From English to Greek in Two Rules

English and Ancient Greek are distantly related languages that descend from a common ancestor – this is the only theory capable of explaining their many similarities. Consequently, if you’re trying to learn one and already know the other, you can use these similarities to your advantage. In this piece, I’d like to tell you about two sound changes that can allow you to do just that. With their help, you will be able to take an English word (with some specifications) and work out its Ancient Greek cousin, if it has one.

These two sound changes are theories, thought up to explain the correspondences between English and Greek – that is, to say why the languages are in many ways similar, but not the same, and how exactly they diverged. The changes took place in prehistory, so we don’t have written evidence of both the before and after stages. However, as with other explanations for past events without witnesses, we can feel confident that these linguistic changes once occurred, because the theories explain the data well and have stood the test of time.

To keep things simple, I will focus on only three sounds: [b], [d] and [g]. These are common enough in English, being the consonants in words like bat, duck and gate. First I will discuss how it can be that two changes connect these English sounds to three counterparts in Ancient Greek, before providing examples of these correspondences in action.

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Rule 1: Grimm’s law

Aside from collating fairy tales, Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863) is best remembered for precisely defining the series of sound changes known collectively as Grimm’s law. The changes affected consonants in the language that would become Proto-Germanic, the prehistoric ancestor of today’s Germanic languages. This family includes English, so we can expect to find the results of Grimm’s law in English words.

However, first, we need a proviso: we will only find these influences in inherited words – words that have been a part of the English lexicon since before English was English. Grimm’s law does not concern borrowed words, like those taken by English from French, Latin and Greek; these words have their own stories and have undergone different sound changes. This means that words like goose, door and brother are good for our discussion, having been around since Old English times, but gravity, dominate and ballistic are not.

So, what does Grimm’s law have to say about the sounds [b], [d] and [g] in inherited English words? The law states that [b], [d] and [g] were among the consonants affected and, prior to the changes, used to be *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ.

What are these reconstructed sounds? (Remember that the asterisk * means that a sound is theoretical.) In many ways, *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ are like [b], [d] and [g], but the important difference is that the consonants are always accompanied by aspiration – extra breathiness, if you like. We call such sounds ‘aspirates’ and the difference between an aspirated [b] and an unaspirated [b] is important in many languages, sometimes even distinguishing one word from another. The changes of Grimm’s law in essence took away the aspiration from *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ.

But why do we think that English [b], [d] and [g] used to be *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ at a pre-Proto-Germanic stage? The strongest evidence is that these sounds can still be found in languages that are related to English but lie outside the Germanic family, and were therefore not affected by the changes of Grimm’s law. For example, the Sanskrit word for brother is भ्रातृ (bhrā́tṛ), which retains the aspirated consonant [bʱ] where English has lost it.

Moreover, arguing that the ancestral sounds were *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ gives us convincing explanations for all the various descendants of these sounds in other languages. The fraternal cognate of these words in Latin is frāter. If we reconstruct *bʰ for the ancestor of frāter, it doesn’t seem so strange that a consonant with aspiration could turn into [f], a fricative sound produced with a constant flow of air. Simply put, reconstructing *bʰ for the ancestor of brother gives us everything we want – a sound that can connect the [bʱ] of Sanskrit bhrā́tṛ, the [b] of English brother and the [f] of Latin frāter.

The first step to using English [b], [d] and [g] to find related Greek words is therefore to undo Grimm’s law and turn those sounds into the aspirates *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ. This gives you the common inheritance of both languages. For example, the verb be comes from a root beginning with *bʰ, do from one with *dʰ and go from *gʰ. However, this is not the end of the story. The next step is to do unto these three sounds what Greek did to them in prehistory.

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Rule 2: Devoicing the aspirates

Ancient Greek, like Latin and the Germanic languages, did not maintain *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ. We can capture the Greek changes to them in a brief phrase: devoicing the aspirates. This means that these three aspirates do keep their aspiration, as in Sanskrit, but they lose their quality of voicing – that is, vibration in the larynx.

[g] is a voiced sound; its voiceless equivalent, made without vibration, is [k]. Consequently, the devoiced result of the original *gʰ was the sound [kʰ] in Greek. Through devoicing, the aspirates *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ became Greek [pʰ], [tʰ] and [kʰ]. These consonants were written with the letters φ, θ and χ. Such pronunciation for the letters phi, theta and chi may be new to you; in time, the pronunciation of the three aspirates changed, becoming the fricatives [f], [θ] and [x]. The values of φ, θ and χ changed with the sounds into their Modern Greek pronunciation, which is also how they are usually read in the Anglophone world.

Through Grimm’s law and the devoicing of the aspirates, we have a solid theory for how the English [b], [d] and [g] sounds (in inherited words) correspond to the Greek sounds [pʰ], [tʰ] and [kʰ]. However, to appreciate this fully, we need examples.

