The Latin and Greek Languages: Similarities and Differences

Latin and Greek are the “classical languages” of Western civilization. For more than a thousand years, scholars have studied these languages to access ancient drama and poetry, historical and scientific writings, and so on.

Numerous vocabulary words borrowed from Latin and Greek have enriched the English language. In particular, scholarly and technical vocabulary terms often trace back to Latin or Greek roots.

As the timeline below shows, the Greek literary tradition is older than the Latin tradition, and many of the best-known ancient Greek literary works were written before the Latin ones. Accordingly, it is unsurprising that Latin borrowed many vocabulary words from Greek.

Timeline of major literary works in Latin and Greek

The Romans and Greeks often came into conflict, but, by the middle of the second century BCE, Greece had been incorporated into the nascent Roman Empire. So the Greek and Latin languages were in very close contact over a long period of time.

The table below lists some of the Greek vocabulary words that Latin speakers borrowed.

Table: Greek words borrowed from Latin
English borrowing from Latin Latin word Original Greek word
lion leo λέων (leon)
panther panthera πάνθηρ (panther)
galaxy galaxias γαλαξίας (galaxias)
sarcasm sarcasmus σαρκασμός (sarkasmos)
comedy comoedia κωμῳδία (komoidia)
drama drama δρᾶμα (drama)
politician politicus πολιτικός (politikos)
academia academia Ἀκαδημία (Akademia)
critical criticus κριτικός (kritikos)
poet poeta ποιητής (poietes)
stadium stadium στάδιον (stadion)
angel angelus ἄγγελος (angelos)
dynasty dynastia δυναστεία (dunasteia)
tragedy tragoedia τραγῳδία (tragoidia)
dogma dogma δόγμα (dogma)
problem problema πρόβλημα (problema)
symbol symbolus σύμβολον (sumbolon)
enthusiasm enthusiasmus ἐνθουσιασμός (enthousiasmos)
philosophy philosophia φιλοσοφία (philosophia)
mathematics mathematica μαθηματικός (mathematikos)
melody melodia μελῳδίᾱ (meloidia)
demon daemon δαίμων (daimon)
exotic exoticus ἐξωτικός (exotikos)
phenomenon phaenomenon φαινόμενον (phainomenon)
machine machina μᾱχᾰνᾱ́ (makhana)
history historia ἱστορίᾱ (historia)
mystic mysticus μυστικός (mustikos)
enigma aenigma αἴνιγμα (ainigma)
dialects dialectos διάλεκτος (dialektos)
music musica μουσική (mousike)
triumph triumphus θρίαμβος (thriambos)
sympathy sympathia σῠμπᾰ́θειᾰ (sumpatheia)

The Latin and Greek alphabets

While the Greek and Latin alphabets both trace back to the Phoenician alphabet, there is an even closer connection between them, for the Greek alphabet is the ancestor of the Latin alphabet.

More specifically, Latin speakers borrowed the alphabet used by the Etruscans, another civilization in ancient Italy, and the Etruscans derived their alphabet from one version of the Greek alphabet.

The Greek alphabet differs significantly from the Phoenician alphabet, however, in that the latter had symbols for consonants but not for vowels. The Greeks repurposed some of the Phoenician letters to write the vowels in their language.

Interestingly, the Latin script is not the only one still in use that owes a debt to the Greeks. The Cyrillic script that several Slavic languages use, including Russian, is also derived from the Greek alphabet.

The table below shows the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet:

Table: The letters of the Greek alphabet (uppercase, lowercase)
Α, α(alpha) Ν, ν(nu)
Β, β(beta) Ξ, ξ(xi)
Γ, γ(gamma) Ο, ο(omicron)
Δ, δ(delta) Π, π(pi)
Ε, ε(epsilon) Ρ, ρ(rho)
Ζ, ζ(zeta) Σ, σ(sigma)
Η, η(eta) Τ, τ(tau)
Θ, θ(theta) Υ, υ(upsilon)
Ι, ι(iota) Φ, φ(phi)
Κ, κ(kappa) Χ, χ(chi)
Λ, λ(lambda) Ψ, ψ(psi)
Μ, μ(mu) Ω, ω(omega)

Note that the word “alphabet” is formed from the two first letters of the Greek alphabet, “alpha” and “beta.”

English is written in a script that is based on the classical Latin alphabet — directly in the case of capital letters, and indirectly in the case of lower-case letters, which were developed early in the Middle Ages.

Ancient Greek and Latin quotes

The phrases and well-known quotes from these ancient languages below help to illustrate the similarities and differences between Greek and Latin.

Many of those who learn a classical language are interested in ancient wisdom and how people lived and thought several thousand years ago, and these are some examples.

Greek quotes
γνῶθι σεαυτόν.
gnōthi seauton.
“Know yourself.”
μηδὲν ἄγαν.
meden agan.
“Nothing in excess.”
πάθει μάθος.
páthei máthos.
“learning through suffering.”
λάθε βιώσας.
Láthe biṓsas.
“Live hidden.”
Latin quotes
amor vincit omnia.
“Love conquers all.”
audentes fortuna iuvat.
“Fortune favors the bold.”
si vis amari ama.
“If you want to be loved, love.”

Latin and Greek grammar

Both Latin and Greek belong to the Indo-European family of languages, and, as a consequence, share certain grammatical features, such as nouns, adjectives, and pronouns that have one of three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter).

In addition, both Latin and Greek rely on inflections (changes in word endings) of words to indicate their function in a sentence.

There are also some interesting grammatical differences between Latin and Greek. For instance, Greek has a “dual” grammatical number (in addition to singular and plural) while Latin doesn’t.

The dual form, a feature of the reconstructed common ancestor of all Indo-European languages (known as Proto-Indo-European) and was preserved, though rarely used, in ancient Greek and Sanskrit (an ancient classical language of India related to Latin and Greek) but largely disappeared from Latin.

Another difference between Latin and Greek is the use of “articles” — in English, “the” and “a.” Latin simply doesn’t have articles (though Latin pronouns perform some of the same functions), whereas ancient Greek has definite articles but no direct equivalent of indefinite articles.


Latin and Greek have in common the status of “classical languages” of Western civilization. The influence of Greek on Latin is evident in the Latin alphabet as well as many loanwords borrowed from Greek.

Many Latin and Greek vocabulary words are easy to identify because many words in modern languages, at least those spoken in Europe and the Americas, derive from Latin and Greek. However, mastery of the ancient languages requires considerable effort because the grammar differs significantly from the grammar of modern languages.

For another perspective on ancient languages, check out this comparison of Latin and Sanskrit. More examples of Latin vocabulary words appear on this list of the 1,000 Latin words most commonly used by ancient Roman authors.