Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This time we’re going to look at the vast horde of Greek words which have found their
way into modern English.
Now I’m not going to look at all the Greek words which have come into English, that would
probably take several episodes, but I am going to give you a heavy dose of Greek words to
illustrate the impact of Greek vocabulary on modern English.
But before I begin, let me just give you a quick update on the alphabet series which
I’m working on.
I hope to have that series completed in the next couple of weeks, hopefully by the time
of the next episode of this podcast, and as soon as it’s ready I’ll probably post a mini
episode with specific information about the series and how you can go about getting it
and downloading it, so stay tuned for that.
Now last time we looked at Greece during the so-called Greek Dark Age and the adoption
of the Phoenician alphabet, which led to the spread of literacy, and with it the emergence
of Greece from the Illiterate Dark Age.
So we’re now near the beginning of the period of Classical Greece, the period of Greek history
which we all learned about in school.
Now even though the Greeks didn’t have an alphabet during the Dark Age, and therefore
didn’t have written records, they did what most ancient people did, they kept their history
by telling stories which passed to subsequent generations through the oral tradition.
And these stories were written down as soon as the Greeks had the alphabet, and as I’ve
mentioned in prior episodes, this included the very early versions of the Iliad and the
And by the way, since it will become very important later in the story of English, I
should note that the Hebrews down in Canaan had also adopted the Phoenician alphabet around
the same time as the Greeks.
The Hebrews had adopted the alphabet around 900 BC, which was about a century before the
Greeks borrowed it.
And just as the Greeks used the alphabet to write down the stories which had passed in
their oral tradition, the Hebrews did the exact same thing.
At the same time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were being converted into a written form in
Greece, the Hebrews were documenting the stories of their oral tradition in the earliest versions
of the books which would make up the Hebrew Bible, or as the Christians know it, the Old
Now, both cultures were emerging from illiteracy at the same time.
And last time I discussed some of the early city-states of Greece, cities like Athens
and Sparta and Corinth.
At the end of the Greek Dark Age, these Greek city-states started to emerge as powerful
These states were rivals with each other, sometimes at war, sometimes not, but they
were almost always in competition, whether it be economic or military or political or
So even though these early Greeks spoke a common language, there was no unified Greek
Now, despite the infighting, the Greeks began a tradition in 776 BC which persists to this
Beginning in that year, they would stop their infighting every four years for a series of
games at the Shrine of Zeus at Olympia, which of course we know today as the Olympics.
Sporting events were actually very important to the Greeks.
One of the most popular Olympic events was a foot race.
The race covered a length of about 600 feet, which was a measurement known in Greek as
Seats were added to the foot race location and the entire area became known as a stadion.
The Romans adopted the term as stadium, which we still have today in modern English.
By the way, even though the word stadium comes from Greek, the term arena comes from the
Romans, who used the term harina to refer to the portion of the amphitheater where the
The term harina meant sand.
And this term was used because the fighting area was covered with sand to absorb the blood
of the gladiators.
So from there we get the word arena.
Now the Greeks believed that athletes performed at their best when they were nude.
And the Greek word for naked was gymnos.
And to compete in the nude was gymnasium, which is the basis of the English word gymnasium.
Its shortened form in modern English is gym, and of course the word gymnastics also comes
from the same root word.
The Greeks also invented the pentathlon, which was a competition involving five separate
events, running, jumping, wrestling, discus, and javelin.
In addition to the Olympics, the Greeks often held other public celebrations or events featuring
And this type of celebration was called an agon.
The actual athletic events were called agonia.
And since most participants experienced defeat, the term came to refer to a difficult struggle
or other emotional experience associated with defeat.
The term came into English as agony to refer to a mental or physical struggle.
So when ABC’s Wide World of Sports used the term agony of defeat, they were actually using
the term consistent with its original Greek meaning.
Greek agon is also the root of the word antagonize, by the way.
Another use of this root word appears in literature, especially in plays.
In a play, the various roles or characters were considered part of the conflict represented
in the plot or story, similar to competitors in a sports field or in battle.
The Greek prefix protos was used to identify the primary character, and that term protos
meant primary, and it was combined with the term agonia, meaning conflict, and the resulting
word became protagonist, which meant primary character.
