About a year ago my father asked me to join him in the weekly newsletters that he wrote to his former athletes and students. Knowing I was teaching myself ancient Greek, he asked me to produce a word for him to accompany each communication. We rarely missed a week, as he was committed to the self-inflicted Sunday deadline we imposed on ourselves, and we made it to 47 newsletters before he passed away last October.
I didn't think much of it in the beginning, but over time I began to enjoy meeting the deadlines with him. To honor this collaboration, I have decided to republish my "Greek for the Week" series over the next 47 weeks (or so). It's a small offering, but perhaps it will grow on you over time.
γίγνομαι /gi.gno.mai/ verb, 1st person, singular number, active voice, indicative mood, present tense
- of people, "to come into being", "to become" or "to be born"
- of things, "to be produced" or
- of events, "to take place".
In English we memorize a verb by its infinitive because, presumably, it holds the same form for all conjugations. In ancient Greek, the infinitive is conjugated and so the norm is to memorize the first person, singular verb form. For example, the active, indicative, present form of the infinitive of γίγνομαι, "I become" or "I am becoming", is γιγνώσκειν "'to become' in the present time we are speaking".
To complicate things further, γίγνομαι is named a "deponent" verb, which means it possesses a middle / passive voice, but no active voice (middle and passive voices typically conjugate with the same endings), and so its middle voice "I am becoming for myself" is translated in the active voice "I am becoming" and so on (so I fibbed a bit above calling γίγνομαι "I become" active).
Deponent or not, I get hung up on the passive voice all the time as one can usually only distinguish between middle and passive based on the context of the sentence.
For example, let's consider an easier example with the word ἐσθίω /es'thi.o/ "I eat". In ancient Greek the active voice would be ἐσθίω "I eat" or "I am eating" while the middle voice would be ἐσθίομαι "I eat for myself" as is the passive voice ἐσθίομαι "I am being eaten"! Argh!
Note the stem ἐσθί- in the active voice takes the omega +ω while the middle / passive takes +ομαι, like we saw in γίγνομαι (γίγν- + ομαι).
ἡ ὄψις - (opsis), noun, feminine; meaning vision, sight
ἡ γνώμη - (gnome), noun, feminine; meaning mind, opinion, judgement, purpose, intelligence
I encountered these two words used together while translating a passage by Thucydides. Trapped in enemy territory, the invading Athenians had just left on foot into hostile countryside following their complete navel defeat by the hands of the Syracusans (Syracuse was a mighty Corinthian Greek colony located in south-eastern Sicily).
ὄψις and γνώμη were the words used to describe the great pain the soldiers were feeling both visually (their dead comrades) and in their minds (their dread of what is likely to become of them).
As it turns out, most of these Athenian soldiers were eventually killed defending themselves or captured and enslaved.
ἡ ἀλήθεια (alḗtheia), noun, feminine - meaning "truth"
In addition to its gravity, I really like this word because it's pleasing in form and sound.
ἡ μοῖρα - (môi.ra) noun, feminine - meaning fate, lot, destiny; death
Quoting from one of my textbooks
“μοῖρα is part:
- a portion of land,
- a division of people,
- a political party,
- a geographical or astronomical degree, and then
- the lot or share which falls to each person, especially in the distribution of booty.
The word means the lot or rightful portion of an individual, but from this it came to mean the doom of death, mankind’s inescapable lot ...”
Χίμαιρα (kʰí.mai̯.ra) – Proper Noun
The Chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, composed of the parts of more than one animal. It is usually depicted as a lion, with the head of a goat protruding from its back, and a tail that might end with a snake's head.
You can see the presumed origins of the Chimera fable in Lycia on a hill that still produces a constant flame, burning day and night, and that once was bright enough to be used for ancient nighttime naval navigation (it’s located west of Antalya in southern Turkey).
The flames are caused by leaking methane that spontaneously combusts when it contacts the air. Now the parks caretakers use it to boil their tea water.
This week is about friendship.
φιλέω (phi-le-o) verb - I love, kiss; am used to; am a friend of, like (remember we learn ancient Greek verbs in the 1st person singular)
ἡ φιλία (phi-li-a), noun, feminine - friendship
ὁ φίλος (phi-los), noun, masculine - friend
φίλος η ον (phi-los), adjective (masc., fem., neu.) - dear, one's own
Here's to φίλοι friends and φιλία friendship!
