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Introduction to a grammar of modern Syriac, Journal of the American Oriental Society 5 (1856) pp.3-8.


It is an interesting fact that, although the Nestorians of Persia have for many centuries been conquered and outnumbered, and have had very little share in civil affairs, and their brethren in the Koordish Mountains have enjoyed only a doubtful independence, they have preserved to the present time a knowledge of their vernacular language. In Persia, most of the Nestorians are indeed able to speak fluently the rude Tatar (Turkish) dialect used by the Mohammedans of this province, and those of the mountains are equally familiar with the language of the Koords. Still, they have a strong preference for their own tongue, and make it the constant and only medium of intercourse with each other. This is the more noticeable, as in modern times, until within a short period, they had no current literature, and the spoken, dialect was not even reduced to writing. Their manuscript copies of the Bible and other books were very scarce, and were carefully hid out of sight, covered with dust and mildew. Very few, if any, except the clergy, aspired to be readers, and still fewer were able to read with any degree of intelligence.

The first attempt worthy of record to reduce the Modern Syriac to writing, was made by Rev. Justin Perkins, a Missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, at Tabreez, in the winter of 1834-5, in connection with the study of the language, under the instruction of the Nestorian Bishop Mar Yohannan.

The first attempt to write it in a permanent and useful form, was made by Dr. Perkins in the construction of school-cards, in the winter of 1836, after he and Dr. Grant had settled at Oroomiah. On the 18th of January of that year their first school was commenced. Says Dr. Perkins: "Seven boys |4 from the city attended. They all took their stand in a semicircle around the manuscript card suspended on the wall, which Priest Abraham with my assistance had prepared; and as they learned their letters and then began to repeat a sentence of the Lord's prayer, for the first time, with a delight and satisfaction, beaming from their faces, equalled only by the novelty of their employment, I could understand something of the inspiration of Dr. Chalmers, when he pronounced the Indian boy in the woods, first learning to read, to be the sublimest object in the world."---Residence in Persia, p. 250.

In another connection, Dr. Perkins, speaking of the preparation of the cards for that missionary school, says: "There was no literary matter for its instruction and aliment, save in the dead, obsolete language. I therefore immediately commenced translating portions of the Scriptures from the Ancient Syriac copies, by the assistance of some of the best educated of the native clergy. We first translated the Lord's prayer. I well remember my own emotions on that occasion. It seemed like the first handful of corn to be cast upon the top of the naked mountains; and the Nestorian priests who were with me, were themselves interested above measure to see their spoken language in a written form. They would read a line and then break out in immoderate laughter, so amused were they, and so strange did it appear to them, to hear the familiar sounds of their own language read, as well as spoken. "We copied this translation of the Lord's prayer on cards for our classes. Our copies were few. We therefore hung up the card upon the wall of the school-room, and a company of children would assemble around it, at as great a distance from the card as they could see, and thus they learned to read. We next translated the ten commandments, and wrote them on cards in the same way, and then other detached portions of the Word of God; and thus continued to prepare reading matter by the use of the pen, for our increasing number of schools, until the arrival of our press in 1840. This event was hailed with the utmost joy by the Nestorians, who had long been waiting for the press, with an anxiety bordering on impatience; and it was no less an object of interest and wonder to the Mohammedans. They too soon urgently pressed their suit, that we should print books for them also; and a very respectable young Meerza sought, with |5 unyielding importunity, a place among the Nestorian apprentices, that he too might learn to print. The first book which we printed in the modern language, was a small tract, made up of passages from the Holy Scriptures. As I carried the proof-sheets of it from the printing-office into my study for correction, and laid them upon my table before our translators, Priests Abraham and Dunkha, they were struck with mute rapture and astonishment, to see their language in print: though they themselves had assisted me, a few days before, in preparing the same matter for the press. As soon as recovery from their first surprise allowed them utterance, 'It is time to give glory to God,' they each exclaimed, 'that we behold the commencement of printing books for our people;' a sentiment to which I could give my hearty response."

The first printing in the Nestorian character was an edition of the four Gospels published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1829, the type being prepared in London from a manuscript copy of the Gospels obtained from Mar Yohannan, by the eccentric traveller Dr. Wolff, several years before, and taken by him to England for that purpose. This volume is all that has ever been printed in the modern language of the Nestorians, otherwise than by the agency of our mission-press, with the exception of one or two small Papal tracts, published a few years since at Constantinople, with miserable type prepared under the supervision of the Jesuits in that city.

Since the arrival of our press in 1840, it has been busily employed in printing books for the Nestorians, in both their ancient and modern language, mostly in the latter.

Dr. Perkins has furnished the following list of our more important publications, arranged nearly in the order in which they have been issued from the press.

The Psalms, as used in the Nestorian churches, with the Rubrics, in Ancient Syriac. 196 pp. 4to.

Instructions from the Word of God, in Modern Syriac. (Extracts from the Bible.) 77 pp. 12mo.

The Acts and the Epistles, in Ancient Syriac. 8vo.

The Great Salvation, a tract in Modern Syriac.

Sixteen short Sermons, in Modern Syriac.

A Preservative from the Sins and Follies of Childhood and Youth, by Dr. Watts, in Modern Syriac.

Aids to the Study of the Scriptures, in Modern Syriac. 109 pp. 8vo. |6 

Scriptural History of Joseph and the Gospel of John, in Modern Syriac. 316 pp. 8vo.

