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English: It's All Greek To Me

Democracy, Technology, Logic, Energy ... what do all of these words have in common? An ancestor in Ancient Greece. All throughout the English language, particularly in the realms of medicine, science, art, and politics, we find words built out of pieces of an ancient past.

Imagine you are a language archaeologist (there's another one!). You are digging through ruins, finding broken pieces here and there, and suddenly you discover there is a pattern to the pieces: they fit together. Even better, they fit together in hundreds of different ways, and each combination means something new and different.

That is what it is like to discover the Greek 'pieces' that combine to form so many English words. Here are just a few that a language archaeologist might find while digging through Ancient Greek:

  • Philos: Love, affection
  • Sophia: Wisdom
  • Logos: Word, Study, Knowledge
  • Bios: Life
  • Graphia: writing

Pick up 'bios' and click it like a Lego brick to 'logos' and you have biology, the study of life. Take off 'logos' and click on the 'graphia' piece, and you have biography, 'writing of life.' Tack 'logos' to the end of 'psyche' (mind and soul) and you have psychology. Click 'philos' and 'sophia' together to make Philosophy, literally the 'love of wisdom.' Afraid of heights? Attach 'akro,' Greek for 'high,' to 'phobos' (the name of the Greek god of Fear), and you have a name for that: acrophobia. What do you call a government controlled by its people? Well, how about linking up 'demos' (the people) to 'kratia' (power or rule)? That works, right? Need a word for a sleepy trance? How about borrowing the Greek god of Sleep's name? He's called Hypnos.

Once you get started it's hard to stop, and you're finding the pieces everywhere, switching them around and trying new combinations until suddenly you're surrounded by thousands of words. Cardiology. Telephone. Thermal. Microscope. Automobile. Geology.

Because Ancient Greek isn't actually spoken anymore, it's called dead, or extinct (as is Latin, which is another abundant source of English words).

But is it? It's not used in conversation anymore (Modern Greek, even though it shares the same alphabet, is an almost completely different language), but we could say that it lives on in English, which has taken so many words from so many languages and made them its own.

So quick! What does 'philology' mean?