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Syriac Paleography: Introduction

Section 3: Method of Approach

In what follows, the various letter shapes are presented descriptively with special attention to notable characteristics found in the examples chosen to illustrate the script. (Not every distinctive letter-form is necessarily highlighted for each manuscript!) These descriptions of particular kinds of writing are almost always presented in light of other ways of writing, that is, they are contrastive descriptions, even if the comparanda are not explicitly stated. The descriptions are from the point of view of the reader encountering Syriac manuscripts, not necessarily from the point of view of someone writing Syriac manuscripts. (For the latter case, see Alain A. Desreumaux, “Comment peut-on écrire en syriaque? ou des problèmes du scribe devant sa page blanche,” in C. Batsch, and M. Vârtejanu-Joubert, eds., Manières de penser dans l'Antiquité méditerranéenne et orientale. Mélanges offerts à Francis Schmidt par ses élèves, ses collègues et ses amis, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 134 [Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2009], pp. 105-126.) Close familiarity with the examples and descriptions provided here, coupled with further attentive reading of other manuscripts, will bring one closer and closer to a comprehensive view. In addition to the descriptions of script-types, illustrated with examples from various manuscripts, transcription exercises are available to test your growing knowledge of Syriac paleography.

The following letter names are used in the descriptions. In the descriptions, the typical East Syriac names for the letter-forms are used. They are not necessarily more accurate than the typical West Syriac names, it is simply that one had to be chosen. (In informal practice, mixtures of the Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac names may be encountered, e.g. ʿayin or ʿayn instead of ʿē.)

  • ālap
  • bēt
  • gāmal
  • dālat
  • wāw
  • zayn
  • ḥēt
  • ṭēt
  • yod
  • kāp
  • lāmad
  • mim
  • nun
  • semkat
  • ʿē
  • ṣādē
  • qop
  • rēš
  • šin
  • tāw

It is assumed that users are familiar with the basic ductus of Syriac letter shapes, which is easily obtainable from Syriac grammars such as Theodor Nöldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar, translated by J. Crichton (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), or T. Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy, Porta Linguarum Orientalium, Neue Serie 19 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997). Not every letter is always commented upon here. Other than this introduction, which should be considered necessary, users may in general study the lessons for any particular script-type independently of the other script-types. The descriptions sometimes refer to the Estrangela shape, Serto shape, or East Syriac shape; these are merely terms of convenience and make no necessary claim about origin.

As a final word, let me encourage users of this course not only to read, but to study carefully, as many manuscripts as possible. Those who closely trace with eyes or hand the lines that make up the mountain of Syriac manuscripts from many times and places that have survived, a growing number of which are immediately accessible online, will thus steadily earn an accurate grasp of what Syriac writing looks like. Users like you will yield their own riches to our understanding of Syriac script through the ages.



  • Joshua Falconer indicated to me some specific dated examples of twentieth-century East Syriac script.
  • Mary Hoppe and Wayne Torborg promptly provided me from afar with requested images from HMML's collections.
  • Ryan Korstange read through part of the Introduction, and Columba Stewart read through the whole course; both offered substantive suggestions for improvement.
  • William Straub took the course from text files + images and made it a comprehensive whole on the vHMML site.