Ālap̄ combined
at the end of a word
Taw-’Ālap̄ Image:aramaic taw alap.png     Image:SyriacAlaph.png Image:SyriacTaw.png Image:SyriacTawAlaph.png Image:SyriacTawAlaph2.png / Image:SyriacTawAlaph3.png ܬܐ Taw and 'Ālap̄ combined
at the end of a word
Hē-Yōḏ       Image:SyriacHeYodh.png     ܗܝ Hē and Yōḏ combined
at the end of a word

[edit] Letter alterations

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

  • Added to Gāmal: [ɡ] to [dʒ]
  • Added to Kāp̄: [k] to [tʃ]
  • Added to Zayn: [z] to [ʒ]
  • Added to Šīn: [ʃ] to [ʒ]

In addition to foreign sounds, a marking system is used to distinguish qūšāyā (ܩܘܫܝܐ, 'hard' letters) from rūkāxā (ܪܘܟܟܐ, 'soft' letters). The letters Bēṯ, Gāmal, Dālaṯ, Kāp̄, , and Taw, all plosives ('hard'), are able to be spirantized into fricatives ('soft'):

Name Plosive IPA Spirant IPA Notes
Bēṯ ܒ [b] ܒ݂ [v] or [w] The voiced labiodental fricative ([v]) is not found in most modern dialects.
Gāmal ܓ [ɡ] ݂ܓ [ɣ]
Dālaṯ ܕ [d] ݂ܕ [ð]
Kāp̄ ܟܟ [k] ܟ݂ܟ [x]
ܦ [p] ܦ̮ or ݂ܦ [f] or [w] The voiceless labiodental fricative ([f]) is not found in most modern Eastern dialects. Instead, it appears as a labial-velar approximant ([w]) after vowels. is the only letter in the Eastern variant of the alphabet that is spirantized by the addition of a semi-circle instead of a single dot.
Taw ܬ [t] ݂ܬ [θ]

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 (initial or final), location relative to other letters and vowels, and other factors. Foreign words do not follow the rules for spirantization.

[edit] Syriac in Unicode

The Syriac Unicode range is U+0700 ... U+074F.

    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
700   ܀ ܁ ܂ ܃ ܄ ܅ ܆ ܇ ܈ ܉ ܊ ܋ ܌ ܍ ܎ ܏
710   ܐ ܑ ܒ ܓ ܔ ܕ ܖ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܜ ܝ ܞ ܟ
720   ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܤ ܥ ܦ ܧ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ ܭ ܮ ܯ
730   ܰ ܱ ܲ ܳ ܴ ܵ ܶ ܷ ܸ ܹ ܺ ܻ ܼ ܽ ܾ ܿ
740   ݀ ݁ ݂ ݃ ݄ ݅ ݆ ݇ ݈ ݉ ݊ ݋ ݌ ݍ ݎ ݏ

[edit] HTML code table

[edit] ’Ālap̄ 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

[edit] Vowels and unique characters

ܲ ܵ
ܲ ܵ
ܸ ܹ
ܸ ܹ
ܼ ܿ
ܼ ܿ
̈ ̰
̈ ̰
݁ ݂
݁ ݂
܀ ܂
܀ ܂
܄ ݇
܄ ݇

[edit] See also

The Northwest Semitic abjad
ʾ b g d h w z y k l m n s ʿ p q r š t
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 200 300 400

[edit] External links

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