Updated 19 September, 2021
This page gathers basic information about the Syriac script and its use for the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (Swadaya) language. It aims (generally) to provide an introduction to the orthography and typographic features, and (specifically) to advise how to write Assyrian Neo-Aramaic using Unicode.
There are many dialectal variations in pronunciation, so the phonetic information on this page reflects one dialect description for which there is reasonably good documentation. It is taken from a course in reading Assyrian by Dr. Madeleine Davis Moradkhan, who based her approach on the "Assyrian Reader for Adult Beginners" by Haido & Yousif. The character notes also contain information about correspondences in the Urmian dialect.
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.
The Syriac script is attested as early as the year 6 AD. It was primarily used for writing the Syriac language, now extinct outside of the Syrian church. The Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo/Surayt languages are descended from Syriac, and are still written in the Syriac script. It can also be used for writing Arabic, known as Garshani writing. The script is descended from Proto-Canaanite writing. There are two main dialects of spoken Syriac; West Syriac, used by the Syrian Orthodox, Maronites, and Syrian Catholics; and East Syriac, used by the Assyrians and Chaldaeans. There are three ancient variations of the script: the classical liturgical script called Estrangelo, the Western variant, and the Eastern variant. There is also a Modern Syriac orthography, based on the Eastern variety and having the aim of bridging the differences in Aramaic dialects. A common spoken Aramaic koine used among Iraqis of Assyrian descent is based on this orthography.
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic or simply Assyrian (ܣܘܪܝܬ or ܣܘܪܬ Sūreṯ), also known as Syriac, Eastern Syriac and Neo-Syriac, is an Aramaic language within the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family that is spoken by the Assyrian people. The various Assyrian dialects descend from Old Aramaic, the lingua franca in the later phase of the Assyrian Empire, which slowly displaced the East Semitic Akkadian language beginning around the 10th century BC They have been further heavily influenced by Classical Syriac, the Middle Aramaic dialect of Edessa, after its adoption as an official liturgical language of the Syriac churches.
Assyrian-speakers are native to Upper Mesopotamia, Iranian Azerbaijan, southeastern Anatolia and the northeastern Levant, which is a large region stretching from the plain of Urmia in northwestern Iran through to the Erbil, Kirkuk and Duhok regions in northern Iraq, together with the northern regions of Syria and to southcentral and southeastern Turkey. Instability throughout the Middle East over the past century has led to a worldwide diaspora of Assyrian speakers, with most speakers now living abroad in such places as North and South America, Australia, Europe and Russia. Speakers of Assyrian and Turoyo are ethnic Assyrians and are the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia.
Syriac is, in principle, an abjad. The script relies mostly on consonant sounds to write words, although in Modern Aramaic written in Syriac vowel sounds tend to be written using diacritics, making it more like an alphabet. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features for the modern Assyrian Neo-Aramaic orthography.
The Syriac script has three main orthographic systems: maḏnḥāyā (ܡܲܕ݂ܢܚܵܝܵܐ) (eastern), ʾesṭrangēlā (ܐܣܛܪܢܓܠܐ), and serṭā (ܣܶܪܛܳܐ) (western). Assyrian Neo-Aramaic uses a version of the maḏnḥāyā orthography, derived from East Syriac texts.
For vowels, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic uses a set of dotted diacritics.
Text is usually fully pointed, making it more like an alphabet than an abjad. There are however obligatory points and optional diacritics.
These are sounds of the Assyrian Neo-Aramiac language, but take into account some dialectal variation.
Click on the sounds to reveal locations in this document where they are mentioned.
Phones in a lighter colour are non-native or allophones. Source Wikipedia.
|fricative||f v||θ ð||s z
||x ɣ||ħ ʕ||h|
|approximant||ʋ w||l lˤ||j|
|trill/flap||r ɾ rˤ|
Among most Assyrian Neo-Aramaic speakers, the pharyngeal ʕ is pronounced as ʔ or ∅, or geminates a previous consonant.