As the elections approach, we present:
῎Αρχω (archo), verb - meaning “be first”
-- whether of time: begin, make a beginning or
-- of a place or station: govern, rule.
It’s participle (verbal adjective) is ἄρχων (archon), and when used in the masculine as a noun means “ruler”, “commander”, or “archon”. Archon is the title of the top administrative magistrates in ancient Athens and many other settlements.
Extra Credit: Punctuation Marks:
You may have noticed the punctuation marks on the words presented. One is an accent mark: acute ´ or grave ` or circumflex ῀. In ancient Greek it represents where to place a change in pitch, either up (acute), down (grave), or up-down (circumflex). These days a simple change in stress is considered sufficient.
The other punctuation mark is a breathing mark. ῾ is called a rough breathing mark which indicates to add an h-sound before the vowel that follows, or in the case of a ρ (rho), a rh-sound. ᾽ denotes a smooth breathing; so, do nothing extra.
So ῎Αρχω indicates a smooth breathing with the accent of the first vowel.
All words that begin with a vowel must have a breathing mark, as do words that begin with ρ (rho). A further complication occurs with diphthongs, which are two consecutive vowels said together, and for which the breathing mark is placed on the second vowel (I digress).
An example I like is the word ῥήτωρ, which, without the rough breathing, would be something like "r-A-tor", but with the rough breathing is "rho-A-tor" or orator! Often Greek can just jump through to us like this!
The big gun, let's put this one in the books
ἡ αρετή (ar-ete'), noun, feminine - excellence, goodness, moral virtue
My textbook states its meaning well:
“Arete is a very important word and concept in the Greek language and in the Greek mind. It is the word that comes to mind when we think of the Greek ideal - striving for perfection of the mind and body, and for the fullest development of human capabilities.”
I came across this passage in Thucydides that uses “arete” in a sentence.
The story is of Nikias, the great Athenian general who was put to death by the Syracuse leaders after his surrender in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides writes that of all the people he knew in his time, Nikias was the least worthy of such a fate ...
... Διά τήν πᾶσαν ἐς ἀρετήν νενομισμενην ἐπιτήδευσιν.
… Because of having practiced his whole practice into arete
In other words, Nikias’ way of being consistently strove for arete - virture and excellence - like no other person Thucydides knew in his time.
νόμος, ὁ (no’-mos) - noun, masculine
• Usage, Custom, Law, Convention, Observance
νομίζω (nomizo) - verb (derived from νόμος)
• Acknowledge, Think, Believe, Treat as Customary, Observe, Practice, Adopt
These days it is common to first translate νόμος as "law", however, in ancient Greece the concept and language of law was certainly less developed than today and to translate the word as “custom” or "customary" seems rather understandable and even satisfying (even if the Greeks wrote their νόμοι in stone).
A clear insight into the ancient Greek psyche is provided in this fragment by Thucydides.
After the moral defeat at Syracuse in Sicily, the Athenians were adrift and feeling vulnerable. Not expecting defeat, they had not planned for the possibility they would be left without a fleet, money, and enough young men to protect them.
Despite their anguish, they resolved to right the situation with confidence because
“... ὅπερ φίλει δήμοσ ποιείν, ἔτροιμοι ἧσαν εὐτακτείν.”
"… the very thing the ‘demos’ loves to do, they were ready to behave in a disciplined manner."
And by summer's end they had rebuilt their fleet and mined enough silver to fill their treasury.
One of my favorite words
ἡ δίκε (di-ke) - noun, feminine - justice, satisfaction, penalty, lawsuit
from it is derived
ὁ Δικαστής (di-kas-tis) - noun, masculine - Juror
In ancient Athens, juries were made up of up to 500 men, chosen by lot, fifty from each of the ten δέμος (demos) or tribes. Only males over 30 were eligible. A pool of 6000 were randomly drawn annually, from which an elaborate system was used for jury selection that was designed to eliminate bribery. The jury heard the case, gave a verdict, and set the penalty using suggestions from the prosecution and the defense.
