The ancient Greeks have a reputation for being proudly, purely monolingual: they considered their own language so perfect that they had no need to learn anyone else’s. But was that really true? A new dictionary of Latin words used by ancient Greek speakers suggests that it was not, by documenting over 2,500 words of Latin origin that appear in surviving ancient Greek texts. Over 800 of those words were in regular use among Greek speakers who did not themselves know Latin. These had become part of the Greek language, and some of them are still part of it today. In fact key elements of the modern Greek vocabulary consist of descendants of Latin words borrowed by ancient Greek speakers: words for ‘house’, ‘door’, ‘bird’, ‘lettuce’, ‘white’, ‘oven’, ‘soap’, etc.
These findings, of course, only raise more questions, which are addressed in the analysis that accompanies the dictionary. For example, why did Greek speakers borrow those particular words, while ignoring others? It has long been asserted that Latin loanwords came only or primarily from the semantic fields of law, government, and the military, but now we can see that more than half the loanwords come from other areas, such as food, clothing, transportation, and medicine. Many refer to ideas or objects that were probably not new to the people who borrowed the words, such as ‘mule’ or ‘young bird’. And despite claims in modern scholarship that Greeks could only borrow nouns, some loans are verbs and adjectives. Could prestige be the key to the Greeks’ borrowing choices, despite the often lower status of Latin?
And when did the borrowings take place? Here again there is a long-established answer — in late antiquity — and again it turns out to be wrong, with the majority of loanwords entering Greek before AD 300. And yet it is certainly true that late antique texts tend to contain more Latin words than earlier ones, since the stock of loanwords increased steadily throughout antiquity as each century’s borrowings were added to those of previous centuries.
When did all this begin? It is sometimes alleged that Greek speakers only started using Latin words once they had been conquered by the Romans, but it is more likely that borrowing began as soon as Greek speakers met Latin speakers, which given that there were Greek colonies close to Rome would have been very early in Rome’s history. There may be borrowings in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, and from the fourth the evidence is indisputable. Who made these early borrowings? Possibly the Romans themselves, who were often bilingual and who even when they accepted the need to speak Greek as the international language were not always prepared to translate every aspect of their own culture.
All these new findings raise another question: why have these loanwords been so misunderstood by modern scholars? Partly because they are often hidden in unlikely places, such as papyri, inscriptions, coins, and technical literature: Classical scholarship has a tendency to focus on great literature. Some Greek speakers, especially members of the elite, were embarrassed to be satellites of the Romans; they were often ashamed of the Latin words that permeated their language and tried desperately not to use them. As a result, the most famous Greek literature from the Roman period contains very few Latin words, even though such words are frequent in texts written by less educated, less pretentious Greek speakers. An active desire to eliminate Latin words from the Greek language persisted in the early modern period and led to an artificial reduction in the numbers that survive today, further obscuring their importance in ancient times.
For example, from late antiquity to the twentieth century the main Greek word for ‘Greek’ was Romios, a word of Latin origin literally meaning ‘Roman’ and the ancestor of the English word ‘Romaic’ meaning ‘Greek’. But more recently the ancient word for ‘Greek’, Hellen, has been revived (it had started to mean ‘pagan’ in late antiquity and therefore ceased to be usable to identify people for whom Christianity was an important part of their identity), and now it is used in preference to Romios, obscuring that word’s earlier importance.
In short, ancient Greek speakers were multicultural and often multilingual, and those factors had a significant effect on the Greek language – but many generations of Greek speakers found that fact embarrassing and tried to hide it, often successfully.