Syriac Lexicography

Despite widespread translation activity and the use of Syr. in Late Antiquity by numerous non-native speakers, there are no surviving Syr. lexical materials from this early period, with the exception of two 4th-cent. Manichaean Syr.-Coptic glossaries written on wooden boards, found in the kitchen of an abandoned house at Kellis in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt (Franzmann and Gardner). These were produced by the translator of a Syr. text into Coptic, and so the order of the Syr. words is determined by their occurrence in the source text. It is likely that similar glossaries will have been produced by other Syr. translators, and particularly in the 7th cent. when formal one-to-one Greek to Syr. correspondences were common, but these have not survived.

Lexical works of a different kind were produced by the Syr. scribal schools, whose careful transmission of biblical and patristic texts led to the production of a ‘masoretic’ literature that is comparable in many respects to that of contemporary Jewish scribes (see Masora). Some texts preserve the correct pronunciation of rare words or foreign names, others provide lists of homographs. These lists are often included within grammatical texts, mainly of Ch. of E. origin, and are associated with such figures as Yawsep Huzaya (6th cent.), ʿEnanishoʿ (mid-7th cent.; see Hoffmann 1880 with Gottheil 1887, 61*–67*; 1889), Ishoʿ bar Nun (d. 828), Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (809–73; see Hoffmann 1880 with Gottheil 1887, 61*–67*; 1889), Abdochus (12th cent.), Bar ʿEbroyo (1225–86; see Martin), and ʿAbdishoʿ bar Brikha (d. 1318).

The first real Syr. lexica, containing alphabetic lists of words and their glosses, were produced in 9th-cent. Abbasid Baghdad by professional translators of Greek scientific texts into Syr. and Arabic, rather than monastic scribes, and were often focused on explaining Greek technical loan-words in Syr., and other rare vocabulary, rather than listing all Syr. lexemes. One of the first of these was Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq’s Puššāq šmāhe yawnāye b-suryāye ‘The interpretation of Greek words with Syriac’. In addition to his work on Greek words and his work on Syriac homographs, Ḥunayn is said to have written a ‘Compendious Lexicon’ (Assemani, BibOr, vol. 3.1, 165). Hunayn’s lexicographical works were augmented by Ishoʿ of Merv (who may or may not be the same person as Zekarya of Merv), and this was in turn re-edited by one of Ḥunayn’s students, Ishoʿ bar ʿAli, and in this Syr.-Arabic form it still survives (Hoffmann 1874; Gottheil 1910, 1928).

The largest of all these early Syr.-Arabic lexica (often more like an encyclopedia than a dictionary), and the most useful for scholars today, is that of Ḥaṣan Bar Bahlul, who lived in Baghdad in the mid-10th cent. (Duval 1888–1901). He cites many earlier lexical sources, one of the most important of which was Ḥenanishoʿ bar Seroshway, bp. of Ḥirta ca. 900. This lexicon was widely copied by both E.-Syr. and W.-Syr. scribes until the 20th cent., and they continued to add entries and citations and to edit older entries in line with their own theology and christology. One adaptation of Bar Bahlul and Bar ʿAli even has the Arabic replaced with Armenian in Syriac script, possibly for the Syr. Orth. of Edessa who spoke an Armenian dialect (Margoliouth 1898; see also Armenian Christianity, Syriac contacts with). Duval’s great edition of this work is not a critical edition of the earliest form of the work (probably irretrievable) but is largely based on W.-Syr. manuscripts containing the fullest form of the lexicon, and so includes, for example, references to the 13th-cent. Bar ʿEbroyo.

An alternative type of medieval Syr.-Arabic lexicon is ‘The Book of the Interpreter’ of Eliya of Nisibis (975  –  ca. 1050), which is divided into 30 lessons, in which Syr. vocabulary is listed according to subject categories, such as names of God, human attributes, parts of the body, trades and professions, minerals, colors (de Lagarde 1879).

With the beginning of Syriac printing in Europe in the 16th cent., there was a growing demand for Syr.- Latin lexica. The first of these was the Syrorum peculium of Andreas Masius (1571), included in the sixth volume of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, which like many early European Syr. lexica mostly contained Syr. vocabulary from the NT, with some OT additions. More widely used than Masius’ work was the frequently reprinted Lexicon pentaglotton of Valentino Schindler (1612) and the NT lexica of Johann Buxtorf the younger (1622), Martin Trost (1623), Aegidius Gutbier (1667), and Carl Schaaf (1708). Castell’s Lexicon Heptaglotton (1669), which was printed to accompany Walton’s London Polyglot Bible, was the first to incorporate all the Syr. of the OT as well as to make systematic use of the medieval Syr.-Arabic lexica. Michaelis extracted the Syr. vocabulary from Castell and republished it in 1788, and this became the standard Syr. lexicon in the early-19th cent., although much criticised.