Pericles introduced pay for the jury, perhaps the first example of government paying for public service, and for it, attempts to ostracize him were made.
During our family trips to Greece in the 70's we often stayed at a hotel chain named the Xenia.
ὁ ξένος (xenos) - noun, masculine - stranger, guest-friend, foreigner
From my textbook:
The word applies to persons or states bounded by treaties of hospitality. When applied to a person, it means guest or host (more commonly guest). The relationship between guest and host was a sacred one and very important for survival in a land that was divided into many separate political entities. To harm or betray one's guest or host was considered a serious and unholy crime.
The stranger, wanderer or refugee is also a ξένος as is any stranger or foreigner that is not a native or citizen. The word is used as the opposite of φίλος, that is a ξένος is not a member of the family. Thus, in ξένος we have a word that means both friend and stranger.
ὁ Κοινός (koi-vόs) - noun, masculine – common, mutual, shared, joint
There are five major dialects of Ancient Greek:
• Ἀτθίς (Atthis) or Attic: spoken in Athens and nearby – the dialect most learn first, including myself,
• Δωρίς (Dor-is) or Doric: spoken in the Peloponnese and Northwest Greece,
• Ἀιολίς (Aio-lis) or Aeolic: spoken in Lesbos (Samos), and with variations in Boeotia and Thessaly,
• Ἴας (Ias) or Ionic: spoken on the coast of Asia Minor and on some of the neighboring islands,
• Κοινή (Kion-a) or Koine: the common dialect. Koine is not a combination of the others, but is mostly Attic with some Ionic influence.
Koine spread across the Greek world starting in the time of Alexander and eventually replaced the local dialects beginning in that 4th century. It is the language of the New Testament.
ὁ λόγος (logos) - noun, masculine,
is derived from the verb λέγω (le-go) which means I say or I speak.
In business school a lecturer translated λόγος to us as “reason”. Since then I have learned its meaning is far broader. In early ancient Greek it means “word”. Later, in the Bible, it means “Word” of God.
My textbook gives the following 10 possible uses - you will observe they often involve saying or speaking or communicating:
- Computation, reckoning, account
- Relation, correspondence, ratio, proportion
- Explanation, plea, case; statement of a theory, argument, thesis, reason, formula, law, rule of conduct
- Debate (internal): reason, abstract reasoning
- Continuous statement, narrative, story, speech
- Verbal expression, common talk
- A particular utterance: saying, oracle, proverb
- The thing spoken of: subject matter (in art, the subject of a painting)
- Expression, speech: intelligent utterance: language
- The Word or Wisdom of God
Ancient Greek has four words for "good" (all masculine)
ὁ ἀγαθός (agathos) - good, like our English good.
ὁ ἐσθλός (esthlos) - equivalent to ἀγαθός, but mainly poetic.
ὁ κάλος (kalos) - properly meaning beautiful referring to people or things. Morally it means virtuous and honorable, noble deeds. It was often added to a name as a token of love.
ὁ χρήστος (krestos) - good in the sense of useful or serviceable.
In modern Greek κάλος = ἀγαθός, and beautiful = ὀμορφη.
Βούλομαι (bo-lo-mai) – verb, I wish by choice or preference versus desire and
Βουλεύω (boo-le-uo) – verb, I take counsel, deliberate, I resolve
From Βούλομαι comes the feminine noun ἡ Βουλή (boolay), which means
(1) will, determination, ruling, decision, verdict and
(2) the Council or Senate of Athens, referring to the famous council of 500 established by Cleisthenes in 507 BC.
From Βουλή, Βουλεύω is derived which means, in addition to take counsel or deliberate, to be a member of the Βουλή.
A request came in for the word "determination"
The Oxford dictionary has two definitions
- firmness of purpose; resoluteness
- the process of establishing something exactly by calculation or research
We saw the answer to (2) last week. Βουλή (bool-ay) means council, will, determination, decision, verdict, and later Senate. So, it relates to our English verb "to determine" something.
But what about (1) "firmness of purpose"? I'm still searching for an answer.
Lately I've been translating portions of Plato's Protagoras and in particular the part where, at Hippokrates' request, Soctrates, will introduce Hippokrates to the famous sophist Protagoras.
