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Greek Etymology in the 21st century

Alexander Nikolaev

Boston University

The year 2010 saw the publication of Etymological Dictionary of Greek (EDG) by Robert S. P. Beekes. Written in English by one of the leading practitioners of Indo-European studies and published by Brill, this 1800-page dictionary is bound to become the standard reference work for classicists who will rely on it for their knowledge of the history of Greek vocabulary. At the same time, it has been pointed out on multiple occasions that this dictionary is deeply flawed; unfortunately, for a sobering assessment of EDG interested classicists should go to journals that may lie outside of their purview.[1] This paper is addressed to classical scholars interested in Greek etymology who are unsure whether or not EDG has now replaced Chantraine 1968–80 and Frisk 1960–72.

In the first part of the paper I will focus on two specific and methodologically significant drawbacks of the new dictionary illustrating both problematic areas with selections of examples:

1. EDG failed to take full account of much of the progress achieved in Indo-European linguistics in the past century due to the discovery of new related language families, Tocharian and Anatolian. Linguistic archaisms preserved in these two branches have led many scholars to believe that they were the first two to split off the Indo-European family tree; it would therefore be reasonable to expect considerable etymological enlightenment ex oriente, viz. from Anatolian and Tocharian, but unfortunately, precisely these two families seem to be consistently underused in EDG. This is not a problem when the Indo-European pedigree of a Greek word is assured, but there are cases where a Greek word can be saved from etymological obscurity precisely with the help of Anatolian or Tocharian comparanda.

2. EDG failed to take full account of the progress achieved in historical study of those languages that are traditionally (and no doubt rightly) viewed as most closely related to Greek, namely, Albanian, Phrygian, and other “Paleobalkan” languages. 

In the second part of the paper I will briefly present a selection of new etymologies from a forthcoming volume of Greek Etymological Notes: Addenda and Corrigenda to EDG. My main goal in this part is to demonstrate that contrary to Beekes’ “Pan-Pre-Greek” approach, comparative method still has a lot to offer for the study of Ancient Greek vocabulary.


[1] See Balles 2011, Blanc 2011, Meissner 2013 and Schmitt 2010; compare also the remarks by Consani 2011, Katz 2010: 35 and Schaffner 2014: 71–2 n. 15.

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Greek and Latin Linguistics

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