Friday, March 7, 2008

Syriac: From Wading Pool to High Dive

What is Syriac? Not a few people may have this question, so I will answer it immediately. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This latter language has gained some fame as the language of Jesus, most recently in the movie "The Passion." Aramaic was a major language in the Near East for many centuries. It had many dialects over the period in which it flourished, and there were many variants from place to place where it was spoken. There were no TV's or radios to promote a "standardized" broadcast version, so different spoken dialects abounded (although standard written forms were more or less successfully maintained among the educated elite at various time periods). Syriac was the major language of Christian church in Syria and over a vast territory stretching east of it, even to India and China. Aramaic has the largest amount of surviving literature of any ancient Semitic language, and Syriac represents the largest chunk of it.

Getting My Toes Wet

Okay, I seem to have started off with a digression. The point of this entry is to talk about my own experience of learning Syriac. But because the name may be unfamiliar, or perhaps just marginally familiar, I wanted to start with a brief explanation of what it is. Now for my own story. Once again, serendipity enters the picture. On November 2, 2005, I was walking around Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where I had lived for 3 1/2 years, until moving to the nearby rural town of Sipacapa. On one of my regular trips to town for groceries and supplies, I went into one of the many small evangelical bookstores in town to see what was new. To my astonishment, I found a Syriac Bible on display! Who could have imagined such a thing? I was probably the only person in western Guatemala who would have even recognized what language it was. Why would a bookstore that catered to Spanish speakers have such a volume? When I asked, I was told that it had been sent out by the Bible Society of Guatemala in August, the "Month of the Bible" in that country. It had been heavily discounted. I suspect that the Bible Society had been holding this book in its warehouse in the capital for years and didn't know what to do with it. So they took advantage of the Month of the Bible to chop to price to a third of the original and send it to the provinces. Well, as destiny, luck or divine intervention would have it, this book wound up in a place where I would see it. Although I wasn't exactly awash in money, this was such a novelty and such a good deal that I couldn't resist it.

Presently, I got to looking on the internet to see what books I could find on Syriac and where I might be able to study it seriously. I soon found some of the major modern works on the language, both a teaching grammar as well as reference grammars, and a good dictionary. I put three books on my Christmas list, and thus, on Christmas day, 2005, I began to seriously study this mysterious and fascinating language. Some of the patterns and words were familiar due to their similarity to Hebrew, which I had dabbled in off and on since I was 17. But a number of features were new, since Syriac is not a member of the Canaanite branch of Semitic languages to which Hebrew belongs.

In two months of intensive study, I worked my way through Wheeler M. Thackston's Introduction to Syriac, the best introductory textbook available, in case you're interested. I was aided by Theodor Noldeke's Compendious Syriac Grammar and Jessie Payne Smith's A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. About the middle of this process, I acquired Takamitsu Muraoka's very helpful Classical Syriac, a shorter reference grammar, but much more recent and up-to-date than Noldeke's 1898 volume (in its 1904 English translation).

Jumping Off the High Dive

Before and during this period of study, I got to looking on the internet to see where I might be able to get a Ph.D. in Syriac. As it turns out, there is one place in the United States that has such a program: The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. Certain family needs that had arisen made returning to the U.S. highly desirable at that time, even though I was quite happy in Guatemala. So I started looking into graduate programs. I checked out Spanish, linguistics and Syriac. Ultimately, Syriac won out. So in the summer of 2006, we moved from beautiful rural Guatemala to the crowded, extremely expensive Washington metropolitan area. Silver Spring is a nice place, don't get me wrong, but my goodness, how much cheaper and more pleasant the atmosphere would be if the unversity were located a few hundred miles west! But what the heck, here we are. Our family has adjusted nicely and I am once again going after that Ph.D., though in a field I had not contemplated until recently. It's a lot of fun but also a lot of work.

After I had moved to the area and Dr. Sidney Griffith, CUA's senior professor of Syriac had returned from a trip, I met with him and he gave me a page of Syriac to translate. He needed to see if I had learned enough Syriac on my own to go straight into the readings course, or if I would need to start out in the introductory class. I worked my way through the difficult text (the beginning of Narsai's Homily on the Three Fathers), translating it and parsing the verbs. Father Sidney (this is what we call him, since he is also a priest) considered my work satisfactory, so I enrolled in Syriac readings.

Ay, ay, ay! Syriac grammar isn't excessively hard, but learning to read Syriac texts--that is a challenge! I found that while my linguistic knowledge was good, my ability to figure out what in the world the writer was saying was almost non-existent! To follow Narsai, one had to be intimately familiar with the details of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, and one had to quickly develop a feel for the subtle wordplay loved by Syriac writers. They love symbols and metaphors, and they wrote for an audience that did not have to have everything spelled out for it. However, those of use who are 15 centuries and light-years of culture removed from that audience do have to have a great deal explained. That first semester I was already drowning in a very heavy Advanced Greek class and I was being challenged by a totally new language, Coptic. A little four-line stanza of Narsai sometimes took two hours to translate, and even then I was sure that I had made many errors (and this was confirmed in class). I struggled mightily, managed to learn some bits and pieces of the relevant history and symbolism, and finally, by the middle of the semester, I felt that I was really catching on. But then it was time to switch to a new writer--Ephrem!

Now I'm in my fourth semester at CUA. Understanding texts is less difficult than it was, to be sure, but I feel like I'm only about 10% of the way up the steep slope of the learning curve. I have learned a lot about Syriac symbolism, but I still have a long way to go. Many people who start in this field already have knowledge of patristics and theology, but not me. Oh well, we each bring our strengths and our weaknesses. I am enjoying my studies, but I find that it is very different studying an ancient language that we do not even try to talk in, than studying a modern language like Spanish, in which the first thing we learn is to carry on conversations. In Syriac my studies went from elementary to advanced in a single bound!

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