Saturday, March 02, 2013


I find the proposition that people should learn Modern Greek because this will improve their English vaguely amusing. Granted there do exist an extremely large number of Greek loanwords and Greek-derived neologisms in the English language but more often than not, English speaking Greeks tend to learn the Greek word AFTER they have discovered its English version. Mourad Didori, Lecturer in Arabic Language Studies applies a similar rationale in his course of lectures “You already speak Arabic,” where the number of Arabic words utilised by colloquial English, including apricot, on-loaned from Byzantine Greek, is astounding. While Greek is not the mother of languages as some cultural supremacists would have us believe, it is a little known fact that the Greek language profoundly influenced the languages of the Middle East, especially Arabic and through it, Persian. My first experience of this was when a Persian friend referred to a grape as estafil. Said Persian friend caused my jaw to drop and my mouth to gape over when proceeding to refer to a right angle as a gonia. The borrowings from Greek into the various Iranian languages began in pre-Islamic times, with words such as simino ‘made of silver, silverware,’ attested in Bactrian, didm or diadem attested in Middle Persian, ispir or sphere in Parthian, ‘ysimarye’ for smaragdi or emerald in Pahlavi and yakund, for hyacinth, also in Pahlavi. Most interesting from my point of view is the word palau,originaly meaning bowl, from which the word pilaf is derived. This word appears to be a Khotanese borrowing from the Greek word phiale, also meaning bowl.

Borrowings after the advent of Islam in Persia vary according to genres of texts and to disciplines of learning. Thus in contrast to Islamic religious scholarship (exempting the Koran’s Greek loanwords, which naturally passed into Persian) the syllabus of Aristotelian philosophy, medicine and its ancillary fields, and the occult disciplines—would seem to be primary loci of Greek terminology. Other channels by which Greek words entered Persian were commerce and administration. Eventually, most Greek elements to remain in Persian usage were proper names, especially of ancient authorities, and names of merchandise and of units of measure. Basically any Greek word encountered in Arabic could be incorporated into Persian, whether simply as Arabic or correctly identified as to its Greek origin or intermediate Greek stage.

In addition to division by semantic fields, Greek lexical items in Persian can also be distinguished by trajectory and period of borrowing, considering the marked historical caesurae that delimited periods of potential contact and the fact that, for most of their history, the two linguistic areas of Iranian and Greek were not contiguous. The Muslim conquest and with it the demise of the Sasanian dynasty, and the linguistic shift in Iranian, and the ensuing period of literary latency of what subsequently emerged as New Persian represented a watershed in the introduction of Greek into Iranian. Here a few closely interrelated questions arise, in regard to the period of original borrowing and as to the subsequent destiny of the borrowed lexical items. A fundamental difference exists between the Greek words that entered Persian before the Muslim conquest and the Greek loanwords dating from the post-conquest period. The former passed either directly or via Aramaic from Greek into Pahlavi, the pre-Islamic form of the Persian language while the latter inevitably had Arabic as their proximate origin before entering Persian. This holds true for most of the Greek terms of medicine and pharmacy used in Persian (such as tafisa from the Greek thapsia, and qarabadin, from the Greek graphidion meaning “booklet”). There are, however, a number of notable exceptions that were passed from Greek into Old and then New Persian directly and are not restricted to use in medical contexts, such as yara (Greek. hiera “holy”), teryak (Greek. theriake “treacle”), ster (Greek. statir “stater,” and deram, derham “dram, dirham,” (Greek. drakhme). Conversely and in greater numbers, Greek medical and medicinal terms, first borrowed during early Byzantine times and then, falling into disuse in Persia were taken over into Arabic and were later re-introduced from Arabic into Persia, such as qawlanj from the Greek kolik meaning colic. From astronomy, examples of comparable late Middle Iranian Greek loanwords which first passed into Arabic before making their way back into Persian are the names Batlamiyus (from the Greek Ptolemaios,) and Majesti (from the Greek Megiste, referring to Ptolemy’s great mathematical work, the “Almagest.”

