An Ancient and Vibrant Linguistic Legacy
Greek was once considered the “language of knowledge” for intellectuals and philosophers throughout Europe. Many great minds wrote their most important works in Greek before translating them into other tongues. Because of Greek’s longstanding popularity, it has influenced many modern words and phrases across multiple European languages. Even today, Greek continues to influence English vocabulary through scientific terms, medical jargon, math terminology, political philosophy, and literary concepts.
A Brief Introduction to the Greek Language
The Greek language holds a position of exceptional importance among the thousands of languages spoken worldwide. With its unique historical and contemporary significance, Greek has had a profound influence on European languages and beyond. This unbroken historical continuity, coupled with its remarkable structural and lexical coherence, distinguishes Greek as a unique linguistic phenomenon. While other ancient languages, such as Chinese and Sanskrit, survived primarily as philological or specialized languages, Greek maintained its relevance as a living and evolving language. Through its expressive power, Greek became a conduit for conveying complex concepts in various disciplines, including philosophy, science, politics, religion, and literature. With over 13 million speakers worldwide, Greek holds great significance and is spoken not only in Greece and Cyprus but also in various other countries such as USA, Australia, Albania, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, and Hungary.
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.
The most considerable ‘varieties’ of Greek can be considered areas of usage. Official language, 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.
Geographic Distribution of Greek
Greek is the main language of Greece and also has official status in Cyprus, alongside Turkish. Greek is spoken by 10.7 million people in Greece and 1.1 million in Cyprus. Additionally, Greek serves as a de facto provincial language in certain regions of Albania, where around 15,000 people speak it. Greek communities worldwide have introduced the language to many countries, making it one of the official languages of the European Union. Overall, Greek is spoken by an estimated 13 million people worldwide.
The Oldest Recorded Living 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. With a documented history spanning an astonishing 3,500 years, Greek boasts the longest record among Indo-European languages. The earliest written evidence of Greek can be traced back to Mycenaean Greek documents discovered on Crete and the Greek mainland, inscribed in the Linear B syllabary.
Characteristics of Greek
The Greek language possesses unique characteristics that set it apart from other languages. The rich morphology of the language allowed for the creation of complex words with precise meanings. Greek verbs intricate inflectional patterns, including tense, aspect, mood, voice, and person. These features allowed for nuanced expression and precise communication.
The History of Written Greek
The Greek alphabet is an alphabet writing system and was the first one to include vowels. It consists of 24 letters, each with its own name and sound. The introduction of vowels was a pivotal development, setting Greek apart from other ancient writing systems.
The Greek alphabet, derived from the Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet, has been in use since 750 BC. The order and names of the letters in the Greek alphabet were influenced by their Phoenician counterparts. For instance, the Greek letter alpha originated from the Canaanite aleph (meaning “ox”) and beta from beth (meaning “house”). As the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to suit their language, they introduced additional letters such as phi, chi, and psi.
Linear A and Linear B
Linear A and Linear B were writing systems used in ancient Crete during the Bronze Age. Linear A was primarily used for the Minoan language, which has yet to be fully deciphered, while Linear B was used for Mycenaean Greek. Both scripts have proven difficult to decode, but researchers continue to study these ancient languages and hope to one day unlock their secrets.
Among the most celebrated artifacts from ancient Crete, similar to Linear A and Linear B is the Phaistos Disk. Its exact use remains unknown. However, it dates back around 4000 years (2800 BC) and is believed to represent symbols from an undiscovered writing system. There could be several theories: Some suggest it’s the first computer disk, encrypted messages, a calendar, or just a religious symbol.
The origins of written Greek can be traced back to Mycenae, where a script known as Linear B was used between 1500 and 1200 BC. This early form of Greek, referred to as Mycenaean, was prevalent during that period. In Crete, another script called the Cypriot syllabary was utilized to write the local variety of Greek between 1200 and 300 BC. The earliest evidence of written Greek can be found on baked mud tablets discovered in the remnants of the Minoan Knossos Palace on the island of Crete.
The Evolution of the Greek Alphabet
Initially, different versions of the alphabet were used in various Greek cities. These localized alphabets, known as epichoric, can be categorized into three groups: green, blue, and red. The blue group, over time, underwent a series of modifications and advancements, leading to the development of the modern Greek alphabet. By the early 4th century BC, the epichoric alphabet was replaced by the Eastern Ionic alphabet, which remarkably resembles the capital letters found in the modern Greek alphabet. The minuscule or lowercase letters emerged after 800 AD and were derived from the Byzantine minuscule script, which evolved from cursive writing.