The Gospel of Matthew, in Modern Syriac. 192 pp. 12mo.                                                                       

Tracts on Faith, Repentance, the New Birth, Drunkenness, and The Sabbath, by Mr. Stocking, in Modern Syriac.

The Faith of Protestants, in both Ancient and Modern Syriac, in separate volumes. 164 pp. 8vo.

Scripture Questions and Answers, in Modern Syriac. 139 pp. 8vo. 

First Hymn Book. 10 pp. 12mo. 

The Dairyman's Daughter, in Modern Syriac. 136 pp. 8vo.

Useful Instructions, in Modern Syriac. The Four Gospels, in Modern Syriac. 637 pp. 8vo. 

The New Testament, in both Ancient and Modern Syriac, the translation being made by Dr. Perkins from the Peshito, with the Greek differences in the margin. 829 pp. 4to. 

Scripture Help or Manual, in Modern Syriac. 192 pp. 8vo.

Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in Modern Syriac. 712 pp. 8vo.

Questions on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in Modern Syriac. 99 pp.

Second Scripture Manual, and a larger Hymn Book, in Modern Syriac. 131 pp. 8vo.

The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, in Modern Syriac. 70 pp. 8vo. 

The Young Cottager, in Modern Syriac. 98 pp. 8vo. 

Smaller Arithmetic, in Modern Syriac. 24 pp. 8vo. 

Larger Arithmetic, in Modern Syriac. 192 pp. 8vo. By Mr. Stocking.

A Geography, in Modern Syriac. 302 pp. 8vo. By Dr. Wright.

The Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments and Catechism for Children, in Modern Syriac. 78 pp. 8vo. 

A Spelling Book, in Modern Syriac. 54 pp. 8vo. 

The Old Testament, in both Ancient and Modern Syriac, the latter being translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Perkins. 1051 pp. large 4to.

Spelling Book, with Scripture Readings, in Modern Syriac. 160 pp. 8vo. |7 

The Rays of Light, a monthly periodical, devoted to Religion, Education, Science and Miscellanies. Fourth volume now in progress.

In press, an edition of the New Testament in Modern Syriac, and Baxter's Saint's Rest.

Ready for the press, Scripture Tracts, of the American Tract Society, and Green Pastures, an English work, consisting of a text of Scripture, with a practical exposition, for each day in the year.

Our schools have been gradually increasing in number, till the present year. We now have about eighty village-schools and flourishing Male and Female Seminaries. Of course, the number of intelligent readers is rapidly on the increase, and the modern language is assuming a permanent form. It should still, however, be considered as imperfect. It is difficult to give in a precise manner either its orthography, its etymology or its syntax, because the language is not to-day just what it was yesterday, nor just what it will be to-morrow. Until the publication of the Old and New Testaments, there was no standard of usage. It was difficult to say which dialect should have the preference. The same uncertainty in a measure still remains. If we assume that the dialect which is nearest to Ancient Syriac should be the standard, this will necessarily be unintelligible to a large portion of the people. We generally use the language in our books which is spoken on the plain of Oroomiah, unless there are obvious reasons for variation in a particular case.

Rev. Mr. Holladay, one of our missionary associates, prepared a very brief, though excellent sketch of the grammar of the Modern Syriac, about the year 1840. He also aided much in translating works for the press. His health and that of his family obliged him in 1845 to leave us for America, where he still resides, near Charlottesville, Va." 1

Much time has been bestowed on the preparation of the following grammar; although, as it has been written with indifferent health and amid the pressure of missionary duties and cares, it has not been subjected to so thorough revision as it would have been under other circumstances. The Syriac has been written by Deacon Joseph, our translator, |8 who has had much experience in labor of this kind, and is perfectly familiar with the grammar of the Ancient Syriac, My design has been to trace up the language, as now spoken, to the Ancient Syriac, and I presume no reader will complain of the frequent references made to Hoffman's large and valuable grammar. As some may find occasionally Ancient Syriac words written in a manner different from that to which they are accustomed, it may be well to suggest that the Syriac of the Jacobites, which has generally been the Syriac of European grammars, differs somewhat from the Syriac of old Nestorian books. The latter are of course the standard with us.

It may seem unnecessary to some to link in the Hebrew with the Modern Syriac, and I have had myself many doubts about the expediency of doing it. But, considering how many Hebrew scholars there are in America, who would take pleasure in glancing over the following pages, and how few of them are at home in Ancient Syriac, it seemed to me not inappropriate to adopt the course I have. The references to Nordheimer's Hebrew Grammar certainly add little to the size of the work, even if they do not at all increase the interest of the reader.

Every thing serving to develop the Ancient Aramean of these regions is worthy of investigation. And it has occurred to me, as not at all unlikely, that the Nestorians use many words, and perhaps grammatical forms, in their daily intercourse, which have never found their way into grammars and lexicons, and yet are very ancient, and owe their origin to the Aramean, which was once so extensively spoken in Persia and made even the court-language.---Ezra 4: 7, 8.

I at first designed to give in an appendix an outline of the Jews' language as now spoken in this province. It is nearly allied to the Modern Syriac, and Jews and Nestorians can understand each other without great difficulty. But whether these languages had a common origin, within the last few centuries, or whether they are only related through the Ancient Syriac and Ancient Chaldee, we have not yet the means of determining. The discussion of this subject, which is necessarily omitted now, may be resumed hereafter.


Oroomiah, Persia, July, 1853.

1. * Mr. Holladay has kindly consented to superintend the printing of this grammar.                                                                           Comm. of Publ.

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