90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary



English has borrowed many words from the ancient Greek language. Their spelling gives clues to their recognition and pronunciation



English is essentially a North-Western European language related to German, Dutch and the languages of Scandinavia. However, historical events have caused it to be greatly expanded by borrowings from other languages, especially those of Southern Europe.

French has been a particular influence as a result of Britain being ruled by French-speaking monarchs for about 300 years after 1066 (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). Latin, the language of the ancient Romans, is the ancestor of French, and hence had a great impact on English through it. Later, however, as scholarship advanced, English borrowed more and more words directly from Latin in order to name developing new concepts. More about the influence of Latin on English is in the posts 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling and 130. Formal Abbreviations. Many scholarly words were also borrowed from the language of Ancient Greece. Finally, the growth of Britain as an imperial power caused it to adopt many other new words from right across the world.

The language of Ancient Greece has had almost as important an impact on English as Latin. This is because the Ancient Greeks were the foremost European thinkers before Latin was spread across the continent by the Romans. Words from their language entered English not only directly as names for modern ideas and inventions, but also via Latin, since the Romans themselves used many Ancient Greek words in their learned writings (e.g. philosophia, the Greek word for philosophy).



Being able to recognise that a word is of Greek origin can help you to pronounce it correctly. This is because the pronunciation of such words follows fairly reliable rules. Indeed, words of Greek origin very rarely have illogical features of the kind discussed in the post 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings; they only seem a problem because their spelling is often quite unusual.The main clues that a word is of Greek origin are the following:


1. Special Letter Combinations

Many of these involve the letter “p”. It combines with “h” in words like philosophy, phrase, sphere, emphasis, graph, nymph, symphony and aphrodisiac. In addition, there are “ps” combinations – most disconcertingly at the start of words (psychology, psalm, pseudonym), but also in the middle (rhapsody) – and also “pn” and “pt”, mostly at the beginning of words (pneumatic, pneumonia, pterodactyl, helicopter, symptom).

The letter “y” used as a vowel is also a good clue to a Greek origin, though it is not entirely reliable. It is not Greek at the end of adjectives (happy, easy, ready) and many nouns (discovery, itinerary) and in the -ly and -fy endings, nor in short words like my, why, shy and sky. Words where it is of Greek origin are abyss, analyse, psychology, hypocrite, hypnotise, pyramid, hyperactive, mystery, rhythm, syndrome, syringe, cycle and cyst.

The “ch” spelling is also variably indicative of a Greek origin. It is Greek in anarchy, anchor, chiropody, choir, cholesterol, chorus, Christmas, chrome, epoch, orchestra, psychology and scheme; but it is not Greek in chicken, church, chain, change, chief, chimney, lychee, fetch and inch.

Many words with “th” come from Greek, e.g. mathematics, thesis, theatre, thermal, ethics, myth, sympathise and labyrinth. Finally, the combination “rh” is highly indicative of a Greek origin. It exists in words like rheumatism, diarrhoea, rhythm, rhapsody and rhetoric.


2. Greek Word Endings

The Guinlist post 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices states that most nouns become plural by adding -s to their singular form, but not all do. One of the exceptional categories is nouns of Greek origin whose singular forms end in either -on or -is – words like automoton, criterion, phenomenon, emphasis, thesis, hypothesis, parenthesis, synthesis, analysis, metamorphosis, axis and crisis. The -on ending becomes -a in the plural, the -is one -es (pronounced /i:z/).

A common noun ending in Greek is -ma. These letters at the end of an English noun tend to indicate a Greek origin. Examples are cinema, coma, drama, enigma, magma, panorama, stigma and trauma. There are also some English words that have dropped the -a and just end with -m, e.g. axiom, phlegm, poem, problem, spasm, sperm, symptom and theme.

The underlined words above can be made into English adjectives ending -atic – another indicator of a Greek origin. Additional words with it include automatic, emphatic and rheumatic (but not the Latin-derived erratic).

Many other adjectives with -ic show a Greek origin. Common ones are analytic, archaic, comic, cosmic, economic, fantastic, gastric, graphic, historic, histrionic, ironic, manic, panoramic, pathetic, periodic, photographic, poetic, politic, scenic, specific, strategic, synthetic and tragic. The problem here, however, is that quite a few -ic adjectives are of Latin rather than Greek origin, for example civic, frantic, linguistic, prolific, terrific and Teutonic.