Historical Periods of the Greek Language
The Greek language has distinct phases: Ancient Greek, Middle Phases (Koine and Byzantine Greek), and Modern Greek. Ancient Greek includes the Mycenaean, Archaic, and Classical periods.
Proto-Greek: The Formation of a Language
The period referred to as Proto-Greek signifies the emergence of a recognizable and distinct branch of the Indo-European linguistic family. Rather than focusing on the arrival of an ethnic group, modern research emphasizes the conditions that led to the formation of the Greek language. The linguistic roots of Greek trace back to a much earlier period, even possibly during the Paleolithic Age. The history of the Greek language can be divided into several distinct periods characterized by political and linguistic factors:
Mycenaean Greek: This was the language of the Mycenaean civilization, dating from the 16th century BC onward.
The Magnificence of the Classical Period
Classical (or Ancient) Greek: Known throughout the Roman Empire, this was the language of the Classical period of Greek civilization. Considered the pinnacle of Greek civilization, the Classical Greek period lasted from the 9th to 6th centuries BCE. Homer’s works, the Iliad and Odyssey, shaped the Greek language and established it as a literary tradition. Classical Greek language thrived in the Byzantine Empire despite its decline in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Its reintroduction to the rest of Europe occurred with the fall of Constantinople and the subsequent Greek migration to Italy.
Koine ‘common’ Greek: Following the Classical period, the Greek language underwent a significant transformation with the emergence of Koine Greek. Koine, meaning “common,” was a simplified form of Greek that developed as a lingua franca for communication among the diverse regions of the Hellenistic world. This period coincided with the conquests of Alexander the Great, which spread Greek culture and language across vast territories. Koine Greek is also known as Biblical, New Testament, ecclesiastical, or patristic Greek, and it was employed as the liturgical language in the Greek Orthodox Church. Despite the fractures in the Byzantine state and the subsequent isolation and diverse conquerors, dialects like Mariupol Greek, Pontic Greek, Cappadocian, Griko, Tsakonian, and Cypriot Greek persisted.
Koine had simplified grammar and vocabulary compared to Classical Greek, making it more accessible to a broader range of people. The language has evolved over time, from Ancient Greek spoken during the classical period to Koine Greek, which emerged during the Hellenistic period and became widespread under Roman rule. The Greek alphabet took its final shape in the Hellenistic period, and it is still used in Greece today.
The Language of Education in the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire understood the influence and significance of Greek as the lingua franca of the region. It was considered essential for every educated individual to be proficient in Greek. This acknowledgment solidified Greek’s significance as a language of education and intellectual pursuit within the Roman Empire.
Medieval (Byzantine) Greek
Serving as the literary language of the Byzantine Empire, Medieval Greek was used until the empire’s fall in the 15th century AD. Byzantine Greek, also known as Medieval Greek, incorporated elements from other languages and displayed Byzantine cultural influences. It served as the official language of the Byzantine court and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Language of Education in the Roman Empire
Modern Greek: Developed from Koine Greek, Modern Greek is the form spoken today. It is a language form which has developed since the 11th Century, in an independent way from Koine Greek.
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 highly contentious 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 “Colonels.” The Church and the legal profession are apparently still dragging their feet on the subject.
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. One remarkable attribute of the Greek alphabet is its deliberate inclusion of both consonants and vowels. The Greek alphabet also introduced the concept of uppercase and lowercase letters, offering further versatility in written communication.
Spread and Legacy of the Greek Language
The Greek language spread due to Greek civilization’s historical expansion, Alexander the Great’s conquests, and Byzantine culture’s influence. The Greek language has left a long-lasting impact on many regions, including the Mediterranean, Balkans, and the Middle East. Greek’s influence is evident in the diverse range of languages that have borrowed words and grammatical structures from Greek. Latin, a language with wide usage during the Roman Empire, extensively borrowed from Greek, played a crucial role in the development of the Romance languages.
Greek Loanwords and Influence
The influence of Greek extends beyond its geographical borders. Greek roots have been widely used for centuries to coin new words in other languages, particularly in the field of science. The widely used Latin alphabet, including in English, is derived from the Greek alphabet. Alongside Latin, it has had a significant influence on the development of scientific vocabulary and has been used to coin new words in other languages, along with Latin. The Greek language has also influenced neighboring languages, including Albanian and certain dialects spoken in Southern Italy. Greek loanwords have also permeated numerous languages, particularly in the fields of medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Today, Modern Greek is spoken in Greece and Cyprus, preserving the legacy of this ancient language. It has evolved over time, incorporating various influences but retaining a strong connection to its historical roots.
