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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.