MED Magazine - Issue 24 - November 2004
It's 10% Greek to me
Philosophy, psychology, geography, aesthetics, economics, politics, logic, physics, democracy, history, catastrophe, catalyst, genetics. Words of Greek origin in English are ubiquitous and well documented, though many of them entered English through Latin rather than directly from Greek: the Roman conquest of Britain not only brought Latin but many Latin words of Greek origin; the Renaissance (the rediscovery of classical ideas) was another great wave of borrowing from Latin and Greek into English, evidence of which we see in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, in spite of the bard’s ‘small Latin and less Greek’; the Industrial Revolution, with its countless discoveries and inventions, and the problem of what to call them, was another period rich in new additions of Greek words into English. Finally, in our own time, the revolution in information technology and advances in genetics and biochemistry have spawned many more ‘English’ words of Greek origin.
A mixed blessing
From the perspective of the Greek learner of English, all this borrowing may be mixed blessing. Many new words are invented in modern English for scientific purposes which may mean something different in modern Greek or mean nothing at all. From the field of language study, we have anaphora (which, in Greek, means ‘report’ or ‘reference’, but in English is a way of referring back to something already mentioned in the text), cataphora (which sounds like ‘flagrant’ to a modern Greek ear, is a way of referring forward to something not mentioned in the text yet), hyponymy, exophoric, metonymy, meronymy, and acronym which sound like nothing at all to the Greek in the street, though a linguist would recognise them as ways of talking about the rhetorical effects of prose and poetry. I have – in vain – tried to explain my understanding of the philosophical notion of dialogism to my Greek wife who thinks I am talking about some kind of religious meditation or just using a posh word for ‘conversation’. It is surprising to find such an arcane concept as dialectics or dialectical on the lips of your local greengrocer or intermediate pupils. All it means in colloquial Greek is the ability to reason or be flexible, reasonable, to be able to give and take. A related word, ‘dialexi’, simply means ‘a talk’. At the same time, the word, like many others of Greek origin, retain their more technical sense, side by side with their more mundane senses.
The word technical comes from the word ‘techni’ which means art, craft or skill. It also pops up in modern Greek to refer to a technician or engineer or trainer or coach in sport. The word logos with incredible rich philosophical and religious connotations in English is, in modern Greek, just the word for … ’word’. But it is at the same time the root of the prefix and suffix in logistics, logarithm, philology, criminology and more.
Are all Greeks philosophers?
The advantage Greek learners of English have is that the ancient Greek prefixes and suffixes so beloved of inventors and philosophers are still used in modern Greek in very ordinary settings. Friend, which must be one of the most common words in any language, in modern Greek is the abstract sounding ‘philos’, so words like philanderer and philately are a piece of cake for Greek students. Words containing the prefixes hypo- (meaning generally below, under or less than) and hyper- (over, above) may sound posh in English (as in hypothesis, hypochondriac, or hyperactive) but in modern Greek they are common in such frequent colloquial expressions as ‘hypervallo’ (exaggerate), ‘hypotheto’ (suppose), ‘hyperagora’ (supermarket), ‘hypoktastima’ (branch) and so on.
It will be seen that many English borrowings from Greek tend to be on the academic or formal side. Greek students may find some ‘difficult’ words in English easy to spot but there is also the danger of the Greek sounding rather pompous if he or she imports ‘English sounding’ Greek words into conversation: My hypothesis is that he missed the bus because he got up late or I hypothesize that we will win the cup (I suppose); The vase looks more aesthetic near the window (nicer); She is very sympathetic (She is likeable, nice); It’s a question of ethics (It’s wrong), to name but a few examples.
Greek borrowing from English
The debt that English owes to Greek (about 10% of words in English are estimated to be directly or indirectly ‘borrowed’ from Greek) has in recent years been paid back – one might almost say with interest. There are thousands of words used in modern Greek taken from English as a result of Britain’s (and more recently the USA’s) pioneering role in science and technology and, of course, in business, sport and pop culture.
Some of these lexical items incorporate at least one word or affix of Greek. Here is a random sample of borrowings from English used in either written or spoken Greek:
A quick glace through a magazine or newspaper in Greek suggests that most of the most recent loan words have clearly been borrowed from English. The fields in which most borrowing takes place seem to be media, sport, consumer products and entertainment, which gives us some idea of the most influential aspects of Anglo-American culture in a globalised 21st century.
False friends or just unreliable?
Greeks are rarely lucky with cognates in English and Greek; few similar sounding words can just be taken over wholesale into a Greek learner’s vocabulary, even if the words are directly taken from Greek. They are even more tricky if they came back to Greek via Latin and on the journey picked up new sense or connotations. Dynamic seems to be a good friend, especially when it combines with aero- to form aerodynamic. Cinema means the same in Greek although there is a more formal Greek word from the same root: ‘kinimatographos’. But ‘kinima’ is also a movement, as in political movement, though there is little possibility of confusion as the contexts of use are so far apart. Cognates or direct borrowings that apply to technology or science are probably the most reliable. Most cognates will overlap in meaning and mislead the learner. They are two-edged sword as there is usually an additional meaning or an extension of the English, in either English or Greek. Here are some examples.
Greek adapts English lexical borrowings to the rules of Greek morphology, especially verb and noun endings in ‘o’ or ‘ara’. Here are some Greek verbs derived from English nouns or verbs:
Greeks are fond of using diminutives to make words more polite or friendly. They do this with the suffix ‘aki’, which means ‘little’ in Greek. It is very common in proper names such as Yiannakis (‘little John’), Georgakis (‘little George’), Theodorakis (‘little gift of god’) etc.
Here are a few examples of words borrowed from English and which have been added the diminutive suffix in Greek:
The reverse process – making words ‘bigger’ – is also common in Greek and is applied freely to borrowings from English:
Many Greeks, especially those who write letters to newspapers bemoaning the fact the word is going to the dogs, worry that the ‘purity’ of their language is threatened by these endless borrowings from other languages, but largely from English. They do not seem to be aware that this process happens to all languages and has been happening to Greek for centuries, with many borrowings from Turkish, French and Italian, to name but a few of the sources which have enriched Greek. The borrowing will inevitably continue, as long as Greece is not a superpower, as it once was, and, in turn, lent other languages many of its words. It will continue as globalisation intensifies the importation of goods and ideas from other countries. It is worth reminding ourselves that English also continues to borrow from classical – not classic – Greek when looking for a name for a new invention or idea.
Teachers need to be on their guard for the way words reflect the contexts and cultures in which they are used. This applies to any item of vocabulary in a foreign language but it applies in an ‘idiosyncratic’ (Greek word!) way in the teaching of English to Greeks.
Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems, Eds. Michael Swan and Bernard Smith (CUP, 2001)
For a list of Greek loan words in English, visit: http://www.wordorigins.org/loanword.htm#Greek
Next in the series
The topic of the next article in the series will be the Maltese language and its borrowing from English.
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