Greek language

Greek (ελληνική γλώσσα, or simply ελληνικά, [e̞liniˈka] — "Hellenic") is an Indo-European language, spoken today by 15-22 million people, mainly in Greece and Cyprus but also by minority and emigrant communities in numerous other countries.

Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet since the 9th century BC in Greece (before that, in Linear B during the 15th-13th centuries BC), and the 4th century BC in Cyprus (before that in Cypriot syllabary). Greek literature has a continuous history of nearly three thousand years.


This article does not cover the reconstructed history of Greek prior to the use of writing. For more information, see main article on Proto-Greek language.

Greek has been spoken in the Balkan Peninsula since the 2nd millennium BC. The earliest written evidence is found in the Linear B tablets in the "Room of the Chariot Tablets", a LMII-context (c. 1400 BC) region of Knossos, in Crete, making Greek one of the world's oldest recorded living languages. Among the Indo-European languages, its date of earliest attestation is matched only by Vedic Sanskrit and the extinct Anatolian languages.

The later Greek alphabet is unrelated to Linear B, and is derived from the Phoenician alphabet (abjad); with minor modifications, it is still used today. Greek is conventionally divided into the following periods:

  • Mycenaean Greek: the language of the Mycenaean civilization. It is recorded in the Linear B script on tablets dating from the 15th or 14th century BC onwards.
  • Classical Greek (also known as Ancient Greek): In its various dialects was the language of the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek civilization. It was widely known throughout the Roman empire. Classical Greek fell into disuse in western Europe in the Middle Ages, but remained officially in use in the Byzantine world, and was reintroduced to the rest of Europe with the Fall of Constantinople and Greek migration to the areas of Italy.
  • Hellenistic Greek (also known as Koine Greek): The fusion of various ancient Greek dialects with Attic (the dialect of Athens) resulted in the creation of the first common Greek dialect, which became a lingua franca across the Mediterranean region. Koine Greek can be initially traced within the armies and conquered territories of Alexander the Great, but after the Hellenistic colonization of the known world, it was spoken from Egypt to the fringes of India. After the Roman conquest of Greece, an unofficial diglossy of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Rome and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire. The origin of Christianity can also be traced through Koine Greek, as the Apostles used it to preach in Greece and the Greek-speaking world. It is also known as the Alexandrian dialect, Post-Classical Greek or even New Testament Greek (after its most famous work of literature).
  • Medieval Greek: Also known as Byzantine Greek. The continuation of Hellenistic Greek during medieval Greek history, up to the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. "Medieval Greek" is a cover term for a whole continuum of different speech and writing styles, ranging from vernacular continuations of spoken Koine that were already approaching Modern Greek in many respects, to highly learned forms imitating classical Attic. Much of the written Greek that was used as the official language of the Byzantine Empire was an eclectic middle-ground variety based on the tradition of written Koine.
  • Modern Greek: Stemming from Medieval Greek, Modern Greek usages can be traced in the Byzantine period (as early as 11th century).

The tradition of diglossia, the simultaneous existence of vernacular and archaizing written forms of Greek, was renewed in the modern era in the form of a polarization between two competing varieties: "Demotic" (Dhimotikí, Δημοτική), the vernacular form of Modern Greek proper, and Katharévusa (Καθαρεύουσα, meaning "purified"), an imitation of classical Greek, which was developed in the early 19th century and used for literary, juridic, administrative and scientific purposes in the newly formed modern Greek state. The diglossia problem was brought to an end in 1976 (Law 306/1976), when Dhimotikí was declared the official language of Greece.

In the meantime, both forms of Greek had naturally converged and Standard Modern Greek (Κοινή Νεοελληνική — Common Modern Greek), the form of Greek used for all official purposes and in education in Greece today, emerged.

It has been claimed that an "educated" speaker of the modern language can understand an ancient text, but this is surely as much a function of education as of the similarity of the languages. Still, Koinē, the version of Greek used to write the New Testament and the Septuagint, is relatively easy to understand for modern speakers.

