Syriac script

Updated 7 August, 2017 • tags scriptnotes, syriac

This page provides basic information about the Syriac script. It is not authoritative, peer-reviewed information – these are just notes I have gathered or copied from various places as i learned. For similar information related to other scripts, see the Script comparison table.

Clicking on red text examples, or highlighting part of the sample text shows a list of characters. Click on the vertical blue bar (bottom right) to change font settings for the sample text.

For more details see: Character notes Script links

Sample

Only the first part of the Estrangelo and Serto samples are pointed.

Eastern (assyrian neo-aramaic)

ܩܘ݂ܝܵܡܵܐ ܕܟܠ ܚܕܵܐ ܐܘ݂ܡܬܵܐ ܬܸܠܝܵܐ ܝܠܹܗ ܒܠܸܫܵܢܘ݁ܗ، ܘܠܸܫܵܢܵܐ ܒܟܬܝ݂ܵܒ݂ܵܬܘ݂ܗܝ ܘܒܣܸܦܪܵܝܘ݂ܬܘ݂ܗܝ. ܚܲܕ ܠܸܫܵܢܵܐ ܕܠܐ ܟܬܝܼ̈ܒܹܬܵܐ، ܐܲܝܟ ܚܲܕ ܟܲܪܡܵܐ ܝܠܹܗ ܕܠܵܐ ܢܵܛܘܿܪܹ̈ܐ. ܐܵܗܵܐ ܒܸܬ ܦܵܐܹܣ ܐ݇ܟ݂ܝܼܠܵܐ ܒܓܸܠܹ̈ܐ ܫܹܐܕܵܢܹ̈ܐ، ܘܠܸܫܵܢܵܐ ܒܚܵܒܪܹ̈ܐ ܢܘ݂ܼܟܪ݂̈ܵܝܹܐ.

ܐܵܗܵܐ ܠܸܫܵܢܲܢ، ܐܵܦܸܢ ܡܘܼܣܟܸܢܵܐ، ܐܝܼܢܵܐ ܡܵܪܹܐ ܛܘܼܗܡܵܐ ܝܠܹܗ، ܘܐܝܼܬ ܠܹܗ ܕܝܼܠܵܝܵܬܹ̈ܐ ܚܩܝܼܪܹ̈ܐ. ܐܸܢ ܦܵܝܫܝܼ ܒܘܼܓ̰ܪܹ̈ܐ، ܟܹܐ ܗܵܘܝܼ ܡܲܦܬܘܼܝܹܐ ܘܓܲܪܘܘܼܣܹܐ ܒܣܸܕܪܵܐ ܕܐܵܢ ܠܸܫܵܢܹ̈ܐ ܣܸܦܪ̈ܵܝܹܐ ܘܪܗܸܛܪ̈ܵܝܹܐ ܕܕܘܼܢܝܹܐ.

Estrangelo

ܘܐ̄ܢܵܫ̈ܝܼܢ ܐܵܡܪܝܼܢ ܕܲܐܟܙܢܵܐ ܩܲܕ݂ܡܵܝܲܬ݂ ܪܟ݂ܲܒ݂ ܐܵܬ݂ܘ̈ܵܬ݂ܲܐ ܥܸܒ݂ܪ̈ܵܝܵܬ݂ܲܐ ܘܲܒ݂ܗܹܝܢ ܣܡ ܢܡܘܣܐ ܆ ܗܟܢܐ ܘܫܝܠܡܘܢ ܪܟܒ ܐܬܘ̈ܬܐ ܕܣܦܪ̈ܐ ܐܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܘܝܗ݂ܒ ܠܥܡ̈ܡܐ ܕܐܬܝܩܪ ܡܢܗܘܢ ܂ ܘܩܕܡܝܬ ܕܣܘܪܝܝܐ ܗ̇ܘ ܕܝܗܒ ܠܚܝܪܡ ܕܨܘܪ

