Learning to write Syriac on this page

In this lesson you'll learn to read and write the various forms of the Assyrian Aramaic cursive script, which has been used for two millenia for writing the Syriac dialects of the Aramaic language.

Make sure you're very familiar with the basics of the cursive script, including how to indicate vowels, how to write the different forms of the letters in context, and how to write simple words. After you've thoroughly reviewed the fundamentals, take a look at the versions of the Syriac cursive script throughout its history.

  1. Early Syriac Inscriptions
  2. Eastern Estrangela vs. Western Estrangelo
  3. Western Serto or "Jacobite" Script
  4. Eastern Assyrian or "Nestorian" Script

Early Syriac Inscriptions

Although most early examples of the Syriac cursive script come from ancient Christian works, some inscriptions are even older. The oldest of these lack the flowing, connected nature of the later script. Still, since you already know the cursive script, many of the letters are instantly familiar.

Take a look at one example of the early Syriac cursive script, the Birecik inscription, below.

Examples

1. Click to view an image of the Birecik/Birta inscription.

2. Here's a quick transcription of the Birecik epigraph.

3. Finally, this is the same inscription rewritten in Estrangelo & translated into English.

Eastern Estrangela vs. Western Estrangelo

You learned the ancient version of the in my introduction to the cursive script. Western Assyrian Aramaic call this script Estrangelo, while Eastern Syriac speakers pronounce it Estrangela. The use of the Estrangelo/Estrangela writing system doesn't differ much between East and West. Of course, small differences will be noticed between manuscripts, writers and time periods.

The most significant differences between the Eastern and Western ways of writing of this early cursive script are the vowel pointers. Vowel pointers look very different in the East and the West.

Eastern Vowel Pointing/Diacritics

The Eastern vowel system was also introduced in the intro to the cursive script. I've reproduced my examples below so you can review and compare them to the other system.

Vowel Pointing Example word Description
a ܐܲܒܵܐ 'abbā one dot above + one dot below consonant
ā ܐܲܒܵܐ 'abbā two dots above consonant
e/ē ܙܹܒܠܵܐ zeblā two dots below consonant
i/ī ܫܝܼܢ shīn yud with dot below
ō ܩܘܿܦ qōp waw with dot above
ū ܟܘܼܠ kūl waw with dot below

Western Vowel Pointing/Diacritics

If vowels are added in the West, a separate set of symbols is used above the Estrangelo consonants. These vowel marks derive from vowel letters in the Greek alphabet.

Vowel Pointing Example word Description
a ܐܰܒܐܳ 'abbā like a turned capital A or even a small triangle; < Α
ā ܐܰܒܳܐ 'abbā like small turned 9 above previous consonant; < α
e/ē ܙܶܒܠܳܐ zeblā like small turned E above previous consonant; < ε
i/ī ܫܺܝܢ shīn like small I above previous consonant; < Ι
ū ܟܽܘܠ kūl small circle bounded on top & right; < ΟΥ

Hard & Soft Consonant Dots

Common to both dialects is a series of consonant feature marks. Syriac has "hard" stop consonants that can sometimes turn into "soft" fricative consonants. When the consonant is hard, it takes a dot above (ܬܿ sounds like the hard t-sound in 'stay'). When the same consonant is soft, it takes a dot below (ܬܼ sounds like the soft t-sound in 'thing').

ܠܐܒܿܐ lebe vs. ܝܬܒܼܐ yatāvā

Some hard consonants are heard doubled in Eastern Syriac. This is not the case in Western Syriac.

ܓܕܿܐ gaddā (Eastern pronunciation)

Double Dots for Plural Forms

You may see & write the plural form of a word with two dots, called seyame. This is an ancient & traditional way to distinguish words in written Syriac. When writing without vowels, many singular and plural forms look identical if the syame is left out.

