The English Language: It's Greek to Me

Copyright © 1993 Garret Wilson

by Garret Wilson

for Mrs. Wilks

English IV

1 March 1993

The English language is indebted to Greek not only for its alphabet but also for a major portion of its vocabulary. If it were not for the ancient Greeks, the English language would not be the 26 letters that are used today. The English-speaking people would probably write in a different direction. Everyday vocabulary would be drastically altered, and it would be difficult to communicate about such subjects as government, religion, and science. Even English literature would not be nearly as diverse as it is today.

All of the alphabets of the world are derived from an ancient alphabet often referred to as the Phoenician alphabet—more correctly labeled the Semitic alphabet. This alphabet is not used anywhere today, but most closely resembles the modern Hebrew alphabet. Over 900 years before Christ a form of the Phoenician alphabet was introduced to the Greeks, consisting of only 19 characters.1 This alphabet contained no vowels, only consonants, and was written from right to left.

This alphabet alone could not meet the needs of the ancient Greek language. To accommodate this, the Greeks added more letters and changed some others, adding vowels—an entirely new concept in alphabets! Their direction of writing was inconsistent for a while: sometimes they wrote from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes even back and forth!2 They finally settled on the direction in which the English language is written today: from left to right.

English was first spoken (in a somewhat primitive form) on the mainland of Europe by three tribes: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. They are usually collectively referred to as the Anglo-Saxons. In the 4th century they entered Britain, either driving out or enslaving the native Britons, who spoke a Celtic language.3

Many Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity after 597, when Saint Augustine landed in Britain. The language of religious expression used when Christianity began was Greek. The various letters and books that are collectively called the New Testament of the Bible were written in Greek. The New Testament, used by the converted Anglo-Saxons, greatly influenced the developing English language, which at this time had no alphabet and was only spoken, not written.4 To express religious ideas previously unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, they imported many words directly from the original New Testament such as "church" from Greek κυριακή (kyriake, "pertaining to the Lord"), "ecclesiastical" from Greek εκκλησία (ekklesia, originally an Athenian assembly), and also "apostle," "monk," "prophet," "patriarch," "hymn," and "psalm."5 Other words were derived from Latin, the language of the Christian Church in western Europe at the time.6 Many of these words had in turn been derived from Greek. For example, English angel, derived from Latin angelus, was first derived from Greek angelos, meaning "messenger."

The next major influence of Greek upon the English language occurred during the Renaissance, which had its greatest force in England during 1500–1625.7 During this period, the study of classics was stressed. The classicists of that time intentionally tried to enrich the English language by borrowing from such classic languages as Greek and Latin. Because of their efforts, the English language now includes such words as "catastrophe" and "lexicon", which came directly from Greek, and "chaos," "climax," and "crisis," which came from Greek through Latin.8

When one examines the English literature from the Renaissance era, the results of the classicists' efforts can clearly be seen. For example, about 19 percent of Hamlet's soliloquy (Hamlet, Act III, Scene i) by William Shakespeare is from the classical languages Latin and Greek. In general, the classical content of Shakespeare's plays was 21 percent. However, if repetitions are omitted, this number rises to about 40 percent. Therefore, in Shakespeare's works, words of Latin and Greek origin form approximately two thirds of the vocabulary, and one fifth of all words used.9

The ancient Greeks have supplied many facets of the first-world governments of the modern world. In fact, the entire government of The United States of America hinges on the ideas of these ancient people. It is only expected that many terms of government in the English language come from Greek. When one talks of monarchies and democracies, he is using words derived from Greek. "Treasurer," "chambers," and "parliament" are from Greek. Even the word "government" itself is from Greek.10

Many words were incorporated into the English language from the Greek New Testament by the Anglo-Saxons, as discussed above. Most of these words were religious, and are still used today by adherents of the Christian religion. Among these are devil, minster, deacon, synod, anthem, pope, and priest.11 Christianity, which has influenced the lives of people all over the world, has from its conception been dependent upon the Greek language.

Modern science has also failed to escape Greek influences in its vocabulary. Not only do its different fields exhibit signs of a Greek influence in the histories of their respective vocabularies, but science as a whole often uses Greek when forming words to express new ideas. Many concepts and discoveries need to be communicated internationally, so a uniform method of communication is necessary. For example, the SI international measurement system, previously known as the metric system, uses a system of Greek prefixes to identify the various measurements as powers of ten (centi, deci, deka, kilo, etc.)