Serto

ܣܷܦ݂ܪ̈ܶܐ ܗܳܠܷܝܢ ܕܰܠܘܳܬܱܢ ܂ ܘܒ݂ܳܐܬ݂ܱܪ̈ܘܳܬ݂ܳܐ ܕܰܚܕ݂ܳܪ̈ܰܝܢ ܂ ܡܢܷܗܘܿܢ ܡܱ̇ܢ ܡܫܰܡܠܷܝܢ ܘܓܡܝܪܝܢ݂ ܡܢܗܘܢ ܕܝܢ݂ ܚ݁ܣܝܪܝܢ ܘܒܨܝܪܝܢ ܂ ܘܣܦܪ̈ܐ ܡܫ̈ܡܠܝܐ ܠܟܠ ܛܘܦܣܐ ܡܬܠܬܡܢܐ ܒܠܫܢܐ ܐܬܘܬܐ ܕܡܬܪܫܡܐ ܒܟܬܒܐ݂ ܠܗܘܢ ܡܫܬܟܚܐ ܂

ܐܟܡܐ ܕܠܝܘܢܝܐ ܘܪܘܡܝܐ ܘܐܓܘܦܛܝܐ ܘܐܪܡܢܝܐ ܂ ܘܣܦܪ̈ܐ ܚܣܝܪ̈ܐ݂ ܠܐ ܗܘܐ ܠܟܠ ܛܘܦܣܐ ܡܬܠܬܡܢܐ ܒܠܫܢܐ ܒܝܬܝܐ݂ ܨܘܪܬܐ ܕܡܬܟܬܒܐ݂ ܠܗܘܢ ܡܫܬܟܚܐ ܐܟܡܐ ܕܠܥܒܪܝܐ݀ ܘܣܘܪܝܝܐ ܘܐܪܒܝܐ

Key features

Syriac is an abjad. The script relies mostly on consonant sounds to write words, although vowel sounds can be written using diacritics.

Syriac is used for a number of languages. The Syriac language itself has two dialects, which are very similar, with almost no differences in grammar or vocabulary, but there are differences in pronunciation.

The script itself, however, has three main writing systems: maḏnḥāyā (ܡܲܕ݂ܢܚܵܝܵܐ) (eastern), ʾesṭrangēlā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ), and serṭā (ܣܶܪܛܳܐ) (western).

The modern Aramaic koine uses the madnhaya dialect of the script, and is usually fully pointed, making it more like an alphabet than an abjad. There are however obligatory points and optional diacritics.

Words in Syriac are separated by spaces.

For more information see ScriptSource, Wikipedia, Omniglot, and the Unicode Standard.

Text direction

Syriac script is written horizontally, right-to-left. Like other RTL scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew, modern numbers are written left-to-right.

Click on the following example, which contains numbers and words, to see how the order of characters in memory matches the simple right-to-left order as displayed.

ܡܠܘܐܐ 26

Consonants

All the letters in the Syriac block are consonants. There are 22 basic consonants:

ܐ ܒ ܓ ܕ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܝ ܟ ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܥ ܦ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ 

ܣ [U+0723 SYRIAC LETTER SEMKATH] has a separate code point for its final form, ܤ [U+0724 SYRIAC LETTER FINAL SEMKATH], like Greek sigma or several letters in the Hebrew block.

There is also a single code point for the ligature ܞ [U+071E SYRIAC LETTER YUDH HE].

In modern Aramaic,  ̰ [U+0330 COMBINING TILDE BELOW​] is used with 4 letters to represent 3 non-classical consonants. See maǧliyana below.

19 additional consonants are used for writing other languages in Syriac (see below).

Isolated versions of 3 letters, such as may be found in counter styles, are usually presented as a doubled letter, using intial and final forms, ie. ܟܟ, ܡܡ, and ܢܢ.

Hard and soft sounds

The following consonant symbols represent two sounds, one 'hard' and one 'soft'. The hard sound is an unaspirated plosive, the soft sound is an aspirated fricative or w.

ܒ ܓ ܕ ܟ ܦ ܬ

The intended sound of the letter can be made explicit using diacritics:  ݁ [U+0741 SYRIAC QUSHSHAYA​] for the hard form, eg. ܦ݁ܐ , and  ݂ [U+0742 SYRIAC RUKKAKHA​] for the soft form, eg. ܐܠܦ݂ ʾālap̄.

Late and modern East Syriac texts use  ̮ [U+032E COMBINING BREVE BELOW​] to indicate a fricative form of , ie. ܦ̮.2

In the maḏnḥāyā style, which uses dots for vowels, soft form marks are usually omitted if they would interfere with the vowel marks. For native words, softening depends on the letter's position within a word or syllable, location relative to other consonants and vowels, gemination, etymology, and other factors. Foreign words do not always follow the rules for softening.2

Consonant clusters

There seems to be no equivalent to the Arabic sukun to indicate clusters of consonant sounds. (Although sukun can be used when transliterating Arabic text in Syriac script.)

