Posts Tagged ‘Greek’

It’s Greek to Me

April 20, 2017

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (

That Old Time Religion

June 27, 2013

Would you like to go back to that old time religion? Do you find monotheism monotonous? Would you prefer to worship older and more interesting gods? Then maybe Hellenismos is the religion you have been looking for.

Hellenismos is a revival of the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece and Rome. Followers of this religion worship the old gods of Greek and Roman myth like Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on. As far as I can determine, these people are serious about the matter. They are not play acting or pretending like Civil War re-enactors or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It has been centuries since any of the rites of the Greco-Roman religion have been practiced, but these new pagans practice them as best they can be reconstructed from the evidence of literature and archeology. The only concession to modern times is that they do not sacrifice live animals though they do give meat and bones as votive offerings. There aren’t many followers of the Hellenismos, only about 2000,

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hell...

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) ritual in Greece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mostly in Greece and the US. There are an estimated 100,000 people who have shown some interest in it.

The name Hellenismos is worth exploring. The ancient Greeks, as well as the followers of every other traditional ancient religion, did not have a name for their religion. Religion, in those days, was not something separate, but was an intimate part of culture and day to day life. There was no consistent theology or doctrine. There was not a separate class or hierarchy of priests or clergymen. Priesthoods were local and often political posts.  The people of ancient times would not have understood the concept of separation of church and state. Practicing the rites to gain the gods’ favor was an essential role of the state. You did not convert to the ancient Greek or Roman religion, unless you happened to adopt their culture.The closest thing to joining a church in ancient times might be being initiated into one of the mystery religions. Even then, the initiate still worshiped the same gods as everyone else.

The Greeks were aware that people in other countries worshiped other gods. If I understand Herodotus correctly, the Greeks seemed to assume that foreigners worshiped the same set of gods they did only with strange foreign names and ideas about their relationships with one another. In any event, people didn’t travel all that much and few Greeks had much opportunity or inclination to learn about the religious beliefs of people they called barbarians. This changed somewhat in the more cosmopolitan world of the Hellenistic Era and the Roman Empire. People and ideas moved back and forth throughout the ancient world and cults and sects spread far from their lands of origin. The culture became a little more individualistic than before and people could make conscious choices about their religious practices. A person could become a worshiper of Isis, or Mithras, or even of the God of the Jews. (In the century or so before Christ, Jewish monotheism was very attractive to some people). Naturally that person would still practice whatever local rites and customs were prevalent, except in the case of the convert or follower of Judaism. A little later on, a new option arose. One could become a follower of Christ, or a Christian.

Christianity grew fairly rapidly in the three centuries after the death of Christ, until Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor.  Most of this growth took place in the cities of the Roman Empire while people in rural districts tended to be more conservative in their beliefs and who clung to their idols. The growing Christian elite referred to these bitter clingers as “pagani” or country folk, or maybe even rednecks.

In 361 Julian, a grandson of Constantine, became Emperor. Although he had been raised a Christian, the deplorable behavior of the sons of Constantine as well as his studies in philosophy, convinced him to abandon Christianity in favor of neo-Platonism and the old religion. Julian realized that much of the success of the Christians was due to their organization and the way in which they took care of their members. He decided that if paganism was to survive, it would need to be reinvented. Julian wanted to create a new-old religion with a more consistent theology and a hierarchy of priests. He wanted the old temples to practice the same kind of charity as the Christians did and he wanted the priests to exhort the people to more moral behavior, as the Christian priests did in their sermons. He called this system “hellenismos” or the way of the Hellenes. (The Greek work for “Greek” is Hellene and the word for Greece is Hellas.)

Julian did not succeed. He was killed in 363 while fighting a war with the Persians. He successor was a Christian as was every Roman Emperor after him. By 395, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire and the gods of the old temples were banished.

I suppose, in their way, the efforts of the modern followers of the way of the Hellenes are just as quixotic as Julian’s efforts to turn the clock in his time. I can’t imagine all that many people taking the ancient myths very seriously. In fact, I am certain that the modern pagans do not take them literally but metaphorically. Even so, while the Greek gods could be grand and noble, they were also petty, vindictive and selfish. Even in ancient times, some Greeks were embarrassed by the many affairs of Zeus. None of the gods were consistently superior to humans in morals, and in most of the myths, the gods were nothing but trouble to the hapless mortals they met.  They don’t seem to be the sort of beings that are very worthy of worship. I like the stories in Greek mythology myself, though I have never been tempted to worship Zeus or Hermes.

The Birth of Classical Europe

August 9, 2012


The Birth of Classical Europe, by Simon Price and Peter Thronemann is the first book in a series, The Penguin History of Europe. This first book covers the beginnings of Western Civilization from the Trojan War to the time of Augustine of Hippo. That is a lot of ground to cover in only four hundred pages, and The Birth of Classical Europe barely skims the centuries of history. Still, these are appropriate endpoints.


The Birth of Classical Europe is really not so much a narrative history as a study on how history was used by the Greeks, Romans, and others to establish their place in the world. For the people of classical Europe, the Trojan War was, in many respects the beginning of history, as the first event of consequence that they could date and had any information about. The fact that their information was filtered through the legends memorialized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and that they did not, in fact, have any real knowledge of the events centuries before their time was irrelevant. Greek cities and families traced their origins to heroes and events in Homer and other myths and any new custom or institution was invariably held to have had its actual origins in the legendary past. Thus, Athenian democracy, which was only fully established in the fifth century, was believed to have been started by Theseus. The Persian invasion was another chapter in the long struggle between East and West. The Romans got into the act too. They believed themselves to be descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas and placed themselves firmly in the mythological history of the Greeks. Even unrelated peoples such as the Gauls and inhabitants of Asia came to view themselves in this context.

If the Trojan War is a good point to begin this survey, than Augustine is the natural endpoint. For by Augustine’s time the rising faith of Christianity had begun to create a new historical context for the people of the West. While the Romans hardly abandoned their classical heritage, they did begin to draw more on the history in the Bible to understand their place in the history and the world. This tendency perhaps reached its climax with Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God, and it may well be said that after him we find the habits of thought we associate with the medieval period.

The Birth of Classical Europe is worth reading in order to get a good bird’s eye view of the formation of our civilization and if it has a fault, it is simply that there is not enough space in the book to give every cultural and historical development its full attention.


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