An adversary or opponent was identified with the term anti, therefore anti and agonia became
the word antagonist.
Now this period also saw the Greeks establish colonies throughout the Mediterranean, especially
the northern Mediterranean and eastward into the Black Sea region.
This was the beginning of settlements which we know today as Marseilles, Nice, Naples
It was also the beginnings of Byzantium, which later became Constantinople and is known
today as Istanbul.
Socrates would later say the Greeks lived around the Mediterranean like frogs around
This expansion of Greek influence, language and culture will become very important in
the next episode when we look at the early Latin speakers and the Etruscans in Italy,
but more on that next time.
As the Greeks encountered peoples from other lands, they tended to look down on those people
This was another tendency which would eventually extend to the Romans a few centuries later.
The Greeks coined the term barbarian to refer to the uncivilized peoples who lived outside
Some historians believe that the word comes from a Greek imitation of non-Greek languages,
something like barbar or ba-ba-ba.
The Romans picked up this word and the notion behind it as well.
While it isn’t entirely clear if the term barbarian had all the negative connotations
which it has today, it may have originally simply meant foreigner, but it soon came to
mean a savage or uncivilized person.
In the 7th century BC, many of the ruling families which had ruled the various city-states
of Greece were overthrown and were replaced by new rulers who were called tyrannoi.
Typically this term merely meant ruler who achieved power by a means other than inheritance
or constitutional succession.
So typically it meant a ruler who achieved power by coup.
The term has come down to us in modern English as tyrant, and it’s also the root of the word
Initially, again, it didn’t have the negative connotation that it would have later.
It was really after Alexander the Great, many centuries later, that the term would come
to be used as a negative or pejorative term.
But in the early 6th century BC, the city-state of Athens began to introduce a series of political
And Athens began to reject rule by tyrants and began to move to an early form of democratic
The city was divided into territories, and each territory was based on an older territorial
division called a demi.
And these regions were sort of like wards in modern cities.
Each demi elected a certain number of members to a new representative assembly.
And the Athenians coined the term democratia, which literally meant rule of the people.
And this is the basis of not only a new form of government, but also words like democracy
The 6th century BC also saw the rise of the great Persian Empire to the east.
By the way, remember that the Persian civilization, like the Greek civilization, spoke an Indo-European
language, and both were descended, at least linguistically, from common Indo-European
The Persian Empire had spread westward from modern-day Iran and had conquered Anatolia
and most of the Near East.
They now set their sights on Greece.
And by 513 BC, the Persians had moved into Europe in the Balkans.
So they were now sitting just to the north of Greece.
They had also moved into the Greek territories in western Anatolia.
And in 490 BC, the Persians landed at the city of Marathon, about twenty-five miles
north of Athens.
And the Athenians were far outnumbered by the Persians.
And when they sent a request to Sparta for help, Sparta refused, because they were in
the middle of a religious festival which prohibited warfare.
But surprisingly, and some would say miraculously, the outnumbered Athenians defeated the Persians
at the Battle of Marathon.
And according to Greek legend, the messenger Pheidippides was chosen to carry the news
of the victory back to Athens.
He made the twenty-five mile trek without stopping, and as soon as he reached the walls
of the Acropolis, he cried out, Rejoice!
And then he fell dead to the ground.
Well, whether or not the story is literally true, when the Olympic Games were revived
in Athens in 1896, there was a recreation of the purported Marathon victory run, which
became the basis of the modern word Marathon.
The length of a Marathon is roughly the same as the distance Pheidippides ran to deliver
his message of victory to Athens.
Now though the Athenians celebrated the victory of Marathon, the Persians were not deterred
for very long.
A decade later they invaded again, and for the first time we see the rival Greek city-states
join together to repeal a common enemy.
This time the Spartans joined the effort, and a group of about three hundred Spartan
soldiers held off tens of thousands of invading Persians at a narrow pass near Thermopylae.
This is documented in the recent motion picture, Three Hundred, and it is a great story of
But the Persians eventually found a way around the pass, and then they surrounded and killed
the Spartans, and they proceeded to sack Athens.
But Persian victory was fleeting.