Greek words have been widely borrowed into the European languages: astronomy, democracy, philosophy, thespian, etc. Moreover, Greek words and word elements continue to be productive as a basis for coinages: anthropology, photography, isomer, biomechanics etc. and form, with Latin words, the foundation of international scientific and technical vocabulary. See English words of Greek origin, and ''List of Greek words with English derivatives


Like most Indo-European languages, Greek is highly inflected. Greek grammar has come down through the ages fairly intact, though with some simplifications. For example, Modern Greek features two numbers: singular and plural. The dual number of Ancient times was abandoned at a very early stage. The instrumental case of Mycenaean Greek disappeared in the Archaic period, and the dative-locative of Ancient Greek disappeared in the late Hellenistic. Four cases, nominative, genitive, accusative and vocative, remain in Modern Greek. The three ancient gender noun categories (masculine, feminine and neuter) never fell out of use, while adjectives agree in gender, number, and case with their respective nouns, as do their articles. Greek verbs have synthetic inflectional forms for:

  • mood — Ancient Greek: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and optative; Modern Greek: indicative and imperative (other modal functions are expressed by periphrastic constructions)
  • number — singular, plural (archaic Greek also had a dual)
  • voice — Ancient Greek: active, middle, and passive; Modern Greek: active and medio-passive
  • tense — Ancient Greek: present, past, future; Modern Greek: past and non-past (future is expressed by a periphrastic construction)
  • person — first, second, third
  • aspect — Ancient Greek: imperfective, perfective (traditionally called aorist), perfect (sometimes also called perfective, see note about terminology); Modern Greek: perfective and imperfective

Ancient had several infinitives; in Modern, the infinitive of verbs has been replaced by a periphrastic subjunctive. Ancient had a complex participial system; Modern has a simpler one.

A great syntactical reformation took place during Hellenistic times, with the result that late Koine is already much like Modern Greek. However, since Greek syntactical relations are expressed by means of case endings, Greek word order has always been relatively free. In Attic Greek the availability of the definite article and the infinitive and participial clauses permits the construction of very long, complex yet clear sentences. This technique of Attic prose (known as periodic style) is unmatched in other European languages. Since Hellenistic times Greek has tended to be more periphrastic, but much of the syntactical and expressive power of the language has been preserved.

Greek is a language distinguished by an extraordinarily rich vocabulary. In respect to the roots of words, ancient Greek vocabulary was essentially of Indo-European origin, but with a significant number of borrowings from the idioms of the populations that inhabited Greece before the arrival of Proto-Greeks. Words of non-Indo-European origin can be traced into Greek from as early as Mycenaean times; they include a large number of Greek toponyms. The vast majority of Modern Greek vocabulary is directly inherited from ancient Greek, although in certain cases words have changed meanings. Words of foreign origin have entered the language mainly from Latin, Italian and Ottoman Turkish. During older periods of the Greek language, loan words into Greek acquired Greek inflections, leaving thus only a foreign root word. Modern borrowings (from the 20th century on), especially from French and English, are typically not inflected.

Yet the most distinctive characteristic of the Greek language is its powerful compound-constructing ability. The speaker is able to combine basic or derived terms in order to construct new, yet perfectly understandable compounds that express in one word what other languages would express in an entire clause, or even an entire sentence. This linguistic mobility is largely absent from Latin and its offspring languages. In the Homeric language, Thetis — the mother of Achilles, is described as "δυσαριστοτόκεια", dysaristotokeia, meaning "she, who to her own bad fortune, gave birth to the best", in pure Modern Greek — "πικρολεβεντομάνα", pikroleventomana. Some languages are able to express such a complex meaning naturally in one word, others have different mechanisms (see polysynthetic languages for extreme examples). Compound constructional capability, as is found in Greek, is frequently imitated by modern languages such as French and English in order to produce monolectic compounds; this is often done by actually using Greek roots (e.g. biology < biologie < bios + logos, Micromégas < mikros + megas ) or by applying imported Greek rules to foreign words. For that reason Greek-derived words predominate in the language of science, particularly of the natural sciences, e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, geography, medicine, etc. It has been speculated by scholars that due to this specific flexibility, Greek and German (another European language famous for its compound construction) have been the languages of philosophy, and that Plato's ideas had pre-existed in Greek, in the same way that Meister Eckhart's thoughts had in German.

