Classical Greek Online

Series Introduction

Winfred P. Lehmann and Jonathan Slocum

Greek has been important in the intellectual life of western civilization, but not to the extent of Latin except for ecclesiastical matters. In years past, Latin was introduced in the first year of High School, followed by Greek in the third year. The prominence of Greek for intellectual matters is evident in designations of subjects central to university study, such as philosophy 'love of wisdom', philology 'love of words or more generally study', theology 'study related to God', psychology 'study related to the soul or psyche', and so on.

A difficulty with Greek that may put off learners is the maintenance of an older form of the alphabet than that used for Latin, English, and many other languages. Moreover, accentuation varies in Greek words, and in early Greek was musical. While today accented syllables are pronounced with stress rather than tones, the older accents are still written [with η added for illustration]: ή for the οκσεῖα 'acute' accent or high pitch, for the περισπώμενον accent or high-low pitch, and for the βαρεῖα 'grave' or falling pitch. Furthermore, the sentence structure and number of forms require a great deal of attention. The words of sentences are placed for their emphasis, rather than in accordance with a pattern like that of the English Subject-Verb-Object order; knowledge of the inflections is therefore highly important. Interpretation is also assisted by the use of articles which, like nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs, are inflected. It is essential, then, to learn the basic inflections of these parts of speech.

1. The Greek alphabet and pronunciation.

The Greek alphabet was taken over from the Semitic as used in the Phoenician area, which in turn was based on an Egyptian alphabet. These were also used for the numerals, so that the order of the symbols was maintained, if changed at times in sound value. This is true also of the Latin alphabet, which was based ultimately on the Greek alphabet; the 3rd symbol, which represented [g] as in its name gamma, had the sound of [k] in Latin, as in words like car or the proper name Cato. The symbols themselves, especially the small cursives, may also differ in form from those of Latin and English, but on the whole the differences may readily be recognized. The alphabet is as follows:

α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ρ σς τ υ φ χ ψ ω

Note that there are two forms of the small letter sigma: the latter (ς) is used where the letter appears last in the word; everywhere else, the former is used. The [h] sound before a vowel is signalled by a rough breathing sign [with ο added for illustration]: ; and when there is no initial [h] sound before vowels, the smooth breathing sign is . The rough breathing may also be used with initial rho: .

The names of the letters are as follows, in English and then in Greek:

alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi, omega
ἄλφα, βῆτα, γάμμα, δέλτα, ἒ ψιλόν, ζῆτα, ῆτα, θῆτα, ἰῶτα, κάππα, λάμβδα, μῦ, νῦ, ξεῖ, ὂ μικρόν, πεῖ, ῥῶ, σῖγμα, ταῦ, ὖ ψιλόν, φεῖ, χεῖ, ψεῖ, ὦ μέγα

Latin and thereupon English has maintained this order with modifications that are apparent from the different sounds of the letters and the different names. The letter ζ was pronounced like the consonant in adze. The letter ξ was pronounced like the consonant in ax. The letter ψ was pronounced like the final consonants in tops. The letters θ φ χ were originally pronounced like the aspirated initial consonants in English tan, pan, can as opposed to the unaspirated consonants in stan, span, scan; but they are usually pronounced today like the initial consonants in than, fan and the consonant in German ach.

The vowels are pronounced as follows: α like the vowel of bot, ε like that of bet, η like that of bait, ι like that of beet, ο like that of boat, υ like that of bit, ω like that of bought. The five vowels other than η ω may be long or short. Unlike English, there are few silent letters. Sentences, then, are read with every letter pronounced, as in the following sayings of Solon and of Menander:

γηράσκω δ' αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος
'I grow old-indeed-always-many things-learning'
'I grow old always learning many things.'
Τὴν τῶν κρατούντων μάθε φέρειν ἐξουσίαν
'the-of the-masters----learn-to bear-power'
'Learn to submit to the power of the masters.'
2. The vocabulary.

English and Greek belong to the Indo-European language family; their earlier versions separated from each other some four thousand years ago. Words of the same origin are often disguised because of changes that have taken place in both languages. For example, an initial [s] sound before vowels in Greek evolved into [h], as in (cf. English six) Latin sex, Greek heks, written ἕξ (cf. hexagon). The word corresponding to seven is written ἑπτά (cf. heptagon). Moreover the Indo-European consonants represented as bh, dh, gh evolved to ph, th, kh -- φ, θ, χ, as in φράτηρ 'brother'. New sounds have also been introduced in Greek with their own letter in the alphabet, such as η for the vowel corresponding to the [a] in hate, and ξ for the combination [ks] as in six.

