Many people are (or ought to be) interested in learning the language Jesus spoke as his native tongue, and in which his words were first uttered: Aramaic. It is also the language in which a few parts of the Bible were written, as well as the Talmud, Targums (paraphrases of the Jewish Scriptures), and other Jewish literature.
Syriac, the dominant language of the Eastern church for a very long time, is essentially the same language, written with any of three different scripts. Aramaic is written in the ‘square letters’ that most people associate with Hebrew, but in fact originally this was the Aramaic alphabet. Syriac and Aramaic are dialects, rather than distinct languages. [Aramaic and Hebrew are, on the other hand, closely related languages (like Italian and Romanian, for instance). The distinction of course is not a hard and fast one, since presumably both languages go back to a common earlier one, and were both once more closely related as ‘dialects’.]
A smaller number of people are interested in Mandaic, the language in which the sacred texts of a Gnostic baptizing sect that still exists today in Iraq and Iran as well as a diaspora stretching from Australia to the United States. Materials for learning this particular dialect of Aramaic are harder to come by (although that is improving), but some of their ancient texts can be found online.
When I first started learning Syriac, I used Thackston’s Introduction to Syriac, since it provides transliteration into English. This is a very helpful feature when first beginning. But ultimately, the unvocalized Estrangelo script comes to be a hindrance. One doesn’t learn a language by reading it without vowels. One learns one’s native language by hearing it spoken, speaking it, and then eventually writing it (with or without vowels). Going about learning a language any other way, even an ancient one, doesn’t make sense.
So then I moved on to John F. Healey’s Leshono Suryoyo: First Studies in Syriac, published by Gorgias Press. It comes with a CD so you can hear how the language sounds, and uses the vocalized Serto script. Even with the vowels one needs guidance and help with pronunciation, and so having access to Thackston might still be worthwhile. But now you’re learning two alphabets.
This isn’t a bad thing – in printed editions of the Peshitta (the Bible in Syriac), as in some lexicons, one will encounter the vocalized Serto script for the main text, but Estrangelo for headings. So combining Thackston and Healey has another useful aspect to it.
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics of the language, get a copy of the Syriac New Testament. (You’ll probably want to buy one, as the Peshitta available online is in the unvocalized Estrangelo script) Then you can use as you read it a wonderful free book available online, the Clavis Syriaca by Henry F. Whish (1883). It goes through the Gospels in Syriac, translating and explaining each word in English, as well as giving the Greek equivalent. In the book the typeface used for the Syriac Serto script is a bit different than in most texts printed nowadays, and so it will take some getting used to. But once you do, this will do for your reading in Syriac what Sakae Kubo’s Reader’s Greek English Lexicon does for students of Greek.
There are other potentially useful resources for Syriac online: Eberhard Nestle’s Syriac grammar with chrestomathy (for those who have a good grasp of German), the Syriac grammar and Elements of Syriac by Philips, and the Syriac grammar by Uhlemann.
Also useful (although the print isn’t as clear as it might ideally have been) is Lexical Tools to the Syriac New Testament by George Anton Kiraz (Gorgias Press, 2002). It works through the vocabulary of the Syriac New Testament by frequency, and students of Biblical languages will know that is the best way to get reading as quickly as possible. The book also provides verbal paradigms, a skeleton grammar, and other useful features.
In the end, you can skip the Nestorian script (not used much in printed Syriac texts a beginner is likely to work with), and if you stick with Syriac, you can move on to Aramaic and/or Mandaic later. For most people interested in Aramaic/Syriac, having better resources for learning Aramaic would have been ideal, since those who know even a little Hebrew already know the Aramaic alphabet. But there are far fewer good resources, and surprisingly little in terms of readers with vocalized/pointed Talmudic or Targumic texts for beginners to work with. I am starting to wonder how students of the Rabbinic literature go about learning Aramaic.
And so there you have it. You can learn the language of Jesus and his earliest followers, of parts of Daniel and Ezra, of the Eastern Church, of the Rabbis, the Talmud and the Targums, and of the last remaining continuous Gnostic group. Basically one language, but written in a number of different alphabets. Learning a new alphabet can always seem like a hurdle – especially alphabets used for Semitic languages, which have a tendency to change forms depending on whether there are letters before or after. But we need more students of early Christianity who know Syriac/Aramaic/Mandaic, whether their interest is in the historical figure of Jesus, early oral tradition, the cultural setting of the earliest Christians, Gnosticism, or many other areas.
I’m still looking for a audiobook Syriac Bible I can put on in the car…and of course, a Pimsleur course in Mandaic would be nice… There is, in fact, a spoken dialect of Mandaic too, which is as different from classical Mandaic as modern Syriac is from the classical form. If you want to hear this spoken Mandaic, there are mp3 files with accompanying pdf files available online.
But that won’t be too daunting for you, I’m sure, because anyone who has read this far must love languages as much as I do!