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I was recently asked to participate in an Ancient Languages blog carnival being organized by the blog Linguae Antiquitatum.  I love any opportunity to talk about ancient languages!

I’m especially happy to talk about my beloved Classical Greek.  I believe that studying this language has made me a smarter, richer person, and a better linguist.  And there’s historical precedent for that statement!  When the thinkers of continental Europe were developing theories and models that we have come to recognize as modern linguistic science, they drew upon their classical education for their initial ideas of how languages worked.  They also drew upon their knowledge of Greek and Latin words to coin new terms for the new concepts they were developing (exactly like I did when I named this blog!)

One of my favorite things about learning Greek is that it helps me understand my own language so much better.  I sometimes describe it as “word math;” you often have these wonderful “a-HA” moments when you realize how two words have been added together to give us a modern English word. So today I thought I’d introduce you to some terms from linguistics that are made up of Greek roots.  First I’ll give you some important Greek words – a lot of these show up in a lot of different words, not just scientific terms.  Then I’ll give you some vocabulary from linguistics, and hopefully you will be able to say a-HA!

ἄλλος (allos) – “other; another.” This is probably most familiar to us via the Latin variant alias, though some linguistics terms have prefixes from the original Greek.
γράφω (graphō)– originally used to mean “to scratch” or “to graze,” this verb comes to mean “to inscribe” and finally “to write.” A graph is a system of marks used to convey information; graphite is a mineral used in pencils.
λέξις (lexis)– “speech; word or phrase.” A cousin of logos, below, but with a more precise definition. Dyslexia is difficulty reading or understanding words (that lovely curvy character in the middle of the Greek word is a /ks/ sound and gets written in Latin script as x).
λόγος (logos)– volumes have been written about this one little Greek word. It is one of the most frequent words in the corpus of Greek texts, and is especially important to theologians, who have spent centuries debating its precise conceptual definition (one important example comes from the Gospel of John 1:1, which says “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”) The noun is derived from the verb λέγω, meaning “to speak” or “to say,” and the word can mean anything from “speech” or “account” to “statement of theory” or “thesis.” For our purposes right now, logos has come to be used as a suffix denoting terms of study or science – for example, the word theology, which combines the word for God (θεός) and study (λόγος).
μορφάω (morphaō)– “to shape, fashion, or mold.” In English we can use just this bare verb, to say things like “the car morphed into a robot.”
ὁμός (homos)– “one and the same; common; joint.” The little backwards apostrophe in Greek script means there is an aspiration (i.e. an /h/ sound) before the vowel. Homo- is a very productive suffix, both inside and outside linguistics.
ὄνομα (onoma)– “name.” Though onoma is the most common attested form of this word, and is the way it would have been pronounced in classical Attic Greek, a different dialect of Greek had the word as ὄνυμα, which gives us a suffix we use in English as –onym. A pseudonym is a false name.
σύν (sun)– “with.” The Greek letter upsilon (υ) gets transliterated, via Latin, into a y in Roman script, so in English we get words that start with syn- or sync- that have to do with the idea of putting together, doing something together, etc. (i.e. synchronize – to do something at the same time).
φωνή (phōnē)– “sound; tone.” Greek has two sounds which are written in Roman script as o – the omicron (ο) which was a short vowel, and the omega (ω), which was long. Because the vowel here is long, the English form phone sounds a lot like the original Greek.

Now that you know some important Greek roots, let’s take a look at some major terms from the science of linguistics:

  • Allophone – An alternate pronunciation of a certain sound in a certain environment. For example, in American English speakers often say a lone /p/ with a little bit of aspiration – “pin” sounds like [pʰin], but a /p/ after another consonant is unaspirated – “spin” sounds like [spin]. In this example, [pʰ] is another way to make the /p/ sound.
  • Homonym – identical expressions with different meaning (i.e. “report to your editor to file your report”).
  • Lexicography – the compiling and editing of dictionaries – i.e. the writing of all of the words of a language.
  • Morphology – the study of how words are formed in a particular language.
  • Phonology – the study of the speech sounds of a language.
  • Synonyms – words which have the same or very similar meanings.
  • Syntax – The structure of sentences and the study of sentence structure – i.e. how sentences are put together.


Can you think of other words built on these Greek roots?

Thanks, JD, for inviting me to write this post!  I’m looking forward to seeing what other bloggers have written!

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