Brush up on your Greek

A plethora of Greek words in your everyday life. 

Graeca sunt, non leguntur, goes a Latin saying, meaning "it's Greek, it can't be read", something similar to "it's all Greek to me". Such a difficult language with its strange alphabet, how can one learn it, right?


And yet, even when their speakers don't realize it, most of the European languages carry a heavy burden of Greek words in their vocabulary. Here is an example of how many Greek words there are in German, either adopted exactly as they were or slightly changed during their transcription:

euphonisch euphorisch akribisch sporadisch rhetorisch komisch tragisch dramatisch akoustisch drastisch typisch archaisch Lexikon Katalysator trapezoid Monogamie chromolithographie kyrillisch Xylophon Krypta Haptik and many others.

In English too:

labyrinth problem empathy (which, however, in modern Greek means to be passionately prejudiced against someone, almost inimical) paradox oxymoron euphemism tantalising sisyphean perimeter parameter hypothesis parallel gastronomy ethics optics geology palimpsest genetic hieroglyphics atheist epic plastic rhinoceros hippopotamus melodramatic among others.

The list goes on for French, Italian, Spanish etc. Everywhere you look you're going to discover a Greek word which with the rise of Rome and the fall of ancient Greece found its way into the Latin language.

„Almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek“Marguerite Yourcenar „Memoirs of Hadrian.

"I have turned my entire attention to Greek. First thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is buy some Greek authors; then, I shall buy clothes" -Erasmus

Some letters of the Greek alphabet have been used in Mathematics and Geometry, like the famous π.

Medicine, pharmacology and biology feel at home in Greece and honouring Hippocrates and Asclepius they use words which the two wise men had probably used too in order to describe diseases and sectors of those sciences. Opthalmology, gynaecology, psychology and other -ologies have a Greek origin whereas the word medicine itself comes from the Latin. The legal science has opted for Latin terminology as well.

Sometimes there are some unpleasant surprises for us Greeks when we encounter for example a word like proxénéte which in French means pimp but in Greek means simply the matchmaker.

In a newly discovered patriotism which sometimes is unpleasant as it could border nationalism, the Greeks of today are proud of their linguistic heritage and tend to forget that it is actually thanks to the European humanists of the 17th and 18th centuries that these words along with the ancient Greek texts were rediscovered and given a new lease of life. The Philhellenes helped the cause of Greek independence and contributed to this love of everything Greek. 

Surely our glorious ancestors, the ancient Greeks, presented Europe with the foundations for today’s civilization.  But this happened a long time ago. Today most of my fellow Greeks can hardly read Homer or Plato in the original. In the past decades there have been so many changes in the educational system, that the younger generations stopped being able to understand the roots of their language.  I belong to the last generation that has studied the Odyssey in the original text at school. Today a major crime is being committed in Greece. A series of reforms in education has drastically reduced the learning of ancient Greek at school, has changed the grammar of modern Greek –something like the Rechtschreibung in German but try to imagine this in a much larger scale-  removing all the accents which had an historical but also a real significance in the way we hear and pronounce the vowels, although we did it mechanically and without realizing it, and has stigmatized as “old fashioned” or even worse as conservative, it has practically forbidden its use- of the katharevoussa, a mixture of ancient and modern Greek, which we used mainly for writing official but also literary texts. In Greece nobody speaks of this problem. If you dare touch this taboo subject, you will be scolded and waved aside as a fool, even as a fascist –a word so abused that it has come to indicate those who pronounce it in order to accuse the others as the real fascists. No one mentions that all these reforms are the actual cause of the social and political, even the financial crisis in the country. And yet ”the boundaries of my language mean the boundaries of my world”, as Wittgenstein has said. And if people have narrow boundaries in their language, then they have narrow boundaries in their world, their thoughts and their culture. With the "help" of technology (another Greek word) the rich and unique Greek alphabet is slowly being replaced by the so called Greeklish, a terrible invention which writes Greek words with Latin characters. Greek kids feel it's cool to write in Greeklish and, turning their backs to a history of thousand years, they also prefer the Latin question mark ? to the Greek one; Don't ask me why? ;  It's all Greek to me.

But seriously now, for the Church Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are given to Jesus as an honorary title, the beginning and the end of everything. Theology, Eucharist, Synagogue, ecclesiastical and other religious words come from the Greek, as well as the word Evangelist, someone who proclaims the good news.

The good news for you now is that you just found out you can speak Greek!

First published on September 12, 2022. 

#GreekLanguage #Greek #ancient_Greek #modern_Greek