Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

7.3 Word endings

Perhaps you have already noticed that some words in the passage of Euripides differ slightly from their dictionary entries. This is a sure sign that changes in the form of words play some role in the Greek language. Look, for instance, at the name ‘Kadmos’. Compare the word as it appears in the text (Κάδμου, Kadmou) with its dictionary entry (Κάδμος, Kadmos) in Table 17. They differ by one letter, which has a crucial effect on the meaning of the word.

Table 17 Dictionary entry for Κάδμος, Kadmos

GreekEnglishDictionary entry
Κάδμου (Kadmou)of KadmosΚάδμος (Kadmos), Kadmos (or ‘Cadmus’), founder of the city of Thebes

Activity 33

How many words in the opening lines of the Bacchae differ from their dictionary entry? [You may find it helpful here and elsewhere to open the Greek text in a separate tab or window by right-clicking the link.]


Fewer than half


More than half

The correct answer is b.


More than half of the words are used by Euripides in a different form from their dictionary entry. They are listed below.

Dictionary entries for Bacchae 1−3.

GreekEnglishDictionary entry
Διὸς (Dios)of ZeusΖεύς (Zeus) – ‘Zeus’
τήνδε (tēnde)thisὅδε (hode) – ‘this’
Θηβαίων (Thēbaiōn)of ThebansΘηβαῖος (Thēbaios) – ‘Theban’, i.e. from the city of Thebes
χθόνα (chthona)landχθών (chthōn) – ‘land’
ὃν (hon)whom(ὅς, hos) – the Greek relative pronoun, ‘who’
τίκτει (tiktei)bear, give birth toτίκτω (tiktō) – ‘give birth to’
ποθ᾽ (poth') (strictly speaking, this word has not changed its ending, but has been elided with the following word)onceπότε (pote) – ‘once’
ἡ ()theὅ (ho) – the Greek definite article.
Κάδμου (Kadmou)of KadmosΚάδμος (Kadmos) – Kadmos (or ‘Cadmus’), founder of the city of Thebes
λοχευθεῖσ' (locheutheis')brought to labourλοχεύω (locheuō) – ‘bring to labour or childbirth’
ἀστραπηφόρῳ (astrapēphorōi)lightning-bearingἀστραπηφόρος (astrapēphoros) – ‘carrying lightning’ (or ‘carried by lightning’)
πυρί (pyri)by fireπύρ (pyr) – ‘fire’

Your results might differ slightly if you have used your own dictionary. Some dictionaries will contain entries for common forms like ὃν (hon) or ἡ ().

One of these words has undergone a radical transformation (Διὸς /Dios from Ζεύς / Zeus). For this reason it is more accurate to speak of changes of ‘word shape’ or ‘morphology’ (from the Greek word μορφή / morphē meaning ‘shape’) instead of ‘word endings’. In practice, however, as it is the ending that is most likely to change in Greek, we will continue to speak in terms of word-ending here. Incidentally, changes as drastic as those affecting the word ‘Zeus’ are reassuringly rare!

Now try the same activity with the English translation.

Activity 34

How many words in the English translation would appear in a dictionary with a different word ending?


Fewer than half


More than half

The correct answer is a.


There is room for discussion over the exact number, but it will be fewer than half and certainly fewer than the number in the equivalent passage of Greek. ‘Reached’ will appear under ‘reach’; ‘Thebans’, if it appeared at all, would appear under ‘Theban’. ‘Whom’ might have its own entry, although this would refer back to the entry for ‘who’.

Activity 35

What problem would arise with a dictionary containing entries for the word ‘reached’ or ‘Thebans’?


A dictionary containing ‘reached’ would need to include ‘walked’, ‘jogged’, ‘asked’, and every other verb form ending with ‘-ed’. A dictionary containing ‘Thebans’ would have to contain ‘dogs’, ‘cats’, ‘crocodiles’, and so on.

When learning English, it would be a pointless to learn all the forms of verbs that end in ‘-ed’. Instead, it is more sensible to learn a rule: that regular English verbs in the past tense follow a pattern of adding ‘-ed’. There are exceptions (‘eat’ becomes ‘ate’, ‘run becomes ‘ran’, and so on). These must be learned individually and may well have their own entries in a dictionary. But the majority follow a pattern which can be learned.


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