§118. Greek Adjectives: 1st and 2nd Declension Type

It is an oversimplification to say that classical Greek adjectives are exactly parallel in morphology to their Latin cousins. After learning the Latin types, however, you will find the Greek system quite familiar. There is one group of Greek adjectives whose forms are drawn from the first and second declensions (cf. L magnus, magna, magnum), and another whose forms belong wholly or in part to the third declension (cf. L fortis). Rather than worry about details of grammar that concern only the serious student of Greek, we can concentrate on the roots and combining forms of these adjectives, in order to see how they affect English vocabulary.

Just as the Latin adjective meaning “equal” had the three forms aequus (M), aequa (F), and aequum (N), so its Greek semantic counterpart had the three forms ἰσος (M), ἰση (F), and ἰσον (N). For simplicity’s sake, we’ll ignore gender distinctions and use only the masculine form ἰσος, whose base is obviously ἰσ- (is-). Here is a useful group of Greek 1st and 2nd declension adjectives:

ἀκρος akros top(most) acropolis
αὐτος autos self autograph
ἑτερος heteros other heterodox
ὁμος homos same homomorphic
ἰσος isos equal isometric
ὀρθος orthos straight, right orthodontic
νεος neos new neologism
παλαιος palaios old palaeography

You will surely be able to provide many other English derivatives from the adjectives in this list. The base aut- has given us autonomy (“self rule”), autobiography (aut-o-bi-o-graphy, “self-life-writing”), automaton, automatic, autopsy, autochthonous,[1] and the Latin hybrid automobile—shortened to auto. Alongside acropolis we can place such words as acrophobia (acr-o-phobia, “fear of the top”—i.e., fear of heights), acrobat (a “top walker”), and acronym—literally, “top name” (acr-onym), where the top or end letters of a series of words are combined to provide a convenient label. Nowadays we are exposed to a plethora of acronyms, like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), radar (RAdio Detecting And Ranging), and that most sinister and ironic word AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). There’s nothing new about acronyms, however. It has been almost two millennia since the early Christians devised a secret acronym to identify their faith: this was the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ (“fish”; cf. ichthyology), or a stylized drawing of a fish, used in antiquity as a graffito and still seen on modern bumper stickers. If you are puzzled by the acronym, here is its explanation:

’Ιησους Iēsous Jesus
Χριστος Christos Christ (“the Anointed”)
Θεου Theou Of God
Υἱος Huios The Son
Σωτηρ Sōtēr Saviour

Table 19.1 has some pairs of adjectives with opposite meanings (antonyms). In Greek, ἑτερος (“other”) and ὁμος (“same”) were often opposed, as reflected in the modern adjectives heterogeneous (“other in kind”) and homogeneous (“same in kind”). Here the -geneous element goes back to Greek γενος (“race,” “kind”), but the English words bear the marks of Latin adaptation. The adjectives heterosexual and homosexual are modern hybrids, using the Latin 4th declension noun sexus and the Latin suffix -alis. A curious recent coinage is homophobia; its etymological meaning (“fear of the same”) is vague, but we all recognize it as denoting fear or suspicion of homosexuals. Occasionally the opposite of hetero– may be ortho-, as in heterodox and orthodox—“other opinion” and “straight (correct) opinion.” The scholar’s word for “straight” (or correct) spelling is orthography. The semantic concepts of “old” and “new” are often contrasted by palaeo– and neo-; the most familiar pair, perhaps, are Palaeolithic and Neolithic, describing the Old Stone and the New Stone Ages. The Greek adjective base ne– has become so familiar that neo- now enjoys a life of its own as an English combining form: neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist, etc.

  1. The exotic specimen aut-o-chthon-ous means “[sprung] from the earth itself”; the second element is chthōn- (χθων, “earth”), a base that appears in E chthonic or chthonian, “pertaining to the earth.” The ancient Athenians liked to call themselves autochthonous, implying that they had always inhabited the land of Attica. Today we would be more likely to use the Latin equivalents, aboriginal or indigenous.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part II - Greek 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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