Influence of Ancient Greece on the English Language

Though ancient Greek seems foreign to most modern English speakers, it remains a foundational source of their language.
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Modern English is a mutt of a language with a complex and varied pedigree. While English is commonly referred to as a Germanic language, this is more confusing than enlightening, since there are other equally powerful influences, like French, and also because so much of German is shaped by its own considerable inheritance from Greek. The debt English owes to Greek is so old and pervasive it’s easy to overlook.

1 The Alphabet

Before Greece switched its currency to the Euro, its drachma still bore ancient Greek lettering.
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The most obvious imprint Greek has left on English involves the alphabet. Many letters in English have been borrowed from ancient Greek; for example, the English letters “a” and “b” are variations on the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega." And while most of the English alphabet has its origins in ancient Latin, a good deal of the Latin alphabet is a transliteration of Greek. For example, the “ch” combination in English is copied from Latin, but the Latin form was an interpretation of the Greek “chi." Many words in English, like chemistry and charisma, are formed from this coupling of letters.

Vocabulary Builder

2 Directly Borrowed Vocabulary

Most modern academic disciplines derive their English names from ancient Greek.
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A significant portion of the English lexicon is either taken directly from Greek, borrowed from Greek indirectly through other languages like Latin, French or German or is formed out of the various parts of common Greek words. The influence of Greek vocabulary on English is most obvious when it comes to technical, academic language. Common examples include diagnosis, analysis, synthesis, antithesis and method. Also, the names of academic disciplines are often formed by combining the Greek word “logos” with another Greek word. “Logos” is typically translated as “speech” or “thought” and, in this context, means the study of something. For example, geology combines “geo," the Greek word for Earth, with “logos” to mean the study of the Earth.

3 Indirectly Borrowed Vocabulary

It is all but impossible to find a book written in English that does not contain a word sourced from ancient Greek.
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Greek heavily influenced Latin, which was the dominant language of cultural exchange in Europe for centuries. Approximately half of all English words come from Latin and a substantial portion of those have their ultimate origin in Greek. Much of what English has borrowed from French and German also came from Greek through the medium of Latin. According to "Lingua Franca", the biannual newsletter of the foreign language department at Salem State University, “village," "magnify," “bonus" and “fame” are all words that Latin borrowed from Greek and that English subsequently borrowed from Latin.

4 Grammar

The structure of the English language borrows heavily from Greek.
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English grammar is largely copied from German, which has been heavily influenced by Greek. Even the term “grammar” is Greek. The most elemental grammatical concepts in English like noun, subject, predicate, adjective, preposition and pronoun are also basic to Greek. While English grammar is not identical to Greek, almost all of its basic grammatical categories are originally Greek.

5 Popular Concepts

Foundational modern notions like democracy are inventions of ancient Greece.
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Some of the most popular contemporary concepts in English, ones typically understood as characteristically modern, were actually invented in ancient Greece. For example, the word “democracy," as well as the political form itself, date back to ancient Greece. Also, the many conjugations of the word “auto” are all originally Greek: “autocracy,” “autonomy,” “autobiography” and “autograph” are easily recognizable examples. So much of the Western world's cultural heritage, like its linguistic one, is deeply indebted to its Greek predecessors.

Based in New York City, Ivan Kenneally has been writing about politics, education and American culture since 2006. His articles have appeared in national publications like the 'Washington Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Cosmopolitan"and "Esquire." He has an Master of Arts in political theory from the New School for Social Research.