The reception of large numbers of Greek loan words into Persian is only astounding today, owing to the fact that Iran culturally and politically seems extremely distant and foreign to a modern European-oriented Greece. Yet for most of Greek history, Iran was the other, the utter opposite that fascinated and served to define the Greeks and cause them to construct their own identity. Greek and later Byzantine imperialism, it could be plausibly held, developed from, or aped Persian precedents and it is no coincidence that Greek imperialist expansion primarily took place in the East, over what was once Persian held territory. Cultural exchanges intensified with the transplantation of Greek colonists into Bactria and Byzantine imperial ceremonial was heavily influenced by that of the Persian Sassanian kings, who incidentally referred to their Greek counterparts as “brothers,” considering them to be the only rulers that were their equals. Diplomatic presents usually took the form of the exchanging of texts, engineers and philosophers, while it must be noted that upon the closure of the School of Athens by the Emperor Justinian, Greek philosophers were invited into Persia by its shah, and re-settled in Ctesiphon. Heretical theologians and Greek political refugees were treated likewise so it is no wonder then that the following amazing range of Greek words entered the Persian tongue:

Toponyms: Atiniya “Athens,” Eskandariya “Alexandria,” Ankuriya “Ankara,” Qaysariya “Caesarea,” Rumiya “Rome,” Atrabolos “Tripoli”; Senub “Sinope,” Sivas “Sevasteia.”

Astronomy: Barsavos “Perseus,” Dalfin “Delphinus,” Qanturis “Centaurus,” Qitus “Cetus,” and Qifavus “Cepheus.”

Biblionyms: Abidimiya, from Epidimia “the Epidemics of Hippocrates,” Urganun from Organon “the Organon of Aristotle,” Isaguji from Eisagogi “the Isagoge of Porphyry,” Bari Armanias from Peri Hermineias “Aristotle’s De interpretatione.”

Units of currency and measure: pul from obolos; qesta from xestes, “pint,” qerat from keration “carat.”

General terms: eqlim from klima, “clime,” sabun from sapion, “rotten, putrid,” manjaniq from manganikon, “pulley,” buqalamun from hypokalamon, “moiré cloth,” qamus from okeanos “ocean,” abanus from ebenos “ebony,” tumar from tomarion “document, tract,” qalam from kalamos “reed,” qertas from khartis “sheet of papyrus,” qanun from kanon “straight-edge, rule,”

Medical terms: In addition to Galen and other major authors of works on medicine in Arabic, Dioscorides’s classic on materia medica, provided a wealth of Greek medical terms. Not only was the text studied in Arabic translation, but it was also rendered into Persian. A few samples to permit a glimpse into a rich, existing repertoire: fantasiya for phantasia, “display; imagination,” ilaaus for eileos, “intestinal disease,” faranites for phrenitis, “frenzy,” malikulia for melancholia; anisun for anithon “dill, anise,” qulqas for kolokasi- "Egyptian lotus,” qalqand for khalkanthon, “copper sulfate solution.”

Philosophical terms: hayula for hyle, “wood, timber; matter,” faylasuf for philosophos “philosopher.”

Alchemical terms: eksir for xirion “desiccative powder for wounds,” telasm for telesma “payment, outlay,” and kimia for khimeia “melting; alchemy.”

Religious terms: Eblis for diabolos “slanderer; the Devil,” enjil for euangelion “gospel.”

Of course Persian would get its own back after the fall of Byzantium whereupon through Turkish, a multitude of Persian words would flood the Greek vocabulary, the vast majority of which are still in daily use in the Modern Greek tongue today. Nonetheless, from the first attested appearance of Persian into Greek, being a few garbled words in Aeschylus’ play “the Persians,” until the modern era, there has been a continuous, fascinating and ultimately enriching exchange of culture and vocabulary, absent of which, both our people’s cultures would be much diminished. Next week, a look at Ancient Greek loanwords from Semitic languages. Until then, its an αρραβώνα, which, of course, is an ancient Assyrian word for promise of pledge.


First pubished in NKEE on Saturday 2 March 2013