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W. M. Thackston. Introduction to Syriac. Bethesda, MD: IBEX Publishers, 1999. Pp. xxvii+228. US $30.00. ISBN 0-936347-98-8.
1. With this volume, Wheeler M. Thackston, Professor of Near Eastern Languages at Harvard University, continues the series of introductory grammars he began with his An Introduction to Persian and An Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic. In each case, Thackston has sought to create an introductory grammar that will allow those unfamiliar with the language to gain a basic reading knowledge relatively quickly. In the present volume, Thackston meets this goal with mixed success.
2. Following an introductory chapter dealing with such matters as the history of the Syriac language, the alphabet, phonetics, and vocalization, Thackston provides a series of twenty graded lessons designed to have the reader translating Syriac texts as quickly as possible. Each lesson introduces new elements of Syriac grammar followed by a vocabulary list and reading exercises. The vocabulary lists and exercises are keyed to the Peshitta version of the Bible since Thackston assumes, probably correctly, that most students who learn Syriac do so within the context of Biblical studies. Following the grammar lessons is an appendix giving verb conjugation charts and a series of practice readings taken from the Peshitta and other classical Syriac literature, including a selection from the Hymns of Ephrem. A Syriac-English vocabulary list and a very brief subject index round out the volume.
3. While most of the Syriac printed in the book is given in the easier-to-read Estrangela script, Nestorian and Jacobite scripts are introduced as well and occur occasionally in the reading exercises. Both Nestorian and Jacobite vowel pointing systems are discussed in the introduction but are dispensed with throughout the remainder of the book. Instead, Thackston provides English phonetic transliterations for every Syriac word, phrase, and sentence occurring in the lessons. This has the effect of emphasizing the large number of homographs that occur in Syriac, and forces the reader to become familiar with vocalic patterns. But it seems a little puzzling given that the Jacobite vowel system is used in editions of the Peshitta. Some practice reading the vowel marks might, therefore, have been beneficial. On a similar note, the verb charts provided in the appendix are given in transliteration only. This approach allows the reader to see the vowel patterns associated with various verbal forms clearly, but it does not readily engender the visual recognition of the Syriac morphology characteristic of various verbal forms. A summary chart showing both morphology and vocalization might have been more helpful.
4. Overall, Thackston has done a good job in conceiving the sequence of lessons. Each step introduces new aspects of grammar in a logical sequence that allows the student to be reading actual passages from the Peshitta very quickly. This is certainly preferable to the creation of "artificial" reading exercises. If there is a weakness in the presentation, it might be that Thackston expects too much of his target reader. The book is explicitly aimed at the person who comes to Syriac via biblical or theological studies with no previous experience in Semitic languages. Such a reader might be a little overwhelmed by encountering a sentence such as "An important element of Syriac phonology is the principle of retrogressive vocalic reduction" (p. xv) in the first few pages of the book. Throughout, the book is thin on introduction and explanation of Semitic grammatical concepts. Thackston simply gives a brief sentence or two of introduction and then dives right into examples. This is not a problem for the reader who comes to Syriac with a background in Hebrew or Arabic. One can simply plunge right into the examples and see how a familiar Semitic grammatical concept plays out in Syriac. But for the beginner to Semitic language study, I fear that substantially more explanation of basic concepts than Thackston provides is needed. To take a random example, Lesson Six treats the subjects of Independent Pronouns, The Short Pronouns as Copulas, Third-Person Plural Pronouns as Direct Objects, and Demonstratives, all in a scant two-and-a-half pages! While this makes for a very concise introduction to Syriac, it may err on the side of being too concise for the true beginner.
5. The publisher can be commended for producing a nearly error-free work, not easy given the technical nature of the book. I did, however, spot two errors. On page 80 the phrase "which form their imperfects are though" should obviously read "which form their imperfects as though." More significantly, on page 116 the instructions for Exercise 19 read, "Identify, read, and translate the following Ettaphal forms." Unfortunately, the Ettaphal form is not introduced until the next lesson; the examples in Exercise 19 are rather of the Ethpaal form. I would also raise a question about the style of Estrangela script used in the book. It is very angular in form and lacks the flowing elegance usually associated with this script. I frequently found myself misreading the chet as a nun/yod combination. More elegant Estrangela scripts are readily available.
6. Overall, Thackston has produced a very useful introduction to the Syriac language. Those who have studied Syriac in the past but have been away from it for a while will find this a useful refresher course. And those who have studied other Semitic languages will find this a very useful introduction to a related language. But the true beginner to Semitic language study may find it to be quite a challenge.
© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2002.
Robert F. Shedinger Luther College