All vowels are rendered in the Syriac script using combining characters. Assyrian Neo-Aramaic uses a series of dot diacritics. (Western Syriac uses a set of miniaturised Greek characters, and Estrangelo doesn't normally show vowels.)
Modern Aramaic written in Syriac is usually fully pointed.
The phonetics described here are based on the particular dialect mentioned at the top of this page. There are a number of different dialects which tend to write the text the same way, but pronounce it differently. For more detail, see Wikipedia.
Three consonants are also used to represent vowels.
ܐ [U+0710 SYRIAC LETTER ALAPH] is usually found at the beginning or end of a word. Words that begin with a vowel sound typically start with this letter, carrying a vowel diacritic, or preceding one of the other two. At the end of a word it is usually silent.
ܘ [U+0718 SYRIAC LETTER WAW] and ܝ [U+071D SYRIAC LETTER YUDH], when used as a vowel, always have a dot above or below, and those dots are only used in conjunction with those letters. The possibilities are as follows.
Other vowels are expressed through applying the diacritics to a base letter. Four more dot-based diacritics are used, in addition to the 2 just mentioned.
The sound ija can be written with a single yodh consonant, and vowel diacritics both above and below it, eg. ܐܝܼܛܵܠܝܼܵܐ
Consonant letters following ܲ [U+0732 SYRIAC PTHAHA DOTTED] and ܸ [U+0738 SYRIAC DOTTED ZLAMA HORIZONTAL] are usually geminated.
Four short, single letter words are written with the word that follows them, not separate. They are: ܒ ܕ ܘ ܠ
Before a word that begins with a vowel, or a consonant followed by a vowel, these four words have no vowel markings. If the next consonant is not followed by a vowel, however, they are written with a following ܲ [U+0732 SYRIAC PTHAHA DOTTED].
ܘ before ܝ [U+071D SYRIAC LETTER YUDH] is pronounced u.
The following table shows how standard vowel sounds can be written, using ܒ as a base.
|e||ܒܹ ܒܹܝ ܒܸܝ||ɛ||ܒܸ||o||ܒܘܿ|
All the letters in the Syriac block are consonants. There are 22 basic consonants, but these can be combined with one of 3 diacritics to create additional sounds. The list below shows the combinations as well as the simple consonants.
ܐ [U+0710 SYRIAC LETTER ALAPH] is also regarded as a consonant. Its use is described in consonant_vowels.
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. ܟܟܡܡܢܢ
The letter ܟ when handwritten alone may also look like ܟـ
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic uses 7 diacritics to produce additional sounds from the basic set of Syriac consonants. Follow the links to the character notes for more details and examples.
݁ [U+0741 SYRIAC QUSHSHAYA] produces the 'hard' form of a consonant. In Assyrian it is not usually used.
݂ [U+0742 SYRIAC RUKKAKHA] produces the 'soft' (fricative) sound from 5 plosive consonant letters, eg. compare ܬ t tܬ݂ t‐̣ θ
When it is used with ܕ dwhich already has a dot below, it is moved slightly to the side, ie. ܕ݂ d‐̣
̮ [U+032E COMBINING BREVE BELOW] is used with ܦ p to produce the sound f.
̰ [U+0330 COMBINING TILDE BELOW], called maǧlīyānā, is used for 2 other letters, ܟ̰ k‐̰ t͡ʃܓ̰ g‐̰ ʒ It can also be used for the combination ܫ̰ ʃ‐̰ ʒ but that is commonly written using ̃ [U+0303 COMBINING TILDE] instead (still called maǧlīyānā), ie. ܫ̃ ʃ‐̃ Letters with maǧlīyānā represent sounds from borrowed words.
̱ [U+0331 COMBINING MACRON BELOW] and ̄ [U+0304 COMBINING MACRON] are used with sequences of 3 consonants. The first lengthens the middle consonant, while the second adds a short epenthetic sound to aid pronunciation.
