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Humanities Libertexts

1.1: §97. The Legacy of Greek

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  • In a course on classical roots in English, there are several good reasons to examine the Latin influence first, despite the historical priority of Greek. A primary consideration is the fact that Latin—directly, or through French—has had a far greater impact on standard English vocabulary, at every level of usage. In learning Latin roots, we are often just meeting old and familiar friends in a slightly different guise. Greek, in contrast, is likely to seem rather more exotic, since much of its influence has been felt in technical or academic areas of English usage. To be sure, there is a large stock of common, everyday Greek words in English, as we saw at the very beginning of the course (Part I, §3 and §16). But many of these came into English only after they had been borrowed first by the Romans, in order to fill semantic gaps in Latin. When they entered English, they followed the pattern of Latin loan-words, and you will therefore understand their English form better if you know some Latin.[1] A familiarity with Latin will now help you in another way. Greek and Latin are strikingly parallel in many aspects of their morphology—noun and adjective declensions, for example. Even though they belonged to different branches of the Indo-European family, the two languages developed side by side as Mediterranean neighbours, so it isn’t surprising that they share common characteristics. This convenient fact means that we can survey many basic features of Greek word formation without laboriously repeating all the steps that we took in the early chapters of Part I.

    In tracing Greek vocabulary to its source, we’ll usually be going back in time to a period before the great age of Rome. As the extant evidence of an historical culture, the ancient Greek language is centuries older than Latin. A recognizable form of Greek was spoken and written in the era of the Mycenaean Bronze Age, some 1500 years before the birth of Christ and the rule of Augustus Caesar. Documents from this palace civilization of the second millennium BC, the celebrated “Linear B tablets,” were discovered only in our century, and were revealed in the 1950s to be an early form of the Greek language. The Hellenic world lapsed into illiteracy during the so-called “Dark Age” that followed the collapse of the Bronze-Age kingdoms; but the art of writing Greek was re-invented when a new system of alphabetic symbols was borrowed from the Phoenicians (see §98).

    From the 8th to the 4th centuries BC, before Rome emerged as a major force in the Mediterranean world, the Greek city-states enjoyed an astonishing level of intellectual and cultural energy. This was a 400-year period that began with the epic poet Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey are among the supreme works of world literature, and closed with Aristotle and Alexander the Great—a teacher and his pupil whose combined influence on human history can hardly be overstated.

    Any mention of ancient Greece will likely conjure up the image of Athens, the most dynamic and often the most dominant—if not always the most gentle—of the Greek city-states. This democratic polis was the birthplace of all the major dramatists, and enjoyed an unparalleled period of creativity under the great statesman Pericles, in the 5th century BC. Thanks to the fame of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Athens became also the city most renowned for philosophical and intellectual studies. Still, it would be a serious mistake to equate ancient Greek culture with this one community. The classical city-states extended from Asia Minor and the Black Sea in the east to Sicily and southern Italy in the west. The epic poems of Homer had likely been composed in Ionia (western Turkey in our day); the historian Herodotus, the mathematician-philosopher Pythagoras, and the physician Hippocrates—to name just three great pioneers—all came from that same general area on the eastern fringe of the Greek world. In contrast, such towering figures as Empedocles and Archimedes lived and worked in Sicily, a Greek sphere of influence far to the west.

    It would be another grievous error to suppose that Greek civilization ended with Alexander the Great. Many of the intellectual accomplishments reflected today in English vocabulary can be traced to the Hellenistic Age, the period between the death of Alexander and the Roman supremacy. Though Athens continued to play a prominent role in these later centuries, a more important centre of creativity and scholarship was Alexandria, the multicultural capital city from which a Macedonian-Greek dynasty ruled Egypt. Even under Roman rule, the eastern Mediterranean world continued to speak Greek as its first and common language, and Greece still provided traditional intellectual leadership. Centuries later (in AD 330), Byzantium on the Bosporus was chosen by Constantine as the new capital of the Roman Empire; and Constantinople (“Constantine’s polis,” modern Istanbul) became the focal point of a Byzantine civilization that endured until its fall to the Turks in AD 1453. Therefore Greek culture and the Greek language can be viewed as an unbroken continuity extending even to our own day. In considering the Greek linguistic influence on English, however, we are dealing mainly with the archaic, classical and Hellenistic Greek world that preceded the Roman conquest. It was the legacy of this creative period that Rome absorbed and then transmitted to medieval and modern Europe.

    In the centuries between Homer and Archimedes, the Greeks had invented almost all the major genres of ancient poetry (most notably, epic, lyric, and drama), and had pioneered such branches of prose literature as history, philosophy, and rhetoric—including specialized vocabulary to express the theoretical and practical aspects of these disciplines. Art and architecture, of course, were areas of major achievement that also had extensive special vocabularies. The same is true of astronomy and mathematics, two fields in which the Greeks excelled. Music and athletics—kindred activities, as many believed—were given conspicuous status in Greek education and society. Medicine, a traditional art whose discovery was credited to the god Asclepius, became a true scientific discipline in the 5th century BC, thanks to Hippocrates and his followers; and Greek physicians still enjoyed international esteem at the time of Galen, in the second century AD.

    After the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, they so absorbed Greek ideas and Greek values that the fusion of cultures is generally viewed as one civilization (called “Greco-Roman,” if not simply “Hellenic”). Because all educated Romans were bilingual in Latin and Greek, hundreds of useful Greek words were taken over and adapted to Latin morphology. These words came especially from fields where the Greeks had shone: the literary and visual arts, philosophy, pure science, mathematics, and medicine.

    It was the Romans who passed the cultural legacy of Hellenic civilization to western Europe. In the Middle Ages, the knowledge of Greek declined drastically in the west, and the direct influence of Greek was almost non-existent. However, when Renaissance scholars re-discovered ancient Greek texts, the languages of Europe began to acquire new loan-words from classical Greek. In the medical and biological sciences, in particular, Greek has been the primary source of technical vocabulary every since. The knowledge explosion of the 20th century has greatly intensified this process of linguistic borrowing.


    1. By the same token, it is often essential to know some French in order to understand the final stage in a complex transmission from Greek to Latin to French to English. Although the French influence may appear neglected in the following chapters, that is a deliberate oversimplification that will not seriously misrepresent the historical facts. ↵
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