George Kiraz is the president of Gorgias Press and the director of Beth Mardutho: The Syriac Institute.
The New Syriac Primer is an introduction to the Syriac language. In 1984 Kiraz immigrated to the United States from Bethlehem. He initially wrote the Syriac Primer for Sunday School children in the Syriac church. But in the years following the text was received as a vital tool in the academic community. The text I’ll be reviewing is the third edition.
As we know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. And there are small parts that are written in Aramaic. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic centered in Edessa.
Why Syriac? What would be the motivation to learn one more language in addition to the ones we already know. First, allow me to answer the question with a “not” answer. You should not take on Syriac if you’re still wrestling, trying to find out the difference between the first and second aorist. Likewise, you should not take on Syriac if, like me, at about 4 or 5 years out of the seminary, you begin to forget the difference between שׁ and שׂ. It’s better to head back to the Hebrew Institute in New Ulm.
But why Syriac? For many, there will be no need to move into Syriac. It will be just one more helping of food on an already difficult to balance language plate. For my own part, I began to chip away at Syriac for two reasons.
First, it is an important language for understanding translational and text-critical issues in the bible. The importance of the Syriac can be seen in the eventual publishing of BHQ. The Syriac in the apparatus that was transliterated is now beautifully typeset with its own letters in the Estrangelo script within the fascicles of BHQ. Likewise, there are some times when an understanding of the versional languages can be useful for understanding the state of the text (e.g., Psalm 145:13b).
Second, Syriac is valuable as a translational resource. While the Aramaic Targumim often mix translation and commentary, the Syriac Peshitta hands down to us a stable translated text in the Peshitta. As an example of some of the interesting features of the Peshitta, one can have a look at the Tetragrammaton. As a Semitic language, we might expect יהוה to be translated into Syriac with those same four letters. Instead, it’s consistently translated, ܡܪܝܐ (moryo). Like the LXX (with ⲕⲩⲣⲓⲟⲥ), it translates as “lord, master.”
This primer has its place as an introductory Syriac primer. For me, that was exactly where I needed to start. For us who have years of Hebrew under our belt, some elements of the lessons might seem unneeded. But just when you think that you ‘know this already,’ Syriac throws you one curveball after another, letting you know that, while there is overlap between the two languages, Syriac stands on its own. I appreciated the lessons teaching the student how to write the Serto script. I appreciated the patient approach Kiraz applied, taking the student from the simple to the more difficult. I appreciated the fairly comprehensive list of verb charts in the back of the book. There are even audio files you can download so that you can get a feel for speaking the language. If you’re starting with Syriac, this is the place to start. There might be the temptation to start with an intermediate grammar like Thackston. But, when I briefly looked over that text, I quickly realized that there were too many assumptions that were taken for granted. There needed to be a starting place. And this primer fills that need admirably.
As one works through the book, however, there are areas for improvement. There are a few grammatical errors in the text. For example, on p. 68, in exercise 4.5, ܢܙܡܪ (nizmor) is translated as “he shall sign” instead of “he shall sing.” And I would have greatly appreciated audio files for the verb charts. But, outside of sitting in a classroom with a Syriac teacher, this book gives you as much as you can learn on your own.
If you’re looking at picking up Syriac I recommend that you start here with this book. I’m almost finished walking through the lessons. I’m looking forward to finishing the book with the lesson, “How to cure a hangover: From the Syriac Book of Medicine.” Likewise, it was fun to walk through the Lord’s Prayer from the Peshitta. Kiraz has provided those who want to learn Syriac with a very productive tool for beginning to get that task done.
 For more information about what Syriac is, the Beth Mardutho “About Syriac” page has some useful details: https://bethmardutho.org/about/