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Putting it into practice

Earlier on we took a look at a family of brotherly words, brother, bhrā́tṛ and frāter, and the idea that their initial consonants all come from the sound *bʰ. To find a Greek sibling, we must devoice that aspirate and look for [pʰ], written with the letter φ. Sure enough, there is the noun φράτηρ (phrátēr). This word does not mean ‘brother’ exactly, but something like ‘member of a community’ – a metaphorical brother. This does not pose any grand challenge to a link between brother and φράτηρ; we can simply conclude that, at some ancient point in time, the word was ousted from its original role by ἀδελφός (adelphós) and ended up narrower in its meaning.

Another family word that we can connect to Greek is daughter. Changing the first consonant first to *dʰ and then to the voiceless [tʰ]/θ neatly reveals the etymological link between daughter and its Greek counterpart θυγάτηρ (thugátēr). This correspondence can also be found in the similar-looking word θύρα (thúra), which both means and indeed is related to English door.

Much like the fraternal word family, the meaning of ‘carry’ unites one group of words that demonstrative well the different changes to the sound *bʰ. Latin ferō, English bear (as well as born and birth) and Sanskrit भरति (bhárati) can be joined by the Greek verb φέρω (phérō) ‘I carry’. This gives us the same set of related sounds as before: English [b], Latin [f], Sanskrit [bʱ] and Greek [pʰ]. English gets many words from φέρω too, such as amphora, metaphor and Christopher, which all have connections to carrying things.

The third sound correspondence, between English [g] and Greek [kʰ], can identify a Greek partner for the word goose (part of the Germanic inheritance of English) – namely χήν (khḗn). Sure enough, this means ‘goose’ and it is worth noting that English has lost the [n] sound still present in both Greek χήν and German Gans. Quite why this happened in English is a whole other story, perhaps something for another post. The correspondence between [g] and [kʰ] can also explain why one Twitter linguist once made the outrageous claim that grime and Christ are related words in English. Christ, as a borrowing from Greek χριστός (khristós), is ‘the anointed one’ and the word derives from the verb χρίω (khríō) ‘I smear, anoint’. I reckon we can add the word cream to this group too, coming as it does from Greek χρῖσμα (khrîsma).

How about those short English verbs already mentioned, do, go and be? The wonderful English verb do comes from Old English dōn, which notably could mean not only ‘do’ or ‘make’, but also ‘put’ (a meaning that survives in the verbs don ‘put on’ and doff ‘put off’). To find a Greek cognate, we first change the [d] of dōn into *dʰ. Then we change this into [tʰ] or the letter θ. Is there a Greek word with a similar meaning that begins with θ?

Yes, there is! Well, sort of. There is the verb τίθημι (títhēmi). This verb does indeed mean ‘I place’ or ‘I make’, and it’s the source of words like thesis and hypothesis. True, this form of the word (the present tense) does not begin with θ, but other forms do, such as the participle θείς ‘placing’. The reason for this is that the root of the word is θε-, a nice and predictable cognate of do; the present tense τίθημι came about through the additional process of reduplication, which you can read a little more about here.

As for go and be, we must find [kʰ] and [pʰ], written χ and φ, as counterparts for [g] and [b]. The first correspondence helps us to identify a potential cognate of go: the verb κιχάνω (kikhánō), which shows reduplication again and which means ‘I reach’ or ‘I meet with’. This disparity of meaning puts a question mark over a link between go and κιχάνω, but that’s okay. We are on much surer footing with be; in looking for a word beginning with φ, we find φύω (phúō). This verb means ‘to beget’ or ‘to become’, so it’s a good fit in meaning. It is also the origin of physics and phylum.

We can even find Greek cognates for English words that used to include [g], but no longer do so. For example, the word yarn, which today starts with the sound [j], comes from Old English ġearn. This older spelling of the word hints at the past presence of [g], which offers us another chance to apply our two rules. The search for its sister sound [kʰ] reveals the word χορδή (khordḗ), which means ‘guts’, ‘gut string’ or simply ‘string’. It is from χορδή that English gets cord and chord. Likewise, the Old English ancestor of modern yellow was ġeolo; thanks to this, we can make a link to Greek χλωρός (khlōrós) ‘light green, yellow’, the origin of chlorine and chlorophyll.

Lastly, I should acknowledge that all of these examples have the sounds under scrutiny at the start of the word. There is no special reason for this; these are just the words that came readily to mind. We need an example to buck this trend, so how about English mead? The name of this alcoholic drink goes back to Old English medu, so we can derive the [d] of mead from an original *dʰ. Is there a Greek word with a similar meaning and form, starting with [m] and including the voiceless aspirate [tʰ]? Indeed there is: Greek offers us μέθυ (méthu), which means ‘wine’ and is curiously the origin of the word amethyst.

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That’s it for now! I’ll try to think of some similar changes that connect English to Ancient Greek; it may be possible to make a sequel to this, but we’ll have to see. Please let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter if I can offer more on this topic, or if there is something you’d like to see in a Part 2. I hope this post at least has been successful in its goal, demonstrating the explanatory power of two sound changes: Grimm’s law and the devoicing of the aspirates *bʰ, *dʰ and *gʰ. It may be all Greek to you, but sometimes it’s only two degrees of sound separation away from English.

Artwork by Minna Sundberg. Full image at https://www.sssscomic.com/comic.php?page=196
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