Fire and Ice: similarities and differences between Greek and Russian

It’s some time since I last did a post in my little Fire and Ice series looking at the links between Greek and Russian cultures. This time I would like to have a look at the similarities and differences between the two languages.

As noted in a previous post the most obvious similarity is in the alphabet: Greek was used by SS Cyril and Methodius as the basis for providing a written form of Slavic languages to facilitate the translation of religious texts. The second most obvious similarity is in the religious terms that Russian borrowed following the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev, as priests, monks, translators, icon painters and church builders headed north to support the country’s Christianisation. So we find bible, icon, monk, monastery, angel, patriarch and liturgy.

However, Greek and Russian have different linguistic roots and the similarities that we see in vocabulary are due to these borrowings, rather than to common root forms. In other ways the languages are quite different. They sound quite different for one thing. Greek has sounds for ‘th’ and ‘ps’ which Russian lacks. Equally Russian has sounds for ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are not present in Greek. Greek has definite and indefinite articles, Russian does not. Russian has an infinitive, but although Ancient Greek had one, modern Greek does not. It fell out of use during the Byzantine period: one of the odder linguistic losses that a language can sustain.

Also on verbs, Russian has personal pronouns which go with the verb (though verbs can also be used without them) whereas Greek does not.

Both languages though are stressed. Greek, very helpfully for foreign learners includes the stress marks as part of the spelling (indeed it is considered a spelling mistake to miss them out). How I wish that Russian, which to a foreign leaner can seem to have a capricious stress system, has a similar approach. In Russian, you only find the stress marks in dictionaries and texts for foreign learners. Both languages are also inflected (the endings of nouns and adjectives changes depending on their function in the sentence and on whether they are singular or plural). Russian has six cases, Greek has 3 (4 if you count a vocative that only has any noticeable impact on masculine singular forms).

There is one other curious similarity between the languages in terms of their use of verbs. Russian has two forms of the infinitive, an imperfective and a perfective form which relate to whether the action they refer to is ongoing / iterative or completed. There is something similar in Greek where in the construction used to express an infinitive form, you use the indicative for an ongoing / iterative action and the subjunctive form of the verb for a completed action. As far as I am aware this is coincidental and not due to some mutual influence.


Greek word origins

As I think I have mentioned before, one of the interesting things about learning Modern Greek is that my tutor, Maria, helps me remember words better when I come across them by explaining their etymology.

So there’s the Ancient Greek verb fio to give birth, grow, which is at the root of several Greek words which have also come across to English; fisi (nature) from which we get physics; fito (a plant) from which we get phyto- in plant compound names. Then there’s fimi which mean to speak in Ancient Greek and from which we get our word famous.

The word for God/god is theos which comes from an Ancient Grek verb meaning to look at something high up and is linked to directly to the word for a view (thea). I find that rather engaging and can understand that this makes sense in Greece where the home of the gods was believed to be a mountain (Mt Olympos) and temples were often built in high places.

Recently we came across the word for devil (diavolos or diaolos). Maria explained that this is a Greek word, not one that has been adopted into Greek and that it comes from a verb in Ancient Greek diavallo which means to slander. I was suddenly curious at what the Greek version of the Lord’s Prayer uses in the final line ‘But deliver us from evil’. In the Russian version (A izbavi nas ot Lukavogo), it translates as ‘Deliver us from the Evil [or Cunning] One’. The Greek version is the same as the Russian one:  alla risai imas apo tou ponirou. 

It strikes me as odd the difference in this one word between the old eastern and western churches. The western churches uses the abstract word evil (also in Latin sed libera nos a malo), whereas the eastern churches use more of a personification of evil.