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Super Serpents, Hyper Herpetologists and the Origins of Greek Aitch

Ancient Greek

Super Serpents, Hyper Herpetologists and the Origins of Greek Aitch

Combination of the Attalou Stoa photo with the Greek alphabet


by Todd Clary, Ph.D.

Most dialects of Ancient Greek have plenty of aitches, always at the beginnings of words, and represented in orthography not as a full-fledged letter, but by an inverted apostrophe known as the spiritus asper, which is Latin for ‘rough breathing’. Hence, Greek ἅπαξ ‘once’ transliterates ‘hapax’ but ἀποκάλυψις ‘revelation, apocalypse’ transliterates ‘apokalupsis’ (note that the non-inverted apostrophe above an initial vowel simply denotes the lack of aitch). Since aitch is not a phoneme usually reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the mother tongue of Greek, this post aims to set forth the internal phonological processes that gave rise to aitch in Greek, starting from the most common, and therefore most important in terms of English etymology.

The first and by far most productive sound change yielding aitch in Greek is that a PIE ‘s’ became ‘h’ in word initial postion before all vowels: #sV- > #hV-. Comparative correspondences of the word for ‘seven’ across Indo-European languages show this development quite nicely: Greek ἑπτά (hepta) cf. ‘heptathlon’, Latin septem cf. ‘September’ (once the seventh month), English seven, Sanskrit saptá, Old Irish secht, Hittite šiptam-iya (the name of a drink made with 7 ingredients).

So here are some examples of #sV- > #hV- before various Greek vowels, plus some interesting common Greek and Latin derivations in English that knowing this sound change can help you see.

1. Proto #sa- > Greek #ha-
From PIE *sal- ‘salt’ Latin inheritied sāl, salis, ‘salt’, whence English ‘saline’. The same root surfaces in Greek as ἅλς (hals) which means ‘salt’ in the masculine, but ‘sea’ in the feminine. From this English gets ‘halogen’ and ‘halophile’ (an organism that requires a salty environment).

2. Proto #se- > Greek #he-
From PIE *serp- ‘move slowly, creep’ Latin has serpēns, serpentis literally ‘the creeper’, but applied to the snake in Latin and borrowed into English as such (serpent). Greek, on the other hand, inherited the verb ἕρπω (herpō) ‘move slowly, creep’ with further internal Greek derivatives ἑρπετόν (herpeton) ‘reptile’ and ἕρπης (herpēs) ‘shingles’. This last was borrowed into English but applied to a different disease. English ‘herpetology’ ‘the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians’ is a combination of two Greek roots, herp- and –logos ‘account, or study of’ hence: ‘the study of creeping, crawling creatures, ie. reptiles and amphibians’.

3. Proto #sē- > Greek *hē-
The PIE prefix *sēmi- ‘half’ shows up in Latin in many compounds like sēmivir ‘half-man’ (applied to centaurs, minotaurs and hermaphrodites), but shows up in Greek as ἡμί- (hēmi-) also in many compounds, e.g. ἡμίονος (hēmionos) ‘mule,’ literally ‘half-ass’. Latin sēmi has been borrowed as a fairly productive prefix in English found in, for instance, ‘semiliterate’ and ‘semicolon’ to list but two’; while Greek hēmi also survives in ‘hemisphere, hemistich, etc.’. British musicians even combined the two to make up a new word: ‘hemidemisemiquaver’ ‘one sixty-fourth of a note’, or half of a demisemiquaver.

4. Proto- #si> Greek #hi-
From the ‘stand’ root (PIE *steh2-) English gets derivatives from i-redulpicated formants. So from Latin sistō ‘cause to stand’ we get a host of prefixed derivatives like ‘assist, resist, consist, etc.’; while from the Greek reduplicated noun ἱστός (histos) ‘anything set upright, mast of a ship, loom, warp or web of the loom’ English ran with the meaning ‘web’ and extended it to tissue, thus creating a number of scientific/medical terms like histology ‘the anatomical study of the structure of animal and plant tissues’, or histogenesis ‘the formation and development of bodily tissues’.

5. Proto- #so- > Greek #ho-
From a PIE formant *sol- ‘complete, whole’ Latin gets solidus ‘made of the same material throughout, solid’ while Greek gets ὅλος (holos) ‘whole’ as in English ‘holistic’ ‘having to do with the whole’, or in a compound ‘Catholic’ a univerbation of the preposition κατά + ὅλου (kata + holou) literally ‘concerning the whole’ interpreted as meaning ‘of interest to everyone’, or ‘ecumenical’.

Book with Ancient Greek text

6. Proto- #su- > Greek #hu-
Before u/upsilon we have Latin super ‘above’, and the Greek preposition of the same meaning ὑπέρ (huper, or in English orthography hyper) both of which have come directly into English as freestanding words and prefixes (cf. Superman and hyperactive vs. “that’s super” and “he’s so hyper”).

