Chapter 22: Greek Verbs and their Derivatives

§135. A Sampling of Greek Verb Roots

To illustrate our approach, let us take five different Greek verbs and show how a knowledge of their roots alone will help us understand a lot of English vocabulary. The present infinitive forms will also be listed, if only to prove that they are really irrelevant to English. Much more importantly, you’ll be given a few simple rules for creating Greek nouns and adjectives from verb roots. Though you will not gain any grammatical insight into the Greek verb, you will emerge from this short experiment with the basic equipment that you need to cope with Greek verb derivatives in English.

Table 22.1: TRIAL SAMPLE OF GREEK VERBS
VERB ROOT ENGLISH MEANING PRESENT INFINITIVE
θε- the “place” τιθεναι (“to place”)
δο- do “give” διδοναι (“to give”)
στα- sta “stand” ἱσταναι (“to stand”)
κρι- kri “divide,” “judge” κρινειν (“to judge”)
λυ- ly “loosen,” “set free” λυειν (“to loosen”)

As always, the root is the minimal element of meaning. Though θε- and δο- could not stand alone in Greek speech, they were the sounds that made the Greek ear register the idea of “placing” and “giving,” respectively. The infinitives τιθεναι and διδοναι are examples of actual words formed from verb roots—you can see the two roots at their heart. One may well ask, however, whether there is any point in learning these complicated Greek forms (unless it is to recognize them when they occur in major English dictionaries). From our examples above, it would appear that the Greek present infinitive may end either in -ναι or in -ειν. Greek τιθεναι is the equivalent, in form and meaning, of Latin ponere, whereas Greek διδοναι corresponds with Latin dare. (The roots δο- and da- are cognate.)

We’ll completely ignore the question, “How did the Greeks use these roots to express verbal concepts?” Instead, let’s ask, “How did the Greeks form other parts of speech in which these verb roots have affected English?” Here is one answer. It was common practice in Greek to add the suffix -σις (-sis) to a verb root in order to create an abstract noun. Therefore Greek had a noun θεσις (the-sis) that meant “a placing.” We may compare it with its Latin parallel from ponere, the abstract noun positio (posit-io). Although they are not really synonyms, thesis and position—English words with the same etymological meaning—do have some semantic relationship. The Greek form may be adapted in English: δοσις (do-sis), “a giving,” is the etymon of English dose.

If θεσις means “a placing,” then συνθεσις (syn-thesis) is “a placing together,” ἀντιθεσις (anti-thesis) is “a placing against,” and ὑποθεσις (hypo-thesis) is “a placing beneath.” Would you agree that the Greek derivatives synthesis and hypothesis have semantic links with the parallel Latin derivatives composition and supposition? A metathesis is a “change” (μετα-) in placement—for instance, a transposition of two letters of the aplhabet—oops, I meant alphabet. A prosthesis (cf. §133) is something “placed in addition” (προσ-), like an artificial limb. We see two Greek prefixes at work in the noun παρενθεσις (par-en-thesis), a device for placing something in and beside.

Moving down our experimental list of verb roots, we can assume that the same noun suffix will be added to στα- to produce στασις, “a standing”; and we may be familiar with the English word stasis (used, for instance, of a fluid stoppage in human physiology). More interesting, perhaps, is ἐκστασις (ek-stasis), source of the English word ecstasy. In Greek mystery religions, you achieved the state of ecstasy when you had the feeling that you were “standing outside” your body, thus allowing the god to come inside (ἐνθυσιασμος, E enthusiasm). The medical term μεταστασις (meta-stasis) describes the “change of standing” when a cancer moves from one part of the body to another.

From the verb root κρι- (kri-, “divide,” “judge”) there is only one noun of this type—κρισις; a crisis is a moment of division or judgement. (Note also criterion < κριτηριον). However, from the verb root λυ- (ly-, “loosen”) we have a bonanza of English noun derivatives (all pure Greek): analysis, catalysis, paralysis, dialysis, and psychoanalysis. Several of these were discussed in the last chapter, but now you will be better equipped to understand their form. If the Latin translation of λυειν (“to loosen”) is solvere, then an analysis is perhaps equivalent to a resolution (resolutio).

Before we leave our trial group of verb roots, let us become acquainted with two other Greek suffixes used in verb derivatives.

Whereas the suffix -sis was added to verbs to form abstract nouns, the suffix -ma (-ma) was similarly used to create concrete nouns. The only example apparent in our trial group is θεμα (the-ma), source of English theme. There are some other verbal derivatives of this type that have entered English without change: drama (< δρα-, “do”), dogma (< δοκ-, “think”), and cinema (κινη-, “move”). Others have been adapted in spelling, like poem (< ποιν-, “make”; cf. ποιν-της > L poeta, “maker”).

Finally, you should meet the suffix -τικος (-tikos), which will turn a Greek verb root (or base) into an adjective. Don’t confuse it with the suffix -ικος (-ikos), which converts a Greek noun base into an adjective. From our list of sample verbs, we can at once spot English words like synthetic (συνθετικος, syn-the-tikos), hypothetical (ὑποθετικος, hyp-o-the-tikos + L -alis), critic (κριτικος, cri-tikos), static (στατικος, sta-tikos), ecstatic (ἐκστατικος, ek-sta-tikos), analytic (ἀναλυτικος, ana-ly-tikos), catalytic (καταλυτικος, kata-ly-tikos), and paralytic (παραλυτικος, para-ly-tikos).

With this theoretical and practical[1] knowledge at our disposal, we can now survey a number of common Greek roots, trying out each of these suffixes in turn.


  1. E theoretical < θεωρη-, "observe," "speculate"; practical < πραγ-, "do," the source also of pragmatic.

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§135. A Sampling of Greek Verb Roots by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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