More diacritics are described in diacritics.
There is no equivalent to the Arabic sukun to indicate clusters of consonant sounds.
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,d eg. ܣܵܡܵܐ
See also the note about collapsing 2 yodh characters to 1 in basic_vowels.
Assyrian uses a relatively large number of diacritics, encoded both in the Syriac block and the Combining Diacritical Marks block.
Vowel-related diacritics are described in vowels.
The following diacritics modify the sound quality of the consonant they are attached to, as described in modifiers.
݇ [U+0747 SYRIAC OBLIQUE LINE ABOVE] is used in the Eastern style to indicate letters that are not pronounced. It is frequently used in the modern Aramaic koine to bridge difference in dialects. For example, ܒܬ݇ܪ is pronounced baθar in some modern dialects, harking back to the classical pronunciation, but bar in Urmi and the koine.
݈ [U+0748 SYRIAC OBLIQUE LINE BELOW] is sometimes used to place the mark below the base.
The letters ܐ ܥ ܗ ܝ when included for etymological reasons, are often silent, though without using the talqana.n
̈ [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 mlkʾ (malkā) king could otherwise be also read as malkē kingsInstead, the plural form can be written as ܡܠܟ̈ܐ mlk̋ʾ
Although it's not strictly needed for non-regular words, it is also used for them, eg. ܒܝܬܐ bytʾ (baytā) houseܒ̈ܬܐ b̋tʾ (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 contains one or more 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
Other likely locations include low rising letters, and letters near the middle or end of a word.w
̇ [U+0307 COMBINING DOT ABOVE] and ̣ [U+0323 COMBINING DOT BELOW] are used to disambiguate certain letters, morphemes or words, eg. the dot above distinguishes ܡ̇ܢ ܡ̣ܢ
The dot is also written over the 3rd person fem. suffix ܘܗ̇ -wḣ -othe masc. and fem. personal pronouns, ܗ̇ܘ ḣw awܗ̇ܝ ḣy ajand their corresponding demonstratives.
݀ [U+0740 SYRIAC FEMININE DOT] is a feminine marker used with ܬ [U+072C SYRIAC LETTER TAW] to indicate a feminine suffix, eg. ܕܲܫܘܵܬ݀ daʃwātʺ
The Unicode has a set of characters that affect the way that other characters are rendered. None of those have a visible form of their own.
U+202B RIGHT-TO-LEFT EMBEDDING] ( [RLE), U+202A LEFT-TO-RIGHT EMBEDDING] ( [LRE), and U+202C POP DIRECTIONAL FORMATTING] ( [PDF) are in widespread use to set the base direction of a range of characters. RLE/LRE come at the start, and PDF at the end of a range of characters for which the base direction is to be set.
More recently, the Unicode Standard added a set of characters which do the same thing but also isolate the content from surrounding characters, in order to avoid spillover effects. They are U+2067 RIGHT-TO-LEFT ISOLATE] ( [RLI), U+2066 LEFT-TO-RIGHT ISOLATE] ( [LRI), and U+2069 POP DIRECTIONAL ISOLATE] ( [PDI). The Unicode Standard recommends that these be used instead.
There is also U+2068 FIRST STRONG ISOLATE] ( [FSI), used initially to set the base direction according to the first recognised strongly-directional character.
U+061C ARABIC LETTER MARK] ( [ALM) is used to produce correct sequencing of numeric data. Follow the link for details.
U+200F RIGHT-TO-LEFT MARK] ( [RLM) and U+200E LEFT-TO-RIGHT MARK] ( [LRM) are invisible characters with strong directional properties that are also sometimes used to produce the correct ordering of text.
For more information about how to use these formatting characters see How to use Unicode controls for bidi text. Note, however, that when writing HTML you should generally use markup rather than these control codes. For information about that, see Creating HTML Pages in Arabic, Hebrew and Other Right-to-left Scripts.