As an analog to the sound law (#sV- > #hV-) we should add that original sequences of *swV- also went to ‘h’ in Greek. Knowledge of this change enables us to line up Latin suāvis ‘pleasant, agreeable’, whence English ‘suave’, with Greek ἡδύς (hēdus) ‘pleasant’ and ἡδονή (hēdonē) ‘pleasure’, whence English ‘hedonism’. All of these words are from a PIE root *sweh2d-, which makes them cognate with English ‘sweet’.

Another place that we see a lot of aitches in Greek is at the beginning of words starting with ‘r’ (Greek rho). In fact, no Ancient Greek word starts with just ‘r’; they all have rough breathing as well. This is a result of the fact that there were prohibitively few initial ‘r’s in Proto-Indo-European. Still, we have a fair number of initial #rh- words in Greek, and they come mainly from initial #sr- and #wr- clusters. So from PIE *srew- ‘stream, flow’ Greek has ῥεῦμα ‘stream, flood, or discharge from the body’, which developed in English medical terminology into a cluster of words: ‘rheumatism, rheumatoid, rheumatology’.

For #wr- > Greek rh- we have, from the PIE root *wreh2d- ‘root’ both Latin and Greek derivatives. Latin simply drops the ‘w’ (Lat. #wr- > #r-), so the Latin word for root is rādix, which is where the English word ‘radish’ comes from. Greek also attests the word ῥάδιξ (rhādix), but it is quite late and looks actually to be a loanword from Latin (notice how Greek adds an ‘h’ to initial ‘r’ even in loans). But Homeric Greek has ῥίζα (rhiza) ‘root’ which seems like it must be from the same root even though the iota is admittedly hard to explain. Nevertheless, from ῥίζα (rhiza) English gets ‘rhizophagous’ ‘feeding on roots’, and ‘rhizogenic’ ‘producing roots’ among other words. Also from this root on the Germanic side of things is ‘wort’ as in ‘mugwort’, Old English mugcwyrt. This word once had a folk etymology based on the practice of using varieties of the plant to flavor drinks (it was a root for one’s mug). However, it’s more likely that the first part of mugwort goes back to a word for the common midge, or gnat, and that mugwort first got it’s name for its use as an insect repellent. At any rate, the second element of the compound definitely goes back to PIE *wreh2d- ‘root’, which makes it cognate with ‘radical’ and ‘rhizome’.

Another possible source of aitch in Greek is from roots that started with an initial sequence of laryngeal + y (#*Hxy- > #h-). So from a PIE compound *h2y-gwih3- which meant literally ‘having a life for life, i.e. having an everlasting life’ (see Weiss 1994:135) Greek derived ὑγιής (hugiēs) whence English ‘hygiene’. This enables us to connect ‘hygiene’ with Latin iuvenis borrowed into English as ‘juvenile’ (note that in Latin the laryngeal simply dropped, leaving a ‘y’ that eventually became a ‘j’), and cognate English ‘young’ and ‘youth’.

One more source for initial aitch in Greek came from sequences of ‘w’ + vowel + ‘s’ (#w…s > #w..s). The internal ‘s’ seeming to work some influence on the initial ‘w’, which usually just dropped in later dialects of Greek, by changing it to an ‘h’. So the word for ‘evening’, which in Latin shows up as vesper, lines up with Greek ἕσπερος (hesperos) ‘evening’. These words come from a root that meant ‘west’ and the word ‘west’ itself in English comes from the same root with different suffixation. From Latin vesper English borrowed ‘vespers’ ‘an evening church service’, while from Greek ἕσπερος (hesperos) English gets ‘Hesperus’ another name for the planet Venus as the evening star, and ‘Hesperides’ the daughters of Atlas who lived so far west that no one except for Atlas himself could find them. I should mention, however, that there are exceptions to this rule (#w…s > #w..s), in which the ‘w’ simply drops, so its application looks to have been somewhat sporadic.

By way of closing, a discerning reader might notice that English has plenty of derivatives from Greek, like ‘semantic, somatic, etc.’, that start with an ‘s’ followed by a vowel. How could this be if all of these ‘s’s were supposed to change to ‘h’? In fact, the ‘s’s in these words developed via secondary processes in the phonological history of Greek, but that is a story for another blog.

Weiss, Michael. ‘Life Everlasting: Latin iūgis “everflowing”, Greek ὑγιής “healthy”, Gothic ajukdūþs “eternity” and Avestan yauuaējī “living forever” in Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft 55:131-56, 1994.


todd clary
Dr. Todd Clary, a specialist in the Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit languages, holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Indo-European Linguistics from Cornell University, where he now also works as a professor in the Classics Department. He has taught “Homeric Philology”, “Latin Comparative Grammar”, “Archaic Latin and the Italic Dialects”, as well as all levels of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. Dr. Clary currently tutors Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Dr. Clary’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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