It’s all Greek to me

A classmate in my undergraduate Latin courses had a tee shirt that said this. In Latin. Omnia lingua Graeca mihi sunt. Oh yes, what language geeks we be.

Even as a Classics major, though, I never actually took any Greek language courses. You could take either Latin or Greek (but didn’t have to take both, although you could), so I decided to stick with all Latin. I already knew all the letters and sounds, for one thing.

So no, I never took Greek.

Then, today, a Classics friend of mine posted a link on Facebook : “Oxford University appeals for help in transcribing 200,000 Greek characters” [UK Daily Mail, 7/26/2011]. And I thought to myself, Bummer, what a neat project, but I don’t have any Greek skills…

Then I read the article and learned I wouldn’t necessarily need any Greek skills to participate (although I’m sure it helps!).

The gist of the project is that Oxford University has this huge backlog of Egyptian papyri with Greek text written on it, that was discovered in 1896. Yes, over 100 years ago, and they have apparently only waded through about 2% of the text. So they are calling for reinforcements! And since obviously the number of available experts in Ancient Greek is a bit slim (all things considered), they have come up with a way to crowd-source the transcription in order to facilitate the translating, without needing a ton of people who actually know Greek or even really know the Greek alphabet.

The project can be found at They have developed an image viewer where volunteers look at a piece of papyrus, click to identify the location of an individual letter, and then match the letter on the papyrus to a Greek alphabet “keyboard” (a bunch of buttons) on the screen. (It is pretty self-explanatory but they also have a helpful, short tutorial.)

I tried it out just a few minutes ago, and the interface is extremely easy to use. And I actually was able to identify some Greek letters. And don’t worry, they have about 5 people transcribe each image and then sort out any discrepancies, so don’t panic about possibly getting them wrong.

Funny thing : while I was playing around with this, my husband came and looked over my shoulder and said, “What’s that?” I told him, and he started pointing out letters to me. So the electrical engineer was actually working circles around the classics major on this project, but only because of all those Greek symbols they use in math and science and the fact that I never actually took Greek. It was a fun thing to do together, though.

Hopefully soon, with a little help from a lot of people all over the world, the contents of these ancient documents will finally be fully useable.


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