The Greeks rallied to secure victories against the Persians, and the Persians were again
forced to withdraw.
One of the last major victories in this second war against the Persians was at Plataea, and
after this victory there were rumors that the Persians had hidden a huge amount of treasure
at the battlefield.
The Greek leader asked the oracle at Delphi what they should do about that, and the oracle
told him to, quote, leave no stone unturned.
And that’s exactly what the Greeks did, and sure enough they found the treasure, and that’s
the basis of the saying, leave no stone unturned.
And for the next few decades the Greek city-states formed an alliance with each other against
foreign threats, and Athens came to dominate that alliance, and it eventually led to an
The powerful Athenian leader at the time was Pericles, and he was what the Greeks called
a strategos, which meant a general or military leader.
And from this word we get words like strategy and strategic, which describes the type of
actions or plans formulated by military leaders.
And this was the time that’s come to be known as the Golden Age of Greece.
Athens itself became very wealthy, Athenian arts and culture flourished, and the Greeks
flocked to Athens as the cultural center of Greece.
And Sparta came to resent Athenian control over the Greek alliance, and by 431 B.C. the
Greek city-states were once again at war with each other in the Peloponnesian War, which
was primarily a war between Athens and Sparta for control of Greece.
And this was a protracted war which lasted over twenty-five years.
Sparta was known for its powerful land army, and Athens was known for its powerful navy,
and each side traded victories for many years.
In battle a Greek army would surrender to an opposing army by waving an olive branch,
and this was equivalent to the later waving of a white flag, and this is the basis of
the modern term, wave an olive branch, to mean surrender.
Now during the Peloponnesian War, democracy was temporarily abolished in Athens.
The city also experienced a plague which killed many of its citizens.
And meanwhile the Spartans built up their own navy, and after securing several important
victories against Athens, Sparta finally emerged victorious in the Peloponnesian War.
But Spartan control was tenuous, and for the next few decades internal quarrels continued.
And amidst all the infighting and warfare, the military and political power of the Greeks
began to decline relative to their neighbors.
To the north, the Macedonian territory began to amass a tremendous amount of power.
And Macedonia was heavily influenced by Greek culture, but they didn’t speak Greek, and
the Greeks considered them semi-barbarians.
But under the leadership of Philip II, the Macedonians soon began to eclipse the power
of Athens and Sparta.
The Greek states finally formed an alliance against Philip, called the Hellenic League,
but it was too little too late.
In 338 BC, Philip invaded and the Greek alliance fell to the Macedonians.
In the wake of the defeat, the Greek city-states finally coalesced into a single unified political
entity under Macedonian control.
Now Macedonian military power was combined with Athenian naval power and the Spartan
The power of a unified Greece under Macedonian rule was so great that the son of Philip II,
Alexander, defeated the Persian Empire once and for all, and he took control of the entire
landmass of the Persian Empire, including Egypt, and he extended the new Greek Empire
all the way to India.
Alexander, or as he would later become known to history, Alexander the Great, was a very
young man at the time he conquered the Persian Empire.
He was only 17, and consequently he had a tutor.
His tutor’s name was Aristotle.
Aristotle’s mentor was a man named Plato, and Plato’s mentor was a man named Socrates.
What a small world it was for the Greeks.
So that’s an overview of the political history of the classical Greek period.
It was a period of rivalry and warfare, but it is the cultural history of this period
of Greece that we remember most, because it was the culture of this period of Greece
which heavily influenced the Romans, and ultimately influenced the entirety of Western civilization,
and as a result, heavily influenced the English language.
So let’s look at that culture.
As I mentioned in a previous episode, the Greeks are responsible for disciplines such
as philosophy, poetry, music, and drama, and all of those words come from Greek origins.
And since this is a history podcast, I should note that the word history also originated
And since I spend quite a bit of time talking about etymology, or the history and development
of specific words, I should note that etymology is also a Greek word.
Etymos meant true, and logos meant word, so etymology meant the study of the true nature
of a word.
For the Greeks, learning and the study of the world around them was incredibly important.
In fact, it’s amazing the contribution the Greeks made to learning, given that they would
have probably considered their own Indo-European ancestors a few centuries earlier to be barbarians.
