This papyrus, dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries [late Ancient/Early Medieval period], is a stunning piece of history.
The material? Egyptian.
The script? The Armenian alphabet.
The language? Ancient Greek.
The text is like a phrasebook – it’s key vocab and phrases for Armenians living in Hellenic Egypt!
Although it’s one of the earliest sources for the Armenian alphabet (created c. 400 AD), the text doesn’t contain one word of Armenian. Instead, it’s lines and lines of Greek.
There’s everyday words (like parts of the body), helpful phrases and even conjugations of common verbs!
So much of its vocabulary has connections to English today. It includes culinary words like háls ‘salt’ and gála ‘milk’ (hence ‘halogen’ and ‘galaxy’), professional words like naútēs ‘sailor’ (hence ‘nautical’) and lots of anatomical terms like kardía ‘heart’ and haîma ‘blood’.
The text is so important for our knowledge of Greek. By using Armenian letters, its author didn’t have to follow the norms and archaisms of Greek writing – they were free to spell more accurately.
The window into the Greek of that time and place that it gives us is incredible.
What’s surprising is how conservative the Greek seems – expected sound changes don’t appear to have happened.
For example, the consonant /h/ is consistently spelled (as in “hipar” ‘pony’), while the use of the Armenian letter Բ shows that /b/ hadn’t shifted to /v/ in this Greek.
The papyrus doesn’t have any specific name beyond simply ‘the Armeno-Greek papyrus’.
It’s held in the collection of the National Library of France (BnF 332).
For more information, Clackson 2000 (additional notes 2002) is the leading paper on it, and where I got the picture.
It’s such a fascinating artefact, which I don’t yet understand the half of. Honestly, the thrills it gives me!
It’s easily among my favourite few objects from the ancient/early medieval world.
Danny Bate is a Prague-based linguist and PhD Student working on syntax and PIE.