Review of Basics of Classical Syriac

Steven C. Hallam. Basics of Classical Syriac: Complete Grammar, Workbook, and Lexicon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Pb. 318 pp. US $49.99.

The fact of the matter is that there is a noticeable lack of choice when it comes to Syriac grammars. For most, the immediate choice is Coakley’s Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises (6th ed. Oxford: Oxford, 2013). However, since Robinson’s first edition appeared in 1915, much has changed in our understanding of language acquisition and instruction. For this simple reason, a new option for Syriac instructors is welcome news.

Like Zondervan’s other Basics of grammars, Hallam adopts an integrated approach that seeks to get students reading the text as soon as possible. Hallam also assumes that his readers will be primarily interested reading the biblical text, so all of the exercises come from the Syriac Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Moreover, it is important to note that Hallam is clear that the grammar “is intended to be a friendly and accessible generalization of the language” (p. 10). As such, this is not intended to be a reference grammar. Moreover, the lexicon is sufficient only for the exercises within the grammar itself. In the end, one should not presume that this grammar is “complete” (as the subtitle states) in the sense that it is a full and complete grammar or a full and complete lexicon. Instead, this text is complete in the sense that it contains a grammar, exercises, and a limited lexicon.

The content itself is divided into two parts with a year-long course in mind. Part one consists of nouns and verbs, while part two covers derivative stems and weak verbs. The content is as follows:

Part I

  1. Alphabet
  2. Vowels
  3. Nouns and Adjectives
  4. Nominal Prefixes
  5. Pronouns
  6. Pronominal Suffixes
  7. Introduction to Syriac Verbs
  8. Peal (G) Perfect and ܗܘܳܐ (hwā)
  9. Peal Participle
  10. Peal Imperfect
  11. Peal Imperative and Infinitive

Part II

  1. Ethpeel (Gp)
  2. Pael (D)
  3. Ethpaal (Dp)
  4. Aphel (A)
  5. Ettaphal (Ap)
  6. I-ālep
  7. III-Weak
  8. I-yūd
  9. I-nūn
  10. Germinate
  11. Hollow
  12. II-ālep

 Immediately there are aspects of this grammar that excite me. First, even though it is the same over-sized dimensions as Zondervan’s other grammars, it works in the case of this grammar, because it is also a workbook. There is room for marginal notes as well as for the students’ translations in the exercise portions of the book.

Secondly, I am encouraged by the portion sizes for each chapter. Hallam covers the nominal system in six chapters rather than the four chapters in Coakley. Likewise, Hallam includes a nine-page introduction to the verb system, followed by four sequential chapters on the Peal stem. This structure will allow several weeks of fruitful interaction with the verbal system before other stems are introduced. This structure builds on the successes of other Zondervan grammars, which cover nouns before introducing verbs. Additionally, the pace of study will ensure that students are digesting small doses and growing in their comprehension at a manageable rate.

Thirdly, I appreciate the fact that Hallam has chosen to use the Estrangela script. Due to its prominence in biblical studies, it is important for students to be introduced to this script right away. Although this script is not initially as easy to read as the Serta script, it is the script of Brill’s critical Peshitta and most of the other resources with which the students will use.

Finally, Hallam has several very useful appendices including one on numbers and dates; several charts of verbs with pronominal suffixes; a short lexicon; and, very helpfully, a list of similar Syriac and Hebrew roots. The latter will be a great help the vocabulary acquisition for students who already know biblical Hebrew.

The appropriate audience is for anyone at the undergraduate or graduate level who is interested in Syriac. With some guidance, this text may even suit certain PhD students embarking on self-taught Syriac studies.

By way of a final assessment, there is much to praise about this grammar. The quantity of material in each chapter seems entirely fitting, it progresses at an appropriate rate, and it is complete enough to lead students to a point of reading and interpreting the biblical text efficiently. In short, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, namely introduce the reader to Syriac grammar and get the student reading the text. Being in want for options, Syriac teachers can rejoice at the opportunity to choose from a growing selection of grammars.

  – Stephen Campbell, Durham University

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