The Influence of the Greek Language in the Latin West
While it is commonly assumed that Greek knowledge had waned in the West until the Renaissance, our extensive research uncovers evidence to the contrary. Graeco-Roman antiquity was a vibrant world of diverse languages. Most inhabitants of the Roman provinces were bilingual, speaking their native language alongside the administrative language of their region. Fluency in both Greek and Latin was considered a prerequisite for the educated and those pursuing public service, regardless of their geographic location.
The Great Divide
Emperor Theodosius’ death in 395 solidified the linguistic and cultural separation between the Latin West and the Greek East within the Roman Empire. The subsequent decline of the Western Empire led to dwindling contact between the two regions. As a result, knowledge of Greek gradually faded in the West, just as Latin receded in the East.
Rediscovering Greek in the Latin West
While it is true that Greek was not widely known in the Latin West between the 5th and 15th centuries, our research uncovers intriguing glimpses of Greek knowledge among a select few learned individuals. Furthermore, many more individuals in this period were aware of the significance of Greek. A notable example is Theodore of Tarsus (602–690), a Greek speaker who traveled to England and assumed the role of Archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century.
The Extent of Greek Knowledge
When discussing knowledge of Greek during the Middle Ages, we primarily rely on written evidence, which provides us with limited insight into conversational fluency. Sources suggest that interest in Greek among Latin-speaking medieval Europeans was primarily confined to religious and scholarly contexts, with little emphasis on its practical use as a means of communication.
Traces of Greek in Western Manuscripts
Evidence of Greek influence in the Latin West can be found in numerous manuscripts. It was widely known that the New Testament had originally been written in Greek, and references to Greek scholarship and literature were prevalent in texts popularly copied in the early medieval West. For instance, the works of Cicero often included brief excerpts from Greek, while the poems of the Christian Latin author Prudentius, widely read during the Middle Ages, frequently bore Greek titles. Although these titles were sometimes written in Greek letters, they were more commonly transliterated into Latin. An exceptional example of Latin transliteration can be found in the 9th-century Athelstan Psalter, where the Greek litany and prayers are rendered in Latin letters.
Educational Endeavors: Bridging the Language Gap
During the Carolingian era, a plethora of glossaries, dictionaries, and grammar handbooks emerged, serving as resources for Latin speakers in the West seeking to learn Greek. This is particularly evident in word-lists, which were often simply reversed from Latin–Greek to Greek–Latin. Additionally, aids in understanding Greek included idiomata—lists of words in which grammatical rules differed between Greek and Latin. For example, a list of Latin nouns might be accompanied by their corresponding Greek terms, even though they belonged to a different gender. One of the best-known sources for the study of Greek in the medieval West is the Hermeneumata.
This collection, with its alphabetized glossaries, topical word lists, simple texts for reading comprehension (such as fables), and colloquies describing everyday life, sheds light on the educational practices of late antiquity.
Despite the absence of widespread Greek knowledge among intellectuals in the Latin-speaking West before the Renaissance, many surviving manuscripts demonstrate the efforts made by Western scholars to learn Greek.
Greek's Influence on the English Language
The impact of Greek on the English language is profound. Greek roots make up 12% to 30% of English words. Fields such as mathematics, geography, philosophy, politics, athletics, electricity, technology, and many others owe their terminology to Greek origins. Moreover, words starting with “ph” in English, such as physical, phrase, photo, phoneme, phobia, and phenomenon, derived from Greek. Surprisingly, English has also left its mark on Greek, albeit to a lesser extent. While not as influential as Greek, English has contributed a few words to the Greek vocabulary. With thousands of words borrowed by the English language, Greek has become an integral part of global communication.
Lexical Tapestry: Greek Words in English
You might be surprised to discover the pervasive influence of Greek on the English language. From commonplace to technical, Greek words have found a permanent place in our linguistic repertoire. The Oxford Companion to the English Language asserts that classical Greek’s impact on English has been predominantly indirect, mediated through Latin and French influences, while also significantly contributing to the lexical and conceptual domains. A staggering estimate suggests that over 150,000 English words trace their origins back to Greek roots. Just some of them are: Philosophy, Physical, Photo, Phrase, Philanthropy, Arachnophobia, Metropolis, Drama, Democracy, Music, Academic, Eureka, Cosmos.
