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  • Language Change in the Wake of Empire: Syriac in its Greco-Roman Context by Aaron Michael Butts
  • Siam Bhayro
Aaron Michael Butts Language Change in the Wake of Empire: Syriac in its Greco-Roman Context Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 11 Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016 Pp. xvii + 292. $59.50.

For the best part of three millennia, Aramaic has come into contact with numerous languages, including Akkadian, Greek, Arabic, and various Iranian languages. This has resulted in its being influenced by (and influencing) these languages. This influence involved more than simply borrowing (and loaning words), but also included morphological and syntactical innovations. Of the numerous Aramaic dialects, Syriac is by far the best attested, with a rich array of texts across diverse genres and periods, both original compositions and translations from other languages, especially Greek. In this book, Aaron Butts brings the field of contact linguistics to bear on the subject of how Greek influenced Syriac. Following an introductory chapter, the book is split into three parts. The first part presents the context, the second treats loanwords, and the third examines grammatical replication.

Chapter Two establishes the contact linguistics framework for the ensuing analysis. Butts explains why he prefers the typology presented in Van Coetsem's 1988 monograph Loan Phonology and the Two Transfer Types in Language Contact. This allows Butts to focus on three aspects of contact-induced change. The first is borrowing and relates to recipient language agentivity; this mostly results in the borrowing of lexemes. The second is imposition and relates to source language agentivity; this mostly results in innovations in phonology and syntax (and, less commonly, morphology). The third is neutralization, which can result in the transference of any linguistic feature. Having established a sound contact linguistics framework, Chapter Three presents the socio-historical and socio-linguistic contexts for Greek-Syriac contact, beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great, and ending with conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia by the Arabs in 637 C.E. Butts makes an important observation in this chapter, namely that we have evidence for native Syriac speakers learning Greek, but [End Page 332] no evidence for native Greek speakers learning Syriac. This is because, "as the language of empire, Greek was a language of prestige in Late Antique Syriac and Mesopotamia … [and this was] especially true for local Syriac-speaking elites who wished to participate in the broader Greco-Roman world" (39). Butts is careful to avoid clumsy generalizations, however, pointing out that "there was a continuum of knowledge of Greek among people whose native language was Syriac" (37). For example, we can contrast Theodoret, a native Syriac speaker who wrote in a high register of Attic Greek, with Ouranius, a native Syriac speaker who had virtually no knowledge of Greek at all. Butts thus demonstrates that the best model for Greek-Syriac contact is Van Coetsem's borrowing category, i.e., speakers for whom Syriac was dominant transferred features from Greek into Syriac.

In the following three chapters, Butts treats Greek loanwords in Syriac. Chapter Four presents Butts's methodology for analyzing loanwords. He explains that his analysis is "based on a corpus of more than 800 Greek loanwords and their derivatives found in pre-eighth-century Syriac texts that were not translated from Greek" (47). He then discusses the continuum between Lehnwörter and Fremdwörter, code-switching: Greek as an intermediate source, Latin loanwords, and the transfer of Greek loanwords between Aramaic dialects. Finally, Butts discusses how the Greek loanwords in Syriac can give us an insight into the Greek of late antique Syria and Mesopotamia. Chapter Five analyzes the phonology of Greek loanwords in Syriac. As far as I am aware, this is the first systematic and comprehensive analysis of this subject and, as such, is very important. As Butts excludes translations from Greek sources from his analysis, the numerous examples of Greek botanical terminology borrowed into Syriac, e.g., in the translation of Galen's Book of Simple Drugs, are not treated here. Having said that, anecdotally, Butts's observations accord with what I have observed for the borrowed botanical terms, namely that the representation of consonants is relatively stable, whereas there...


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