Sunday, December 17

The Origins of The Greek Lexicon “ex Oriente Lux”

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The Origins of the Greek Lexicon “Ex Oriente Lux”

For centuries, Greek lexicons have been studied, scholars trying to determine their origins. A lexicon is a language user’s knowledge of words. It was only when Franz Bopp (1791-1867) ultimately and definitively proved in 1816 that Greek, as with many European languages, derived, like Indian and Iranian, from one antediluvian ancestor. This whole family was known as Indo-European by the well-known physician and physicist, Dr Thomas Young in 1813, three years before Bopp’s work was published.

Since then, and even today, scholars have focused on the origins of the IE part of Greek vocabulary; consisting of 1: of the inherited IE stock; 2: of derivatives produced with IE means, i.e. with suffixes; and 3: compounds. Despite the centuries of work, more light is being shed on this.

Let us look at the sentence “fallen from Zeus, i.e. from heaven, fed or swollen by rain”. “Here the ablatival function of the first part is unexpected in a compound, and the form du, which could only be a locative or a dative, is also at variance with the function postulated. The compositional type demands an adjective … du has nothing to do with Zeus but is the compositional form, the so-called Caland-form, of the adjective ‘speedy’ connected with ‘speed, hasten’. The meaning of the compound was originally ‘of speedy rush’, ‘speedy’, and there is no need to interpret [the sentence]in Hymn. Ven. 4 as ‘hovering in the sky’ (LSJ) and not ‘quick’. But later ‘heaven’ was felt in it, and it came to mean ‘divine’ in general”.

Scholars have suggested foreign influence for the origins of the Greek lexicon, especially from the east and southeast. One scholar states in his study that “some four hundred Greek and Latin words for which a Semitic, Egyptian, or some other Eastern source had been suggested. More than half of these must in his view be rejected ‘because they are either genuine Indo-European, or, at least, cannot be traced to an Eastern home’. This means that nearly 200 words must be recognised as having a valid claim In Lewy’s book well over 300 words are claimed for Semitic”.

The origins of the ancient languages of the Mediterranean and the Near East are very difficult to trace since we do not speak them every day, and the origins of the Greek lexicon are no exception. With so many lexicons, it could be possible that their origins have no single root and that each individual word may have their roots in different parts of the ancient world.


Szemerényi, O. (1974) The Origins of the Greek Lexicon: Ex Oriente Lux, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.


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