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Quick Facts
TypeConsonantal Alphabetic
GenealogyProto-Sinaitic > Aramaic
LocationWest Asia
Time1st century CE to Present
DirectionRight to Left

The Syriac script is one of the myriad of Aramaic variants that appeared in the ancient Fertile Crescent around the 1st century CE. It was used to write Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language spoken by Assyrians, in northern Mesopotamia (the area near where the modern nations of Syria, Turkey and Iraq intersect) and particularly focused around the city of Edessa.

The earliest Syriac script is called Estrangela, whose name is derived from the Greek word strongulos meaning 'rounded'. Estrangela inscriptions date from as far back as the year 6 CE, and by the 3rd century CE the Bible and Christian theological works had been translated into Syriac. As the city of Edessa became an important Christian center, Syriac spread throughout region as far as Palestine, and even travelled down the Silk Road and all the way to China.

In the year 489 CE, a schism occurred in the Syrian Christian church between the followers of Nestorius of Persia and Jacob of Edessa. This not only split the church but also started the process of splitting the Estrangela script into two branches. The western branch, known as Jacobite, or more correctly Serto, appeared around the 8th century CE and took a much more cursive look than Estrangela. The eastern branch, called Nestorian, developed out of Estrangela more slowly, only showing a slightly distinct look by the 12th century CE.

The following chart illustrates all three types of Syriac scripts, Estrangela, Serto, and Nestorian.

Originally, like Aramaic, Estrangela did not have any signs to mark vowels. However, the potential of confusion and ambiguous reading was rampant, and this became enough of a nuisance that not one but two systems of marking vowels appeared. Around 700 CE, the Serto script adopted Greek vowel letters, and modified them into vowel diacritics. A Serto vowel diacritic is usually written above the consonant letter that the vowel follows. However, if a consonant letter takes up a lot of vertical space, the vowel diacritic can occur under it. Another system, located in the East where the Nestorian script is evolving, appeared earlier during the 4th century CE. In this system, modified versions of the letters y and w were used for the sounds [i], [u], and [o], while new diacritics were created to spell the sounds [a], [a:], [e], and [e:]. It is thought that this method of vowel marking influenced how vowels are represented in Hebrew.

In the previous illustration, the blue boxes in the Nestorian section represent consonant letters that the vowel diacritics attach to. Note that a modified y or w diacritic is written after the consonant letter, but as Syriac is written from right to left, the vowel diacritic will appear to the left of the consonant letter.

Miraculously, even through countless invasions, political turmoil, and religious persecution, the Syriac-speaking people endured. Still known today as Assyrians, they continue to use Aramaic liturgically, publish newspapers, and have an active web presence. As Syriac Aramaic has changed little in the last two thousand years, Assyrians are proud that they speak a language with a direct link to the ancient world and to Jesus Christ.

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