My probability professor once told us that he had been able to identify a pharmacy (φαρμακείο) during a trip in Greece simply by using his knowledge of greek letters. (In case you didn't know, math uses a lot of greek letters as constants and variables). For example, I don't speak Greek, yet, as a math student myself, I know that φ is phi, α is alpha and ρ is rho. Looking at the word φαρμακείο, I have a feeling that it is pronounced something like pharmachieois.

My question is: has anyone found a link between knowledge of Greek letters (due to an education in physics, maths, etc.) and a facility in learning Greek?


4 Answers 4


Emphatically yes! I studied computer engineering and philosophy. Here's an experience I had: When I was traveling in Athens, I was able to guess that πανεπιστήμιο (the name of a subway stop) was "pan-epistimio", meaning something like "all [kinds of] knowledge". It actually means university. In philosophy, epistemic means having to do with knowledge. In math, π is used for the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. In physics, α is a common decay particle. ν is used to indicate frequency. μ signifies permeability of free space. η is used as a symbol for energy efficiency. In differential calculus, ε is used in ε/δ definition of the limit. ι is used for the imaginary unit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_physics_notations#Greek_characters I won't list all the other ways I've successfully guessed at meanings of Greek words, but one can see how your probability professor was right that the Greek learned through math and physics can help non-Greeks to guess at the meanings of words.

  • 1
    How large a help did you find familiarity with the alphabet to be when you studied Greek further?
    – Tommi
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 13:43
  • @TommiBrander I found alphabet familiarity very helpful — sort of like knowing the Latin alphabet from knowing English when trying to learn French. It allowed me to vocalize the words and remember them based on their phonemes. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 2:07

As a native Greek speaker I would say that it makes it easier knowing a lot of words that originate from the Greek language.

But apart from a head-start in vocabulary and some extra confidence do not expect it to be easy and/or quick to learn the language.

Greek is one of the most difficult languages to learn.

It takes about 44 weeks or 1100 hours.

See this language learning difficulty ranking for more info: http://www.effectivelanguagelearning.com/language-guide/language-difficulty


I know Greek but, linguistics is not my subject, nor physics. So please provide feedback upon spotting mistakes.

I believe that knowing physics / mathematics / medicine really helps in learning Greek language, and vice versa.
Knowing the structural blocks of the language, helps a lot in finding the meaning of words you see for the first time (just by splitting them).

With quick glance at the words of http://www.oxfordreference.com physics dictionary, I managed to extract quite a lot of prefixes/suffixes and words, which are rooted in Greek language. Inside parenthesis I provide a general meaning that each one provides (not always their exact/root meaning).

If you try to construct (based on meanings) prefix+word or prefix+suffix, you can discover words you didn't even know existed.
Also if you try to split words you encounter in physics and other sciences and analyse their meanings, this could be a step towards learning Greek language (plus a way to better understand and remember difficult terms).

Some notes:

  • Many of the words / prefixes / suffixes below are also constructed by other words (not analyzed here).
  • Adjectives in Greek have different forms in m/f/n e.g: -ος/-η/-ο, -ος/-ια/-ο, -ης/-ης/-ες, -ύς/εία/ύ, -ής/-ιά/-ί, -ων/-ουσα/-ον. For adjective words and adjective suffixes below I use the neutral form.
  • Many, if not most of, modern Greeks are not aware of the powerful structure of the language and its building blocks, and they do not utilize it as an analytical thinking tool (at least consciously). In my opinion that is one of the main gaps between modern and ancient Greece.
  • The language itself can contain knowledge, also new words can be constructed which enclose knowledge:
    • energy (en-ergy): εν-εργεια(rooted in εργο) = something that contains work.
    • entropy (en-tropy): [Not a Greek word, but whoever constructed it tried to enclose a meaning to it]: εν-τροπια (rooted on τροπή) = includes the change/transition
  • Someone can construct a new science word just by combining words from the list below: E.g. For a new technology that allows people to give shape to objects just by moving their hands in the air it might not be wrong to use the word telemorphic (remote shaping) (in Greek it would be τηλεμορφική ).
  • I have only provided building blocks that I found by looking at physics dictionary. Including the lexicons of medicine, philosophy, or mathematics would make this list huge.

Note: in Greek, phoneme orthography normally does not change depending on the phoneme's position in a word. The root of the phoneme strongly determines the correct spelling.

from physics dictionary

words (translation:spelling )
acoustic (ακουστικό: acoustico)
center (κέντρο: kentro)
crystal (κρύσταλλο: crystallo )
cycle/cyclic (κύκλος/κυκλικό : kicklicko)
elastic (ελαστικό : elastico)
electricity (ηλεκτρισμός : eelectrismos )
electron (ηλεκτρo,ηλεκτρόνιο: eelectro, eelectroneo)
energy (ενέργεια: energea)
harmonic (αρμονικό: armonico)
ideal (ιδεώδες: itheothess ("th" like in "the"))
ion (ιόν : eon)
logic (λογικό : logico)
magnet/magnetic (μαγνήτης/μαγνητικό: magnitico)
meter/metric (μέτρο/μετρικό: matrico)
octet (οκταφωνία)
parallel (παραλληλο : parallilo)
period (περίοδος : periothos ("th" like in "the"))
phase (φάση : phassee ) physics (φυσική: physeeki)
planet (πλανήτης : planitis)
plasma (πλάσμα: plasma)
plastic (πλαστικό: plastico)
pole (πόλος : polos)
prism (πρίσμα : presma)
seismic (σεισμικό: seesmico)
spiral (σπείρα : speera )
stochastic (στοχαστικό : stokhasstico )
symmetry/symmetric (συμμετρία/συμμετρικό : symmetrico)
synchronous (σύγχρονο : synchrono)
synthetic (συνθετικό : synthetico)
theory/theorem/theoretic (θεωρία : theoauria ("th" like in "theme") / θεώρημα / θεωρητικό )
thermal (θερμικό : thermeico ("th" like in "theme"))

