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Greek Influence on English Language

The relative structural simplicity of English language, together with its flexibility and adaptability, has often proved to be positive factors in linguistic evolution through adoption, assimilation and naturalization of foreign elements. Although French, Latin and Scandinavian influences have had a more direct effect on English, Greek influence has been a vital factor in its evolution as well. Some linguists claim that more than 150,000 terms in the English language have Greek roots. In a regular 80,000-word English dictionary, about 5 percent of the words are directly borrowed from Greek and another 25 percent are borrowed indirectly.

Greek Influence: Timeline and Chronological Analysis

The influence of Greek language on English vocabulary happened mostly through Latinized forms. As Greece represented the fountainhead of Classical knowledge, majority of the influence is seen in sphere of philosophy, metaphysics, medicine and even technology. Chronologically one may list the Greek influence on English vocabulary as represented below:

  1. Before the close of the Middle English: Words that were borrowed included academy, Bible (from Greek Biblos), harmony, atom, tragedy, theatre, ecstasy, nymph. It is evident that these words did not belong to any complex scientific or technological sphere of knowledge. It shows that English people were getting in touch with elements of Classical knowledge related to their lived experience as in religion, dramatic art and primary academics.
  2. During 16th Century: Words borrowed during this period show a greater complexity and abstractness such as dilemma, pathos, theory, irony, elegy etc.
  3. 17th Century: It was during the age of Milton and Restoration that English vocabulary enriched itself through borrowing adapting and refashioning words such as orchestra, pandemonium, dogma, clinic and hyphen.
  4. 18th and 19th Centuries: It was during this phase that words such as bathos, philander, pylon, acrobat, agnostic etc were coined or refashioned from Greek roots.

This chronological list elucidates that, linguistic influence is not a superficial addition of vocabulary. It is rather a socio-cultural transformation of the host language. With every turn of century, the English people were getting more in tune with the classical culture and codes of civilization. Consequently, the tendency to flatly borrow words from Greek or through Latinized forms of Greek gave way to a more confident handling of the Greek words and coining new words through hybridization and derivation.

Greek Influence on English Vocabulary

It was seen that new words were coined directly or indirectly from Greek language through formation of hybrids and through derivations, where one part of a word belonged to English native resource while the other belonged to Greek language. For example, Greek prefix with English words were seen in coinage of anti-British, hyper-sensitive, amoral. Greek fragments such as thermo-, photo-, pyro-, -ology, -nomy have been readily used to form new words as in thermometer, Geology etc. Greek is the most common language of origin for words beginning with “ph-,” such as photo, philosophy, phrase, physical and philanthropy.

Areas of Greek Influence

Classical Greek made a special contribution to English in connection with the study of grammar and rhetoric. The words “grammar”, “rhetoric” are themselves Greek in origin. Greek language most fully and effectively developed expression of philosophical ideas. Most of the terms belonging to this category are derived from Greek either directly or through Latinized derivations. The word ‘phenomenon’ (from Greek phainomenon, ‘that which appears’) is added with Latin suffix ‘-al’ to turn it into the adjective “phenomenal”. Interestingly, this word is now used in general vocabulary although it was originally a purely philosophical expression (phenomenal world means a world as it appears physically). Greek influence is also observed in areas of natural sciences, medical science, and in coining technical terms. New coinages were based on real or supposed Greek models. These include modern coinages such as neurology and psychology as well as old ones such as hepatic and phlebotomy.

It has become a general tendency to coin new technical words in this way even without any real knowledge of the Greek language, as seen in “phonograph” and “telephone”.

It may be understood that this tendency reinforces the idea that Greece represented the most refined and educated culture of Europe and its language was therefore an epitome of perfection in the eyes of English people who were awestruck by the wealth of Classical knowledge especially in and around the time of Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Greek Influence on Figures of Speech

Apart from vocabulary, common expressions in English which derive from ancient Greek myths and beliefs. For instance, ‘Achilles heel,’ (which means to have a weakness or vulnerable point), ‘Herculean task’ (a job that requires great effort and strength). Greek mythologies have been a rich resource of allusions for English authors.

greek influence
Achilles’ heel

Greek Influence: Help or Hindrance!

One might argue that Greek influence has been a blessing for English language. It not only brought in a rich flow of vocabulary but also enlightening ideas and progressive cultural upliftment. However, Greek influence, just like Latin, has also severely curbed the ingenious potential of English language to develop its native resources to accommodate the explosion of knowledge that it was witnessing during the Renaissance. Greek offered an easy way out, and a lazy way out, which the English people readily took up. One major problem is that it has created a rift between academic and non-academic writings, between how people communicate and how people express in writing, especially of they follow any verbose style. Over-stylization, to show off one’s learning is a serious flaw that blocks the natural flow of any language. This flaw, known as “Euphuism” (sadly, again, derived from Classical roots), together with “Johnsonese” (elaborate writing style with Latinized or Classical expressions popularised by Dr Samuel Johnson), and a more serious flaw “malapropism” (using classical expressions inappropriately, based on the fictional character of Mrs Malaprop) may be seen as the negative effect of Greek influence on English language.

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