The Back Page – It’s English to You


A sleepy saying roused from dreamy slumber when people encounter an idea either arcane or abstruse is, “It’s all Greek to me!” Implication—Greek is foreign and incomprehensible. Perhaps that impression persists because some of its letters look different from ours. But other languages and ways of
thinking are farther removed from our own than is Greek. Believe me.
English is a mongrel. The language of the land of Elláda is among its ancestors. Every time Americans speak we display— consciously or not—our language’s Greek genes. Our alphabets (from alpha and bēta, the first two Greek letters) contain several similar letters: α = a, β = b, ε = e, ι = i, κ = k, ο = o, τ = t, υ = u. Similarities are more striking in uppercase: Α, Β, Ε, Ζ, Ι, Κ, Μ, Ν, Ο, Τ are all Greek letters.
Not just letters, but many of our words are Greek. Bible, photograph, Philip, democracy, dinosaur, phobia, planet, ethnic, sophomore, philosophy, hypodermic, diameter, sympathy, anarchy, and thousands of other English words all derive from that language.
There is—we can be glad!—no need to know Greek to understand the New Testament. We are blessed with an excess of English editions both accurate and understandable. But occasionally a speaker might call attention to a Greek word or grammatical point. When she or he does, there is no need for our eyes to glaze over as if we were about to debate the physics of sub-atomic particles. Usually a good reason underlies invoking Greek—a nuance that eludes translation, a connection with other words that would be invisible in English, a different concept of time, etc. So, when that happens, sit back and relax. Since our language is so Greek, it’s all English to you anyway.

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