However, the short a and ɪ vowels are only used in closed syllables, so if they are followed by an intervocalic consonant, it indicates that the consonant is doubled, eg. ܣܲܡܵܐ sămaʾ samma poison vs. ܣܵܡܵܐ samaʾ saːma portion.3

Talqana

 ݇ [U+0747 SYRIAC OBLIQUE LINE ABOVE​] is used to indicate letters that are not pronounced. It is frequently used in the modern Aramaic koine to bridge difference in dialects. For example, ܒܬ݇ܪ b(t)r after, is pronounced baθar in some modern dialects, hearking back to the classical pronunciation, but bar in Urmi and the koine.

The letters ܐ ܥ ܗ ܝ, included for etymological reasons, are often silent, though without using the talqana.4

The Unicode Standard says that  ݈  [U+0748 SYRIAC OBLIQUE LINE BELOW​] is used in a similar way.1

Refs: [1] Unicode p392-400   [2] WP Syriac alphabet   [3] Daniels pp508  

Vowels

All vowels are rendered in Syriac using combining characters. There are two sets of these. Maḏnḥāyā uses a series of dots. Serṭā uses a set of miniaturised Greek characters, but also uses the dots. ʾEsṭrangēlā doesn't normally show vowels.

Modern Aramaic written in Syriac is usually fully pointed.

Consonants representing vowels

Three consonants can represent vowels, particularly in unpointed text. They are ܐ [U+0710 SYRIAC LETTER ALAPH], ܘ [U+0718 SYRIAC LETTER WAW] and ܝ [U+071D SYRIAC LETTER YUDH]. For details, follow the links to see the character descriptions.

Other vowels are expressed through applying the diacritics to a base letter.

Vowel points

There are 6 dotted vowel diacritics, for 7 vowels.

ܲ◌ ܵ◌ ܸ◌ ܹ◌ ܼ◌ ܿ◌ 

Two of these diacritics are only used in conjunction with a particular consonant in the modern Aramaic koine:

The remainder can be used with most consonant letters.

Greek letter notation

There are 5 Greek symbols used, but each can appear either above or below the base character, and one code point is provided for each position. Therefore we have:

ܰ◌ ܱ◌ ܳ◌ ܴ◌ ܶ◌ ܷ◌ ܺ◌ ܻ◌ ܽ◌ ܾ◌

The serta style of the script also uses a lowercase omega on one word, the interjection 'Oh!', ie. ܐܘّ ʾō. The omega is represented using  ّ [U+0651 ARABIC SHADDA​].

Refs: [1] Unicode p392-400   [2] WP Syriac alphabet   [3] Daniels pp508  

Transliteration

East Syriac uses a mark called ܡܓ̰ܠܝܢܐ‎ maǧlīyānā to represent certain non-classical sounds in modern dialects or change the sound for foreign words. Wikipedia2 says that these are added above either of ܓ and ܟ; above or below ܙ; and below ܫ, but Daniels3 shows only above. The maǧliyana is represented using a code point from the Combining Diacritic Marks block:  ̃ [U+0303 COMBINING TILDE​] or  ̰ [U+0330 COMBINING TILDE BELOW​].

There are 2 'garshuni' (ܓܪܫܘܢܝ) letters (ܔ ܜ), used for writing Arabic in the syriac script. To represent teh marbuta, Syriac uses  ̈ [U+0308 COMBINING DIAERESIS​]. Vowel sounds are written using the Arabic harakat marks.

Several additional consonants are used for writing other languages in Syriac: 3 for Persian (ܭ ܮ ܯ), 3 for Sogdian (ݍ ݎ ݏ), and 11 for Malayalam in the Syriac Supplement block.

Refs: [1] Unicode p392-400   [2] WP Syriac alphabet   [3] Daniels pp506-7  

Context-based rendering

Cursive joining

Syriac is cursive, ie. letters in a word are joined up. Fonts need to produce the appropriate joining form for a code point, according to its visual context.

ܦܘܠܝܛܝܩܝܬܐ

The cursive treatment generally produces only moderate changes to the glyph shapes, the most significant being when there is no connecting character to the left. With a few letters, however, it can produce significant variations of the essential part of the glyph for a character.

