Language and Migration:
Loanwords in European Languages

Greek (Cyprus):
The History of Vocabulary and Vocabulary Takeovers in the Greek Language


The Greek language is one of the oldest languages in the world and the oldest language in Europe, dating back to the second millennium B.C. As such, it has worked as a source of linguistic loans for other European languages. For example, medical terminology is to a very large extent based on Ancient Greek and medical terms actually mean something in Greek (e.g. 'hepatitis' < 'ηπατιτισ' < Ancient Greek 'ηπαρ', which is the liver, and hence hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver).

At the same time, close contact between the Greek civilisation and other civilisations has had its effect on the Greek language, with numerous linguistic influences, predominantly where vocabulary is concerned. In many cases, this contact was one of conqueror and conquered, with the Greeks being the conquered ones. If we study the Greek history of the last two thousand years, we find numerous conquerors in one or another geographical area. As a result, the Greek language, and local dialects in particular, have incorporated numerous linguistic items. In certain cases, these vocabulary items have been adopted as such, in other cases they have been modified to fit into Greek grammar and syntax.

Let us take, for example, food. As is obvious from the collection on these web pages, our food vocabulary, after 400 years of Turkish occupation (in Cyprus, 300 years, counting out the current occupation), has incorporated numerous Turkish words. Some have been incorporated with no changes and cannot be declined. In most cases an ending has been added to the original word and so these items can be declined like authentic Greek words. Here, we need to point out that in some cases, these words were originally Greek and returned to the greek language via Turkish.

Our food vocabulary has also been influenced by the Italian language, although the Venetian and Genoese occupation of various Greek geographical areas did not last more than a hundred years. This influence is also presumably due to the geographical proximity of Italy and the close contact between the two civilisations. Let us remember that Latin, the language on which modern Italian is based, was based on Ancient Greek.

In the case of words of Italian origin, all of them are normally declined in the Greek language, probably because the original endings correspond to Greek endings. Such is the case with the following example: 'πατατα' < Italian 'patata' < Spanish 'patata' < American Indian 'batata'.

Where words of French origin are concerned, some date back to the occupation of certain parts of the Hellenic world by the Francs. Where modern language is concerned, these word loans are probably due to the strong relationship (political and historical) between mainland Greece and France. In this case, most words cannot be declined, as their endings are completely alien to the Greek language. Here, we have to note that in the Greek language, there is a strict rule as to the last letter of any word: it has to be a vowel, or one of two consonants, n or s.

We find the following two examples extremely interesting:
- 'ανανασ' < French 'ananas' < Spanish 'ananás'
   < Portuguese 'ananás' < Guarani 'naná'
- 'σoκoλατα' < French 'chocolat' < Italian 'cioccolata'
   < Spanish 'chocolate' < Nahuatl 'chocolătl'
   (= beverage made with cocoa)

Concerning the English language, we have to point out that the influence is very strong where Cyprus is concerned. Due to British occupation between 1878 and 1959, numerous English words found their way into the Greek language. Again, most words have been incorporated with no change, as can be seen from the food vocabulary we have.

The British introduced numerous 'novelties' to the island, for which we still use the English language, despite the existence of the Greek equivalent (e.g. roundabout, instead of the Greek 'κυκλικoσ κoμβoσ'). Here we need to point out that in Cyprus, up until the mid-1980s, all official papers were in English, so locals are in some cases more familiar with the English term for official issues (e.g. 'Immigration Department' rather than the Greek equivalent 'Tμημα Mεταναστευσησ').

This is also the case with the vocabulary items we found concerning the media. In the first half of the 20th century, the British were the first to set up a radio and television station, so it is hardly surprising that the relevant vocabulary is of English origin. The French and Italian words on the media reached Cyprus via mainland Greece.

Where young people's vocabulary is concerned, due to the aforementioned British influence and the great popularity of British pop music, it is very common for young people to communicate in a kind of pidgin English, with numerous English words mixed up with Greek. In fact, many academics have been complaining that this is one of the factors which have caused the deterioration of young people's linguistic skills.

It is hardly surprising that where technology is concerned, English words dominate the field, particularly with the increasing popularity of Information Technology. Although the equivalent Greek words exist and are used by many, the foreign words are much more popular the younger the speaker is.

Here we have to mention an interesting phenomenon, that of 'counter-loans'. Foreign words, originally of Greek etymology, return to the Greek language via a foreign language, e.g. · 'television' < tele+vision < tele+video < τηλεóρασι. While 'television' literally means 'looking from afar', 'tele' is an Ancient Greek adverb meaning 'far', and 'video' is Latin for 'see', which originates from the Ancient Greek Simple Past 'Fειδoν', meaning 'I saw'. The Modern Greek word 'τηλεóρασι' means exactly what the word 'television' means, i.e. 'looking from afar'.

Such is also the case of the word 'γκαζι'. 'γκαζι' < French 'gaz' < Dutch 'gaz' < Latin 'chaos' < Ancient Greek 'χαoσ'. The French word, according to our research, dates back to the 12th century and was used to denote 'a mass of indeterminate quantity and substance'. In Ancient Greek and Latin, the words 'χαoσ' and 'chaos' correspondingly meant the 'indeterminate substance from which the universe was made'.

This is also the case with the word 'σπιραλ'. 'σπιραλ' < French 'spiral' < Medieval Latin 'spiralis' < Ancient Greek 'σπειρα'. All these words have exactly the same meaning, i.e. helical (which is another Greek word!).

Where pronunciation is concerned, there seems to be a tendency in Greek to keep the original pronunciation, although in some case certain letters are pronounced slightly differently, e.g. the English 'b' is pronounced as 'mb', particularly in Cyprus. Where French words are concerned, in the cases where no changes have taken place, the pronunciation is retained with the original French accent.

In conclusion, we can safely say that all European languages are closely related to each other, particulary where vocabulary is concerned. This helps people understand one another better and feel closer to each other, irrespective of their ethnic origin. We feel that if we actually cultivate this linguistic connection, it will be a lot easier to feel as members of one large family, where the general resemblance is there, but each member has his own character and style.