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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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7.2 ‘Missing words’

Counting words is a crude way to analyse the difference between Greek and English. Nevertheless, it demonstrates one reason why it is impossible to relate English to Greek on a word-for-word basis. Some words in English have no direct equivalent in Greek (occasionally the reverse is true, although not in this passage). Where, then, are the ‘missing’ words?

There are some words which Greek can happily live without. The indefinite article (‘a’, ‘an’) is perhaps the most important, although Greek does have a definite article (‘the’), unlike Latin. Sometimes, Greek is simply more economical with words. λοχευθεῖσ (locheutheis', ‘brought to child-birth’) is hard to represent with a single English word. Perhaps ‘childbirthed’ or ‘midwifed’ would be the closest.

However, the examples we are interested in here are those that reveal major differences between the way Greek and English work as languages. Look again at the translation. The English words marked in bold are all represented in Greek not by separate words but by the endings of words (also in bold). You will learn more details about Greek word endings later. For the moment, just take note of the difference between the two languages.

Euripides, Bacchae, 1.1−3.

The god Dionysus (Bacchus) announces his arrival at the Greek city of Thebes.


I, son of Zeus, have reached this land of Thebans, Dionysus, whom the daughter of Cadmus, Semele, once bore, brought to childbirth by lightning-carried flame.


ἥκω Διὸς παῖς τήνδε Θηβαίων χθόνα

Διόνυσος, ὃν τίκτει ποθ᾽ ἡ Κάδμου κόρη

Σεμέλη λοχευθεῖσ᾽ ἀστραπηφόρῳ πυρί


hēkō Dios pais tēnde Thēbaiōn chthona

Dionysos, hon tiktei poth' hē Kadmou korē

Semelē locheutheis' astrapēphorōi pyri