The late-19th cent. saw the production of numerous major Syr. lexica which remain key reference works today (although they pre-date most critical editions of Syr. texts). The largest was the Thesaurus syriacus (1868–1901) of Robert Payne Smith, which built upon the unpublished lexical mss. of numerous European colleagues, especially Quatremère and Bernstein, and middle-eastern lexica, both the medieval texts mentioned above and the 1619 lexicon of the Maronite George Karmsedinoyo, and contains numerous citations, as well as proper names. Smith was assisted by his daughter Jessie Payne Smith, who also compiled a supplement and the standard Syr.-English dictionary (published 1896–1903). Carl Brockelmann, a student of Theodor Nöldeke, published an excellent Syr.-Latin hand-lexicon (1894–5; 2nd ed. 1923–28) which includes some rare vocabulary not found in the work of the Smiths, and has now been translated into English and expanded by Sokoloff. Very important Syr. lexica printed in the middle-east include that of Toma Audo (1897, 1901) which contains a very great number of old Syr. forms not found in the European lexica, and so to a lesser extent the Syr.-Arabic lexicon of Yaʿqob Awgen Manna (1900). Notable 20th-cent. lexica include the Syr.-Arabic-French hand-lexicon (1963) of Louis Costaz, and the Syr.-English-Malayalam lexicon of Emmanuel Thelly (1999), which makes good use of Audo.

The world-wide diaspora of Syr.-using Christians, and the arrival of Syr. word-processing software, has produced an explosion of Syr. lexica in recent decades. These are notable for including Classical Syr. neologisms for modern ideological and technological terminology, and some particularly useful examples were published by Hanna and Bulut (2000), Khoshaba and Youkhana (2000), and Afram (2005).

Although Christian Neo-Aramaic was included in Payne Smith’s Thesaurus, the first dedicated dictionary was the Assyrian-Russian work of Kalashev (1894), soon followed by the important Assyrian-English dictionary of Maclean (1901). Large lexica of the Christian NENA dialects were later published by David (1924), Sarmas (1969, 1980), and Sargizi (2002), and less comprehensive lexica of Ṭuroyo by Ritter (1979), Jacob and Asmar (1985), and Ishaq (1988).

See Fig. 8.

