How many words derived from Greek have you used today? British Council teachers in Greece, Martha Peraki and Catherine Vougiouklaki, explain why English owes so much to the Greek language.
Antique, idol, dialogue, geography, grammar, architect, economy, encyclopaedia, telephone, microscope... all these common English words have something in common: they're derived from Greek. To this list, we could add thousands more words, some common and others less so. Clearly, the Greek language has had an important influence on the English language. Let's take a closer look.
A very brief history of the Greek language
Greek is one of the oldest Indo-European languages and is usually divided into Ancient Greek (often thought of as a dead language) and Modern Greek.
Modern Greek is derived from Koine, a common dialect of Ancient Greek that was understood throughout the Greek-speaking world at that time. In the 19th century, Modern Greek became the official language of the Kingdom of Greece.
According to Peter T. Daniels, the Ancient Greeks were the first to use a 'true' alphabet, that is, one representing both vowels and consonants. Indeed, the word 'alphabet' is formed of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, 'alpha' and 'beta'.
What English owes to the Greek language
The Oxford Companion to the English Language states that the 'influence of classical Greek on English has been largely indirect, through Latin and French, and largely lexical and conceptual...'.
According to one estimate, more than 150,000 words of English are derived from Greek words. These include technical and scientific terms but also more common words like those above.
Words that starts with 'ph-' are usually of Greek origin, for example: philosophy, physical, photo, phrase, philanthropy.
Many English words are formed of parts of words (morphemes) that originate from the Greek language, including the following examples:
- phobia (fear of), as in arachnophobia – the fear of spiders
- micro (small), as in microscopic – so small it's hard to see
- demos (people) as in democracy – government by the people
A great example of the influence of the Greek language are the two speeches written in English but actually consisting of only Greek words (with the exception of articles and prepositions) by the former Prime Minister Prof. Xenophon Zolotas, who was also an economist.
English expressions derived from Ancient Greek culture
Greek mythology has been very influential in Western culture, particularly its art and literature. Unsurprisingly, some common expressions in English derive from these ancient myths and beliefs.
To have an 'Achilles heel' means to have a weakness or vulnerable point. Achilles was a Greek hero and central character in Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. He was only vulnerable at his heel. Example sentence: I'm trying to eat more healthily, but chocolate is my Achilles heel.
The 'Midas touch' is another common expression deriving from Greek mythology. Describing a near-magical ability to succeed at anything one undertakes, the expression originates from a story of King Midas, who is remembered for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Example sentence: My brother's business is so successful, he really has the Midas touch!
An idiom which has its roots in Greek antiquity is ‘crocodile tears’. The phrase might come from the popular ancient belief that crocodiles weep while eating their victims. In fact, crocodiles do lubricate their eyes via their tear ducts, usually when their eyes start to dry out after being out of the water for a long time. Nevertheless, the behaviour is also thought to occur when crocodiles feed. It's used in English to describe expressions of sorrow that are insincere.
About the illustrator
Chris Tompkins is a print designer with a focus on book and poster design, identity creation/branding, illustration, layout and art direction. See more of his work at christompkinsdesign.com.