The greatest difference, however, may have resulted from a massive change of consonants in Germanic (hence English) well before our era. The change was formulated by the great German scholar, Jakob Grimm, and is known as Grimm's law, which is listed even in smaller dictionaries of English. At this time, p, t, k evolved into sounds that today are represented by f, th, h. Among examples are: father, compare Greek πατήρ, three, compare Greek τρεῖς, hundred, compare Greek ἑκατόν, literally 'one hundred'. And the sounds represented by bh, dh, gh in Indo-European were changed to the sounds that today are represented by b, d, g. These sounds were also changed in Greek, as noted above. Among examples are English brother, compare Greek φράτηρ, door, compare Greek θύρα, goose, compare Greek χήν. At the same time, b, d, g were changed to p, t, k. Among English examples are ten, compare Greek δέκα, kin, compare Greek γένος. (Indo-European had almost no words with b.)

It is interesting to compare such cognate words, but the changes that both languages have undergone often conceal the relationships, as for the numerals for four and five. Some of the others are transparently related, in spite of changes: one, Greek εἷς; two, Greek δύο; three, Greek τρεῖς; four, Greek τέτταρες; five, Greek πέντε; six, Greek ἕξ; seven, Greek ἑπτά; eight, Greek ὀκτώ; nine, Greek ἐννέα; ten, Greek δέκα. Since dictionaries may provide the Greek cognates of English entries, control over the Greek vocabulary can be gained by noting them. Etymological dictionaries are of greater assistance.

As noted above, by far the greatest number of similar words are found in academic and ecclesiastical language, where English simply took over the Greek terms through long influence on western culture from these spheres. Words were pronounced in accordance with the English spellings, rather than with their pronunciation in Greek. Some examples are cited here.

The academic terms are in accordance with the influence of Aristotle, who, after years of study with Plato in the Athenian grove known as the Academy (named after the hero Akademos), conducted his teaching in the temple to Apollo known as the Lyceum. We have already noted terms ending in -logy, to which others might be added like biology and neurology. The last part attained a status of its own, so that further words like sociology, with its initial part from Latin, could be introduced. Moreover, the last part has a somewhat different function in the word doxology, 'giving words of praise'. Other ecclesiastical terms are clergy, clerical, Eucharist and liturgy. In the political sphere the words democrat and democracy are based on the components for people and power, as also in aristocrat and aristocracy for the best or superior people and power, autocracy for self or absolute power, theocracy for ecclesiastical power. Examination of the etymology or 'true meaning' of such words will assist in gaining control of the Greek vocabulary.

3. The sentence structure of Greek.

As is clear from the earlier quotations, the sentence order of Greek may differ considerably from that of English. In an earlier form of Greek, the verb was placed last in the sentence. But in the sayings of Menander its position is quite different. The different positions are possible because of Greek inflections. In English we generally have to place together phrases like 'power of the masters'. Greek, on the other hand, can move elements around for stylistic purposes -- as here, giving emphasis to special items like 'of the masters'.

In examining a Greek text, one should first identify the verb. Its forms are identifiable through their inflections, with the additional help that nouns are often marked by preceding articles. In the saying of Solon, the ending -ω indicates that the subject is the first person expressed in English with I. As often, no further subject is included. Moreover, the ος ending on the final word indicates that the word must be taken as modifying I. It is useful then to memorize the basic inflections of verbs, as well as those of nouns.

As illustrated by these brief passages, the key to reading Greek is provided by knowledge of its inflections. While these are numerous, memorization of the basic inflections of the article, of nouns and of verbs is generally adequate.

4. The forms of Greek.
4.1 Nouns, adjectives, pronouns, the article.

These parts of speech are inflected for four cases, besides a case of address called the vocative. The cases are as follows:

  • Nominative, the case of the subject;
  • Genitive, the case to indicate possession -- possessive, in grammars of English
  • Dative, the case of the indirect object
  • Accusative, the case of the direct object -- objective, in grammars of English

Case forms may also be determined by prepositions.

