Chapter 18: The Greek Noun (Declension 3)

§115. Some Noun-forming Suffixes in Greek

Though the topic doesn’t logically belong in a chapter on the 3rd declension noun, this may be a convenient place to introduce a few casual comments on noun-forming suffixes in Greek—in this case, suffixes that turn nouns of all three declensions into other nouns.

The 2nd declension neuter suffixes -ειον and -αιον (-eion, –aion) were regularly used in Greek to create derived nouns that meant “a place for.” They correspond in this sense with the Latin nouns in –arium that we met in Part I, §38. Even though Latin had a way of expressing this concept in its native vocabulary, that language sometimes borrowed Greek forms in -ειον and -αιον, adapting them in a predictable fashion as Latin forms in –eum and –aeum. This may be illustrated as follows:

Μουσα Μουσειον Mouseion “a place for the Muses” Museum
’Ορφευς ’Ορφειον Orpheion “a place for Orpheus” Orpheum
Μαυσωλος Μαυσωλειον Mausōleion “a place for Mausolos”[1] Mausoleum
Κολοσσος [Κολοσσειον] [Kolosseion] “place for the Colossus”[2] Colosseum
’Αθηνη ’Αθηναιον Athēnaion “a place for Athena” Athenaeum

There is no need to devote much space to the topic of Greek DIMINUTIVES, as we did in Latin (Part I, Chapter 7). That is not because the diminutive was unimportant in Greek; on the contrary, ancient Greek was very rich in suffixes that could connote smallness or endearment. The reason why the question can be summarily treated is because Greek diminutives have had a very minor effect on English vocabulary. One such suffix was -ιον (-ion), which appears in G ποδ-ιον (“little foot”), regularly adapted as L podium, our English podium. If you are interested in musical theory, look up the etymology of the Italian term appoggiatura (< Vulgar Latin *appodiare), which involves a little step. Another Greek diminutive suffix was -ισκος, the origin of the -isk in asterisk (ἀστηρ, ἀστερος, star; ἀστερ-ισκος, “little star”). This suffix explains the etymology of obelisk (“little spit”), which today is either a tapered pillar or a reference mark (†).

  1. A tyrant in Caria on the east coast of the Aegean Sea, Mausolos (L Mausolus) became famous in death for his magnificent tomb in Halicarnassus (ca. 350 bc). One of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, this monument gave our language a generalized term for a grandiose tomb—mausoleum.
  2. The Colossus of Rhodes, a gigantic statue of Apollo erected ca. 280 BC, was another of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. The word Κολοσσειον was not used in ancient Greek, but is the hypothetical source of the Latin word Colosseum, applied eventually to the huge Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome (ca. 80 AD). The historically correct spelling is Colosseum, but the form Coliseum has become an acceptable alternate.


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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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