Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa in Mesopotamia. Today it is the classical tongue of the Nestorians and Chaldeans of Iran and Iraq and the liturgical language of the Jacobites of Eastern Anatolia and the Maronites of Greater Syria. Syriac is also the language of the Church of St Thomas on the Malabar Coast of India. Syriac belongs to the Levantine group of the central branch of the West Semitic languages. Syriac played an important role as the intermediary through which Greek learning passed to the Islamic world. Syriac translations also preserve much Middle Iranian wisdom literature that has been lost in the original. Here, the language is presented both in the Syriac script and in transcription, which is given so that the pronunciation of individual words and the structure of the language may be represented as clearly as possible. The majority of the sentences in the exercises -- and all of the readings in later lessons -- are taken directly from the Pitta, the Syriac translation of the Bible. Most students learn Syriac as an adjunct to biblical or theological studies and will be interested primarily in this text. Biblical passages also have the advantage of being familiar, to some degree or other, to most English speaking students.
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Wheeler M Thackston Jr is Professor of the Practice in Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages at Harvard University.