A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 22, 2011

Syriac Question Mark: Poor Journalism on Scholarly Subjects 101

Here's an interesting story poorly reported by Reuters. A Cambridge University scholar thinks he has identified the "world's first question mark" in a Syriac punctuation mark known as the zagwa elaya,   a double dot that looks a bit like a colon. (The punctuation mark, not the large intestine.) First, go read the Reuters account. At least in the online version, there is no illustration (well, I'm getting an "Early photos of the Beatles emerge" showing a young Paul McCartney, but I don't think Sir Paul is a Syriac punctuation mark).  Why not SHOW US A PICTURE? Secondly, we find such interesting data as the following
Syriac is thought to have appeared in the Middle East from the 1st Century and boasts a large Christian literature. It declined as a spoken language with the arrival of Islam and Arabic and today is only used in churches.

Thought to have appeared? Syriac is just the late form of Aramaic, the dominant language of the Middle East for close to a millennium, though written in a distinctive alphabet (two really) and it hardly just "appeared". It was written in everything from cuneiform to square letter Hebrew to the various varieties of Syriac scripts, and even occasionally in Arabic.

Nor is it only used in churches today: its  Western form is spoken in four villages north of Damascus, and its Eastern form among the Assyrian communities of Iraq and Turkey. Syriac was once one of the world's great literary languages, and isn't quite dead yet. I have only the slightest smattering (alphabet, basic verb) but the Reuters reporter could have done better than this.

Now, go to the Cambridge University website on the same purported discovery. Here's a nuanced account quoting the academic making the claim with all the nuances intact, and with an illustration, which I reproduce above, and which seems to include the mark in question. (I make no judgment on his claims, which I'm not qualified to address, but at least the Cambridge site doesn't misstate facts.)

Really, what's so hard about that?


benedict said...

The reporter presumably looked up the "Syriac" entry on wikipedia, which also states the language "appeared" in the 1st century. Given the topic, it might have been more appropriate to cite the entry on the Syriac alphabet, which dates it to the 2nd century BC.

I think you are right that the Reuters article lacks a more nuanced picture of the relationship of Syriac to Aramaic though, even a cursory shuffle through the Wikipedia pages is enough to suggest that. (By the way I always assumed that Aramaic is the name usually given to the spoken language used by some Christians in parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran etc as you mentioned, with Syriac being the liturgical language.)

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I think the usual distinction is that "Aramaic" means the language as it evolved from Biblical times on down, including its late form while Syriac is specifically that late form written in the Syriac alphabet. But I should note that while it's true as you say that, in English, the speakers of the Western and Eastern forms say they speak Aramaic, as far as I know when they speak in their own language, they call it Suroyo. At least the ones in Iraq do.