But Western civilization as we know it would not exist without the contribution of these
In Greek, a Philosophos meant a lover of wisdom.
The first person to call himself a Philosophos was Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century
The study of the Philosophos was philosophy.
Initially it emphasized astronomy, geometry, and mathematics, again, all Greek words.
Of course, Pythagoras was famous for his Pythagorean theorem in geometry, but despite its original
emphasis on math and science, philosophy evolved into a much broader range of thought and discourse.
It came to represent Greek thought in general.
By the 5th century B.C. into the 4th century B.C., a series of Philosophers and students—Socrates,
his student Plato, and his student Aristotle—they all revolutionized and expanded Greek philosophy,
and they laid the groundwork for much of the philosophical thought of the Western world.
Plato founded a school in Athens called the Academy, and from the name of that school
we get academy and academic.
From Plato’s writings we get words such as analogy, enthusiasm, mathematical, synthesis,
He also redefined and expanded the meaning of terms such as method, musical, philosopher,
theory, type, irony, idea, and ideal.
Words which are attributed to Aristotle include analytic, energy, ethics, philosophy, and
Other words which owe much of their modern meaning to Aristotle include category, mechanics,
organic, physics, and synthesis.
The term metaphysics comes from the fact that Aristotle treated the subject after, which
in Greek was called meta, his treaty on physics, so after physics was metaphysics.
Also from Aristotle we get an emphasis on the measurable world, a world in which things
can be measured, examined, and compared.
The Romans were intrigued by the practical, real-world application of Aristotle’s work,
and they translated many of his words into Latin.
From Latin we get words from Aristotle such as absolute, actual, definition, equivocal,
instance, moral, potential, subject, substance, and virtual.
The broad range of words which come to us from early Greek thought and philosophy is
actually pretty amazing.
In addition to the words I just mentioned, Greek philosophy produced musical terms, literary
terms, science terms, as well as many other terms, so let’s break that down and look at
some of those words.
Grammatical terms from Greek include words like music, musical, musician, chord, chorus,
harmony, melody, rhythm, tone, and symphony.
Literary terms include words like metaphor, rhetoric, hyperbole, glossary, poetry, and
Most of our grammatical terms come from Greek, including grammar and grammatical, adjective,
case, gender, noun, and verb, all from Greek.
The first theater in Athens was built around 550 BC, and not surprisingly we get lots of
words related to plays and performances from Greek.
These words include theater, theatrical, drama, dramatic, comedy, tragedy, catastrophe, episode,
And earlier I mentioned words like protagonist and antagonist.
We can even thank Socrates for the modern English term swan song to describe the last
portion of a performance.
The Greeks, together with other ancient peoples, felt that swans did not generally sing well
except in anticipation of death.
And Socrates said that this represented the swans rejoicing in the face of death because
they knew that they were sacred to Apollo, who was the god of music and song, and that
at death the swans knew they would return to him.
And so this is the basis of the phrase swan song, which was once used to refer to a final
song or performance, but has since been expanded somewhat in modern usage to describe any kind
of final act or event.
And of course, the entire study of science owes an incredible debt to the early Greeks.
Science itself was another outgrowth of Greek philosophy.
The Greeks looked for natural explanations for the world around them rather than relying
upon supernatural explanations.
Plato had helped to develop the concept of deductive reasoning, and many historians consider
Aristotle the inventor of the scientific method, even though many people before and after him
contributed to the method.
The scientific revolution began in earnest in the Middle Ages in Europe, and because
of the important role played by those early Greeks in the development of science, scientists
during the Middle Ages began a tradition of using Greek terms for scientific concepts
which were being developed.
As a result, most of the scientific terms which we have borrowed from Greek began to
appear in the language during and after the Middle Ages.
In the 13th century we get words like astronomy, arithmetic, eclipse, comet, and cosmos.
In the 14th century we get words like problem, philosophy, geometry, rhetoric, logic, astrology,
element, essence, quality, hemisphere, and cycle.
In the 15th century we get words like method and physical.
And in the 16th century we get words like anatomy, geography, physics, mathematics,
pharmacy, idea, method, theorem, theory, hypothesis, phenomenon, species, energy, vacuum, metamorphosis,
anthropology, and syndrome.
