Language Change in the Wake of Empire: Syriac in Its Greco-Roman Context

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By Aaron Michael Butts

© 2013 All Rights Reserved
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: Rebecca Hasselbach, Lenore Grenoble, Dennis Pardee, Lucas Van Rompay


ABSTRACT

Greek-Aramaic bilingualism was wide-spread throughout Late Antique Syria and Mesopotamia. Among the various Aramaic dialects, Syriac underwent a particularly intense and prolonged period of contact with Greek. This contact led to changes in both languages. The present study provides a new analysis of contact-induced changes in Syriac due to Greek, from the earliest attestations of Syriac at the turn of the Common Era up until the beginning of the eighth century when the socio-linguistic situation changed due to the Arab conquests. More specifically, the study argues that Syriac is the outcome of a particular socio-linguistic situation in which inherited Aramaic material was augmented and adapted through contact with Greek. Augmentation refers to the fact that Syriac-speakers added a large number of Greek loanwords to their inherited Aramaic vocabulary. Greek loanwords in Syriac are the subject of Chapters §4-7 of the study. Adaptation, in contrast, refers to instances in which speakers of Syriac replicated inherited Aramaic material on the pattern of Greek. This type of change, which is termed grammatical replication in this study, is the subject of Chapters §8-10. It is proposed that the augmentation and adaptation of inherited Aramaic material was a factor in the development of Syriac as it is now known.

This study is located at the intersection of two fields: contact linguistics and the study of ancient languages. It is based on the premise that these two fields can, and should, exist in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. To this end, the study analyzes the relevant data within a contact-linguistic framework. This enables a more precise description of the changes than has previously been possible. In addition, by analyzing the data from the perspective of contact linguistics, the study has been able to illuminate part of the previously hidden socio-historical context of ancient Syriac-speakers. This study also shows how an ancient language such as Syriac, with its large and diverse written record, can inform the field of contact linguistics as well as historical linguistics more generally. It documents in detail various types of contact-induced change over a relatively long period of time with a wealth of data. Of particular interest to the field of contact linguistics, the study presents several examples of the transfer of semantic-conceptual grammatical structure in a contact situation in which the agents of change were linguistically dominant in the recipient language.