The Greek language is ranked as the richest in the world with 5 million words and 70 million word types! Greek roots are often used to coin new words for other languages, especially in the medicine and sciences. Greek words and word elements continue to be productive as a basis for coinages: anthropology, photography, biomechanics, telephony, isomer, cinematography, etc. An estimated 12% of the English vocabulary has a Greek origin.
History of the Greek Language
Greek, also known as Hellenic, is the language perceived as the symbol of Western Civilization. Some describe it as the transition point between Eastern wisdom and Western science. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, forming its own branch within it. Greek is spoken today by 15 to 25 million people all over the world. It’s official in Greece, Cyprus, the EU and at a regional level in Albania, Italy and Turkey. Greek was first documented in the Mycenaean epoch on Linear B tablets from the 14th Century BC. It’s the oldest attested language which still survives. Its literature has existed and developed for more than 3,000 years!
Origins of Greek language
Greek belongs to the Indo-European languages, forming its own branch within the family. It derives directly from a proto-Greek language, which is considered similar to Vedic Sanskrit and extinct Anatolian languages. As for its writing system, Greek first used the Linear B and later adopted its own alphabet based on the Phoenician. Today, it appears to have significant similarities with Armenian and Indo-Iranian languages.
Official Language in Greece
Greek is the official language of Greece. It’s also co-official together with Turkish in Cyprus. Greece has been an EU member for years, so Greek is among the EU’s official languages, has introduced for the first time a new alphabet in the Union (besides the Latin alphabet). At a regional level, Greek is minority language in parts of Albania, Turkey, and Italy.
Most considerable ‘varieties’ of Greek can be considered areas of usage. Official language and administrative speech and writing are still paralleled in two linguistic forms. The two forms developed after Medieval Greek. Dhimotikí, or the vernacular language, and Katharévusa, which means ‘purified’, the latter imitating Classical Greek and being used as official. As for dialects, Cypriot Greek reports some differences when compared to standard Greek.
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Greek-derived from a proto-Greek language. The first documents proving its existence are Linear tablets from the 14th – 15th Century BC. It has been spoken on the Balkan Peninsula since the 9th Century BC, this period being considered the beginning of the Greek language’s history.
The Mycenaean is the oldest period, during the 14th and 15th Centuries BC. At that time, Greek used Linear B tablets as its writing system.
Classical Greek is largely known as Ancient Greek. This variety of language existed in many dialects. It’s the language of most considerable science, arts, and philosophy, the spirit of Ancient Greece. It was largely used during the existence of the Roman Empire. In Western Europe, it fell into disuse in the Middle Ages, but at that time it was still official in the empire of Byzantium. After the fall of Constantinople, Ancient Greek’s influence and popularity were restored for the Western World.
Hellenistic is the period of the so-called Koine Greek. A description of this language period can be given as the language of the New Testament and establishing Christianity. It resulted from the fusion of all popular Greek dialects, mainly based on Attic. This language became the ‘lingua franca’ in the old Mediterranean world. It existed in the time of Alexander the Great and was taught as a second language in the Roman Empire.
Medieval Greek continued the development of Hellenistic during the Middle Ages. It is the language of Byzantium.
Modern Greek is a language form which has developed since the 11th Century, in an independent way from Koine Greek.
Today’s Greek language still uses two forms – the vernacular and official.
When Greece first achieved independence in the 19th century, its people were almost universally illiterate, and the language they spoke (demotic/popular), had undergone enormous change since the days of the Byzantine Empire and classical times. The language had assimilated countless borrowings from languages from the various invaders and conquerors – Turks, Slavs, Venetians, and Albanians.
The finance and inspiration for the new Greek state and its early leaders came largely from the Greek diaspora; Orthodox families who had been living in the sophisticated cities of Eastern Europe or Russia. With their European notions about the grandeur of Greece’s past and the lofty conception of Hellenism, they set about obliterating the memory of subjugation to foreigners in every possible field. And what better way to start than purging the language of its foreign accretions and reviving its classical purity!
They accordingly devised what was, in effect, a new form of the language, Katharevoussa (literally, cleansed Greek). The complexities of classical grammar and syntax were re-instated, and classical words were dusted off and resuscitated. Katharevoussa became the language of schools and other prestigious professions, government, business, the law, newspapers, and academia. Everyone aspiring to membership of the new elite strove to master it, even though there was no consensus on how many of the words should be pronounced!
The debate about Katharevoussa/demotic has been a highly contentious one throughout much of the twentieth century. Writers have championed demotic as have the political left. Conservative governments have been sympathetic towards Katharevoussa, and during the era of the “Colonels”, it was forcibly re-instated. Demotic returned once more after the fall of the “Colonels”. The Church and the legal profession are apparently still dragging their feet on the subject.
Did you know?
Greek is an Indo-European language which forms its own branch within the family. It’s the oldest attested language in the world that still survives. Greek literature has been developing for more than three millennia. Greek, along with Chinese and the West Semitic languages, is a direct descendant of a language recorded back in the Bronze Age. Greek uses the Greek alphabet, which was the first to introduce vowels.
How difficult is the Greek language?
Greek, though, still seems to have a reputation for being a hopelessly difficult language. What makes the language seem so formidable to foreigners is the odd-looking alphabet. The alphabet, however, is not really all that difficult to master as many of the upper-case and lower-case letters look and behave very much in the way that they do in English. Also, a great many Greek words, once they are translated, are easy to remember as they are from the roots of related English words such as pente – five, octo – eight, micros – small, megalo – large.
Negotiating the Greek Language
If you speak English you will have no problems since most street and vendor signs provide information both in Greek and English. The highway signs and the street signs in all major cities provide information in both Greek and English so you should have no problems finding your way around Greece if you drive.
Just about every young person in Greece also speaks English today since it is taught in the public schools, and if you need assistance you will have no problems finding someone you can communicate with.
You will also find that the locals appreciate it a great deal if their guests make an effort to speak their language. Pick up some phrasebooks before you go to Greece and familiarize yourself with some common phrases.
Obviously for learners who are used to Western European languages, the Greek alphabet can look a little daunting, but in fact, it is really quite simple (and in many ways far more straightforward than the English alphabet!) The Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters – 17 consonants and 7 vowels – and is an ancestor of the Latin alphabet used in most other European languages (including English). Any word of more than one syllable will also contain an accent on the vowel on which the stress falls, so it is easy to spot where the stress falls on any Greek word.
What’s more, the Greek writing system is entirely phonetic – given some Greek text, you can be guaranteed the exact pronunciation using the rules below. There are no silent letters, and very few letters change their sound at all (and those that do only do so in a very few, specific, cases). That’s something that can’t be said of English or French!
The Greeks also have a system called Greeklish for writing Greek words using Latin characters – there is no universal standard for this, but the convention used on this site wherever Greeklish may appear is given in the Greeklish column of the table below. Also given (in the column marked Latin) is a list of Latin characters used in translated examples, to give as close an approximation as possible to the authentic Greek pronunciation. However, it is impossible to be totally accurate using this method, so readers are always advised to check out the alphabet table below for the definitive guide.
Greek Words on International Use
English words of Greek origin
This list of English words with Greek origin will demonstrate how extensively entwined the roots of the Greek language in English.
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