Socrates probes Hippokrates with questions targeting exactly what training / learning Hippokrates expects to receive by spending time with Protagoras.
In the passages this word surfaces often; one that remains familiar today.
ἡ ἐπιστήμη (e-pis-te-me) - noun, feminine - meaning understanding, professional skill, knowledge, science
A quick one this week, I "ran" across this word the other day and thought it appropriate.
It's a regular -ω verb, as they say. Most ancient Greek verbs are -ω verbs, the other form being -μι.
τρέχω (trecko) - verb, I run
τρέχ - root
τρέχ-ω - I run
τρέχ-εις - you run
τρέχ-ει - he, she, it runs
τρέχ-ομεν - we run
τρέχ-ετε - you run (pl)
τρέχ-ουσι(ν) - they run
τρέχ-ειν - to run (infinitive)
I did some “light” reading this week consuming a chapter of “Early Greek Thinking – The Dawn of Western Philosophy” by Martin Heidegger. It’s not for everyone. :-)
The chapter is a lecture named ἀλήθεια, “truth”, a word I have introduced previously. Here Heidegger analyzes this tiny Fragment 16 by Heraclitus, an important 6th-5th century BCE Greek thinker from Ephesus (Ephesus is located on the coast of western Turkey just south of Izmir).
τό μή δυνόν ποτε πῶσ ἄν τις λάθοι;
How can one hide himself before that which never sets? (Keils-Kranz translation)
The focus of the analysis is about "someone hiding". λάθοι, is a 3rd person singular present optative conjugation of λαωθάνω, meaning I am concealed or escaping notice “potentially” or “hypothetically” (as per the Optative mood).
Λάθοι is related to the word λήθη, which means "concealment". Heidegger examines (at length) the contrast between λήθη, “concealment”, and ἀληθῆ, “un-concealment”. The “dude” can talk.
He concludes that, for the ancient Greeks,
ἀλήθεια, "truth" = that which is unconcealed.
I rather like that.
This remains a difficult fragment for me to translate (but perhaps I just edged closer).
τό μή δυνόν = the thing not plunging or entering. Τό is neuter article in gender and has a Nominative (subject) or Accusative (object) form. It’s probably Accusative making the phrase “τό μή δυνόν “ the object of what follows (When you find an article before a verb like this it turns the verb into something like the English gerund, an -ing ending, so “the (neuter) it plunges = the (thing) plunging).
Μή = not.
ποτε = once or ever
πῶσ = how?
ἄν τις λάθοι = could, would, should anybody or somebody be concealed?
“How could someone be concealed” + “the (thing) not plunging ever?”
Clearly for an English translation a connector is missing between these two phrases, but that’s Greek, they somehow knew. Keils-Kranz chose “before that” meaning “facing that” or “in front of that” as opposed to time.
“How could someone be concealed” (before) “the thing not plunging ever?”
If you studied with a Sophist, you might be trained in these skills
ὁ λογισμός (log-is-mos) = ?
ἡ ἀστρονομία (astro-nomia) = ?
ἡ γεωμετρία (geo-metria) = ?
ἡ μουσική (mou-sika) = ?
Arithmetic, related to the word λόγος, logic
This week I came across the word for the Greek “Assembly”.
ἡ ἐκκλησία (ek-kle-sia), noun, feminine
It is derived from
(1) ἐκ, which is a preposition meaning “out” or "out of" and which always modifies a phrase in the genitive case, the genitive indicating motion "away from", and
(2) καλέω, which is a verb meaning "I call" or "I summon" (and sometimes “I command”).
So, for the ancient Greeks, “Assembly” means a "calling out (away from)" or "summoning out (away from)" to do the work of government.
A successful sea merchant turned statesman, Solon lived in Athens in the late 8th to early 7th century BC and is perhaps most celebrated for successfully resolving a severe crisis caused by growing and unsustainable wealth inequality among citizens.
An important philosophy in Solon’s time was “living in the mean” and as such these famous quotations are attributed to him'*':
μηδέν ἂγαν – Νot one thing very much (or nothing in excess)
γνῶθι σεαυτόν - Κnow yourself!
γνῶθι is a second person, active voice, aorist tense (simple past), imperative mood of γιγνώσκω, meaning "I come to know" or "I perceive".