And in the 17th century we get words like diagram, system, botanical, psychology, atmosphere,
And in the 19th century we get words like biology, cardiology, ecology, geothermal,
helium, and hypnosis.
I mentioned that the term astronomy came into English from ultimate Greek origins in the
Like many of those words, it gets to us from Greek to Latin to French and then to English.
The root of this word is astro, which comes from the Greek word aster, which meant star.
I mentioned in the last episode that the word asterisk comes from Greek, from the Greek
word asteriskos, which meant little star.
And aster resulted in astro, which resulted in many English words like astronomy, astrology,
astrophysics, and astronaut, just to name a few.
And speaking of Greek astronomy, during the time of the ancient Greeks, the star Sirius,
which was the brightest star in the night sky, it rose just before or at the same time
as the sun in the summer months.
And the Greek word sirios meant burning or scorching.
And the Greeks used that word to describe the star which we know today as Sirius because
it appeared in the summer months near the sun.
And with regard to the constellations, the Greeks consider the star to be the dog associated
with the hunter Orion.
And the Romans borrowed the notion of Sirius as the dog star, and because the dog star
rose at or just before the rising of the sun during the summer months, those hot months
became known as the dog days.
And of course we still refer to the dog days of summer, so Sirius, dog star, and dog days
are all interconnected and all relate back to early Greek astronomy.
Now closely connected to the general science terms I mentioned earlier are medical terms.
The study of medicine also evolved out of Greek philosophy and the later scientific
It relied upon the analytical method of thought inherent in Greek philosophy, and Aristotle
was the first person to use the word anatomy in its medical sense.
The Greeks dissected bodies and studied them, and Hippocrates was a physician from Athens.
Of course we associate Hippocrates with the Hippocratic Oath today.
Among the words which Hippocrates coined are arthritis, diarrhea, dysentery, epidemic,
hemorrhage, hypochondriac, and hysteria.
Hippocrates also used the word crisis to represent the crucial turning point of a disease.
Modern medical scientists still tend to use Greek terms for modern medical advancements.
Now before we move on, I should mention a few other modern English words which originated
from Greek philosophy and learning.
These include words like school, scholastic, logic, analogy, technique, critic, individual,
question, economics, and pyramid.
In addition to full words which were borrowed from Greek, English regularly uses Greek roots
to create new words.
So let’s just look at a few common root words in modern English.
The Greek word bios meant life, and from that root we get lots of words in modern English.
Words like biology, biography, biochemistry, biophysics, biopsy, bionics, biodegradable,
and on and on and on.
The word gaster meant stomach in Greek, and we get words like gastric and gastronomy from
Derma meant skin, so we get words like dermatology from that root.
Kallos meant beauty, and from there we get a word like calligraphy.
Pous meant foot, and gave us words like tripod and podiatry.
The word rhinos meant nose, and from that we get words like rhinoceros and rhinoplasty.
Hydor meant water, and we get all the hydro words from Greek, so hydroplane, hydrogen
come from Greek.
Chroma meant color, so it produced words like chromatic and polychrome, just to name a few.
Altos meant self, so most of the words in English that begin with auto come from Greek,
or at least from that Greek root.
So words like autonomy, automatic, automobile, automobile because you didn’t need a horse
to pull it, it could actually operate on its own, so it was an automobile.
Thermos meant hot, so we get words like thermometer and thermal from Greek.
Macros meant large, so it gave us words like macrocosm and macroeconomics.
Of course, micros meant small, and it produced all the micro words we have, microscope, microbe,
Monos meant single, or one, and produced all the mono words, I say all the mono words,
it produced most of them, so words like monologue, monolithic, monopoly, monarchy.
Homos meant same, so it gave us words like homogenous and homonym.
Polis meant many, so we get polygamy, polygraph, polytheism.
Protos meant first, and it gave us words like prototype, protocol, and in linguistics,
the very earliest version of a language is usually called the proto-language, so we call
the original Indo-European language the proto-Indo-European language, so we see that in linguistic use
as well as general common English use.
The word dio or dis meant two in Greek, and gave us words like diurnal, dioxide, and dichotomy.
