Coffee in Koine Greek

I’m not really a coffee drinker. I’d love to be, as it would give me one more thing to be snobby about. But for now, I’ll stick to cufflinks and Savile Row suits. In any case, according to Wikipedia, coffee was introduced around the 15th or 16th century, so it’s fairly recent and there is, therefore, no Koine Greek word for it. It thus provides an interesting test case or thought experiment for how we can describe modern things using an ancient language.

In modern Greek, coffee is ὁ καφές. This is probably a loan word from Turkish kahve, which explains the –ές ending, fairly rare in modern Greek (from what I can tell, most –ές nouns are recent loan words from Turkish, French, etc.). According to the Greek Wiktionary, which is an easy and helpful resource for modern Greek, καφές is a third declension noun. The nominative plural form is καφέδες.

Armed with that information, we have some choices:

1. We can treat the word as an indeclinable loan word. We would still, however, need to be able to distinguish between singular and plural. I suppose we could simply transliterate the Turkish plural.

2. We could totally Koine-ize the word. As far as I know, third declension nouns ending in –φές are unknown in Classical or Hellenistic Greek, so we would slightly adjust it to καφίς. We would also use a full Classical declension, thus the genitive would be καφίδος rather than the modern καφέ. One problem with this is that 3rd declension nouns with a dental stem (καφίδ-) are uniformly feminine (please correct me if I’m wrong), so we’d need to change the gender of the noun from masc to fem.

3. We could leave it as a foreign sounding loan word, but give it a full Classical-ish declension. Thus, καφές, καφέδος. No need to change the gender, then.

What do you think? Any other options you can think of? Let us know in the comments below!

Update (2/1/12): Make sure to read the comments below, especially the rather detailed ones by Grigoris: and


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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33 Responses to Coffee in Koine Greek

  1. Paul D. says:

    If coffee is mentioned in the Attic Greek translation of Harry Potter, then the work’s already been done.

  2. Daniel,

    A couple of things:

    1) What could be a better combination than a Saville Row suit, quality cufflinks, AND an expertly extracted espresso?
    2) I once faced this translation issue in a class, and it turned out one of the students was Greek, so we just went with the modern word, and treated it as indeclinable.

  3. Seems to me you have to have the genitive for ‘cup of coffee’· ποτήριον τοῦ καφές or τὸ καφέδος ποτήριον — the second seems more natural. ‘My coffee’ = ὁ καφές μου. (When is the plural used?…coffee cups? You could always treat it as an heteroclitic: sg. ὁ καφές; πλ. τὰ καφέδες (= ποτήρια καφέδες) to keep the modern form and gender in the singular but sync with ποτήριον in the plural (cf. ὁ βίβλος; τὰ βίβλα; The modern pl. nom. / acc. is καφέδες). Although most indeclinables are neuter throughout.

    This is an important word group. The word is also used for ‘brown’ (καφέ / καφετής ) which there is no clear word for in ancient Greek (ξανθός, ξυλώδης, mod. μαυρός = ancient ‘dim’ ….καφώδης ??). And don’t forget about the word ‘caffeine’ and ‘caffeinated.’ Café also comes from the same root it appears (καφενείο).

  4. At 8:00 of this video

    the guy says τὴν καφὴν λίαν μέλαιναν φιλῶ. Great minds must think alike, because I have been declining the word this way myself for years, like γραφή. I drink coffee every day, so it is an important word that I use every day. πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῇ καφῇ τῇ ἐνδυναμούσῃ με.

  5. Great post, Daniel. I agree, for constructing neologisms, your three options are right on!

    Options 1 and 3 speak for themselves. So for option 2 I, ἔγωγε, feel you have two choices. 1) You could fit it to the closest sounding declension paradigm like you said or 2) You could create your own paradigm, though on a large scale this could prove confusing, I suppose…But on the other hand, if there was an invented (regular) Koine -ες declension, could this prove usable?

    So you could make it follow the -ις, -ιδος third declension type like your said, or perhaps even the first declension -η, -ης type (καφη, καφης, κτλ.). OR, you could create an -ες conjugation. There’s many ways this could look. One way to construct a Koine -ες conjugation could look like this:
    καφες (nom s)
    καφεως (gen s)
    καφει (dat s)
    καφεν (acc s)
    καφε (voc s) [I can just see the odes forming now, ω καφε, τι…)

    καφεις (nom p)
    καφεων (gen p)
    καφεσι (dat p)
    καφεις (acc p)
    καφεις (voc p)

  6. Donald COBB says:

    Interesting question, Daniel. I’ve taken the easy route in my video. Since καφέ can be found in Mod. Greek (I’ve at least seen it that way in phrase books), it’s a small step to making it a feminine καφή, ῆς, ἡ. David Sigrist’s suggestion is good too: τὸ καφές, -οῦς, especially since using the neutral adjective as a substantive is widespread in the Hellenistic period. We can talk about that in a couple days. It also sounds more natural than putting an -ίδος, etc. declension on it.