    Primary Sources

    • G. Afram, Svensk-Assyrisk Ordbok (2005).
    • T. Audo, Simtā d-lišānā suryāyā: Dictionnaire de la langue chaldéenne (1897, 1901). (Syr.-Syr.)
    • C. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum (1894–5; 2nd ed. 1923–8).
    • J. Buxtorf, Lexicon Chaldaicum et Syriacum (1622).
    • E. Castell, Lexicon heptaglotton: Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Samaritanum, Æthiopicum, Arabicum, conjunctim; et Persicum, separatim (1669).
    • L.  Costaz, Dictionnaire syriaque-français, Syriac-English Dictionary, Qāmūs suryānī-ʽarabī (1963).
    • S. David, The First English-Chaldean Dictionary [with] The Chaldean-English Dictionary (1924).
    • R.  Duval, Lexicon Syriacum auctore Hassano bar Bahlule (3 vols.; 1888–1901; repr. 1970).
    • M.  Franzmann and I.  Gardner, ‘The Syriac Texts’, in Kellis Literary Texts, vol.  1, ed. I.  Gardner (Dakhleh Oasis Project 4; 1997), 101–30.
    • R. J. H.  Gottheil, A Treatise on Syriac Grammar by Mâr(i) Eliâ of Sôbhâ (1887).
    • R. J. H.  Gottheil, ‘A Syriac lexicographical tract’, Hebraica 5 (1889), 215–229.
    • R. J. H.  Gottheil, Bar ʿAli (Ishoʿ). The Syriac-Arabic Glosses. (1910, 1928).
    • A.  Gutbier, Lexicon Syriacum, continens omnes N.T. Syriaci dictiones et particulas (1667).
    • S. Hanna and A. Bulut, Wörterbuch Deutsch-Aramäisch, Aramäisch-Deutsch (2000).
    • G.  Hoffmann, Syrisch-Arabische Glossen. Autographie einer gothaischen Handschrift enthaltend Bar Ali’s Lexikon von Alaf bis Mim (1874)
    • G.  Hoffmann, Opuscula Nestoriana (1880).
    • K.  Jacob and A.  El-Khoury, The Guide. The First Literary-Colloquial Syriac Dictionary (1985).
    • A. Kalashev, Russko-Ajsorskij i Ajsorsko-Russkij Slovar (1894). (in Russian)
    • S. E.  Khoshaba and E. B.  Youkhana, Zahreera, Arabic-Syriac Dictionary (2000).
    • P. A. de Lagarde, Praetermissorum libri duo (1879), 1–89. (Eliya of Nisibis, ‘Book of the Interpreter’)
    • A. J. Maclean, A Dictionary of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac as spoken by the Eastern Syrians of Kurdistan, North-west Persia, and the Plain of Mosul (1901).
    • J. E.  Manna, Vocabulaire chaldéen-arabe (1900; repr. with supplement 1975).
    • J. P.  Margoliouth, Supplement to the Thesaurus syriacus of R. Payne Smith (1927).
    • J. P. P. Martin, Œuvres grammaticales d’Abou’lfaradj dit Bar Hebreus, vol. 2. La Petite Grammaire en vers de sept syllabes et le traité ‘De Vocibus Aequivocis’ (1871).
    • A.  Masius, Syrorum peculium, hoc est vocabula apud syros scriptores passim usurpata (1572).
    • J. D.  Michaelis, Edmundi Castelli Lexicon syriacum ex eius Lexico heptaglotto (1788).
    • J. Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary (1896–1903).
    • R. Payne Smith, Thesaurus syriacus (1868–1901).
    • H.  Ritter, Ṭūrōyo. Die Volkssprache der syrischen Christen des Ṭūr Abdîn. B: Wörterbuch (1979). (does not include verbs)
    • S. Sargizi, A Simple Assyrian-Persian Dictionary (2002).
    • W. Sarmas, Puššāq melle parsāyā-aturāyā (1969, 1980).
    • C. Schaaf, Lexicon Syriacum concordantiale (1708).
    • V. Schindler, Lexicon pentaglotton, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Talmudico-Rabbinicum, et Arabicum (1612).
    • M.  Sokoloff, A Syriac Lexicon. A translation from the Latin, correction, expansion, and update of C. Brockelmann’s Lexicon Syriacum (2009).
    • E.  Thelly, Syriac-English-Malayalam Lexicon (1999).
    • M.  Trost, Lexicon Syriacum ex inductione omnium exemplorum Novi Testamenti Syriaci adornatum (1623).
    • I.  Yusuf, Svensk-Turabdinskt Lexikon (1988).

    Secondary Sources

    • S. P.  Brock, ‘Some observations on the use of Classical Syriac in the late twentieth century’, JSS 34 (1989), 363–75.
    • S. P.  Brock, ‘Syriac lexicography: Reflections on resources and sources’, AS 1.2 (2003), 165–78.
    • Duval, La litterature syriaque, 294–99.
    • H.  Hyvernat, ‘An ancient Syriac lexicographer’, Catholic University Bulletin 8 (1902), 58–74. (on Bar Bahlul)
    • H.  Hyvernat, ‘Duval’s edition of Bar Bahlul’, Catholic University Bulletin 8 (1902), 488–93.
    • J. A.  Loopstra, Patristic selections in the “Masoretic” handbooks of the Qarqaptā tradition (Ph.D. Diss., The Catholic University of America; 2009).
    • D. S.  Margoliouth, ‘The Syro-Armenian dialect’, JRAS 1898, 839–61. (now ms. Harvard Syr. 54)
    • D. G. K.  Taylor, An annotated bibliography of printed Syriac lexica (1571–2009) (forthcoming).
    • S.  Weninger, ‘Das “Übersetzerbuch” des Elias von Nisibis (10./11. Jh.) im Zusammenhang der syrischen und arabischen Lexikographie’, in The World in a List of Words, ed. W. Hüllen (1994), 55−66.

How to Cite This Entry

David G. K. Taylor , “Syriac Lexicography,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay,

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

David G. K. Taylor , “Syriac Lexicography,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018),

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Taylor, David G. K. “Syriac Lexicography.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018.

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