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Matthieu Isbell

Member of the Department of Classics and Ancient History


My BA was taken at Trinity College Dublin with a degree in Ancient and Medieval History and Culture (2018), where I ultimately worked on the relationship between the Mongols and the Levantine Crusades. This inspired in me an interest in intercultural relations, for which reason I undertook the MA in Greece, Rome, and the Near East at Durham University (completed in 2021). 

Research Project

My PhD dissertation studies the history of Syriac from the 100s to the 400s AD. Many local variants stopped being written by the 300s, but the Syriac dialect not only continued being written, but it also developed into a significant literary language in Late Antiquity, as well as a popular liturgical language of near-eastern Christian churches for centuries afterwards. Scholars have studied Syriac written sources, in addition to the vocabulary, grammar, and linguistic influences on Syriac. However, a specific study investigating why Syriac became the most prominent form of written Aramaic in Late Antiquity is found wanting.

My main research objectives are thus as follows. Firstly, I mean to determine the most likely factors that contributed to Syriac’s prominence in Late Antique writing, compared to other seemingly less successful Aramaic dialects. Secondly, I will evaluate Syriac’s relationship with other linguistic cultures of the Roman and Iranian Near East, such as Greek, other Aramaic dialects, and Hebrew. I will also examine how such relationships motivated Syriac’s prominence, if at all. My study entails an examination of the usages of Syriac writing through the earliest periods of the dialect’s history from the second to the fifth century AD, such as inscriptions, administrative documents, and Syriac translations and literary works.

I will evaluate the choice of Syriac in the sources, as well as various features of said Syriac, such as the grammar, style, and vocabulary. Where possible, I will additionally consider metalinguistic comments on language usage in Late Antiquity to understand how people viewed the use of language. In this way, I hope to not only see what likely contributed to Syriac’s continuation and prominence as a written language, but also the linguistic influences on the dialect. I will also factor in the historical context of the regions in which Syriac was used to determine what may have contributed to the usage of Syriac. I also consider the history of Syriac in light of theoretical frameworks for language contact and change. Thereby, I hope to understand the most likely factors that effected the perpetuation of Syriac through the histories of other languages.