Penta meant five, and gave us words like pentagon and pentagram.
Athlon meant contest, and gave us all those athletic events that end with athlon, like
triathlon and decathlon.
Lagos meant writing, speech, or study, and so almost all the words in English that end
in ology are rooted in that Greek word, so words like biology, sociology, trilogy, technology,
all those words.
Metron meant measure, and so most English words that end in meter are traced back to
original Greek origins, so words like barometer, speedometer, meter, centimeter, kilometer,
even metric, all come from that root.
Anta meant opposite, so again, most English words that begin with anti can be traced back
to this Greek root, so words like antibiotic, antimatter, antidote, antiseptic, antifreeze, antithesis.
Dia meant through or across, and that gives us words like diameter, diagonal, diagram, and dialogue.
Para meant beside, or against, or almost, and gave us lots of words, words like parallel,
paramatic, parasite, and paraphrase.
And hyper meant above, or over, or excessive, and gave us words like hyper-extend, hyper-drive,
hyperactive, hyperbole, and hyperventilate.
So these are just a few Greek roots which can be found throughout English, and I think
you can start to see how Greek permeates modern English.
Now as I said earlier, almost all of the words I’ve mentioned in this episode came
into English during the periods of Middle English and Modern English.
They primarily represent words taken from Latin or French with Greek origins.
But there is at least one very old Greek word which has found its way from Greek directly
into the original Germanic languages before the Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain.
In other words, it’s a Greek word from the original Anglo-Saxon language which came into
English without coming through Latin.
And that makes the word one of the oldest Greek words in the English language.
And that word is church.
And a closer look at that word allows us to begin a transition from the Greeks to the
Romans, the Germanic tribes, and the Celtic people of Europe.
I mentioned the word church in an earlier episode about the history of the letter C.
The original Greek word was Kyriakos.
And that word passed from Greek to the Gothic Germanic tribes who had migrated into the
Balkan region around the 2nd century AD.
And Christian missionary work with the Goths in the 4th century led to the adoption of
the Greek word and the expansion of the word northward throughout the Germanic tribes.
The Old Saxons in continental Europe had the word as karyka, but remember that Old English
had experienced an assimilation of the k sound.
Remember all that?
Well, the k sound had become a ch sound in Old English.
So karyka became chariche in Old English.
And from that we eventually get the modern English word church.
But the bigger point here is the role that Greek played in the expansion of the early
Christian church into Europe.
So let’s conclude our look at the Greeks by exploring what happened.
You may recall from the last episode that the Phoenicians had been a very important
player in the Mediterranean and their alphabet was adopted by the Greeks, the Hebrews, and
others which resulted in the first real widespread expansion of literacy in the ancient world.
But the tiny Phoenician homeland came under attack from rising regional powers.
The Babylonians overran the Phoenician cities in the 6th century BC and then the Persian
empire conquered the territory.
A couple of centuries later, the Greeks under Alexander the Great took control of the region.
And after the establishment of the Greek empire under Alexander, the Greek language began
to emerge as the dominant lingua franca of the region.
It was the language of the ruling classes, of arts, and literature, and this was an extension
of a process that had begun even earlier.
Whereas the Phoenicians were really only interested in trade, the Greeks established colonies
and settlements around the Mediterranean.
And with those fixed settlements, the Greek language took hold.
And it had been spoken throughout the region for centuries.
And Alexander’s conquest made Greek even more prominent in the region.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the attacks on the Phoenician city-states, the Phoenician language
died out in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century BC.
Now a closely related Semitic language called Aramaic took its place as the dominant native
language in the region.
Aramaic was the local language spoken during the time of Christ.
But even though Aramaic remained a local vernacular, Greek had already become entrenched as the
dominant lingua franca of the region.
And it was being spoken throughout the vast territory which had been conquered by Alexander.
So that included the Near East, the Black Sea region, and southeastern Europe.
But shortly after the Greek empire was established under Alexander, the Romans swept through
and conquered the same region.
And the arrival of the Romans actually led to the expansion of the Greek language.
First, Italy soon received an influx of educated Greeks.
Many of these Greeks sought employment by the Roman Empire, and Greek influences began
to spread into Roman higher learning.