When one speaks of anatomy, much of the technical terminology is Latin in form. However, a closer inspection reveals that many of these words are Latinized Greek.12 Many common anatomical terms, such as cranium, epidermis, larynx, iris, and retina are from Greek. Botany, although using a two-part Latin naming system, is also dependent on Greek for many words. In a glossary of 726 botanical terms, at least 183 of them (or about 25 percent) are either Greek or hybrids of Latin and Greek.13

Another area of science greatly influenced by Greek is chemistry. If one only considers the periodic table of the elements, around half are Greek in origin.14 Some common examples include arsenic, calcium, copper, helium, hydrogen, iodine, magnesium, manganese, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and platinum. However, chemistry cannot claim a greater Greek heritage than the science of medicine. Many medical terms, occupations, and college courses are directly derived from the Greek language. A Pediatrician, a doctor who works with children, owes his occupational name to the Greek παιδός (paidos, child). A hypodermic needle is so-called because it goes under (Greek hypo) the skin (Greek derma). Even the title of a doctor of female ills, gynecology, is from Greek: γυvή (gyne) means woman.15

Although Greek influences can be easily seen in the specific, technical areas mentioned, possibly more relevant is the grammar and vocabulary of the average English-speaking person. First of all, the very term "grammar" was devised by the Greeks, which means, in their language, "that which pertains to writing." Greek philosophers are credited with the creation of such grammatical terms and concepts as "article," "noun," "pronoun," "adjective," "verb," "adverb," "preposition," "conjunction," and "interjection." So powerful was the Greek influence upon English literature, that "...native English has contributed practically nothing to the English terminology of grammar, and ... Greek, either by translation into Latin, or by mere transliteration, has furnished practically everything."16

Contemporary literature reflects the content of present-day English. The wide variety of English literature is due wholly to the ancient Greeks, who invented every literary category which is known.17 Tragedy, for example, was first perceived and developed by the Greeks. Of the four great tragedy artists of the world, three of them, Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, are Greek—the other being Shakespeare.18

Less than one fifth of our vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon in origin. Approximately three fifths is from Latin and Greek.19 However, this percentage gains new importance when one considers which words are used more than others. Just as significant is the fact that many prefixes and suffixes used are from Greek.20 Common Greek prefixes (e.g. anti), are usually used to make technical words with other Greek stems. The same can be said for suffixes. The English suffix ess, used to make words referring to females (such as actress), started out as the Greek issa, then traveled through Latin and French to finally get to English.21 Other common Greek suffixes are icus (seen in "gigantic," "magic," and "arithmetic"), ite ("Canaanite"), itis ("laryngitis"), and oid ("spheroid").

Greek has played a large part in the drama of English language development. Although the parts some languages have played are sometimes more readily acknowledged, none can begin to claim to have guided the English language as long, from its very beginning to the present day, nor as strong, having helped to form the very alphabet upon which the English language is structured. Greek, having helped start the development of the most widespread language in the world, is quietly continuing to guide the English language as it further evolves to accommodate the inhabitants of the modern world.


  1. Oscar Ogg, The 26 Letters, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967), pp. 87-88.
  2. Keith Gordon Irwin, The Romance of Writing, (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), p. 57.
  3. Roland G. Kent, Language and Philology, (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963), p. 27.
  4. Charlton Laird, The Miracle of Language, (New York: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1953), p. 191.
  5. Mario Pei, The Story of Language, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1965), pp. 210-212.
  6. Mario Pei, All About Language, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1954), pp. 83-84.
  7. Margaret M. Bryant, "English Language," The Encyclopedia Americana, 1989 ed.
  8. Bryant, 1989 ed.
  9. Kent p. 49.
  10. Kent, p. 64.
  11. Kent, pp. 27-28.
  12. Kent, p. 73.
  13. Kent, pp. 71-72.
  14. Kent, p. 75.
  15. Norman Lewis, Word Power Made Easy, (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 45-47.
  16. Kent, p. 143.
  17. R. W. Livingstone, "Literature," in The Legacy of Greece, (Oxford, Great Britain: University Press, 1962), p. 253.
  18. Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way, (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1973), p. 165.
  19. Kent, p. 6.
  20. Pei, The Story of Language, p. 121.
  21. Kent, p. 93.

Works Cited