Papyrus as Evidence of Linguistic Change

All languages undergo changes in pronunciation over time, and Greek has not been exceptional in this regard. Most notable among the changes in the pronunciation of Greek over the last 2500 years is one called “iotacism”, a change whereby the vowels ι, η, υ, ει, οι, ηι, υι all came to be pronounced as ι (ee). Another is the change of β, δ, γ, φ, θ, χ from “stops” (sounds approximating English’s b, d, g, p, t, and k) to “fricatives” (sounds akin to English’s v, th, and f, for example.) Thus Greek ἔχει ‘s/he has’, pronounced in antiquity approximately as “ekay”, is now pronounced approximately as “ehee”, although the spelling has not changed.

The conservatism of standard spelling, to which most educated writers aspire, often masks actual pronunciation and can obscure the fact of change. (Think, for example, of the disparity in English now between the spelling and pronunciation of –ough in words such as enough and bough, which though they once rhymed have been pronounced as “inuf” and “baw” for centuries.) For this reason it can be next to impossible to figure out precisely when and how changes in pronunciation happened, unless documents written by people educated enough to write but not enough to write without occasional spelling errors survive from a range of time.

But thanks to the abundant survival of just such documents for Greek written on papyrus, modern scholars have been able to answer these questions, which had been lingering since the Renaissance. Not long after Greek was “rediscovered” in Western Europe during the Renaissance, scholars had worked out which changes in pronunciation Greek had undergone since antiquity and established the 5th-century BC as their terminus a quo, but they were unable to figure out more precisely when and how these changes had happened, because they lacked sufficient documentary evidence from the intervening 2000 years.

Here are a few examples of spelling errors as a result of iotacism from P66, a 2nd century AD papyrus containing nearly the entire Gospel of John:

ἐγιρεται instead of  ἐγειρεται ( he/she is awakened or raised)

Image  ὑμις instead of ὑμεις (you (pl.))

But a couple lines later, the scribe has spelled it right:


This raises the possibility that the scribe merely made a few “typos,” but in P46, another 2nd century papyrus containing fragments of the New Testament, we see an instance of “reverse iotacism,” where a scribe has written ὑμειν instead of ὑμιν (to you (pl.)):


If scribes are using “ei” and “i” interchangeably at a certain point in time, then we can be fairly confident that those vowels were no longer distinctly pronounced and that the iotacisms of P66 were not merely typos.

Another change in the pronunciation of Greek vowels that appears in P66  is the merger of αι and ε, which resulted in the occasional confusion of these two in writing. Thus we see in P66:

Image  οἰδαται instead of οἰδατε (you (pl.) know)

And we see the reverse in P.Oxy. 2783 from the early 3rd century AD (which is to say not much later than when P66 was written):

Image  εὐχομε instead of εὐχομαι (I pray)

Although the consonants of Greek changed their pronunciation as well, they nonetheless remained distinct enough that they were not mixed up in spelling. However, the use of different consonants to transliterate foreign words over time yields evidence of changing pronunciations. For example, Latin words beginning with v were spelled in Greek with ου, as in this example from P.Oxy 3758 from the 4th century AD:

Image ουεδαριος for Latin veredarius ‘courier’. But by the 7th or 8th century AD this was spelled βερεδαριος, since β had started to sound rather like Latin v. For example:

Image   βερ(ε)δ(αριου)   (P.Ross.Georg. 4 2)

Browning, Robert. 1983. Medieval and Modern Greek. Cambridge University Press.
Dickey, Eleanor. 2009. “The Greek and Latin Languages in the Papyri”. In The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford University Press.
Moleas, Wendy. 1989. The Development of the Greek Language. Bristol Classical Press.

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