The Romans began to be heavily influenced by this Greek culture and Greek learning.
And as I have repeatedly discussed, Greek words spread into Latin before they eventually
passed into English.
But back in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek was firmly entrenched by this point.
Even after Greece was conquered by the Roman Empire, the Greek language remained as the
dominant language throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Latin was never able to replace Greek in this region.
In fact, the linguistic division between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking
West was the basic dividing line for the later Eastern and Western Roman Empires.
Greek texts, including histories and philosophies, plays, and other literature, were very popular
throughout the Mediterranean.
And because of the role Greek played in the region, it became the default language for
arts and science and entertainment.
Greek even began to replace Aramaic among many of the native Semitic tribes.
Latin did begin to seep in after the Romans conquered the region, but Latin was associated
with the hated Roman Empire, so Greek remained the preferred language by default.
And that’s part of the reason why Greek remained entrenched even under Roman rule.
And that’s also why the early Christian missionaries chose to write many of the early
texts of the Christian Bible in Greek.
It was the best way to spread the early Christian religion to people throughout the region.
And the decline of Aramaic reinforced the role that Greek played in the process.
Between the 3rd and the 1st centuries BC, the Hebrew scriptures were translated into
Greek for the first time.
And this ultimately included all of the books of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
And this translation is known as the Septuagint.
Now that word comes from Latin and means translation of 70 interpreters, because Hebrew
legend held that there were 70 or some say 72 translators of the text into Greek.
Now modern scholars question this number, but the bottom line is that there was now
a Greek version of the Old Testament.
And this Greek version became the basis for many subsequent translations, including translations
By the way, the original Hebrew texts were thought to be lost to history.
And that’s part of the reason why this early surviving Greek translation was so important.
But in 1947, a shepherd boy looking for a lost goat stumbled across several caves near
the Dead Sea.
And in those caves he found around 800 scrolls of papyrus and leather.
And it turns out that those scrolls were part of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.
And those scrolls dated from the same period in which the Septuagint was being translated
But these scrolls were primarily written in ancient Hebrew.
So scholars can now compare the original Hebrew texts which survive in those Dead Sea scrolls
with the Greek and other early translations.
Now following the death of Christ, the early Christian missionaries began to write manuscripts
and letters promoting their Christian message in the first century A.D.
And these manuscripts and letters were written in Greek from the very beginning.
The early Christian version of the Hebrew Bible was the Septuagint.
So when these early Christians quoted from the Old Testament, they took their wording
from the Septuagint in Greek.
And a large portion of the New Testament was composed by the Apostle Paul, who not only
wrote in Greek, but also wrote his letters in a distinctly Greek format, with an opening
followed by an exhortium, which is kind of like a thanksgiving and praise section.
And that’s followed by a proof, which is an appeal for action, which is then followed
by a paroration, which is a reiteration, an expansion of the appeal, and then lastly comes
And by copying this traditional Greek letter format, it allowed Paul’s letters to be accepted
and read throughout the Greek-speaking world.
He also traveled throughout Greece as part of his early missionary work, and the book
of Corinthians specifically concerns the early Christian church at Corinth.
All the books of the New Testament were composed in Greek.
And that’s the major point here, the fact that Greek played an essential role in the
spread of the early Christian church.
And in fact, it really was the language of the early Christian church, though Latin and
Aramaic and Hebrew were also used, but Greek was by far the primary language of the early
Now you may be saying, what does all of this early Greek and Christian stuff have to do
with the history of English?
Well, the answer is that it actually has a lot to do with the history of English.
First, it provides a backdrop to the spread of Christianity, which is an essential part
of the story of the Middle Ages in Europe.
But for our purposes, both Christianity and Latin were exported from Rome into Western
Europe, and much of the early literacy within and throughout Europe was confined to monks
who wrote in Latin.
So the history of Latin in Europe is closely tied to the history of the church in Europe.
A second consequence of the spread of the Christian church on the history of English
is the significant number of Greek words which have found their way into English through
For example, the Greek word theos meant God, and it’s the root of theology and theological.
It also appears in the word enthusiasm, which comes from the word entheos, meaning inspired
or possessed by God.
Even the term Catholic has origins in Greek.