ܡܠܟܐ malkā "king" vs. ܡ̈ܠܟܐ malke 'kings'

I've introduced some of the basic diacritics used in Syriac, but other marks exist. For example, a single line above a consonant signals that the consonant is either silent or followed by another consonant (rather than a vowel): ܗ̄ܘܝܐ hwāyā (for hē followed immediately by waw) vs. ܐ̄ܬܐ (for silent 'alap).

Practice Exercise 1

Take a close look at the clean, legible ancient manuscript below, and answer the following questions.

  1. Does this text include diacritics?
  2. Is this style more typical of the Eastern or the Western style introduced above?
  3. Find the words 'īda dīlī 'my (own) hand' in the text.
  4. Look for the phrase māran 'ethā 'our Lord has come'.
  5. Find the word shlāmā'peace' or 'greetings'.
  6. Find the phrase Aqelōs wa Prisqēla 'Aquila and Priscilla'.
  7. Find the phrase d Pawlōs'of Paul'.
  8. Is every vowel in the text indicated with "pointers" or dots?
  9. Are any vowel marks different from the ones I introduced above? Give one example.
  10. In a notebook or a separate sheet of paper, make two short columns. Transcribe the Aramaic words & phrases you identified above in both the the Eastern and Western systems.

Peshitta manuscript page in Estrangela script
Page from a Peshitta (Syriac Aramaic New Testament) manuscript (1)

Western Serto or Jacobite Script

Western scribes modified the script over time, and it acquired a unique style. The Serto or Western writing system is considered a distinct script, not just a separate variant of Estrangelo handwriting. It has also been called Jacobite due to the script's association with Jacobite Syrian Christians.

All of the earlier concepts about writing Syriac still apply to this script - only the letter forms have changed. Serto is still written from right to left, still uses matres lectionis, still has ligatures between certain letters, and so on. Crucially, the Serto script uses the vowels (vowel pointers) introduced for Western Estrangela in the previous section.

Western vowels occur below tall letters, like ALAP+I.

Practice Exercise 2

Identify a number of words and phrases in the Serto text below. Practice writing and pronouncing the words as you do this.

  1. Find the phrase l mallālu 'to speak'.
  2. Find the word msarhab 'hasty'.
  3. Locate for the phrase u mawḥar 'and slow' (twice!).
  4. Look for the phrase l meshma`'to hear'.
  5. Find the phrase `aḥḥay ḥabbīḇe'my dear brothers'.
  6. Find the phrase l mergaz'to anger'.
  7. Look for the phrase `aḥḥay ḥabbīḇe'my brothers'.
  8. Are any of the consonants in the words above marked "hard" or "soft"? Which ones are hard? Which are soft?
  9. Write this phrase in Serto & Estrangelo, then translate: msarhab l-meshma` u-mawḥar l-mallālu u-mawḥar l-mergaz.


Peshitta verse in Serto script
Verse from the Peshitta in a Serto font

Eastern or Nestorian Script

The Assyrian script developed separately in the East. This way of writing Syriac is reminiscent of Estrangela in many of its letters, but it's still distinct from both the Estrangela script and the later Western script.

All of the earlier rules and tips for writing Syriac apply. The Eastern script uses the vowels (vowel pointers) introduced for Eastern Estrangela above.

Practice Exercise 3

I've reprinted the text from the previous exercise below, this time in Eastern script. Practice writing & pronouncing the words as you do this. Answer the same set of questions, this time reading & writing the words in the Eastern script.


Peshitta verse in Eastern script
Verse from the Peshitta in an Eastern font

Extra Examples

Click to view an early Syriac inscription in Estrangela.

Click to see an excerpt from the book of James in a Peshitta manuscript.

Here's an image of a page from the Curetonian gospels, one of the earliest surviving Syriac manuscripts.

This one's a medieval manuscript in Serto (Jacobite) script.

Here's a late Sertā manuscript.

Click to see a large image of a late manuscript in Eastern (Nestorian) script.

Image Sources & References

1. See the full image of this manuscript page at the Shoynen Collection website.