Syriac is a form of Aramaic, a language whose many dialects have been in continuous use since the 11th century BC. Originally the language of the Aramean people, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East by the 6th century BC. Jesus and the Apostles spoke and preached in Aramaic.
Before Arabic became the dominant language, Syriac was a major language among Christian communities in the Middle East, Central Asia and southern India. It is now spoken as a first language in small, scattered communities in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan. These communities have, over the years, settled throughout the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Australia.
Syriac began as an unwritten spoken dialect of Old Aramaic in northern Mesopotamia. The first evidence we have of such dialects is their influence on the written Imperial Aramaic from the fifth century BC. After the conquests of Syria and Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects became written languages in a reaction to Hellenism.
There are about eighty extant Old Syriac inscriptions, dated to the first three centuries AD (the earliest example of Syriac, rather than Imperial Aramaic, is in an inscription dated to AD 6, and the earliest parchment is a deed of sale dated to AD 243). All of these early examples of the language are non-Christian. As an official language, Old Syriac was given a relatively coherent form, style and grammar that is lacking in other Old Eastern Aramaic dialects.
Aramaic is a Semitic language with a 3,000-year history. It is the original language of some parts of the Bible; it has been the language of administration of empires, and the language of divine worship. It was probably the language of Jesus, (Jesus’ spoke Aramaic, the common language of Galilee during his lifetime); it is the language of the Talmud, and it is still spoken today as a first language by numerous small communities.
Aramaic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family. Within that diverse family, it belongs to the Semitic subfamily. Aramaic is a part of the Northwest Semitic group of languages, which includes the Canaanite languages (including Hebrew).
Aramaic is really a group of related languages, rather than a single, monolithic language. The long history of Aramaic, its extensive literature and its use by different religious communities are all factors in the diversification of the language. Some Aramaic dialects are mutually intelligible, whereas others are not. Some Aramaic languages are known under different names; for example, Syriac is particularly used to describe the Eastern Aramaic of Christian communities.
Two major writing systems are used to write Aramaic, both coming from a common source. What is most often described as the Aramaic alphabet is based on the Phoenician alphabet. The distinctive, “square” style of the Aramaic alphabet was gradually adopted for writing Hebrew, and is thus better known as the Hebrew alphabet. Jewish communities use the Hebrew alphabet for writing Aramaic; this is also the alphabet used for Biblical Aramaic.
Christian communities developed a cursive form of the Aramaic alphabet known as the Syriac alphabet