The term came from a combination of kata, meaning concerning, and holu, meaning whole.
So it basically meant concerning the whole, and it came into Latin as catholicus, meaning
universal, which is the sense that it had in the very early Christian church.
From the Indo-European root word speck, we get the Greek root of scope, meaning to see,
and the Greeks utilized the word in episkopos, which meant overseer, and this is the root
It’s also the root of bishop, as taken from Latin, meaning the persons who administer
the church’s diocese.
The Presbyterian church didn’t have bishops.
It’s governed by elders who are called presbyteros in Greek, and again the term passed through
Latin into English as Presbyterian.
The term Baptist also comes from Greek, specifically the Greek word baptizion, meaning to dip or
immerse in water.
Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Apostle are also rooted in Greek.
Even Christ comes from a Greek word meaning the anointed, and Jesus comes from a Greek
translation of the Aramaic name Jeshua.
We also get other religious terms from Greek, including ethical, agnostic, demon, and mystery
But there’s one other reason why the early spread of the Christian church into Greece
and the use of the Greek language is so important to our look at English, and that’s because
it is directly connected to the oldest known Germanic language.
You may recall from way back in episode 3 that I talked about the Indo-European family
tree, and in discussing the Germanic languages I mentioned that they originated in Scandinavia
and they spread southward into the heart of continental Europe.
Some of them traveled into Western Europe and became known to linguists as the West
Germanic tribes, and these tribes produced modern Germanic languages like English, German,
Dutch, and Frisian.
But some of those tribes migrated into Eastern Europe and became known as the East Germanic
All of the East Germanic tribes have been long lost to history as they became mixed
into other groups over time, and for the most part their languages and dialects have disappeared
But one group’s language was written down and it remains with us today, and that group
was the Goths, which eventually split into two distinct groups called the Ostrogoths
and the Visigoths.
Now these Goths played a major role in the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, but at
this early stage they migrated southeastward into the region of the Black Sea and eventually
into the Balkans.
Now the Goths were pagans, but once they settled into the Balkan region they began to encounter
the early Christian missionaries, and a Goth named Wilphelus was exposed to Christianity
He became a Christian and was eventually consecrated a bishop for the purpose of spreading Christianity
to the Goths.
And as part of his mission, Wilphelus translated the Bible into Gothic.
And this is not just an interesting historical side note.
It represents one of the most important events in the study of the Germanic languages, because
the Gothic Bible represents one of the earliest detailed writings in a Germanic language.
Most of what we know about the long extinct Gothic language comes from this source.
Many parts of this Gothic translation actually still exist, including more than half of the
Gospels, a large portion of the Epistles, and some portions of the Old Testament.
And here’s the other important point.
In addition to the Gothic Bible, Wilphelus also created a Gothic alphabet.
Now previously the Germanic tribes had used runic symbols for writing, but the alphabet
created by Wilphelus is a combination of the Greek alphabet and the runic alphabet.
And this blended alphabet came about because Wilphelus had to borrow from the Greek alphabet
to properly translate the Bible, given some of the inherent limitations of the runic writing.
Now as I said, the Gothic Bible, translated near Greece, from Greek, with a blended Greek-runic
alphabet, gives us the oldest attested written Germanic language.
It predates all of the other written Germanic languages, and it predates the arrival of
the Anglo-Saxons in Britain by more than a century.
It therefore gives us a glimpse of what the Germanic languages looked and sounded like
shortly after the end of the original common Germanic language spoken in Scandinavia.
So this provides us with a nice transition from Greek to the languages and peoples of
Western Europe, including the Latin-speaking Romans, the Celtic tribes, and those early
The history of these three groups is interconnected, but I’m going to begin by looking at the early
Next time, we’ll look at the settlement of Latin-speaking Indo-Europeans into Italy.
We’ll also look at the early Etruscan civilization, which predated and heavily influenced the
rise of Rome.
And I’ll look at the transition of the Greek alphabet from the Greeks to the Etruscans,
and then to the Romans.
And we’ll look at the rise of Rome as a major regional power.
And along the way, I’ll look at some of the many Latin words which have found their way
into modern English.
So until next time, thanks again for listening to the History of English Podcast.