Skip to main content

Syriac Paleography: Garshuni

Section 1: Introduction to Garshuni: Arabic Language in Syriac Script

This lesson is an excursus, and users who are strictly concerned with Syriac may skip it. Script and language are not linked absolutely. Garshuni presents one such disjunction. The manuscripts here in view are Arabic-language texts written in Syriac script (both Serto and East Syriac). Syriac script has been used — in manuscripts, less often in print — to record a number of languages other than Syriac (Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Georgian, etc.), but the best attested in manuscripts is Arabic. Without further qualification, the term Garshuni usually means Arabic language in Syriac script; with qualifiers (e.g., Armenian Garshuni) it is sometimes used for any language written with Syriac script. (Cf., Arabic written with Hebrew script, also well attested and known as Judeo-Arabic.) While both Syriac and Arabic belong to the Semitic family of languages and thus share some phonological similarities, there are also differences. In addition, there are well-established scribal traditions on both sides, Syriac and Arabic. On the Arabic side, a reading tradition influenced more or less by the reader's own Arabic dialect may also come into play. That is to say, there is a reading tradition that does not necessarily have Classical Arabic as its model.

Syriac script, with 22 letters, has a smaller inventory of letters than Arabic script, which has 28 letters, and while scribes often use(d) diacritical marks to fill out this deficiency, the manuscripts provide ample evidence that the practice was hardly universal. Ideally there would be exact correspondence between this Syriac letter (or letter plus diacritic) and that Arabic letter, and such an ideal appears in published charts to describe Garshuni. The manuscripts, however, are not so tidy. (For further details, with many examples, see Adam Carter McCollum, “Garshuni as It Is: Some Observations from Reading East and West Syriac Manuscripts,” Hugoye 17, no. 2 (2014): 215-235. Available at

This part of the course simply offers a showcase of some Serto and East Syriac Garshuni manuscripts. The letter-forms will be easily recognized from other parts of the course. Readers should especially take note of the variety of ways that underlying Arabic graphemes may appear. There really is not a standard Garshuni.

Note: for the reference above, if you do not already have PDF viewer software you may download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.