Greece xiv. Greek Loanwords in Medieval New Persian




It stands to reason that the number of borrowings from Greek into Persian should 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 secular or, by the Arabic term, “ancient sciences—”the syllabus of Aristotelian philosophy, medicine and its ancillary fields, and the occult disciplines—would seem to be primary loci of Greek terminology. Yet it should be pointed out that in the Islamic period, Persian learned literature was largely modelled upon Arabic antecedents and that these, whether (direct or indirect) translations from Greek or Arabic originals, strove to minimize foreign and unfamiliar-sounding vocabulary. This was contrary to the position regularly accorded to Arabic in Persian, in which non-Arabic technical terminology was, as a rule, replaced by calques and other loan-adaptations or at least by words of common, even if non-technical, currency. Numerous words of non-Arabic origin had, indeed, become entirely assimilated and were no longer perceived as foreign. 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. In order to provide a balanced account, it should be noted that 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, while the latter inevitably had Arabic as their proximate origin before entering Persian. This holds true for most of the Greek terms of materia medica and pharmacy used in Persian (e.g., ṯāfisā < Gk. thapsia, Thapsia granica L., and qarābāḏin, < Gk. graphidion “booklet”). There are, however, a number of notable exceptions that betray traces of an intra-Iranian passage from the Sasanian period into New Persian and are not restricted to use in medical contexts; examples are yāra (Gk. hiera “holy”), teryāk (Gk. thēriakē “treacle”), stēr (Gk. statēr “stater,” New Per. sir, a unit of weight), and deram, derham “dram, dirham,” q.v. (Gk. drakhmē). Conversely and in greater numbers, Greek medical and medicinal terms, first borrowed during the Sasanian or early post-Sasanian periods, at least before the final shift to neo-Persian, were falling into disuse in Persia. These terms, however, were taken over into Arabic and were later re-introduced from Arabic into Persian; examples are qawlanj (< Gk. kōlik “colic”) and the more common variant of the just-mentioned yāra, iyāraj, just to name two of many similar cases. 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 Baṭlamiyus (Gk. Ptolemaios, “Ptolemy”) and Majesṭi (Gk. Megísiē, “Almagest”). Plausibly from the same late middle-Iranian period such Persian medical loanwords in Arabic as bersām and sarsām were derived,calquesfrom Greek pleuritis, inflammation of the side, “pleurisy” and phrenitis, inflammation of the brain, “frenzy,” respectively.

As indicated above, proper names, mostly of authors, form another large group of Greek elements in Persian. These, however, mostly belong to disciplines of Greek excellence such as medicine and mathematics; Esmāʿil Jorjāni’s Ḏaḵira-ye ḵᵛārazmšāhi may be mentioned here as an outstanding medical source of Greek names in Persian.

The following is a very short, categorised list of some words of Greek origin that are commonly found in Persian:

Anthroponyms. (A) Pre-Islamic period: Alaksandar “Alexander,” Baṭlamiyus (see above); (B) Islamic period: Arisṭuṭālis “Aristotle,” Eskandar “Alexander,” Aflāṭun “Plato,” Faluṭin “Plotinus,” Boqrāṭ “Hippocrates,” Ṯāvon “Theo,” Jālinus “Galen,” and a whole panoply of the names of authorities in philosophy, science, and medicine, which, as indicated above, entered Persian via Arabic.

Toponyms. Islamic period (via Arabic): Aṯiniya “Athens,” Eskandariya “Alexandria,” Ankuriya “Ankara,” QaysÂāriya “Caesarea,” Rumiya “Rome,” Aṭrābolos “Tripoli”; (via Anatolian Turkish): Senub “Sinope,” Sivās “Sivas.”

Astronomy. Islamic period (via Arabic): Baršāvoš “Perseus,” Dalfin “Delphinus,” Qanṭuris “Centaurus,” Qiṭus “Cetus,” and Qifāvus “Cepheus.”

Biblionyms:Abiḏimiyā, < Epidēmía “the Epidemics of Hippocrates,” Urḡānun < Organon “the Organon of Aristotle,” Isāḡuji < Eisagōgē “the Isagoge of Porphyry,” Bāri Armāniās < Perì Hermēneías “Aristotle’s De interpretatione,” ṮāwolujiyāTheología, Pseudo-Aristotle’s Theology,” < Qaṭājānes < Kata genē Galen’s De compositione medicamentorum.”

Administrative terms. Pre-Islamic period: daftar (register, account book) < diphthéra “parchment” (see xiii above); Islamic period: barid (the official postal and intelligence service of the Caliphate and early Islamic states) < berēdos “post-horse,” possibly borrowed directly from Greek into Arabic and then passed into Persian.

