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How Greek Has Influenced the English Language

Picture of India Doyle
Updated: 3 April 2018
How has Ancient Greek impacted the modern English language? Culture Trip spoke with Brian Joseph, vice president of the Linguistic Society of America, to find out.

The inevitable influence of Ancient Greek on the English language

The fact that Ancient Greek has had such an impact on English is fascinating as there was never a direct relationship between the two places. And yet the impact of Ancient Greek was, as Brian Joseph explains, always likely to be seen in modern English. ‘The influence of Ancient Greek on English was inevitable once a particular value was placed on “things Greek” – Greek wisdom, Greek literary production – by the Western intelligentsia in the Middle Ages.’

Such cultural influence would prove to have a lasting impact not only on the English language but also on English architecture, education, philosophy, law, and literature. The impact of the language was mainly felt because of the value ascribed to Greek culture more widely. As Brian elaborates: ‘If, say, Arabic or Chinese wisdom and literature had been valued in that period (it wasn’t, but it had been, speaking hypothetically), there probably would not have been the huge influx of Greek words into English.’

Ancient Greek impact on modern English

‘Without a doubt, the biggest impact Ancient Greek has had on modern English is in the enrichment to the lexicon that Greek has offered,’ says Brian Joseph. The most common example of the influence of Ancient Greek on English is through ‘loan words’. These are instances where a modern English word is the result of a Greek word that has travelled through Latin or French before arriving at its current form.

Brian explains that ‘paragraph is ultimately from Greek, but entered English from French, which got it from Latin, which got it from Greek.’ The path from Greek to English is complicated, but the influence of the Ancient Greek word ‘παρα-γράφειν (para-grafein)’ is clear.

Other examples include words such as angel (from ἄγγελος), drama (from δρᾶμα), music (from μουσική), problem (from πρόβλημα) and zoo (built on ζῷον). These are all instances where Ancient Greek has ultimately contributed new words to the modern English lexicon.

The other intriguing presence of Ancient Greek in English is through prefixes and suffixes. Here, Ancient Greek works with other words to create new terms. For example suffixes such ‘-ism’ ‘-ize’ and ‘-ist’ all derive from Greek but can be added to words with all kinds of origins. In transforming the status of a word from verb to noun, or verb to adjective, Ancient Greek can be seen to provide an active transformation of the English language.

Statues in Ancient Greece | © adibalea / Pixabay

Subtle mutations

In some cases, the impact of Ancient Greek on English is even more complex due to the systematic mutation of Greek letters into modern European spellings. Brian Joseph explains that ‘Ancient Greek letters phi (spelled with φ ), theta (θ), and chi (χ) were pronounced with a strong puff of air (what linguists call “aspiration”) following them (rather like the ‘th’ in hothouse), but we pronounce them as “f”, “th” and “k”, respectively.’ The spelling and pronunciation of the Ancient Greek words changed to reflect the rules of the local language. Tracing the word from its Ancient Greek origins becomes a more complex and challenging task.