How far did the influence of Ancient Greek spread?

By: | Post date: 2017-03-09 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics

OK, let’s dispense with hora quickly. Not to belabour it, but yes, coincidence.

Probabilities add up pretty quickly in real life, in a way that clashes with our seeking of patterns: See Birthday problem – Wikipedia. If you put 23 randoms in the same room, there is a 50% probability that two of them will share the same birthday.

The probability is so high, because the coincidence is not that, say, Amy and Nick both have the same birthday on August 29. It’s that any two people out of the 23 will have the same birthday on any of the 365 days of the year. That’s a lot of possible coincidences.

Two random bisyllabic words in two languages, sounding kinda similar and meaning kinda the same thing? It’s guaranteed. Coincidences do happen.

The Bulgarian word for “come!” being elate, and identical to Greek ελάτε? That’s a lot more plausible as a loanword.

The most random spread of Greek, I’d say, is meli in Hawaiian: Nick Nicholas’ answer to What are some (longer) words that appear or are considered false cognates, but which could plausibly be actual cognates?

What’s the furthest spread of Ancient Greek in lexis? It’s a great question, and I don’t think I’ll do it justice.

  • Via Christianity, there’s a smattering of Greek words in most languages with a tradition of Christianity. Bishop and church barely look like episkopos and kyriake [oikia].
  • Via Latin and Modern scholarship, there’s more than a smattering of Greek words in probably more languages by now.

Neither of those are what you’re after though.

  • There are some Greek words in Hebrew, such as sanhedrin < synedrion, Epikoros < Epicurus.
  • Then there’s um… *googles*… *finds hit in Google Books*… *hey, I own that book!* A History of Ancient Greek (I own it in the Greek original).

This leviathan of a book has 110 pages on language contact between Greek and: Semitic, Thracian, Illyrian, Phrygian, Carian, Lycian, Lydian, Iranic, Etruscan, Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Celtic, Indic, Arabic. (The contact could be either way.)

They’re all neighbours of Greek, and the furthest reach is Indic. Let me pick the far reaches I find interesting:

  • Iranic: Middle Persian dēnar, Modern dīnar < δηνάριος. Middle Persian drahm, Modern dirham < δραχμή. Middle & Modern Persian almās < ἀδάμας ‘diamond’. Middle Persian asēm, Modern sīm < ἄσημος ‘silver’. Sogdian nwm < νόμος ‘law’. Khotan Saka lakāna < λακάνη ‘basin’. Pashto mēčan, Ormuri mučin < μηχανή ‘grindstone’.
  • Gaulish: possibly calques, e.g. goddess name Rocloisia ‘listener’ < ἐπήκοος, tooutios < πολίτης ‘citizen?’
  • Old Indic stratega < στρατηγός ‘general’, meriakha < μεριδιάρχης ‘battalion commander’, anakaya < ἀναγκαῖος ‘honorary title, initially relative of ruler’; these military terms lasted for just a couple of centuries, and never made it into Sanskrit. Sanskrit did borrow some trade terms: khalīna < χαλινός ‘bridle’, paristoma < περίστρωμα ‘bedcover’, kastīra < κασσίτερος ‘tin’, melā < μέλαν ‘ink’.
    • Sabeshan Iyer adds: kēndra < κέντρον ‘centre’, suranga < σύριγξ ‘tunnel/underground passage’
  • Arabic: any pre-Islamic loans are via Aramaic or Persian; e.g. dirham. In the Koran, the only loans direct from Greek are fulk < ἐφόλκιον ‘ship’ and possibly iblīs < διάβολος ‘devil’. Another 15 words are via Aramaic or Pahlavi; e.g. zawǧ < ζεῦγος ‘pair’, qamīṣ < καμίσιον ‘shirt’, burūǧ < πύργος ‘tower’.

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