In addition to adjectives, -ic is found on many nouns of Greek origin. Examples include antic, comic, critic, graphic, ethic, heretic, logic, mimic, music, mystic, rhetoric, statistic, synthetic, tactic and topic. For more on how a single ending can show different word classes, see 172. Multi-Word Suffixes.

Another adjective ending that commonly shows a Greek origin is -ical. It makes adjectives out of nouns ending in -ology, e.g. biological, psychological and sociological. Other Greek-originating words with it include comical, critical, economical, ethical, geographical, graphical, heretical, historical, logical, mathematical, musical, mystical, political, pharmaceutical, rhetorical, statistical, symmetrical, tactical, theatrical, topical and typical.

A few -ical words that are not of Greek origin include farcical, medical and radical. Confusing pairs like economic/economical can be read about by clicking on the links in the above lists.


3. Greek Word Beginnings

The post 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling points out that Latin prepositions are found at the beginning of many English words taken from Latin. The same is true of Greek prepositions. Common ones are ana-, anti-, apo-, dia-, en-/em-, epi-, hypo, hyper-, meta-, para-, peri-, pro- and syn-/sym-. Recognising any of these at the beginning of a word can greatly help its identification as Greek.

Examples of words starting with a Greek preposition are analysis, anatomy, antithesis, antonym, apology, apostle, diabetes, dialogue, emblem, empathy, epoch, epistle, epitome, hypodermic, hypothesis, hyperbole, metabolism, metaphor, paradox, paralyse, parallel, paraphrase, perimeter, period, problem, prophylaxis, symbol, synonym and synchronise.

Sometimes the rest of a word after a Greek preposition is itself a possible English word, so that the preposition is acting like a true prefix (see 146. Some Important Prefix Types). Examples are para-medic and hyper-inflationSome other English prefixes are also of Greek origin, for example auto- (= “self-“), pseudo- (= “pretending”) and a- (= “not”). Words with the latter include amorphous, apathetic, apolitical, asexual, atheist and atypical.


4. Medical Terms

Medicine is an area where Greek words are especially abundant. Examples are anatomy, antigen, artery, bacteria, cholesterol, dermatology, diarrhoea, gene, larynx, microscope, neurosis, oesophagus, parasite, pathology, physiology, rhesus, sclerosis, syndrome, syringe, thermometer and thrombosis.

The -osis ending (sometimes spelt -asis) means “present and troublesome” and is used to describe a wide range of illnesses (thrombosis for example is the presence of a troublesome blood clot). -osis can even be combined with a non-Greek root, as in tubercul-osis.



It is generally well-known that the combination ph- is usually pronounced /f/. The letter “p” in other combinations (pn-, ps- and pt-) is silent at the start of a word (see 155. Silent Consonants) but in other positions is pronounced normally. Pseudonym, for example, begins with /s/, pneumonia with /n/.

The pronunciation of “ch” is usually /k/. Here is where it is important to know whether or not the word is originally Greek, since “ch” in non-Greek words is /t∫/.  All of the “ch” words listed above follow this tendency. An exception, though, is arch – pronounced with /t∫/ despite a Greek origin.

Another useful guideline, also mentioned in the post 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”, is that the letter “i” in the Greek prefixes dia-, bio- and micro- is pronounced /aı/ not /ı/. Examples are diabetes, diagonal, diameter, diarrhoea, biology, biopic, biopsy, microbe, microeconomics, micrometer and microscope.

One problem that is unfortunately not so easy to solve is deciding whether to pronounce “y” as /ı/ or /aı/. The former seems more common, occurring for example in analytic, anarchy, cyclic, cyst, embryo, gymnasium, hymn, hypnotise, mystery, physics, pyramid, rhythm, syllable, syringe, system and words beginning with syn-; the latter is exemplified in analyse, cycle, encyclopaedia, gynaecology, paralyse, phylum, psychology, style and words beginning with hypo- and hyper-.

Finally, in words of Greek origin the letter “e” at the end does not always make the vowel before it long (as in words like fade, hope, site, use and paralyse), but can instead make a separate syllable (pronounced /ı/). This happens in words like anemo-ne, epito-me, hyperbo-le, synco-pe and the girls’ names Hermio-ne and Daph-ne. The word simi-le, which also has this feature, is of Latin rather than Greek origin.


One thought on “90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.