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Greek Vocabulary in English

You will face the wrath of many linguists if you suggest that English is a hybrid language. But at least in terms of vocabulary, it’s true. Over 60 percent of the vocabulary of English consists of words with Latin or Greek roots, and if we focus specifically on the sciences, the number hits the roof. The majority of these words have roots in Latin, but a large number have roots in Greek as well.

Some estimate that around 6% of English vocabulary derives from Greek, but the estimates reach 12-15% (and sometimes even higher), depending on how they are measured. Either way, we use Greek words everyday without even knowing it.

In my recent video “How did Greek Influence English?” I gave many examples of English words borrowed from Greek (either directly or indirectly via Latin or French), and newly coined words with Greek roots (some of those words being entirely Greek, and some being a hybrid of Greek and Latin roots). In response to that video, viewers wrote many informative comment giving additional interesting examples.

 

A few examples used in everyday English:

 

chair  – fomes from Old French “chaiere”, from the Latin “cathedra”, from the Greek “καθέδρα” (kathédra). “καθέδρα” was a compound of κατά (katá) meaning down”, and  ἕδρα (hédra) meaning “seat”.

desk – from Ancient Greek δίσκος (diskos), which then entered Latin as “discus”, then medieval Latin “desca” was borrowed into English.

paper – from Ancient Greek πάπυρος (pápuros), because papyrus stocks functioned as paper. This word which was then borrowed into Latin as papyrus, then into Old French as “papier”, then into English.

kilogram – This word was borrowed from the French word kilogramme, but it traces back to Greek  χίλιοι (khílioi) meaning “thousand” and γράμμα (grámma) meaning “small weight”.

automatic – This word entered English from French “automatique” which traces back to Greek  αὐτόματον (autómaton), a compound of αὐτός (autós) meaning “self” and  μέμαα (mémaa) meaning to wish eagerly, strive, yearn, desire”. So I guess the original sense of “automatic” was self-motivated or something to that effect.

telephone – “tele” comes from τῆλε (têle) meaning “far” and φωνή (phōnḗ) meaning “voice/sound”. This word was non-existent in Greek but was coined in French using Greek roots in the 19th century.

idiot – from Greek ἰδιώτης (idiṓtēs) – meaning ”private citizen, one who has no professional knowledge, layman”. This word referred to people who were not involved in public life (ie. politics).

hippopotamus  – from Ancient Greek ἱπποπόταμος (hippopótamos), a compound of  ίππος (hippos) meaning “horse” and ποταμος (potamos) meaning “river”. So “hippopotamus” means river horse!

history – from Greek ἱστορία (historía), which entered Latin as “historia” and then Old French as “estoire”before entering Middle English.

A few more examples related to features of society:

 

metropolis – from Greek μητρόπολις  (mētrópolis) – a combination of  μήτηρ (mḗtēr) meaning “mother” and πόλις (pólis) meaning “city” or “city state”. So metropolis means “mother city” or “main city”.

economy – from Ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomía), meaning “management of a household, administration”)

Technology – from Greek τεχνολογία (tekhnología), meaning “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique”. The original Greek word was used in reference to grammar, and the original English word (adopted around 1610) was used to refer to the arts. The meaning of “study of mechanical and industrial arts” dates back to 1859.

 

And lots of words relating to language and linguistics come from Greek:

 

grammar – from Ancient Greek γραμματική (grammatikḗ), meaning “skilled in writing”, which made it’s way into Latin as “grammatica”, then Old French as  “gramaire”, which was borrowed into Middle English.

syntax – from Ancient Greek σύνταξις (súntaxis), a compound word containing σύν (sún) meaning “together”, and τάξις (táxis) meaning “arrangement”. So “syntax” literally means “arrange together”.
Dialogue – from Ancient Greek διάλογος (diálogos) meaning “conversation” or “discourse”, which then entered Latin as “dialogus”, then Old French as “dialoge”, and then English.
Metaphor – from Ancient Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá) which meant “transfer” or “carrying over”. This referred to the transfer of meaning from one word to another. This word then entered Latin as “metaphora”, then Middle French as “métaphore”, before entering English.

Language and linguistics is one academic area in which Greek provides much of the specialized vocabulary, and this is the case in academic English in general, from the arts to the sciences.

As we’ve seen from the small number of examples above, and from the linked Langfocus video, Greek words really permeate every area of English vocabulary. And this is not only the case for English. Greek has had a similar amount of influence on most modern European languages, particularly in academic fields and science and technology. It might be fair to say that Greek has greatly influenced an “international academic vocabulary” that crosses language boundaries and doesn’t belong to any one language.

Be sure to watch the video above for more examples, if you haven’t already!

  • kc

    How do you classify words like war, guard, and allure? They are from French but are of Germanic origin. Some say that 15% of the words borrowed from French are of Germanic origin. If that is true that would make the total in English at about 4%. So there almost as many words in English borrowed from French that are of Germanic origin as there are words taken directly from Greek. Go figure!