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Comparative Study on Ancient Syriac Grammars

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CSASG (Comparative Study on Ancient Syriac Grammars)

Reporting period: 2016-06-15 to 2018-06-14

The project aims at providing a new look on Syriac linguistic thinking, examining its correlation with its Greek and Arabic models and sources, but also re-evaluating its originality. Living as a minority for the largest part of their history, Syriac people always experienced intense multilingualism and multiculturalism. Thus, throughout the Middle Eastern states, they represented a “transversal” minority, transferring eastwards the Classical heritage to the Arabs and the Persians. In spite of its historical and cultural relevance, Syriac grammatical corpus is understudied and needs to be investigated with modern instruments and approach. The research will be carried on following an inductive text-based methodology, by translating new inedited materials and by studying them according to modern linguistic and epistemological categories. The project has two main areas of intervention:
1. Creation of an online open-source database of grammatical manuscripts
2. Translation and comparative study of the Syriac grammars by three authors of the 12th-13th century: Bar Zu'bi, Bar Shakko and Barhebraeus.
The final goal of the research is to produce a monograph illustrating the linguistic content of ancient Syriac grammars, both from the point of view of the description of language structure and of the history of scientific thinking.
At present, Syriac cultural heritage is severely endangered by the dramatic events that are affecting a vast part of the territories where they historically lived: Syria and upper Mesopotamia. Studying the development of Syriac thinking can cast some light on the intercultural mediation that Syriac Christians have been operating for centuries.
WP1 Data collection and training (first months)
Cataloguing of the Syriac grammatical manuscripts, by library of conservation and, for the major on-line photographic databases, by digital collection. Excel files were created for each collection, that were subsequently transformed into html tables that have been progressively published online on the website of the project:

WP2 Translation
The (unedited) texts of the Great Grammar by Bar Zu‘bi and of the Dialogue on Grammar by Bar Shakko have been translated. The translations will be included in the project’s final monograph.

WP3 Textual analysis and training
During this phase, the works translated, as well as the works by the grammarian Barhebraeus, of which editions and translations were already available, have been analysed and compared, in order to draw an outline of the historical and scientific context of the Syriac grammatical texts. A number of key-concepts have been used to compare the different texts.

WP4 Final monograph and training
a. Analizing and interpreting the manuscript data resulting from the cataloguing activity.
b. Organizing the conference “Les auteurs syriaques et leur langue”, 17/11/2018 (
c. Preparing the final monograph. The book, entitled “Trois grammairiens syriaques du XIIIe siècle: naissance de la syntaxe syriaque.

Dissemination of the results of the project was carried out at different levels, by means of lectures in advanced workshops, conference papers, lectures delivered at universities reaching students training in different fields and at different levels. The results of the project were exploited in a number of peer-reviewed open-access publications, among which:
Farina, M. “Rhétorique en syriaque”, in Houari Touati (éd.), Encyclopédie de l’humanisme méditerranéen, mai 2017, URL =
Id. ‟La langue de l’autre : arabe et syriaque dans la grammaire d’Elias de Tirḥan”, Brélaud, S., Chrétiens du Moyen Orient aux frontières. Antiquité tardive - Moyen Âge, Paris, Geuthner (accepted).
Id. 2018, ‟La théorie linguistique de Jacques d'Edesse”, Farina, M., Les auteurs syriaques et leur langue, Pari, Geuthner, (forthcoming in November 2018).
Id. ‟Amira’s Grammatica Syriaca: Genesis, Structure and Perspectives”, Proceedings of the workshop Typographia Linguarum Externarum – The Medici Oriental Press. Knowledge and Cultural Transfer around 1600 - Florence 11-12 January 2018, ed. by E. Leuschner and G. Wolf (forthcoming).

Farina M. (ed.) 2018, Les auteurs syriaques et leur langue (Etudes syriaques 15), Paris, Geuthner (forthcoming in November 2018).
One of the most interesting and unexpected outcomes of this work is the chronological and geographical distribution of the grammatical manuscripts. The number of Syriac grammatical manuscripts rises dramatically from the 16th century (see chart). This is in clear connection between the Western interest in Syriac studies in the Late Renaissance and the increase of the production of grammatical manuscripts, that reverberated also in the East, encouraging a new linguistic self-awareness in the Syriac Christian communities.

The research on 12th-13th cent. Syriac grammarians has shown how the three authors on focus (Bar Zu'bi, Bar Shakko and Barhebraeus) have very different conceptions of the scopes of grammar. Bar Zu‛bi’s intent is to provide the reader with the tools to classify and interpret language, and is propaedeutic to more advanced studies in logic and theology. Barhebraeus’ grammars, on the contrary, aim at teaching how to correctly write in Syriac. The works of logic are functional to understanding grammar, not vice versa. Barhebraeus, for the first time, gives proper space to syntax, almost re-funding Syriac syntactical theory, combining elements of the native tradition with some key-concepts of Arabic linguistics. Bar Shakko’s Dialogue on grammar is part of a larger encyclopaedic work entitled The book of dialogues, containing a summa of literary and scientific knowledge. Grammar is treated in the first dialogue, and as such is considered as propaedeutic to all other teachings. In this sense, Bar Shakko’s text shares the strong Greek heritage common also to Bar Zu‛bi. At the same time, however, Bar Shakko addresses several questions of syntactical nature, anticipating some of the themes that will be developed in greater detail by Barhebraeus.
The mid-13th cent. represents a turning point in Syriac linguistic thinking, with the rise of a new interest for correcting syntax and for teaching their readers how to produce well-formed sentences. This goal is acheived making use of Arabic categories, that are adapted so as to to better integrate in the structure of Syriac grammars.

The project was successful in drawing the attention of the scientific community on the importance of the Syriac grammatical tradition. In fact, the fellow was granted a permanent position as a researcher at CNRS on the basis of a project on Syriac grammatical corpus that continues and enlarges the work carried out during the CSASG action. Fruitful collaborations with other research groups were established. Students of various grades and provenance have been reached by the action, by means of lectures and seminars.
The publication of a collective volume and of a monograph within the next year, within two well-known and well-diffused series of Syriac will contribute to disseminate the results of the CSASG project, but also to increase the interest in Syriac linguistic thinking.
Chart of chronological distribution of Syriac manuscripts