Greece xiii. Greek Loanwords in Middle Iranian Languages




Notwithstanding many centuries of at times intensive contact and confrontation between the Greco-Roman/Byzantine and Iranian worlds from Achaemenid through Sasanian times and even beyond, the number of loanwords borrowed from Greek into the pre-Islamic Iranian languages is far less impressive than the number of borrowings in the other direction. Thus, no Greek loanwords seem to have been preserved in any of the Old Iranian languages known to us, while only a limited number—sometimes borrowed themselves from Latin—have found their way into more than one Middle Iranian language, such as: Pahl. (ʾ)sym /(a)sēm/ ‘silver’ (MacKenzie, 1986, pp. 12, 74; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 31), cf. Bactr. simino ‘made of silver, silverware,’ i.e., unattested Bactr. *simo ‘silver’ + suff. *-aina- (Sims-Williams, 2000, 223b) < Gr. ásēmon ‘1unmarked > 2silverware, jewels’; Inscr. Parth. dynr (Huyse, I, p. 128), Pahl. dynʾl /dēnār/ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 26), Bactr. d(d)inaro (Sims-Williams, 2000, p. 190), MSogd. δynʾ(ʾ)r /δēnār/ (Gharib, pp. 148b, 149a), Chor. dynʾr (Benzing, p. 265) ‘denar, gold coin’ < Gr. dēnárion (sc. khrusoûn) ‘(gold) denar’, in its turn borrowed from Lat. denarius (sc. nummus); Inscr. Mid. Pers./Parth. dydymy (Skjærvø, p. 93), Man. Mid. Pers./Parth. dydym /dīdēm/ (Boyce, p. 38), B/MSogd. δyδm(h) /δīδēm/ (Gharib, p. 148a) ‘diadem, garland’ < Gr. diá-dēma ‘ribbon, diadem’; Man. Mid. Pers. drhm /drahm/ (MacKenzie, 1971, p. 27; Boyce, p. 35; Nyberg, Man-ual II, p. 65), Bactr. d(d)raxmo (Sims-Williams, 1996a, p. 649; idem, 2000, p. 190), SSogd. δrγm(h)1 /draxm(a)/ (Gharib, p. 141b), Khot. draṃmaa- (Bailey, Dictionary, p. 166b; idem, 1982, p. 38) ‘drachm’ < Gr. drakhmḗ ‘drachm’; Inscr. Mid. Pers. kysly, Inscr. Parth. kysr (Huyse, I, p. 140), Pahl. kysl /kēsar/ (MacKenzie 1986, p. 51), SSogd. kysr, CSogd. qysr /kēsar/ (Gharib, p. 204a) ‘Caesar’ < Gr. Kaîsar, from Lat. Caesar; Bactr. oišoggo ‘(cloth) made of linen or cotton’, *oišo ‘linen, cotton’ + suff. -iggo (Sims-Williams, 2000, p. 214), Sogd. wšwynʾk, with suff. -ynʾk (Sims-Williams, 1996b, p. 51 n. 38) < Gk. bússos ‘linen, cotton’; Pahl. spy(y)hl, Man. Mid. Pers. ʿspyr ‘sphere, sky, firmament, fate’ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 76; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 178), Man. Parth. ʿspyr1 /ispīr/ ‘globe, sphere’ (Boyce, p. 22) < Gr. sphaîra ‘round object, ball, sphere, celestial body’; Pahl. styl /stēr/ ‘stater’ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 77), B/M/SSogd. stʾyr /stēr/ ‘stater’ (Gharib 1995, 363a), Chor. styrc ‘stater’, stryc/(ʾ)stryk ‘drachm’ (Benzing, pp. 93, 584 f.), Khot. satīra- ‘stater’ (Bailey, Dictionary, p. 418) < Gr. statḗr ‘stater’ (coin and weight); Pahl. ʾwzmbwltˈ /uzumburd/ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 85; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 199b), MSogd. mrktth /markat/ (Gharib, p. 217), Khot. ysimarye (Bailey, Dictionary, pp. 351b-52a; idem 1982, p. 14) ‘emerald’ < Gr. smáragdos ‘emerald’; Pahl. yʾknd/yʾkntˈ /yākand/ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 96; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 225), Man. Parth. yʾkwnd /yākund/ ‘ruby’ (Ghilain, p. 10 n. 9) < Gr. hyákinthos ’1hyacinth; 2blue precious stone’.