    I would be more concerned about drinking it, though, than what one called it! 🙂

  7. Donald COBB says:

    Incidentally, I notice that, in addition to καφές, Jannaris also has an interesting variation κοφέα (though with a siglum that specifies “too learned or archaistic”). Interestingly, it’s the first gloss, coming before καφές. It would, at any rate, have the advantage of an easy passage into Koinè: τὴν κοφέαν, κτλ.

  8. Nathan Smith says:

    What about a verb for “brew”?

    • Nathan, are you suggesting that we perhaps use a participial form to speak about coffee as something that has been brewed? Maybe (ανα)βεβρασμενον? Or, are you simply asking what the verb for brew is? If the latter, βραζω is the best one I’ve been able to find, though a general term for boil (εψειν) might work too.

  9. What about ψαρος πομα (brown/dark drink)? Or κυαμος πομα (bean drink)?

    • Is Buth using ψαρος for dark/brown now? LSJ gives its meaning as speckled. I think πόμα κυάμινον would be a good periphrastic solution, though πόμα κόπρινον might be more accurate as to taste. 😉

      • I was just giving my own ideas. Personally, I have used it for dark/brown. Yay! I solved the riddle (maybe). πομα κυαμινον it is (for me, for now) 🙂

  10. Grigoris says:

    Neophytos Doukas (1760-1845), who led the push for Attic Greek to become the official language of the nascent modern Greek state and who was himself a fluent speaker, took another approach. Rather than simply taking the word “coffee” and trying to Hellenize it, he opted for a similar concept already present in the ancient language. Thus, he uses the term ὁ κυκεών for any hot, mixed beverage, and generally for “coffee,” as if simply to ask for “a brew,” which sounds colloquial enough. When the situation requires it, he will specify as τὸ Ἀραβικόν or with the Hellenized form την καφήτιδα (I’ve only seen him use it in the acc., but I assume that he understands this as the noun ἡ καφήτις). As for verbs, he uses κυκάω (“to mix up a drink”) and ἕψω (“to boil”). Another generic option is τὸ ἀφέψημα, “a decoction”, which is an ancient term used in katharevousa to cover tea, coffee, chamomile, etc. Coffee arrived in the Greek-speaking world under the Ottomans, so there was no Byzantine equivalent to provide a puristic model, and so the modern ὀ καφές served both in katharevousa and demotic, while ἡ κοφέα was used to refer to the bush (parallel form to ἡ μηλέα, κτλ.), rather than the berry or drink. Also, the word ὁ κόκκος, which in antiquity referred to wheat berries and to a type of oak berry used for red dying, has in Modern Greek been applied to the coffee bean. As for the color “brown,” μέλας seems to have done the job in a vague sense. Remember that this is the adjective applied to swarthy types, as well as “black earth,” which we would think of as brown; also note that we can take our coffee “black.” Specific colors in ancient Greek are often just analogies, and so there are some few attestations of the word καρυοβαφής and καρυόχρους (walnut-stained/colored). Similarly, katharevousa drew upon the demotic καστανός, -ή, -ό to form the neologism καστανόχρους/καστανόχρωμος (“chestnut-colored”).

  11. Grigoris says:

    Just a few more things: 1) katharevousa sometimes also used τὸ καφέϊον on the model of the sister beverage τὸ τέϊον. I notice that the fledgling Ancient Greek Wikipedia in the Wikimedia Incubator has gone this route. 2) I don’t think that an indeclinable noun is actually a good solution for two reasons: first, indeclinable nouns are actually quite rare in Ancient Greek. The lion’s share are accounted for by numbers, the names of letters, foreign proper names (of which a large number come from LXX), and certain frozen abstract expressions. It doesn’t seem to have been the Greek practice to leave a common household item as indeclinable loan words. Also, from the pedagogical side, every time a student resorts to an indeclinable noun, he misses the opportunity to put that word into a proper case and number. 3) As far as the larger vocabulary surrounding coffee, it may be useful to look at what has been done in Latin. Below are some of the entries from David Morgan’s Lexicon, which compiles Neo-Latin dictionaries of the past 200 years or so:

    coffee / cafaeum, cafeum, Arabica (v. cafaearia) potio (LRL); cafea (ALB. I) .drnk coffee / coffea* [s.17]; potio Arabica [s.16]; potus Arabicus [s.19]; cafea* [Vox Lat.] | (adj) cafearius* | coffee bean faba cafeae* | coffee pot hirnea cafearia*; cucumella cafearia* [Bacci] | coffee-maker machina cafearia* [Vox Lat.] | coffee grinder molinula cafearia* [Vox Lat.] | coffee break pausa (v. intermissio) cafearia* | coffee grounds cafeae* faex [Latinitas] | coffee set sythesis cafearia [Eichenseer] (HELF.)
    coffee caffeum; (plant) coffea, – bean faba arabica; – grinder, – mill mola caffei; cup of –
    pocillum caffei | coffeepot olla (or vas) caffei (LEV.)
    coffee-maker / machina cafearia (ALB. I)
    coffer with milk / cafea* lactea/ cafea* lacte temperata [Haas, Handwörterbuch, 1808] (HELF.)
    café / taberna cafaearia (v. potoria), thermopolium (LRL); cafeum (ALB. I)
    café cauponula, taberna; (bar) thermopolium; deversorium (LEV.)
    café, coffee-house / taberna caldaria [Apinus, Glossarium, 1728]; domus cafearia* [Bauer];
    cafêum [Vox Lat.] (HELF.)

    • Lots of good options there, Gregoris–thanks for a great comment! Do you have any good resources on Doukas to suggest for further study?

      • Γρηγόριος says:

        Unfortunately, most of the information about Doukas is only available in Greek and generally hard to find in the US. There are Greek and English Wikipedia articles about him (with his name spelt “Neofytos Doukas”), and a decent treatment of him in Peter Mackridge’s book, _Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976_ (Oxford 2010). The most thorough treatment is N. Χαριλάου, Ὁ Νεόφυτος Δούκας καὶ ἡ συμβολὴ του στὸ νεοελληνικὸ Διαφωτισμό (Athens 2002). The wikipedia article is a bit inaccurate when it says that Doukas was a supporter of “puristic Greek,” which links to the page on katharevousa, as Doukas was actually Koraïs’ main opponent from the far right, i.e., he rejected Koraïs’ hybrid katharevousa in favor of clear Attic along the lines of Xenophon. He wrote many pedagogical books and treatises about the Greek language, often attacking Koraïs, but his most impressive achievement was that he published editions of many classical authors in a format like the Latin “Editiones ad usum Delphini,” i.e. Ancient text with facing page translation in lucid Attic (mostly this was with the poets) and textual notes and commentary below. The prose authors are generally just provided with notes and commentary. Thus, one can read, e.g., Sophocles in the original Attic and, in difficult passages, look to the translation or notes for help without ever switching into a modern language. The sheer volume of these editions, including all of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Thucydides, among others, attests to a command of the language that has rarely been matched since.

      • Neophytos Doukas’ publications online (large PDF files).

  12. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    Going off onto the color question, I’ve been using ορφνινος for brown (in my daughter’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” book). That was the best I could find in Perseus or Woodhouse; it there a better resource for colors that I’m missing? Also, and now getting fairly far afield, does anyone have a good resource for word-formation in Greek?

    • Joshua, it’s tough to get a handle on how the ancients divided up the color spectrum. ξανθος seems to me to be somewhere between yellow, brown, and green. μελας seems to be black, but extending into dark brown. One route to take, I suppose, is simply to use -ωδης, e.g., ξυλωδης. I like ορφνινος, though, and it seems appropriate to me for your book (which, by the way, you should share with us when you finish it).

  13. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    εγω δε, ο προτον ερωτησας Δανιηλ (ως μοι δοκει) και αυτος το ποτον περι ου διαλογιζομεθα, ου τραχηλιω ουδε υποτυφος ειμι ουδε σοβαρευομαι (ουτως γε ελπιζω). και πως λεγεται Ελληνιστι “snob”? επειρησα, ως βλεπετε.

    • χαῖρε ὦ Ιησοῦ. καλὸν ἐρώτημα ἐρώτησας. νεοελληνιστὶ μὲν τὸ snob «σνομπ» ἐστιν. τοῦτ’ εστιν τὸ «σνὸβ.» ἐν δὲ Κοινῇ νομίζω ὅτι snob λέγεται «ὁ σοβῶν.» ὁ δὲ Παῦλος (1 Κορ. 8:1) γράφει «ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ.» διὰ τοῦτο τὸ snob λέγεται Ἑλληνιστὶ «ὁ φυσιούμενος.»

      ἔρρωσο ἐν ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ, ὦ Ιησοῦ.