Like Arabic, there are 8 glyphs that don't join to the left.

Unlike Arabic, however, there is a variation in the unconnected final form of ܐ [U+0710 SYRIAC LETTER ALAPH], depending on what letter it follows. When it follows ܕ [U+0715 SYRIAC LETTER DALATH] or ܪ [U+072A SYRIAC LETTER RISH] it may have a different form (ܪܐ) to that used after other non-joining characters (such as ܗܐ).

Glyph shaping

Apart from the shaping required to support cursive behaviour, there are also optional and font-dependent word-final ligatures, eg. ‍ܗܝ.

One ligated pair has its own code point: ܞ [U+071E SYRIAC LETTER YUDH HE].

Glyph positioning

There are sometimes clashes between diacritic marks which have to be resolved by repositioning one of the diacritics, or sometimes producing a different solution.

For example, marks are usually centred vertically over or under a base character. If, however,  ݂ [U+0742 SYRIAC RUKKAKHA​] appears below ܕ [U+0715 SYRIAC LETTER DALATH] when the glyph for that has a dot below, the mark is moved slightly to the right, as shown here.

ܝܘܕ݂

If  ̈ [U+0308 COMBINING DIAERESIS​] appears above ܪ [U+072A SYRIAC LETTER RISH] the mark replaces the single dot above the base letter.

ܪ̈

In this example, the RISH character carries not only a combining diaeresis, but also a vowel mark, which is moved upwards to ride above the former.

ܪ̈ܵ   vs   ܝܵ

Punctuation, marks & symbols

Basic punctuation

Modern Syriac uses ASCII punctuation and punctuation borrowed from Arabic, including ، [U+060C ARABIC COMMA], ؛ [U+061B ARABIC SEMICOLON], and ؟ [U+061F ARABIC QUESTION MARK].1

Additional punctuation is provided in the Syriac block, and includes the following: ܀ ܁ ܂ ܃ ܄ ܅ ܆ ܇ ܈ ܉. As far as I can tell, these are not much used in modern, non-liturgical contexts.

This image from 3 shows the estrangela script as used by Western scholars, and includes some of the above.

Syriac punctuation.

Modern Aramaic uses three particular signs in unpointed as well as pointed text: syame, talqana, and disambiguation dots.

Syame

 ̈ [U+0308 COMBINING DIAERESIS​] is used to represent the syriac syame (ܣܝ̈ܡܐ), which indicates plural nouns, adjectives and participles. It is needed because many plural words would otherwise look the same as the singular word, eg. ܡܠܟܐ malkā king could otherwise be also read as malkē kings. Instead, the plural form can be written as ܡܠܟ̈ܐ.

Although it's not strictly needed for non-regular words, it is also used for them, eg. ܒܝܬܐ baytā house and ܒ̈ܬܐ bāttē houses.

Some modern usage, however, omits this diacritic when vowel marks are present, because it is redundant.

An author can place this mark above any letter in a word, but if the word has one or more of ܪ [U+072A SYRIAC LETTER RISH] the mark is generally placed over the one which is nearest the word end, and replaces the single dot above it, eg. ܢܘܼܟ݂ܪ̈ܵܝܹܐ nuxrajɪ nûḵr"ayeʿ foreign.

Other likely locations include low rising letters, and letters near the middle or end of a word.2

Disambiguation dots

 ̇ [U+0307 COMBINING DOT ABOVE​] and  ̣ [U+0323 COMBINING DOT BELOW​] are used to disambiguate certain letters, morphemes or words.

The dot above distinguishes ܡ̇ܢ ṁn man who from ܡ̣ܢ ṃn mɪn from, with a dot below. The dot is also written over the 3rd person fem. suffix ܘܗ̇ -ûḣ -o, the masc. and fem. personal pronouns, ܗ̇ܘ ḣw aw and ܗ̇ܝ ḣy aj, and their corresponding demonstratives.

Miscellaneous marks

Syriac has many more combining marks, many of which are used in archaic documents or contexts.

