Basics of Classical Syriac

Complete Grammar, Workbook, and Lexicon

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Steven C. Hallam
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , June
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $49.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310527862.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While there is not necessarily a shortage of Syriac grammars available, not all of these grammars are equally accessible, particularly for those who do not already know at least one Semitic language. Moreover, students and scholars whose academic focus is in biblical studies may find that the grammars available on the market provide a somewhat circuitous route to the goal of being able to read passages from the Peshiṭta (the standard Syriac translation of the Bible). The present grammar under review, Steven C. Hallam’s Basics of Classical Syriac, aims to fill both these gaps by providing an introductory grammar that is both extraordinarily accessible and based upon readings from the Syriac Bible.

There are three features of Hallam’s grammar that make it particularly useful. First, the order in which the grammatical concepts are introduced follows a logical progression into the language. For scholars familiar with other grammars, Hallam’s order of topics more or less corresponds with J. F. Coakley’s Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar (Oxford University Press, 2013). Hallam covers the nominal system (chapters 1-6) before introducing verbs (chapter 7), and then covers the verbal system for regular, strong verbs (chapters 7-16) before introducing the variations that emerge from weak verbs (chapters 17-23). The second strength of Hallam’s grammar is the clarity with which he discusses grammatical concepts without getting bogged down in details. Students who have not studied other languages previously are often confused by either the linguistic terminology or brevity on significant grammatical concepts in both Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises and Wheeler Thackston’s Introduction to Syriac (Ibex Publishers, 1999). In contrast, Hallam does not overwhelm the reader with unnecessarily complex grammatical terms, and his explanations of new concepts are clear and straightforward without assuming a comprehensive grasp of linguistic terminology. Finally, Hallam’s approach to pedagogy is also helpful, as he frequently provides notes to the reader about which concepts should be prioritized and memorized carefully and which ones should merely be noted and learned through experience.

Another strength of this volume is the use of examples for grammatical concepts and exercises that come directly from the Peshiṭta. Since this book is geared toward students in biblical studies, the use of examples from the biblical texts allows somewhat of an “inductive” learning experience, and the use of such texts in the exercises allows students to look up the texts for themselves, either for quick reference to an English translation or to the Greek or Hebrew source texts in order to understand Syriac translation technique. On this point, however, one downside of using texts from the Peshiṭta as examples is that, because these texts were translated and not written natively in Syriac, they do not always represent the best Syriac syntax.

There are a few idiosyncrasies in Hallam’s grammar that, although they do not detract from the value of the work, should be noted. First, Hallam presents the Syriac text throughout the book in the Estrangela script along with the West Syriac vowel system, which can be quite jarring to the eye of the experienced reader. This decision is helpful in one respect though: it helps students who are new to Syriac gain familiarity with pronunciation patterns through repetition (as opposed to Thackston’s grammar, which includes no vowels). However, it raises the question of why Hallam would not simply use the Western script along with the Western vowels (or use the Eastern script instead, as there are very few options for students who wish to learn Syriac with the Eastern script). Hallam notes in the Preface that he chose Estrangela because it is the oldest, and thus most important script for biblical studies (9). This is a fine decision, but beyond a comparative chart at the end of the volume (Appendix 2), a student using this volume gets no real exposure to the two scripts in which the majority of Syriac manuscripts are written (including many biblical manuscripts). Moreover, the decision to combine the Western vowels with the Estrangela script means that students are learning to read a text form that does not appear in manuscripts (though Hallam does include some unpointed texts in the exercises beginning in chapter 4).

There are also two editorial decisions that may cause unnecessary confusion. Throughout the grammar Hallam includes both the –un and –on pronunciations in various declensions and paradigms, reflecting both Eastern and Western inflections (such as hennun/hennon for the 3rd masculine plural pronoun or ktabton/ktabtun for the pael perfect 2nd masculine plural). Frequently this unnecessary repetition makes paradigm charts look more complex than they need to be, and it seems that a simple note at the beginning of the book could account for this variation without overwhelming the beginning student with options. This is a relatively small complaint, but I generally found it to be a distraction in the presentation of the material. Hallam also chooses not to indicate spriantization of the begadkephat letters in the transcription of Syriac words, which may make it difficult initially for students to learn the pronunciation rules. However, in the exercises at the end of each chapter, Hallam does include rukkākā and quššāyā pointing, which should help offset this difficulty.

In summary, Basics of Classical Syriac is a very good introduction to Syriac. Hallam presents complex grammatical concepts with simple, straightforward explanations and copious illustrative examples. The use of biblical passages for examples and exercises is geared toward an audience interested in biblical studies, so this grammar will be of particular interest to professors who teach Syriac in seminaries or religious institutions as well as to students and scholars who wish to learn Syriac individually, and whose primary purpose in learning Syriac is to read biblical texts for comparison with the Greek and/or Hebrew originals. The value of Basics of Classical Syriac is not limited to those interested in biblical studies, though, as it offers a solid foundation in the vocabulary and grammar of the language.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James E. Walters is Assistant Professor of Religion at Rochester College.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven C. Hallam (PhD, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor and Chair of the General Studies department at Alaska Christian College in Soldotna, AK.  He has taught Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac at the graduate level, and is a recipient of the Zondervan award in Biblical Greek.

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