Language of the Month: Greek

May 1, 2023 | Language of the Month

FACT SHEET

ελληνική γλώσσα

Language family: Hellenic (part of the Indo-European family)

Number of speakers: 13.5 million native speakers

Writing system: Greek alphabet

Official language in: Greece & Cyprus

Recognised minority language in: Albania, Calabria & Salento (Italy), regions of the Balkans, Black Sea coast, Asia Minor and Eastern Mediterranean

HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE

Greek is an ancient language that has been spoken for over 3 500 years. It is considered to be one of the oldest recorded languages in the world, with its earliest written records dating back to the 15th century BC.

In ancient times, the Greek language was spoken by the people of Greece and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Turkey, and parts of Italy and Egypt. Greek became the language of trade, culture and philosophy throughout the region – perhaps its most famous application is that it is the language in which the famous epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed.

During the Hellenistic period, Greek became the dominant language in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it was widely spoken and understood by people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It was also during this time that the famous works of Greek literature, including the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written.

In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great spread Greek culture and language throughout his empire, which included parts of Asia and Africa. This helped to further establish Greek as an international language and to spread its influence across different regions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greek continued to be spoken in the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from the 4th to the 15th century AD. During this time, Greek became the language of religion, and many of the great works of Christian literature were written in Greek.

Today, Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus, and it is spoken by over 13 million people worldwide. It has also influenced many other languages, including English, which has borrowed numerous words and phrases from Greek.

USEFUL PHRASES

Hello – Γεια σας (formal: yah sahss), Γεια σου (informal: yah soo)

Goodbye – Αντίο (ahn-dee-oh)

Please – Παρακαλώ (par-ah-kah-loh)

Thank you – Ευχαριστώ (ef-hah-rees-toh)

You’re welcome – Παρακαλώ (par-ah-kah-loh)

Yes – Ναι (neh)

No – Όχι (oh-hee)

Excuse me – Συγγνώμη (seen-yoh-mee)

I’m sorry – Λυπάμαι (lee-pah-meh)

How are you? – Πώς είστε; (formal: pohs eeste), Πώς είσαι; (informal: pohs eeseh)

WHAT DO THE LINGUISTS SAY?

According to our Greek translator and native speaker Sophia, Greek sounds lyrical, and fascinatingly, she says, modern day Greek still sounds a lot like the Ancient Greek language spoken as far back as around 3000 years ago!

Ancient and Modern Greek are considered cognate languages that belong to the same family, with similarities in both in the phonological and the morphological sense. Add to the mix some Turkish, French and Italian words, and you have Modern Greek.

Sophia says too that many people from other countries often point out how fast she and her Greek friends speak, “Which is true, but I find this is common in many languages!”

Greek is widely spoken throughout many European countries, as well as in the UK, as there are many students abroad, and many Greeks who left their home country to work abroad.

As Sophia points out, there are now many generations of Greeks living in other countries such as Germany, France, Sweden, Canada, Australia and the USA. But did you know there are also large Greek communities in South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Egypt and Turkey? So the Greek language, traditions, culture and cuisine remains strong across the world!

In fact, the Greeks are so widely travelled, there’s a saying in Greece that no matter which stone you turn, you’ll find a Greek underneath it!

Learning and speaking Greek does take patience and time, as it’s not an easy language to master.

It is a gender and case sensitive language, unlike English for example, every noun is gender based and needs its corresponding article assigned when forming a sentence, which in turn affects the spelling of adjectives.

Although Modern Greek is fairly simplified compared to Ancient Greek or even its conservative form (Katharevousa) used in the 20th century and up to 1982, it is a lot to take in. In phonology it uses a system of vowels and diphthongs and a stress accent.

The morphology of Greek shows an extensive set of productive derivational affixes, a limited but productive system of compounding and a rich inflectional system. Spelling of words depends on gender, case, singular or plural form of the word and tense.

And let’s not forget diacritics – the use of a single accent that indicates stress in the pronunciation of words, and the diaeresis ( ¨ ) which usually indicates a hiatus but occasionally indicates a diphthong in Greek words.

In syntax, verbs agree with their subject only, we see the use of the cases (nominative for subjects and predicates, accusative for objects of most verbs and many prepositions, genitive for possessors). Articles precede nouns, adpositions are largely prepositional, relative clauses follow the noun they modify and relative pronouns are clause-initial.

Greek verbs have synthetic inflectional forms for person, number, tense, aspect, mood and voice.

Finally let’s not forget about punctuation symbols, unlike English or French, in Greek, the question mark is written as the English semicolon, while the functions of the colon and semicolon are performed by a raised point (•), known as the “ano teleia” (άνω τελεία). In Greek the comma also functions as a silent letter in a handful of Greek words.

That said, it remains a beautiful, lyrical language with a rich, ancient and multi-layered history that sets it apart from many more modern languages.

For anyone who wants to practice their Greek, there are many YouTube channels about gaming, politics, fashion and other topics, as well as blogs and podcasts where Greek is the main language. It’s also not uncommon in large communities abroad to find Greek schools.

On the topic of Greek schools overseas, Sophia recently heard of a Greek school in Ethiopia, and the Greek community school of Addis Ababa – as she says, “We really do get everywhere!”

Depending on you level of knowledge in the Greek language, there are many books to recommend – if you’re looking for something more classic, try the work of some of Greece’s most important writers from the 20th century such as the poets Kostas Karyotakis, Yiannis Ritsos, Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis. Or writers Yiorgos Theotokas, Dido Sotiriou and perhaps one of the best-known Greek novelists, Nikos Kazantzakis.

Penelope Delta is a favourite writer of children’s books from the early part of the 20th century.

The roots of Greek comic books can also be found in the early 20th century, with the evolution of the satirical cartoons in a “strip” form.

Nowadays, we mostly see the translated comic books of well-known titles such as Lucky Luke, Asterix, Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Donald duck, as well DC and Marvel comic books.

But there are also some originals such as “Frutopia” by Eugenios Trivizas and the work of Arkas, which is a series of different stories published from the 1980s onward.