The Greek & Latin Roots of English by Tamara M Green

Book Review by caldrail

What a strange beast our language is. You would think that after two thousand years of history and societal change, with all the dynamics of the spoken word , the relative strengths of regional dialects, the dilution caused by travel or immigration, the very ease with which new words can enter common usage, that the English language is greatly different from that spoken by our distant ancestors. Perhaps it is, yet I was surprised to learn that 60% of modern English has roots in classical Greek or Latin.

I've never heard of this book before, probably because I never attended the University of New York where the author is a Professor of Classics, so I opened the new fifth edition entirely, and rather naively, unaware of what awaited me within its covers. I had half expected a dry and specialised dictionary, but instead I got a light hearted tour of our ancient inheritance, themes ranging from classical history to the latest science, and horror of all horrors, a long list of questions at the end of each chapter. Pay attention at the back.

Of course this volume has a place in education - that was one reason why it was written - yet at the same time The Greek & Latin Roots Of English is a strangely attractive book. On the one hand it seeks to make learning a simple process of absorbing little bite-sized portions of knowledge, then bombards you with questions that range from aspects of Roman culture to the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. All designed to see if you understand what words actually mean and where that meaning stems from.

The visual style of the book is also familiar. It uses a format I've seen in other books to do with historical subjects, combined with the odd cartoon or photograph of classical art. I find that a curious influence, almost a sort of Classical Languages for Dummies. The Roman writer Petronius once joked about how young men were such blockheads in their schooldays. All I can say is that however undemanding the text is, the book does not relinquish its high standards and students successfully using this volume in their studies are going to know a thing or two.

Old words are constantly being recycled and used again with new meanings or associations, especially in the sciences. I discovered that many words I took for granted have different, sometimes darker meanings, or that words with two completely different meanings have a common root. Who would have thought that 'glamour' and 'grammar' are closely linked? Who would have thought our modern political ideas are described by ancient terms? Who would have thought that breaking copyright is based on a word for kidnapping? Read this book and find out why.

When I was asked to do this review I thought this would be a book that would gather dust on my bookshelf. I now have a sneaking feeling that I might occasionally need to wipe the dust off and use this book as a reference. This has been the hardest review I've ever written. Not because the subject is difficult, but because I can't stop opening the book and reading more. You'll just have to buy your own.

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