Chapter 16: The Greek Noun (Declensions 1 and 2)

§104. Greek Nouns of the First Declension

There are Greek nouns of the 1st declension that appear in English without change in form (other than conventional transliteration into the Roman alphabet). Some are proper names derived from Greek mythology: Aphrodite (’Αφροδιτη), Hera (‘Ηρα), Athene or Athena (’Αθηνη, ’Αθηνα), Daphne (Δαφνη, Apollo’s beloved, transformed into a laurel), Penelope (Πηνελοπη or  Πηνελοπεια, wife of Odysseus), Lethe (Ληθη, the river of forgetfulness). A few others are English common nouns: mania (μανια, “madness”), orchestra (ὀρχηστρα, “dancing place”), psyche (ψυχη, “spirit,” “soul”), acme (ἀκμη, “[highest] point”).[1] More often, however, Greek nouns entered English after Latin adaptation; their derivative forms may also include suffixes from Greek and/or Latin.

Here is a sampling of 1st declensions nouns ending in -η and -α:

γη (base gē-) earth geography
κεφαλε kephalē head cephalic
μορφη morphē form morphology
τεχνη technē art, skill technical
φωνη phōnē voice, sound phonograph
ψυχη psychē breath, spirit, soul psychology
γλωσσα glōssa tongue gloss, glossary
     (γλωττα)      (glōtta) (polyglot)
καρδια kardia heart cardiac
μουσα mousa muse music, musical
σφαιρα sphaira ball, globe spherical

Ancient Greek was a language with many dialects—a reflection of the geographical and political fragmentation of early Greek society. In the epic dialect of Homer and Hesiod, the word for “earth” was γαια (gaia), often personified as Γαια (Gaia) or “Mother Earth.” In Attic (Athenian) dialect, however, the word was γη; and this is the form in which it has influenced English vocabulary. The forms γλωσσα and γλωττα also reflect variations in dialect. In its Latin usage, glossa came to mean an “unusual word”; to gloss a text, therefore, was to explain an unusual word, and a glossary (< L glossarium) was a place in which to find unusual words.

The last two words on the list illustrate the pervasive influence of Latin. From Homer and his successors, Roman poets inherited the concept of the Muse as the source of literary inspiration. (Indeed, there were nine separate Muses, the daughters of Mnēmosynē [Μνημοσυνη], whose name meant “Memory.”) By a standard principle of Latinization (diphthong ου > ū, §101), Greek μουσα became Latin mūsa, and the English root mus- can thus be said to have a Greco-Latin pedigree. Similarly, the Romans borrowed the Greek word σφαιρα as Latin sphaera, with the minor adaptation of diphthong αι > ae.

Among 1st declension Greek masculine nouns in -ης”, many are proper names like Σωκρατης, Περικλης, ’Αριστοφανης, Θουκυδιδης (Socrates, Pericles, Aristophanes, Thucydides). Here are several common nouns that received predictable treatment in Latin:

G ναυτης nautēs “sailor” > L nauta
χαρτης khartēs “sheet of papyrus” charta[3]
κομητης komētēs “long-haired” [star] comēta
πλανητης planētēs “wanderer” planēta

An Argonaut (< ’Αργοναυτης) was a sailor on Jason’s fabulous ship, the Argo. By analogy, we have the modern coinages cosmonaut and astronaut (a “universe-sailor” and a “star-sailor,” respectively). Latin comēta and planēta entered French as comète and planète, whence their English forms comet and planet.

  1. A strange doublet of acme is acne, that dread scourge of the adolescent complexion. Although the etymology is obscure, acne seems to have evolved as a corruption of the correct spelling.
  2. These vocabulary tables will use the following conventional transliterations: κ > k, χ > ch, υ > y, and initial ῥ > rh.
  3. Like other Greek 1st declension nouns in -ης, χαρτης was masculine in gender. It is unusual that the Latin adaptation charta should be a feminine noun; nauta, cometa, and planeta are all masculine.


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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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