The Digital Grammar of Greek Documentary Papyri (PapyGreek) project fills a void in Greek scholarship: the papyrological corpus represents the post-Classical variety of Greek, a bridge between Classical and Medieval Greek, which has hitherto been difficult to use as a source for studying historical linguistics. The project will develop new digital methods for studying this fragmentary but vast text corpus. In the end, a new descriptive grammar of Greek papyri will answer such questions as how much bilingualism affected Greek in Egypt and which changes were on their way or already happened during the period of study.
People working with the project
The project's PI is Associate Professor (Classical Philology) Marja Vierros. Two postdocs and a PhD candidate will also be hired for the project during 2018. The project's host institution is Department of Languages at the University of Helsinki.
Greek and linguistics
Greek is a unique language for linguistics in its chronological scope. Documentary Greek papyri, ranging from ca. 300 BCE to 700 CE, can be contrasted with literature: these papyri preserve us the language as the ancient writer composed it and can lead us close to the colloquial contemporary language as well as the administrative language, depending on the text type. The nonstandard variation in documentary texts is where language change can first be detected, making the papyrological corpus an important source for the diachronic study of Greek.
Greek language and Egypt
Greek documentary texts like contracts, petitions, and private letters written on papyrus have survived in abundance in the dry sands of Egypt, where the Greek language was used more or less from the Hellenistic period until the Arab conquest, for almost a thousand years. Greek was then the official administrative language in Egypt, although Egyptian and Latin were also used (during the early Roman period Egyptian did not have a written form of its own). Greek papyri offer us material throughout the whole period of this long term language contact situation between Greek and Egyptian. Many of the speakers lived in bi- or multilingual communities and the native language varied from one writer to another. These facts had an effect on how Greek was used and how it evolved.
The meaning of the project for future research
The hypothesis of this project is that we can gain significantly more information on the development of Greek language by studying the linguistics variation present in the papyrological material if we can adjust the existing corpus so that it yields to computational linguistic methods. The papyri handled in the project will partly be treated as big data; the whole corpus will, e.g., be morphologically tagged in two layers, one representing the editorial standard language and the other the original, preserved text. This will enable e.g. phonological analyses to be performed in greater accuracy than has been possible before through eliminating the confusion between inflectional morphology and phonological variation. Hence, the digital grammar created during the project will bring the language used in the Greek papyri openly available to the scholarly community. It will include new, more exact analyses of the phonology and morphology of Greek in Egypt, as well as possibility to search both phonological and morphological forms, in combination or in separation, in the whole corpus. Our methodology on how to bring fragmentary corpus of an ancient language into a form that can be studied with several computer linguistic methods is expected to be of interest also to Greek epigraphists and also several other ancient language specialists.