U+200D ZERO WIDTH JOINER] ( [ZWJ) and U+200C ZERO WIDTH NON-JOINER] ( [ZWNJ) are used to control the joining behaviour of cursive glyphs. They are particularly useful in educational contexts, but also have real world applications.
ZWJ permits a letter to form a cursive connection without a visible neighbour.
ZWNJ prevents two adjacent letters forming a cursive connection with each other when rendered.
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic uses Western digits, like Hebrew.
The Assyrian Reading Course describes an additive numbering system based on alphabetic letters, which is used for book publishing data, biblical references,r,51 etc., eg. ܒܪܝܼܬܵܐ ܝܗ: 1-6
You can experiment with these numbers using the Counter styles converter.
There is no mention of the use of the U+070F SYRIAC ABBREVIATION MARK (SAM) to indicate letter-based numbers.
The counting system uses the letters shown below. It is specified for a range between 1 and 9,999,999. However, the code points of the diacritics used here for 500–900, and 100,000–9,000,000 are not confirmed as accurate (though they should look right).
A sequence of European numbers, for example a range separated by hyphens, runs from right to left in the Syriac script (and Arabic or Thaana scripts), whereas for Persian, Hebrew, N’Ko or Adlam scripts it runs left to right.
fig_range shows some Syriac text, which is right-to-left overall, containing a numeric range that is ordered RTL, ie. it starts with 240 and ends with 250.
The Unicode Bidirectional Algorithm automatically produces the expected ordering when a sequence or expression follows Syriac characters. However, a sequence that appears alone on a line doesn't benefit from this, so to make the text appear correctly for Syriac you should add U+061C ARABIC LETTER MARK] (ALM) at the start of the line (see fig_ALM). This is an invisible formatting character. [
Similar special ordering is applied to numbers in equations, such as 1 + 2 = 3, for Syriac language text.
Syriac script is written horizontally, right-to-left. Like other RTL scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew, modern numbers and text in LTR scripts are displayed left-to-right (producing 'bidirectional' text).
The Unicode Bidirectional Algorithm automatically takes care of the ordering for all the text in fig_bidi_text, as long as the 'base direction' is set to RTL. In HTML this can be set using the
dir attribute, or in plain text using formatting controls.
If the base direction is not set appropriately, the directional runs will be ordered incorrectly as shown in fig_bidi_no_base_direction.
bidi_class properties for characters in the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic orthography described here.
For more information about how directionality and base direction work, see Unicode Bidirectional Algorithm basics. For information about plain text formatting characters see How to use Unicode controls for bidi text. And for working with markup in HTML, see Creating HTML Pages in Arabic, Hebrew and Other Right-to-left Scripts.
See also expressions.
This section brings together information about the following topics: writing styles; cursive text; context-based shaping; context-based positioning; baselines, line height, etc.; font styles; case & other character transforms.
You can experiment with examples using the Syriac character app or the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic character app.
The orthography has no case distinction, and no special transforms are needed to convert between characters.
Syriac has 3 major variant writing styles. The code points for the consonant letters are the same, but the shapes of the letters and code points and shapes of vowel diacritics can vary significantly. fig_writing_styles shows the differences using typical fonts for each style.
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic often uses the Estrangelo style for headings.
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, but the code point used for a given letter doesn't change.
Eight letters join only to the right.
All other consonants join on both sides.
The cursive treatment produces only minor changes to glyph shapes in most cases. A small number of letters, however, exhibit noteworthy changes, especially in word final positions. fig_joining_forms and fig_right_joining_forms show all the basic shapes in Assyrian and what their joining forms look like. Significant variations are highlighted.
A feature of Eastern and Western Syriac styles is that an unjoined alaph within a word has a different shape according to whether it is word-final or not. For example, fig_alaph_joining shows the word ܡܠܘܿܐܵܐ where the 2 alaph characters at the end have different shapes, although both are unconnected.
See just above for shaping related to cursive joining.