      • Γρηγόριος says:

        Παρατηρητέον ἐστὶν ὅτι τὸ Νεοελληνικὸν «σνομπ» ἐπίθετόν ἐστι, παραδείγματος χάριν, «Ὁ κύριος τάδε εἶναι πολὺ σνομπ». Ἴσως δὲ τερπνότερόν ἐστι τὸ ἐκ γνησίων Ἑλληνικῶν ῥιζῶν κατασκευασμένον «ψηλομήτης», τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν «ὁ ὑψηλὸν μυκτῆρα ἔχων», οὗ τὸ παράδειγμα ἀκολουθούντες ἴσως ἀνασκευάσαιμεν ἂν ὣς «ὑψηλομήκτηρ» ἢ «ὑψηλόρις».

      • εὐχαριστῶ μὲν οὖν, ὦ ἄριστε Γρηγόριε, γράψαντι τούτους τούς ὠφελἰμους λόγους. τὸ δὲ «ὑψηλομήκτηρ» πεφίληκα σφόδρα. τὴν καφὴν πίνειν θέλεις?

  14. Grigoris says:

    Ὑπάρχει πάμπολλα ἐπίθετα τὴν δύναμιν τοῦ “snob” φέροντα, αὐτίκα δὴ μάλα τὰ «ὑπερήφανος», «ὑψηλόφφων», «μεγαλάφρων», «ὑπέρφρων», ἔτι καὶ πολλὰ ῥήματα, ὧν τινα λέγεις σύ, ὦ Ἰησοῦ. Ἰσως δὲ ταῦτα ἐλλειπεῖ τινος δυνάμεως ἥντινα ζητητέον παρὰ τοῖς «καταφρονητὴς» καὶ «καταφρονῶ», καὶ δὴ καὶ τῇ μετοχῇ «καταφρονῶν».

  15. Gerald Aurand says:

    According to some sources, the Arabs, from whom the Turks borrowed the word, named it for a region in Ethiopia called Kaffa, where the plant is indigenous. I don’t know if that area was known to the ancient Greeks or by what name. If it had a name in ancient times you might use a word that refers to geographical origins as -ensis does in Latin, or just use Kaffa as the base. In Latin it could be something like kaffensis.

  16. Gerald Aurand says:

    I can find no references to the region by a Greek designation of antiquity. As an aside, the first mention of coffee as a brewed beverage in Arab sources call it buna, which derived from an Ethiopian source.

  17. Ἱουλιανός - IVLIANVS says:

    I’ve just bumped onto this googling for something completely different.Late random alien comer as I may be, might I suggest treating the modern greek e-ε vowel in the masc. suffix -ές as long or long (and open etc), i.e. as having an eta or alternatively ei sound?
    I.e. (eta option, most favourable) either “archaise”-atticise it into a first declension noun masc. in -es (-ής), gen. -ou (-oῦ) or third declension adjv. masc. -es (-ής), gen. -ous (-oῦς) (or even irregular noun -ῆς, gen -οῦ etc).
    I.e. as a noun ὁ καφής, τοῦ καφοῦ or as an adjective (or irregular noun) ὁ καφής, τοῦ καφοῦς.
    After all, before iotacism (&the loss of long vowels etc) had turned a great deal of different vowels&diphthongs into i-ι (s), ancient Greek DID have masc.(&fem.) nouns (first declension) and (third declension) adjectives&participles ending in e-ε sounds in -es suffices, albeit not of the exact same duration etc(i.e. same vowel sound or quality in some general or vague sense). These were exactly the ones I’ve mentioned, i.e. the ones ending in -ης , -ής, -ῆς, -εις or -είς. 😉

    P.S.One might even argue that in doing this we just ἀποκαλύπτομεν the hidden remnant eta (sound and spelling) of the “ancient Greek” 🙂 word καφής.
    After all, there are still some other eta survivors of the iotacism process in modern Greek:
    E.g. though Σίδηρος is still used, it’s also spelled and pronounced Σίδερος and even more so all of its derived words commonly, predominantly follow the latter orthography and pronounciation (e.g. σιδερένιος, σιδερικό etc).

    P.P.S.Evolving some of the above thoughts of other commenters, one might even get creative in a totally different way:
    Since the modern Greek declension (group) follows the double-stem scheme ὁ καφές, οἱ καφέδες, one could create a new ancient Greek 🙂 third declension double-stem subgroup of this kind: ὁ καφής τοῦ καφέδος, οἱ καφέδες, τῶν καφέδων. 😉

  18. So the Greco-English adjective would be kaphedic under the original proposal? That sounds wonderful.

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