Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Observations Upon the Extinction of the Greek Language at Marseilles.

It is exceedingly strange that, as Marseilles was founded by a Greek colony, scarcely any vestige of the Greek language is to be found in Provence Languedoc, or any district of France; for we cannot consider as Greek the terms which were taken, at a comparatively modern date, from the Latins, and which had been adopted by the Romans themselves from the Greeks so many centuries before. We received those only at second hand. We have no right to say that we abandoned the word Got for that of Theos, rather than that of Deus, from which, by a barbarous termination, we have made Dieu.

It is clear that the Gauls, having received the Latin language with the Roman laws, and having afterwards received from those same Romans the Christian religion, adopted from them all the terms which were connected with that religion. These same Gauls did not acquire, until a late period, the Greek terms which relate to medicine, anatomy, and surgery.

After deducting all the words originally Greek which we have derived through the Latin, and all the anatomical and medical terms which were, in comparison, so recently acquired, there is scarcely anything left; for surely, to derive “abréger” from “brakus,” rather than from “abreviare”; “acier” from “axi,” rather than from “acies”; “acre” from “agros,” rather than from “ager”; and “aile” from “ily,” rather than from “ala” — this, I say, would surely be perfectly ridiculous.

Some have even gone so far as to say that “omelette” comes from “omeilaton,” because “meli” in Greek signifies honey, and “oon” an egg. In the “Garden of Greek Roots” there is a more curious derivation still; it is pretended that “dîner” (dinner) comes from “deipnein,” which signifies supper.

As some may be desirous of possessing a list of the Greek words which the Marseilles colony may have introduced into the language of the Gauls, independently of those which came through the Romans, we present the following one:

I am astonished to find so few words remaining of a language spoken at Marseilles, in the time of Augustus, in all its purity; and I am particularly astonished to find the greater number of the Greek words preserved in Provence, signifying things of little or no utility, while those used to express things of the first necessity and importance are utterly lost. We have not a single one remaining that signifies land, sea, sky, the sun, the moon, rivers, or the principal parts of the human body; the words used for which might have been expected to be transmitted down from the beginning through every succeeding age. Perhaps we must attribute the cause of this to the Visigoths, the Burgundians, and the Franks; to the horrible barbarism of all those nations which laid waste the Roman Empire, a barbarism of which so many traces yet remain.

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14