Greek Literature: Epics, Tragedies, and Philosophical Works
For centuries, readers have been captivated by the timeless epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the legendary poet Homer. The timeless tragedies written by renowned playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are performed and studied worldwide. Moreover, Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for Western philosophical thought, their works revered as timeless treasures of wisdom and intellectual inquiry.
Greek Language in Science and Mathematics
The impact of the Greek language extends far beyond the realms of literature and philosophy. In the field of science, Greek terminology has been instrumental in naming and describing various disciplines and phenomena. From astronomy and physics to biology and mathematics, Greek words and symbols continue to be used to denote fundamental concepts. Greek mathematicians, including Euclid, Pythagoras, and Archimedes, have shaped modern mathematics.
Greek: A Language of the New Testament
The Greek language has deep connections to religion, particularly through its influence on Christianity. The New Testament, the sacred text of Christianity, was originally written in Koine Greek, serving as a vital medium for the spread of Christian teachings. Greek expressions, idioms, and theological terms permeate religious discourse and liturgical practices, fostering a sense of reverence and spiritual continuity.
Greek: A Language that Shaped Alphabets
The Greek alphabet has served as a template for numerous writing systems across different languages and cultures. The very word “alphabet” finds its origin in Greek. “Alpha” and “Beta” of the Greek alphabet influenced the Latin, Cyrillic, and Coptic alphabets.
The Latin alphabet is a prominent example that is widely used in Western languages, including English. The Latin alphabet evolved from the Etruscan alphabet, influenced by the Greek alphabet. An additional noteworthy instance entails the Cyrillic alphabet, which finds application in several Slavic languages, namely Russian, Bulgarian, and Serbian. The Cyrillic alphabet, developed by Byzantine Greek monks Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century, borrowed from the Greek alphabet and introduced new characters for Slavic sounds.
Greek Language in Daily Life and Popular Culture
While Greek holds its historical and cultural significance, it remains relevant in contemporary society. Greek expressions and phrases are woven into everyday language, whether in scientific terminology, medical jargon, or idiomatic expressions.
Learning Greek: Challenges and Rewards
Learning Greek can be a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. The intricacies of its grammar and the vast vocabulary may pose initial difficulties, but the journey of mastering this ancient language opens doors to a profound understanding of classical literature, history, and culture. Moreover, it offers insights into the etymology and origins of many words in Western languages, enhancing linguistic appreciation and expanding one’s intellectual horizons.
Greek Words in 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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Got a Question?
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.
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.
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.
According to recent estimates, approximately 13 million people worldwide speak Greek as their native language.
Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus. It is recognized as a minority language in some regions of Albania, Armenia, Italy, Romania, and Turkey.
Yes, there are several dialects of the Greek language. The two main dialect groups are the Doric dialects, spoken in ancient times, and the Ionic dialects. However, Modern Greek, which is the most widely spoken form of Greek today, is primarily based on the Attic dialect.
Yes, there are numerous online resources and language learning platforms that offer courses and materials for learning Greek. These resources include interactive lessons, audio recordings, video tutorials, and online communities where you can practice speaking with other learners or native speakers. Some popular platforms for learning Greek online include Duolingo, Babbel, and GreekPod101.
Greek belongs to the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European language family. It shares some linguistic similarities with other Indo-European languages like Latin, Sanskrit, and English. Additionally, due to its rich history, Greek has influenced the vocabulary of various languages, particularly in scientific and technical fields.
Yes, knowing some basic Greek phrases can be very helpful when traveling in Greece. While many people in tourist areas speak English, learning greetings, common expressions, and basic conversational phrases in Greek can enhance your travel experience and make it easier to interact with locals.
Yes, there are proficiency exams to assess your Greek language skills. The most well-known is the Certificate of Attainment in Greek (known as “Ellinomatheia”). It has six levels, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (advanced). These exams evaluate your reading, writing, listening, and speaking abilities in Greek.
Greek has a rich collection of idioms and expressions that are used in daily conversations. Some popular ones include “Το μάτι του πελεκού” (The eye of the ax) meaning someone’s keen observation, and “Να σπάσει ο πατζαροπότης” (May the beetroot vendor break) used to express disbelief or surprise.
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