In English, only the nominative, genitive/possessive and accusative/objective have been maintained, and that only in pronouns: I is nominative, my is genitive, me is accusative. Nouns simply have a nominative and a possessive, as in dog, dog's. Adjectives are not inflected.

Greek nouns are also inflected for --

  • number, that is, singular and plural; Classical Greek also maintained a dual.
  • three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
  • a large number of declensions.

Paradigms are given in the various lessons. For illustration here, forms of the article are shown in all three genders, as well as the feminine noun for 'country' of the α-declension and the masculine noun for 'word' and the neuter for 'gift' of the ο-declension:

    Fem.   Masc.   Nt.   Fem.   Masc   Nt
Sg. Nom.       τό   χώρα   λόγος   δῶρον
Sg. Gen.   τῆς   τοῦ   τοῦ   χώρας   λόγου   δώρου
Sg. Dat.   τῇ   τῷ   τῷ   χώρᾳ   λόγῳ   δώρῳ
Sg. Acc.   τήν   τόν   τό   χώραν   λόγον   δῶρον
Pl. Nom.   αἱ   οἱ   τά   χῶραι   λόγοι   δῶρα
Pl. Gen.   τῶν   τῶν   τῶν   χωρῶν   λόγων   δώρων
Pl. Dat.   ταῖς   τοῖς   τοῖς   χώραις   λόγοις   δώροις
Pl. Acc   τάς   τούς   τά   χώρας   λόγους   δῶρα
4.2 Verbs.

Like nouns, verbs have many inflections (though not all of the possible combinations below are realized):

  • Verbs are inflected for voice: active, middle, and passive. The middle indicates action directed at the subject; this is often expressed in the lexical meaning itself. Verbs with a basically middle voice are known as deponents; for example, γίγνομαι means 'become, take place, be produced,' etc.
  • Verbs are inflected for mood: indicative, subjunctive, and optative.
  • Verbs are inflected for tense: present, past (or imperfect), and future. Of these, there are three sets (again, not in all combinations): the basic (or simple), the aorist, and the perfect. The past perfect is also called pluperfect.

In addition there are imperative forms, infinitives, participles, a gerund, and a supine. The imperative forms are rare in written texts.

The present infinitive active may be illustrated by λέγειν 'to say, speak'; the aorist is λέξαι. The present infinitive middle is λέγεσθαι; the aorist is λέξασθαι. The passive infinitive is λέγεσθαι; the aorist is λεγθῆναι. The present participle active is λέγων, λέγουσα, λέγον. The present participle middle and passive is λεγόμενος, λεγομένη, λεγόμενον.

It should be obvious that the verb system of Greek is complex. The basic forms of irregular verbs are generally listed in dictionaries.

4.3 The other parts of speech.

In addition to these parts of speech, Greek includes adverbs, conjunctions, interjections and prepositions. Since their functions are comparable to those of their English counterparts, they will not be discussed here.

5. Examples of texts.

Proverbs or passages from literary figures are often cited, also in English works. A few will be given here to illustrate the use of forms and patterns of syntax.

Plato: Πάντων μέτρον ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν.
'The human being is the measure of all things.'
Aristotle: ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικ̀ον ζῷον.
'The human being is by nature a political animal.'
Sophocles: πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
'There are many wonderful things and nothing is more wonderful than the human being.'
Archimedes: δός μοι ποῦ στῶ καὶ κινῶ τὴν γῆν.
'Give me a place where I may stand and I will move the earth.'
Menander: ὁ σοφὸς ἐν αὐτῷ περιφέρει τὴν οὐσίαν.
'The wise man carries his property within him.'
Plato: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.
'The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.'
Menander: Οὐδεὶς ποιῶν πονερὰ λανθάνει θέον.
'No one can hide his wickedness from god.'
Isocrates: Τοὺς μὲν θεοὺς φοβοῦ, τοὺς δὲ γονέας τίμα, τοῖς δὲ νόμοις πείθου.
'Fear the gods, honor the parents, keep the laws.'
Menander: Κάλλιστόν ἐστι κτῆμα παιδεία βροτοῖς.
'Education is the most valuable treasure for mortals.'
Plato: Ἡ ψυχὴ ἀθάνατος φαίνεται οὖσα.
'The soul is apparently immortal.'

Related Language Courses at UT

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