Units of currency and measure. Pre-Islamic period: deram, derahm < drakhmē; dinār < dēnárion (Lat. denarius); pul < obolos; stēr < statēr (see also xiii above); Islamic period (via Arabic): derham (by “retrograde derivation from Ar. quasi-pl. darāhem, see Spitaler), qest < xéstēs, “pint,” qerāṭ < kerátion “carat.”

General terms. eqlim < klima, “clime,” sābun < sápōn, “rotten, putrid,” manjaniq < manganikón, “pulley,” buqalamun < hupokálamon, “moiré cloth, etc.,” qāmus < ōkeanós “ocean,” āb(a)nus < ebenos “ebony,” ṭumār < tomárion “document, tract,” qalam < kálamos “reed,” qerṭās < khártēs “sheet of papyrus,” qānun < kanōn “straight-edge, rule,” yāqut “ruby” (retrograde singular from Arab. quasi-pl. yawāqit) < hiákinthos “sapphire, zircon, etc.,” zabarjad < smáragdos “emerald.”

Medical terms. In addition to Galen and other major authors of works on medicine in Arabic, Dioscorides’s classic on materia medica, known in Arabic as Fi hayula ʿelaj al-ṭebb and Ketab al adwia al-mofrada, provided a wealth of Greek medical terms. Not only was the text studied in Arabic translation, but it was also rendered into Persian. Thus the examples given below are just a few samples to permit a glimpse into a rich, existing repertoire: (a) Morbidity, etc.: fanṭāsiya < phantasía, “display; imagination,” ilāvus < eìleos, “intestinal disease,” farāniṭes, qarāniṭes (by misreading of fāʾ) < phrenitis, “frenzy,” māliḵuliā < melancholia; (b) Materia medica: anisu,anisun < anison, anēthon “dill, anise,” qulqās < kolokási- "Egyptian lotus,” qalqand(is) < khálkanthon, khalkánthes “copper sulfate solution”; (c) Pharmacy: eyāraj, qarābāḏin, teryāq (see above, and teryāk also in xiii above).

Philosophical terms. hayulā < hulē, “wood, timber; matter,” faylasuf (perh. by retrograde derivation from Ar. quasi-pl. falāsefa) < philósophos “philosopher.”

Alchemical terms. eksir < xērion “desiccative powder for wounds,” ṭelasm < télesma “payment, outlay,” kimiā < khumeía “melting; alchemy.”

Religious terms. Eblis < diábolos “slanderer; the Devil,” Edris < Andre‚as, enjil < euangélion “reward for good news; gospel.”



Sources. Abu Bakr Rabiʿ b. Aḥmad Aḵawayni, Hedāyat al-motaʿallemin fi’l-ṭebb, ed. Jalāl Matini, Mašhad, 1344 Š./1965.

Esmāʿil Jorjāni, D¨aḵ-ira-ye ḵᵛārazmšāhi, facs. ed. ʿAli-Akbar Saʿidi Sir-jāni, Tehran 1355 Š./1976 (for this booksee Richter-Bernburg,esp. pp. 3, 5).

Ḥakim Maysari, Dāneš-nāma dar ʿelm-e pezeški: kohantarin majmuʿa-ye ṭebbi ba šeʿr-e fārsi,ed. Barāt Zanjāni, Majmuʿa-ye tāriḵ-e ʿolum dar Eslām2, Tehran 1366 Š./1987.

Lutz Richter-Bernburg, Persian Medical Manuscripts at the University of California, Los Angeles, Humana Civilitas 4, Malibu, 1978.

Studies: Soheil Muhsin Afnan, Philosophical Terminology in Arabic and Persian, Leiden, 1964.

Idem, Vāža-nāma-yefalsafi, Beirut, 1969.

Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary in the Qurʾān, Baroda, 1938.

Paul Kunitzsch, “Über das Frühstadium der arabischen Aneignung antiken Gutes,” Saeculum 26, 1975, pp. 268-82.

Anton Spitaler, “Materialien zur Erklärung von Fremdwörtern im Arabischen durch retrograde Ableitung,” in Hans Krahe, ed., Corolla Linguistica: Festschrift Ferdinand Sommer zum 80 Geburtstag am 4 Mai 1955, Wiesbaden, 1955, pp. 211-20.

Manfred Ullmann, “Zur Geschichte des Wortes barīd ‘Post’,” Sitzungberichte der Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 1997.

(Lutz Richter Bernburg and EIr)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XI, Fasc. 4, pp. 362-363