Evolution from Ancient to Modern Greek

The development from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek has affected phonology, morphology, and, less vocabulary. The division into conventional periods is, as with all such periodisations, relatively arbitrary, especially since at all periods, Ancient Greek has enjoyed high prestige, and the literate borrowed heavily from it.

The main phonological changes occurred during the Hellenistic and Roman period (see Koine Greek Phonology for details), and included:

The morphological changes affected both nouns and verbs. Some of the changes to the verbs are parallel to those that affected the Romance languages as they developed from Vulgar Latin — for instance the loss of certain historic tense forms and their replacement by new constructions — but unlike Romance, Greek continues to inflect nouns for case.


Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. The ancient languages which were probably most closely related to it, ancient Macedonian (perhaps a dialect of Greek) and Phrygian, are not well enough documented to permit detailed comparison. Among living languages Greek seems to be most closely related to Armenian (see also Graeco-Armenian) and the Indo-Iranian languages (see Graeco-Aryan).

Writing system

Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet since approximately the 9th century BC. In classical Greek, as in classical Latin, only upper-case letters existed. The lower-case Greek letters were developed much later by medieval scribes to permit a faster, more convenient cursive writing style with the use of ink and quill. The variant of the alphabet in use today is essentially the late Ionic variant, introduced for writing classical Attic in 403 BC.

The modern Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters, each with a capital (majuscule) and lowercase (minuscule) form. The letter sigma has an additional lowercase form (ς) used in final position.

Majuscule form
Minuscule form
α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ρ σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω

In addition to the letters, the Greek alphabet also features a number of diacritical signs: three different accent marks (acute, grave and circumflex), originally denoting different shapes of pitch accent on the stressed vowel; the so-called breathing marks (spiritus asper and spiritus lenis), originally used to signal presence or absence of word-initial /h/; and the diaeresis, used to mark full syllabic value of a vowel that would otherwise be read as part of a diphthong. These marks were introduced during the course of the Hellenistic period. Actual usage of the grave in handwriting had seen a rapid decline in favor of uniform usage of the acute during the late 20th century, and it had only been retained in typography.

In the writing reform of 1982, the use of most of them was abolished from official use in Greece. Since then, Modern Greek has been written mostly in the simplified monotonic orthography (or monotonic system), which employs only the acute accent and the diaeresis. The traditional system, now called the polytonic orthography (or polytonic system), is still used internationally for the writing of Ancient Greek.

Geographic distribution

Modern Greek is spoken by about 14 million people, mainly in Greece and Cyprus. There are also traditional Greek-speaking settlements in the neighboring countries Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as in several countries in the Black Sea area (Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia) and around the Mediterranean Sea (Southern Italy, Israel, Egypt). The language is also spoken by emigrant communities in many countries in Western Europe, North America, Australia, as well as in Argentina, Brazil and others.

Official status

Greek is the official language of Greece where it is spoken by about 99.5% of the population. It is also (nominally alongside Turkish), the official language of Cyprus. Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. Greek is officially recognized as a minority language in parts of Turkey, Italy and Albania.

See also


  • Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956 (revised edition), ISBN 0-674-36250-0. The standard grammar of classical Greek. Focuses primarily on the Attic dialect, with comparatively weak treatment of the other dialects and the Homeric Kunstsprache.
  • W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca - a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1968-74. ISBN 0-521-20626-X
  • Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (Longman Linguistics Library). Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 0-582-30709-0. From Mycenean to modern.
  • Andrew Sihler, "A New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin", Oxford University Press, 1996. An historical grammar of ancient Greek from its Indo-European origins. Some eccentricities and no bibliography but a useful handbook to the earliest stages of Greek's development.
  • Robert Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 1983, ISBN 0-521-29978-0. An excellent and concise historical account of the development of modern Greek from the ancient language.
  • Brian Newton, The Generative Interpretation of Dialect: A Study of Modern Greek Phonology, Cambridge University Press, 1972, ISBN 0-521-08497-0.
  • Crosby and Schaeffer, An Introduction to Greek, Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1928. A school grammar of ancient Greek
  • David Holton et al., Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-10002-X. A reference grammar of modern Greek.
  • Dionysius of Thrace, "Art of Grammar", "Τέχνη γραμματική", c.100 BC

External links

General background

Language learning



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