Chapter 17: Compound Words in Greek

§109. General Principles of Greek Compounds

Before reading this chapter, you may wish to review Part I, §91 and §92, where compound words were first introduced in the Latin section of our course.

The fact that we are dealing with Greek compounds at such an early stage is a signal of their greater importance in English vocabulary, relative to Latin. English words that contain two separate Latin bases (deification, manufacture, carnivora, etc.) represent only a small fraction of the thousands of Latin derivatives in our language. However, English words with multiple Greek bases probably comprise our largest category of Greek derivatives. The Greek language itself was unusually rich in compounds, and those who have turned to Greek for modern borrowings have exploited that word-building capacity. Greek compounds are especially prominent in the technical language of biology, medicine, and other scientific disciplines. They may combine various parts of speech: noun + noun, adjective + noun, noun + verb, etc. Perhaps you already know the etymological meanings for many of these compounds—words like dermatology, democracy, or pyromania; but you may need a little help with examples such as rhododendron or nephrolithotomy.

One important principle to notice is the use of the CONNECTING VOWEL omicron (ο = English o), which is as much the norm in Greek as the connecting vowel -i- is the rule in Latin. Notice the role of this connecting vowel o to link the base elements in the Greek compounds just mentioned:

dermatology dermat-o-logy “study of the skin”
democracy dem-o-cracy “government by the people”
pyromania pyr-o-mania “fire madness”
rhododendron rhod-o-dendron “rose tree”
nephrolithotomy nephr-o-lith-o-tomy “cutting (removal) of kidney stones”

The connecting vowel is present for reasons of euphony: it is needed to permit a smooth phonetic transition from one base to the next. It is not required, therefore, when the second base begins with a vowel, as in the word hierarchy (hier-archy, “sacred rule”). Also there are some words where (for various reasons) the final vowel of the first word-base is retained; a good example is agoraphobia (agora-phobia, “fear of the market-place”). The final -e (epsilon) of the adverb τηλε (tēle, “far,” “far off”) is kept in compounds like tele-phone (“far voice”), tele-pathy (“far feeling”), and the Greek-Latin hybrid tele-vision (“sight from afar”).

The hyphenated word-divisions in the last paragraph represent a very simple method of compound WORD ANALYSIS. Probably the most important step in understanding the structure of these Greek compound derivatives is getting the hyphens in the right place.[1] That isn’t always as easy as it may seem. Because you know that βιος means “life,” you may be tempted to assume that biology can be analysed as bio-logy, “the study of life.” However, the 2nd declension noun βιος loses its -ος ending in yielding the base βι-; and therefore the English compound should be divided as bi-o-logy. That is the reason why zoology (zō-o-logy) ought not to be pronounced “zoo-ology.” Sometimes the division points in a Greek compound can be very surprising. If you asked a random group of intelligent people to divide the word helicopter into its elements, most of them would probably assume it was a heli-copter, whatever that meant—a “sun-beater,” maybe? In fact, this Greek compound derivative is a helic-o-pter, a “spiral wing” (from ἑλιξ, ἑλικ-ος, “spiral,” the connecting vowel omicron, and πτερον, “wing”). It was a precise and ideal name for that type of aircraft; amazingly enough, the word came into English way back in 1872, via the French hélicoptère.

  1. In normal usage, we use the hyphen to divide a word into syllables; here we are dividing the word into morphological components. Don't confuse the two procedures.


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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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