Apart from the shaping required to support cursive behaviour, there are also typical ligatures, such as those shown in fig_serto_lig, some of which are optional or font-dependent.
|he + yudh||ܐܠܗܝ|
|taw + alaph||ܬܫܟܘܚܬܐ|
|taw + yudh||ܟܚܬܝ|
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.
If ̈ [U+0308 COMBINING DIAERESIS] appears above ܪ [U+072A SYRIAC LETTER RISH] the mark replaces the single dot above the base letter.
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.
Syriac uses the alphabetic baseline.
To include the long ascenders and descenders in Syriac, plus the (sometimes stacked) diacritics, line heights need to be slightly larger than for English text.
Do Unicode grapheme clusters appropriately segment character units for the script? Are there special requirements when double-clicking on the text, or moving through the text with the cursor, or backspace, etc.?
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.
Modern Syriac uses ASCII punctuation and punctuation borrowed from Arabic. For separators at the sentence level and below, the following are used.
|phrase||، [U+060C ARABIC COMMA]
؛ [U+061B ARABIC SEMICOLON]
܆ [U+0706 SYRIAC COLON SKEWED LEFT]
܇ [U+0707 SYRIAC COLON SKEWED RIGHT]
. [U+002E FULL STOP]؟ [U+061F ARABIC QUESTION MARK]
What characters are used to indicate quotations? Do quotations within quotations use different characters? What characters are used to indicate dialogue?
How are emphasis and highlighting achieved? If lines are drawn alongside, over or through the text, do they need to be a special distance from the text itself? Is it important to skip characters when underlining, etc? How do things change for vertically set text?
What characters are used to indicate abbreviation, ellipsis & repetition?
U+070F SYRIAC ABBREVIATION MARK](SAM) indicates that a sequence of characters is an abbreviation, eg. [ܬܫܒܘ 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.
What mechanisms, if any, are used to create inline notes and annotations? (For referent-type notes such as footnotes, see below.)
Punctuation not already mentioned, such as dashes, connectors, separators, etc.
The Syriac abbreviation mark is used in older texts to identify letters used as numbers by drawing a line above them. See numbers for more information.
̭ [U+032D COMBINING CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT BELOW] is also used as a digit marker.u
Punctuation not already mentioned, such as dashes, connectors, separators, etc.
Basic line-break opportunities occur between the space-separated words.
They are not broken at the small gaps that appear where a character doesn't join on the left.
Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the modern Assyrian Neo-Aramaic orthography.
Breaking between Latin words. When a line break occurs in the middle of an embedded left-to-right sequence, the items in that sequence are rearranged visually so that the reading direction remains top-to-bottom. latin-line-breaks shows how two Latin words are apparently reordered in the flow of text to accommodate this rule.
In digital text the rearrangement is automatic. Only the positions of the font glyphs are changed: nothing affects the order of the characters in memory.
Does text in a paragraph needs to have flush lines down both sides? Does the script need assistance to conform to a grid pattern? Does the script allow punctuation to hang outside the text box at the start or end of a line? Where adjustments are need to make a line flush, how is that done? Does the script shrink/stretch space between words and/or letters? Are word baselines stretched, as in Arabic? What about paragraph indents?
ـ [U+0640 ARABIC TATWEEL] can be used, as in Arabic, to lengthen the baseline inside Syriac words.
Observation: It's not clear, however, whether the use of that is for justification, or simply for word stretching.
Does the script create emphasis or other effects by spacing out the words, letters or syllables in a word? (For justification related spacing, see above.).
This section is for any features that are specific to Syriac and that relate to the following topics: general page layout & progression; grids & tables; notes, footnotes, etc; forms & user interaction; page numbering, running headers, etc.
Syriac books, magazines, etc., are bound on the right-hand side, and pages progress from right to left.
Columns are vertical but run right-to-left across the page.
Tables, grids, and other 2-dimensional arrangements progress from right to left across a page.
Table headings are often distinguished from the main text by using a different writing style, in addition to size differences (see fontstyle).