§3. Why Latin and Greek?

If you have even the most general knowledge about the history of western civilization, you will be aware of the crucial role played by ancient Greece and Rome.

It was in the Greek city-states of the eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, that many fundamental aspects of western culture had their origin. The Greeks virtually invented politics (from monarchy to tyranny to democracy); they gave us epic and lyric poetry, theatrical drama (both tragedy and comedy), philosophy, rhetoric, and analytical history; they excelled in athletics, music, mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Therefore it should be no surprise to learn that all the italicized English words in the last sentence are derived from classical Greek, a language most brilliantly exploited, perhaps, by the Athenian writers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the Greek language spread throughout the Near and Middle East; some four hundred years later, it would be the tongue in which the Christian apostles brought their message to the west (the very word Christ is Greek, as is apostle). Although the language of modern Athens is a far cry from that of Aristotle or St. Paul, Greek has not changed out of all recognition in over two millennia.

At the time of Aristotle and Alexander, Rome was still an obscure city on the world stage, though it was beginning to assume a dominant role on the Italian peninsula. Within two hundred years, Rome had conquered most of the Mediterranean, including the ancient city-states of Greece. By the first century of the Christian era, the vast Roman empire extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, from Egypt to the British Isles. Latin, once merely a regional Italic dialect in and around the city of Rome, had become the spoken and written language for most of what is today western Europe. Boasting a major literature of its own, it was also the medium by which the great achievements of Greece would be transmitted to the west. As Christianity developed, the Hebrew and Greek Bibles were translated into Latin. Even after the fall of Rome and the emergence of medieval Europe, Latin continued to thrive, especially within the powerful Catholic Church. In those areas where the use of Latin had become well established over centuries of empire, regional dialects of Latin evolved into new and distinct vernacular languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

Many Greek words would eventually come into English only because they had been borrowed by speakers of Latin. Similarly, vast amounts of Latin vocabulary entered English through French—and to a much lesser extent through Italian or Spanish. In the weeks ahead, we shall explore this process of transmission. Whenever possible, we shall go back to the source, developing analytical skills that will allow us to trace the Latin and Greek ancestry of countless English words.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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