prefixes en:gr (and general meaning)
acousto-/acousti- : ακουστι-/ακουστο- (hearing)
aero- : αερο (air)
amphi- : αμφι- (both)
ana-: ανα (again)
an-/a-: αν-/α- (without,negative,upwards)
anemo- :ανεμο- (wind)
cata-/cat-/cath- : κατά-/κατ-/καθ- (with-,positive-,downwards-)
chrono- : χρονο- (time)
cyclo-/cycli-: κυκλο-/κυκλι- (circle)
dia- : δια- (through)
elasto-/elasti- : ελαστο-/ελαστι- (flexible)
electro-/electri- : ηλεκτρο-/ηλεκτρι- (root: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amber )
en-/em-: εν-/εμ- (contains-,inside-)
epi- : επι- (on top)
ergo- : εργο- (work)
geo- : γεω- (earth)
gyro- : γυρο- (around)
hetero- : ετερο- (different)
holo- : ολο- (whole)
homo-/homio- : ομο-/ομοιο- (same)
hydro-/hydra- : υδρο-/υδρα- (water)
hyper- : υπερ- (over)
hypo- : υπο- (under)
iso- : ισο- (equal)
kilo- : χιλιο- (thousand)
kine- : κινη- (movement)
litho- λιθο- (stone)
logο-/loga- : λογo-/λογα- (speech)
macro- : μακρο- (big/wide)
magneto-/magneti- : μαγνητο-/μαγνητι (root: "stone from Magnesia, a part of ancient Greece where lodestones were found")
mega- : μεγα- (big)
meta- : μετα- (after)
micro- : μικρο- (small)
nano- : νανο- (tiny)
neo- : νεο (new)
octo-/octa- : οκτο-/οκτα- (eight)
opto-/opti-: οπτο-/οπτι- (view)
ortho- : ορθο- (correct)
osmo- : οσμο- (smell)
palaeo- : παλαιο- (old)
para- : παρα- (aside)
penta- : πεντα- (five)
peri- : περι- (around something)
phono- : φωνο- (voice)
photo- : φωτο- (light)
physio- φυσιο- (nature)
plasmο-/plasma-: πλασμο-/πλασμα- (creation-,creature-)
poly- : πολυ- (multi)
seismo- : σεισμο- (vibrate)
syn-/sym- : συν-/συμ- (together)
tacho-/tachy-: ταχυ-/ταχο- (speed)
tele- : τηλε- (remote)
tetra- : τετρα- (four)
thermo-/thermi- : θερμο-/θερμι- (heat)
tomo- : τομο- (cut)
topo- : τοπο- (place)
tri- : τρι- (three)

suffixes en:gr (and general meaning)
-arithm : -άριθμος (number)
-bola : -βολή (throw)
-center/-centric : -κεντρο/-κεντρικό (rooted in sting which is used for a sharp-pointer object)
-chromism: χρωμισμός (color)
-diode : -διοδος (passage through)
-dynamic : -δυναμικό (force)
-epiped : -επίπεδο (surface)
-ergy/-ergetic : έργεια/-εργειακό (work)
-genic : -γενές (birth)
-gon/-gonal : -γωνo/-γώνιο (angle,corner)
-gram : -γραμμα (symbol,letter)
-graph/-graphic : -γραφος/-γραφικό (drawing symbols/letters)
-hedron : -εδρον (side)
-log/-logy/-logic : -λόγος/-λογία/-λογικό (speech)
-logy : -λογία (speech)
-lysis : -λυσις (untie)
-mechanic: -μηχανικο
-mer : -μερές (part)
-metal : -μέταλλο
-meter/-metric: -μετρο/μετρικό (measurement)
-morphism/-morphic: -μορφισμός(-μορφία)/-μορφικό (form,shape)
-naut : -ναύτης (sailor)
-ode/-odic: -οδος/-οδικο (way,route)
-opia : -ωπία (face)
-plastic : -πλαστικό (make,mold)
-rithm : -ρυθμος (rythm)
-scopic/-scope : σκοπικό/-σκόπιο(view,purpose)
-spheric : -σφαιρικό
-static : -στατικό (standing)
-thetic : -θετικό (placing,oppinion)
-tomy : -τομή (cut)
-tonic : τονικό (intensity)
-tropic: -τροπικό (way)

To conclude, studying physics,mathematics,medicine,philosophy will make you familiar with many of the building blocks of Greek language, which would help you learn the language faster.


I can't speak for Greek, but it's definitely made learning Cyrillic based languages (Mongolian, Ukrainian and Russian) easier for me.

It meant I had letters I could recognize, and also that I had experience in learning letters. I found my brain better wired for learning these kind of letters than the hiragana and katakana letters from Japanese.

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