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Review of Gorgias Concise Syriac-English English-Syriac Dictionary

Brock, Sebastian P. and George A. Kiraz, eds. Gorgias Concise Syriac-English English-Syriac Dictionary. Gorgias Handbooks. Piscataway: Gorgias, 2015. Pp. x + 457. ISBN 9781463202248. (hb). US $48.

As Brock points out in the preface to this dictionary, “Syriac is the best provided of all the Aramaic dialects for dictionaries, and so one might wonder why another is needed” (vii).  However, a few minutes’ use with this dictionary immediately shows the reader its worth. This is a simplified dictionary. Indeed, “concise” is an apt word, but as Brock points out, “The prime reason for the present dictionary is a practical one, to provide readers of Classical Syriac texts with a handy dictionary in a simplified form with an English-Syriac companion. It has no claims at all to be making any advance in Syriac lexicography; if it just serves as a handy and useful first step before consulting the more detailed dictionaries, it will have fulfilled its main purpose” (vii). To this end, Brock and Kiraz have been hugely successful.

The entries for the dictionary are based largely on Jessie Payne Smith’s Compendious Syriac Dictionary (Oxford 1903) and to a lesser degree on L. Costaz, Dictionnaire Syriaque-français, Syriac-English (Beyrouth 1963, repr. 1994). In the end, the dictionary contains in the region on 13,000 words; more than enough for all but the most specialized texts of the pre-modern period.

After a short preface, two pages offer easily understood guidelines for the use of the dictionary itself. A quick glance at the abbreviations indicates just how simplified this dictionary is. For example, no abbreviation is given for terms such as ‘adjective,’ ‘adverb,’ or ‘preposition.’ Indeed, the entries themselves are no more involved than one might find in the back of a beginners Syriac grammar.

After the purpose and function of the dictionary have been established, the reader easily finds the Syriac-English portion where words appear in alphabetical order (as opposed to appearing by verbal root). In this section of the dictionary each page comprises two columns roughly 2.5 inches wide. Verbs that appear in a form other than the pʽal are indicated clearly. Other than this, however, most words are given no grammatical information whatsoever. No example sentences are provided and very few words receive more than one or two definitions.

The second half of the dictionary comprises the English-Syriac dictionary. As with the Syriac-English section, very little is provided in the way of grammatical data (here only verbs are indicated). This section, however, requires three columns because each English word is often given three or four Syriac definitions. The reader may wonder exactly what use an English-Syriac dictionary might serve, but it is precisely because of this multivalence of possible Syriac definitions for each English word that this portion of the dictionary is so helpful. For example, why would the Peshitta and the two Old Syriac witnesses to Matthew’s Gospel offer three different translations of the Gk. ‘δικαιοσύνη’ in Matt 5:6? Having an English-Syriac dictionary allows the student to understand what words an author could have chosen. For me, this line of enquiry itself justifies an English-Syriac dictionary. The reader, too, is sure to be grateful for its inclusion alongside the Syriac-English section.

The layout and usability of this dictionary is second to none. The reason for this user friendliness is due to several factors. First, the entries are clean and uncluttered; some may wish for more information or definitions, but the aim of this dictionary is to be a first stop on the way to more comprehensive dictionaries. Second, the type is large and clear. Not only is the Syriac vocalized, but it also appears in the Serto font in all entries, which will be a welcome feature to most readers, especially new students of Syriac whose introductory grammars were most likely written in the Serto font as well (e.g., J.F. Coakly’s Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises in Syriac Grammar, Oxford, 2015). Third, an electronic version of this dictionary comes free with each physical copy via the SEDRA (Syriac Electronic Data Research Archive) website. For registered users, this website also provides Syriac texts of the New Testament, verb paradigms, and more. This is simply an added bonus to an already outstanding book.

In the final analysis, this volume most definitively succeeds in its aim to be a quick and easy dictionary for the study of Classical Syriac. Although some readers understandably will be left hoping for more information, this dictionary absolutely serves a purpose. At around 450 pp. it is concise enough to be manageable and Syriac experts will be pleased to have such an option. Since it is affordably priced, trustworthy, and in a font that is parallel to their classroom textbooks, teachers of Classical Syriac, moreover, will be pleased to finally have a dictionary that they can commend to their students. Although this dictionary admittedly does not do everything that dictionaries can, it accomplishes its aims as well as anyone could hope, and I recommend it to all students of Classical Syriac.

– Stephen Campbell, Durham University

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