Greek is the oldest living language. Nowadays, most of European languages have thousands of Greek words in their dictionaries. English is no exception.
In this article, I would like to give a short and fun introduction to the internationally used Greek words. I will do it from my own perspective, as I recently decided to learn Greek, and I am constantly discovering curiosities.
For example, let’s start with a little παράδειγμα – read as “para-dee-gma”. There is a word “paradigm” in English, usually appearing in complicated conversations, to describe some so-called “frameworks”. However, in Greek, that word means – example! It is that simple.
A brief history
First of all, there were several languages prior to Greek, but they went extinct a long, long time ago. The Indo-European language family likely had a common ancestor called Proto-Indo-European. There is a little evidence about that language, but Greek is probably its closest relative we have today.
Moreover, it is important to know that there were different versions of Hellenic languages / Ancient Greek, there was a Medieval / Byzantine Greek, and there is the standard Modern Greek. In short, Modern Greek is closely related to its ancestors, so most of these ancient words are still in use today. The words I am describing in this article are all in use in modern Greek, in more or less similar meanings.
From ancient arts to technology
It is pretty clear that the world changed a lot from ancient times to our days. That it is to say, languages changed because people needed to say and describe different things. As a result, the meaning of many Greek words have evolved from ancient to modern times, but their meanings in other languages changed even more.
For instance, visual arts in ancient times were closely related to manual skills. Therefore the word τέχνη – to read as “teh-nee” – had a meaning of fascinating manual – technical (!) skills to create fine arts. Similarly, συμφωνία – to read as – sym-phon-eea – means agreement. Symphony in music is definitely – just like agreement between many people playing music at the same time.
But what is the meaning of technology? Aside from the first part meaning “artistic skills”, the second part contains λόγος – logos. It is tougher to explain and would require a different article to analyse the work of Greek philosophers, but I will try. In short, logos is either reasoning (as opposed to emotions), or speech. To sum up, technology can be explained as understanding of artistic skills. Makes sense?
Knowledge and smartness are close relatives to wine, sure?
Imagine a conference. There is a strict sequence of chairs in a row, along with a small stage. Speakers are coming one after another and giving lectures. Now imagine a banquet. Endless tables are full of food and drinks, while everyone is laughing and speaking at the same time.
Which of these two description would you associate with the word symposium? I guess the first one, because in our days, conferences are often described as symposiums. However, you would not be correct when it comes to Greek words.
Συμπόσιο (sym-posio) was a special kind of event in Ancient Greece, something like a banquet with intellectual conversations. Similarly to almost all the public events, the participation was allowed only to wealthy and educated men. It was definitely not for idiots, but look, I don’t mean idiots in the way we know that word today.
Cultural differences: private and public life
Still today, our world is wonderfully colourful and filled with different cultures. Historical periods had different cultures. One of the main characteristics of Ancient Athens was the importance of public life. Again, only wealthy educated men had the right to pursue a public life.
On the other hand, private citizens were called ιδιώτης – idiotis, and they are still called like that in Modern Greece. For example, το ιδιωτικό σχολείο – to idiotiko s-holeeo – literally means private school. How did it all happen, and why idiot means what it means in basically all the European languages?
It is because aside from having the right to participate in public/social life, these wealthy and educated many had even obligation to do it. In short, for remaining just “private” they were called idiotis. Subsequently, the word got a meaning of uninterested and ignorant citizens. Idiots were definitely not showing up for sympoziums.
Still, the word keeps its original meaning in Modern Greek.
Greek words for books and pictures
The power of Greek languages did not disappear at the end of Classical Antiquity, but instead, it gained even larger significance. The Bible was translated to European languages mostly from Greek.
While the word “Bible” is associated with the main book of the Christianity, it comes from a simple Greek word. The word is βιβλίο – vee-vlee-yo, and it basically means book. It was because there were no many books in these times, they were all handwritten, and the Bible was the most popular bestseller back then – so it was The Book.
Similarly, the Greek word for picture is εικόνα – eekona. During the early times of the Byzantine Empire – in the city of Constantinople – the main idea about pictures was in religious pictures in churches. As a result, these religious motifs started being called simply as “icons”. Nowadays, icons have a meaning of symbols.
Museums and music, theatre…
In conclusion, let’s go back to ancient Greek myths and beliefs. Without them, there would not be any later culture as we know it. The muses were Greek goddesses of inspiration. They were believed to bring support to as much as nine fields, from sciences to literature, from performing arts to plastic arts.
Here come Greek words μουσείο και μουσική – mooseeo ke museekee – museum and music. Both words derive from goddesses who are believed to be the driving force behind creation, knowledge, and curiosity.
Furthermore, in the basis of the θέατρο – theatro – is the word θέα – thea – meaning – view! While the story of Ancient Greek theatre is a complex thing that would require another article, I only need to say that theatre, in its earliest days, used to be described as the place to view, to see something. Most of Greek words have a basis in something so simple.
History is all about stories
To conclude this article, I would like to focus on the word αρχαίο – ar-heo – meaning ancient. The word is a root of archaic and archaeology. Remember logos? Archaeology is a discipline that is educated about anything ancient or archaic – history? On the other hand, there is indeed ιστορία – istoria – literally story. In Latin and modern Romance languages, historia usually means both story and history.
In other words, I need to say that history, museums, arts – it is all so connected and fascinating.
EDIT January 2021: Check the second article about amazing Greek etymologies.
Some easily accessible sources
- The Symposium in Ancient Greece – MET Museum – checked on June 3, 2020
- Etymology of Theatre – checked on June 3, 2020