Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Syriac is the coolest kid on the Semitic language block

I have to admit it: I'm a bit intimidated by Semitic languages. It's not because they're written right-to-left. There are really two reasons I don't like them:

1. The letters swim. I'm trying to read and they're having a mass orgy on the page, with no shame at all. I make super-sized xeroxes and for Hebrew I got a pair of reading glasses with a higher power than I usually use; they made my eyes hurt but didn't stop the letters from acting like Jell-O with legs. Arabic is much, much worse. And the vowels are always teeny-tiny. Don't even try to count those dots. Half of them aren't part of the official vowel anyway, they just dropped by to hang out because the vowels always have extra beer in the fridge (which is partly why they're staggering around your page).

Once you mark a Hebrew text with accents and Masoretic and text crit markers, part of me gets cranky and decides that I don't want to pretend that it actually means anything anymore. Then I'm filled with an overwhelming desire to call my mom, take my toys, and go home and have a nap.

2. Semitic languages are California surfer-dude cool about some things... but then they're anal-retentive Austrians about others. For example, Semitic languages really don't care about morphological relationships of nouns. "Eh," they say, "What's the difference between a direct and indirect object, really?" They're totally content to do everything with word order and particles rather than inflection. That's a personal choice and I respect that.

I just wish that they didn't get so dang touchy then about their vowel problems. What do you think is going to happen when you start sticking fourteen prefixes onto your noun? Eventually you're going to have to buy a vowel. And then there are going to be rules and regulations. And whatever market analysis survey told Hebrew it would be cool to have four "flavors" of sheva was rigged.

So, into the midst of all the angst created by Hebrew, Arabic, and Akkadian -- enter Syriac.

Syriac is just what the world needs. Why?

1. It has all those fabulous Semitic sounds you know and love. Yeah, I know they're tricky to learn, but once you figure out how to pronounce the voiceless pharyngeal fricative ḥ, you really want to do it on every possible occasion. Because it just sounds HOT. Listen to Natascha Atlas on the Kingdom of Heaven theme if you don't believe me. I wanna cheat on the church with the pharyngeal fricative after that second verse. <*indecent shudder of delight*>

This is part of the problem with Hebrew. It totally has the same letters as Arabic, but it really doesn't push them to their full potential. "Chet" is the same as ḥ, and Tsade and Tet are emphatic s and t, respectively. But the way people teach this, "Chet" sounds just like fricative Kaf; Qoph never gets the tender glottal loving it deserves; and you can't tell a Tet from a Taw. Don't get me started about not pronouncing ʿayin!

2. Syriac probably had a set-up meeting where everyone said, "You know, maybe we should make our letters big enough to see. And maybe we shouldn't have so many that look alike. And let's make them easy to write so that at-home handwriting can pretty much approximate our calligraphic script instead of looking completely freaking different."

3. Then the divinely inspired founders of Syriac put some wacky tobaccy in their hookah and had another meeting. "Y'know man, this language would be the bomb if we, like, just made all the nouns end in -o." There were a few they missed, but not many.

4. They decided not to get uppity about shevas. The policy is: "You don't need to write a sheva. Pronounce with semi-vowel as needed." There aren't any ridiculous rules about whether it's a silent sheva or a vocal sheva. Syriac trusts you to figure out whether you need vocalization or not. And isn't trust the crucial foundation for every good relationship?

5. And plurals all have a nice little diaresis type marker called a sómye. I know what you're thinking: "Ahhh. So that's the catch; where does that little beauty go and how often does it change depending on fifty other variables?" Well, you have to put it in the word you're making plural. Somewhere in the word. Go ahead -- personalize your sómye habits. But think about it -- you can be pretty sure a word is plural if you see the double-dots. Isn't that nice and helpful? What other language goes out of its way to give you a helping hand?

6. They've got poetry about pigeons. Theologically symbolic pigeons. Need I say more?