3 marks are used for marginal notes in the Harklean translation of the New Testament. ܋ [U+070B SYRIAC HARKLEAN OBELUS] and ܍ [U+070D SYRIAC HARKLEAN ASTERISCUS] mark the beginning of a phrase, word or morpheme that has a marginal note. ܌ [U+070C SYRIAC HARKLEAN METOBELUS] marks the end of such sections.1 

 ̄ [U+0304 COMBINING MACRON​] and  ̠ [U+0320 COMBINING MINUS SIGN BELOW​] are used for various purposes, ranging from phonological to grammatical and orthographic markers.1

 ̊ [U+030A COMBINING RING ABOVE​] and  ̥ [U+0325 COMBINING RING BELOW​] are used as alternatives to  ݁ [U+0741 SYRIAC QUSHSHAYA​] and  ݂ [U+0742 SYRIAC RUKKAKHA​], and are mixed freely with the latter in West Syriac grammar books.1

Found in ancient manuscripts,  ̤ [U+0324 COMBINING DIAERESIS BELOW​] has a grammatical and phonological function.

Refs: [1] Unicode9 p392-400   [2] WP Syriac alphabet   [3] Nelson   [4] Daniels p507  

Numbers

Modern Syriac uses Western digits, like Hebrew.

There is also, however, a letter-based number system.

U+070F SYRIAC ABBREVIATION MARK is used to indicate letter-based numbers. Note how, in this example, the prefix ܒ, is not covered by the SAM, only the number itself.

ܒ܏ܝܗ

 ̭ [U+032D COMBINING CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT BELOW​] is also used as a digit marker.1

Refs: [1] [Unicode] p392-400 

Text layout

Text units

Syriac uses spaces between words.

There are no one-letter words. One letter conjunctions and prepositions such as ܘ w are continguous with the word they precede.

Justification

Use the control below to see how your browser justifies the text sample here.

ܟܠ ܐܢܫܐ ܝܠܗ ܒܪܒܪ ܩܡ ܩܐܢܘܢ ܘܓܪܓ ܦܐܫ ܢܛܝܪܐ ܒܝܕ ܩܐܢܘܢ ܕܠܐ ܡܬܘܬܐ ܕܦܘܪܫܘܢܝܐ ܒܠܝܗܝ. ܘܟܠ ܐܢܫܐ ܓܪܓ ܦܝܫܝ ܢܛܝܪܐ ܒܪܒܪ ܩܡ ܟܠ ܦܘܪܫܘܢܝܐ ܕܫܡܛܬܐ ܕܫܪܥܬ ܕܐܗܐ ܒܘܕܩܐ.

Kashida

The sources used say that ـ [U+0640 ARABIC TATWEEL] can be used, as in Arabic, to lengthen the baseline inside Syriac words. It's not clear, however, whether the use of that is for justification, or simply for word stretching. A couple of examples seem to show it in use for support of diacritics (music and barrekh, eg. ܘܰܩـ݉ـܨܳܐ).

However, font support for joining syriac characters with the tatweel seems patchy, which indicates that it is perhaps not in common use.

Abbreviation

U+070F SYRIAC ABBREVIATION MARK (SAM) indicates that a sequence of characters is an abbreviation, eg. ܬ܏ܫܒܘ is an abbreviation of ܬܫܒܘܚܬܐ. The line would ideally have a small circle at the start, middle and end. It normally starts to the left of the nearest tall letter to the end of the abbreviation.

Modern East Syriac texts use a punctuation mark for contractions of this sort.

Character lists by language

The Syriac script characters in Unicode 10.0 are in two blocks:

There seems to be no mention in version 31 of CLDR's lists of characters (exemplarCharacters) of a language that uses the Syriac script.

The following is what i gleaned from reading Daniels, for Modern Aramaic. It's perfectly likely that some characters are missing, especially for punctuation.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

Letters ܐ ܒ ܓ ܕ ܗ ܘ ܙ ܚ ܛ ܝ ܟ ܠ ܡ ܢ ܣ ܥ ܦ ܨ ܩ ܪ ܫ ܬ 22
Vowels ܸ ܹ ܼ ܲ ܵ ܿ 6
Diacritics ݂ ̰ ̮ ݁ ݀ ̈ ̃ ݇ ̇ 8
Punctuation .،؛؟ 4
Digits 0123456789 10

References

  1. [Daniels] Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-507993-0
  2. [Unicode] The Unicode Standard v9.0, N'Ko.
  3. Wikipedia, Syriac alphabet
  4. [Nelson] Paul Nelson, George Anton Kiraz, Sargon Hass, Proposal to Encode Syriac in ISO/IEC 10646, 1998
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