All in all, the Iranians rather preferred to translate Greek religious and philosophical terms with an Iranian neologism than to take them over as such (for a detailed study of a range of such calques and loan translations see Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems, pp. 78-119). At any rate, not even the presence of the Greeks on the Iranian soil during Seleucid and Greco-Bactrian times caused a significant increase of Greek loanwords and many seem moreover to have been borrowed into one language at a time only, mostly into Middle Persian or Parthian (for Greek loanwords in Parthian Manichaean texts see Ghi-lain, p. 10 n. 9; in Sogdian texts see Yoshida, p. 171 f.). They include: Pahl. ʾ łmʾs(tˈ) /almās(t)/ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 7; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 14), Man. Mid. Pers. ʾrmʾs /armās/ (Boyce, p. 15) ‘hard metal, steel, diamond’ < Gr. adámas ‘hard metal, steel, diamond’; Man. Parth. ʾwnglywn /ewangelyōn/ ‘Evangel, Gospel’ (Boyce, p. 17) < Gr. euangéllion ‘(reward for) good news, Gospel’; Man. Parth. ʿskym /iskēm/ ‘form, shape’ (Boyce, p. 21) < Gr. skhêma ‘form, shape, attitude, position’; Man. Parth. ʿspyr2 /ispēr/ ‘troop of soldiers, army’ (Boyce, p. 22) < Gr. speîra ‘1spiral; 2enrolled object; 3troop of soldiers, corps’; Man. Parth. ʿstrtywt /istratiyōtā/ ‘soldier’ (Boyce, p. 23) < Gr. stratiṓtēs ‘soldier’; Man. Parth. bʿym /bēm/ ‘(feast of the Bema)’ (Boyce, p. 26) < Gr. bêma ‘1step; 2raised surface > orator’s platform’; CSogd. brbrʾyq /βarβarīk/ ‘barbarian’ (Gharib, p. 108a; see esp. Sundermann, pp. 25-27) < Gr. bárbaros ‘foreigner, barbarian’; Inscr. Parth. hykmwn (Huyse, I, p. 136), Man. Parth. hygmwn (Boyce, p. 49) /hēgemōn/ ‘ruler, governor’ < Gr. hēgemôn ‘guide, commander’ (Sundermann, pp. 27 f.); Pah. dptl /daftar/ ‘register, account book’ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 23) < Gk. diphtéra ‘prepared hide, piece of leather’; Sogd. myδʾmβn ‘medimn’ (a measure used for grain) < Gr. médimnos ‘medimn’ (Sims-Williams, 1996b, p. 51); Pahl. kʾlpwtˈ /kālbod/, Man. Mid. Pers. kʾlbyd /kālbid/ ‘body, shape, form’ < Gr. kalopódion ‘shoemaker’s last’ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 48; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 110a); Man. Sogd. qpyδ ‘shop, stall’ < Gr. kapēleîon ‘shop, stall’ (Sims-Williams, 1996b, p. 51 n. 39); Man. Parth. qṭrywn /kattriōn/ ‘centurion’ < Gr. kentoríon, Lat. centurio ‘centurio’ (Boyce, p. 53); Khot. lakāna- ‘vessel’ (Bailey, Dictionary, p. 370; idem, 1982, p. 14) < Gr. lekánē ’basin, tub’; Khot. phalau ‘flat dish, bowl’ (Bailey, Dictionary, p. 261; idem, 1982, p. 14) < Gr. phiálē ’cup, bowl’; Pahl. pylʾwswkpʾy /fīlāsōfā/ ‘philosopher’ (MacKenzie, 1971, p. 32; Sundermann, pp. 15 f., 32 n. 8), borrowed from Gr. philósophos ‘philosopher’ over Syr. pylyswpʾ /fīlisōfā/ (see Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems, p. 86 n. 1); Inscr. Parth. sʾntwr /sānatōr/ ‘senatorδ < Lat. senator ‘senator’ (Huyse I, p. 164); Pahl. swkpstʾkˈ /sōfistā/ ‘sophist’ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 75; Sundermann, pp. 16-25), borrowed from Gr. sophistḗs ‘sophist’ over Syr. swpysṭʾ /sōfisṭā/ (see Sundermann, p. 20).

On the other hand, the words Pahl. mwlwʾlytˈ, Man. Mid. Pers. mwrwʾryd /morwārīd/ (MacKenzie, 1986, p. 56), Man. Parth. mwrgʾryd /morγārīd/ (Boyce, p. 58), Sogd. mrγʾrt(h) (Gharib, p. 217a), Khot. mrāhe [pl.] ‘pearl’ (Bailey, Dictionary, p. 341a-b) were most probably not borrowed from Gr. margarítēs (as is stated for example in Nyberg, Manual II, p. 134), but the borrowing may rather have functioned the other way around (see Gershevitch). Finally, Bactr. (a)xšono ‘(calendar/regnal) year’, khot. kṣuṇa- ‘section, period of time’ (Bailey, Dictionary, p.69) is possibly a loanword from Gr. khrónos ‘(period of) time’ (as was already suggested by A. Thierfelder apud Humbach, p. 24; cf. Sims-Williams 2000, p. 233).



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M. Boyce, A Word-List of Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian. Acta Iranica 9a, Tehran and Liège, 1977.

I. Gershevitch, “Margarites the Pearl,” in C.-H. de Fouchécour and Ph. Gignoux, eds., Etudes irano-aryennes offertes à Gilbert Lazard. Studia Iranica, Cahier 7, Paris, 1989, pp. 113-36 (p. 117 n. 8 [O. Szemerényi]).

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Idem, “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India,” in A. Cadonna and L. Lanciotti, eds. “Cina e Iran da Alessandro Magno alla dinastia Tang,” Orientalia Venetiana 5, Florence, 1996b, pp. 45-67.

Idem, Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan I: Legal and Economic Documents, Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, Pt. II, vol. 6, Oxford, 2000.

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W. Sundermann, “Soziale Typenbegriffe altgriechischen Ursprungs in der altiranischen Überlieferung,” in E. Ch. Welskopf, ed., Soziale Typenbegriffe im alten Griechenland VII, Berlin, 1982, pp. 14-38.

Y. Yoshida, “Sogdian Miscellany II [in Japanese],” Bulletin of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan 31, 1988, pp. 165-76.

(Philip Huyse)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

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Vol. XI, Fasc. 4, pp. 360-361