'*' Most famously these quotations were written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi long after Solon. There remains a debate on the attribution of these quotations. For example, “Know thyself” is sometimes attributed to Thales of Miletus. My source comes from a book I own, Solon of Athens: Poet, Philosopher, Soldier, Statesmen, and this book I do recommend for the story of Solon is wonderful.
Socrates did not record his teachings and most of what we know of him comes from the writings of his two famous students, Plato and Xenophon. Xenophon writes this about Socrates and Greek virtue in Memorabilia.
καὶ διαλεγόμενον κάλλιστα περὶ ἀρετῆς
Quite literally, “and conversing beautifully concerning arete”
I came across this passage where Xenophon is discussing the "Thirty", a band of tyrants that took over Athens for a short period just after the end of the Peloponnesian War.
… ἐπεὶ γὰρ οἰ τριάκοντα πολλους μεν τῶν πολιτῶν καὶ οὐ τοὺς χειρὶστους ἀπένκτεινον, πολλοὺς δε προέτρεποντο αδικεῖν ...
Let’s break it down:
First note there is a μεν … δε which signals an “on the one hand” … “on the other hand” construction. In this case it’s emphasized further with the πολλους μεν … πολλοὺς δε construction “many (people) on the one hand” … “many (people) on the other hand”.
ἐπεὶ γὰρ οἰ τριάκοντα πολλους μεν τῶν πολιτῶν καὶ οὐ τοὺς χειρὶστους ἀπένκτεινον
οἰ τριάκοντα is the subject “the Thirty”
ἀπένκτεινον is the verb “they killed”
πολλους is object #1 “many (people)”
τοὺς χειρὶστους is object #2 “the worst (people)”
τῶν πολιτῶν = “of the citizens” goes with πολλους
ἐπεὶ γὰρ are particles that translate roughly “for since / when / after that”
“On the one hand, the Thirty killed many of the citizens and not the worst (ones)”
πολλοὺς δε προέτρεποντο αδικεῖν
οἰ τριάκοντα is the implied / reused subject “the thirty”
προέτρεποντο is the verb “they urged on / impelled”
πολλους is the object “many (people)”
αδικεῖν is the infinitive “to be unjust”
“On the other hand, they (the Thirty) urged many people to be unjust”
Putting it back together
“The Thirty killed many of the citizens, and not the worst (ones), and they urged many people to be unjust (commit crimes)”
As an example of how translation is slippery, would my translation below be wrong?
“The Thirty killed their enemies and encouraged their allies to do the same”
The E.C. Marchant circa 1925 translation on the https://perseus.fufts.edu site is
“… the Thirty were putting to death many citizens of the highest respectability and were encouraging many in crime …”
A lighter post this week. The Greek word for color is
τό χρῶμα (chroma) - noun, neuter
There are many English derivatives of this word, beginning with Chrome.
Regarding hue versus brightness, the Greek language is deficient in color related words.
For example, μέλας (melas) meaning black, dark, obscure is used to describe wine, blood, a wave, water and so forth.
Post 6 introduced the word φίλος (filos), meaning friend. Let’s introduce
ἡ σοφία (sophia), noun, feminine, which means wisdom.
The Greeks put them together to form the verb
φιλοσοφέω (filosofιow), verb, meaning “I am a friend of wisdom" or “I live a life of philosophy".
The Greeks adopted their alphabet from the Phoenicians as early as the ninth century BCE. The letters of the Phoenician alphabet all represented consonants, but the Greeks re-assigned the value of some letters to represent vowels and added some letters.
The early Greek alphabets differed strongly from each other, with respect to both the inventory and shape of the symbols. The East-Ionic alphabet, the language of Herodotus, was eventually adopted throughout the Greek world; in Athens, it was adopted for official state documents in 403/402 BCE.
The division between upper and lower cases is not ancient: lower case letters were introduced in the ninth/tenth centuries CE by Byzantine scholars; the Greeks themselves only wrote in capital letters. The Greeks also did not avail themselves systematically of punctuation or word divisions. Both were introduced by the same Byzantine scholars.
Breathing marks and accents were introduced during the Hellenistic period by scholars working in the Library of Alexandria and advanced, again, by the Byzantine scholars.