Greek language

Last updated on 27 July 2017

Greek (Modern Greek: ελληνικά [eliniˈka], elliniká, "Greek", ελληνική γλώσσα [eliniˈci ˈɣlosa], ellinikí glóssa, "Greek language") is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records.[3] Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic and many other writing systems.

The Greek language holds an important place in the history of the Western world and Christianity; the canon of ancient Greek literature includes seminal works in the Western canon such as the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. Greek is also the language in which many of the foundational texts in science, especially astronomy, mathematics and logic, and Western philosophy, such as the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle, are composed; the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written in Koiné Greek. Together with the Latin texts and traditions of the Roman world, the study of the Greek texts and society of antiquity constitutes the discipline of Classics.

During antiquity, Greek was a widely spoken lingua franca in the Mediterranean world and many places beyond. It would eventually become the official parlance of the Byzantine Empire and develop into Medieval Greek. In its modern form, the Greek language is the official language in two countries, Greece and Cyprus, a recognised minority language in seven other countries, and is one of the 24 official languages of the European Union. The language is spoken by at least 13.2 million people today in Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Albania, Turkey, and the Greek diaspora.

Greek roots are often used to coin new words for other languages; Greek and Latin are the predominant sources of international scientific vocabulary.

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Idealised portrayal of Homer.
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People and places where Greek language is spoken.
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Idioma Griego.PNG


Greek has been spoken in the Balkan peninsula since around the 3rd millennium BC,[4] or possibly earlier.[5] The earliest written evidence is a Linear B clay tablet found in Messenia that dates to between 1450 and 1350 BC,[6] making Greek the world's oldest recorded living language. Among the Indo-European languages, its date of earliest written attestation is matched only by the now extinct Anatolian languages.


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Proto-Greek-speaking area according to linguist Vladimir I. Georgiev.

The Greek language is conventionally divided into the following periods:

Anatolian Greek dialects.png
Distribution of varieties of Greek in Anatolia, 1910. Demotic in yellow. Pontic in orange. Cappadocian Greek in green, with green dots indicating individual Cappadocian Greek villages.[8]
  • Medieval Greek, also known as Byzantine Greek: the continuation of Koine Greek in Byzantine Greece, up to the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. Medieval Greek is a cover phrase 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 (Neo-Hellenic):[9] Stemming from Medieval Greek, Modern Greek usages can be traced in the Byzantine period, as early as the 11th century. It is the language used by the modern Greeks, and, apart from Standard Modern Greek, there are several dialects of it.


In the modern era, the Greek language entered a state of diglossia: the coexistence of vernacular and archaizing written forms of the language. What came to be known as the Greek language question was a polarization between two competing varieties of Modern Greek: Dimotiki, the vernacular form of Modern Greek proper, and Katharevousa, meaning 'purified', a compromise between Dimotiki and Ancient Greek, which was developed in the early 19th century and was used for literary and official purposes in the newly formed Greek state. In 1976, Dimotiki was declared the official language of Greece, having incorporated features of Katharevousa and giving birth to Standard Modern Greek, which is used today for all official purposes and in education.

Historical unity

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The distribution of major modern Greek dialect areas.

The historical unity and continuing identity between the various stages of the Greek language is often emphasised. Although Greek has undergone morphological and phonological changes comparable to those seen in other languages, never since classical antiquity has its cultural, literary, and orthographic tradition been interrupted to the extent that one can speak of a new language emerging. Greek speakers today still tend to regard literary works of ancient Greek as part of their own rather than a foreign language.[10] It is also often stated that the historical changes have been relatively slight compared with some other languages. According to one estimation, "Homeric Greek is probably closer to demotic than 12-century Middle English is to modern spoken English."[11]

Geographic distribution

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Greek language road sign, A27 Motorway, Greece
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Spread of Greek in the United States.

Greek is spoken by about 13 million people, mainly in Greece, Albania and Cyprus, but also worldwide by the large Greek diaspora. There are traditional Greek-speaking settlements and regions in the neighbouring countries of Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, as well as in several countries in the Black Sea area, such as Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and around the Mediterranean Sea, Southern Italy, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and ancient coastal towns along the Levant. The language is also spoken by Greek emigrant communities in many countries in Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Germany, Canada, the United States, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa and others.

Official status

Greek is the official language of Greece, where it is spoken by almost the entire population.[12] It is also the official language of Cyprus (nominally alongside Turkish).[13] Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the organization's 24 official languages.[14] Furthermore, Greek is officially recognised as a minority language in parts of Italy and official in Dropull and Himara (Albania) and as a minority language all over Albania,[15] as well as in Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, Romania, and Ukraine as a regional or minority language in the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.[16] Greeks are also a recognised ethnic minority in Hungary.


The phonology, morphology, syntax and vocabulary of the language show both conservative and innovative tendencies across the entire attestation of the language from the ancient to the modern period. The division into conventional periods is, as with all such periodisations, relatively arbitrary, especially because at all periods, Ancient Greek has enjoyed high prestige, and the literate borrowed heavily from it.


Across its history, the syllabic structure of Greek has varied little: Greek shows a mixed syllable structure, permitting complex syllabic onsets but very restricted codas. It has only oral vowels and a fairly stable set of consonantal contrasts. The main phonological changes occurred during the Hellenistic and Roman period (see Koine Greek phonology for details):

  • replacement of the pitch accent with a stress accent.
  • simplification of the system of vowels and diphthongs: loss of vowel length distinction, monophthongisation of most diphthongs and several steps in a chain shift of vowels towards /i/ (iotacism).
  • development of the voiceless aspirated plosives /pʰ/ and /tʰ/ to the voiceless fricatives /f/ and /θ/, respectively; the similar development of /kʰ/ to /x/ may have taken place later (the phonological changes are not reflected in the orthography, and both earlier and later phonemes are written with φ, θ, and χ).
  • development of the voiced plosives /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/ to their voiced fricative counterparts /β/ (later /v/), /ð/, and /ɣ/.


In all its stages, the morphology of Greek shows an extensive set of productive derivational affixes, a limited but productive system of compounding[17] and a rich inflectional system. Although its morphological categories have been fairly stable over time, morphological changes are present throughout, particularly in the nominal and verbal systems. The major change in the nominal morphology since the classical stage was the disuse of the dative case (its functions being largely taken over by the genitive). The verbal system has lost the infinitive, the synthetically-formed future and perfect tenses and the optative mood. Many have been replaced by periphrastic (analytical) forms.

Nouns and adjectives

Pronouns show distinctions in person (1st, 2nd, and 3rd), number (singular, dual, and plural in the ancient language; singular and plural alone in later stages), and gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and decline for case (from six cases in the earliest forms attested to four in the modern language).[18] Nouns, articles and adjectives show all the distinctions except for person. Both attributive and predicative adjectives agree with the noun.


The inflectional categories of the Greek verb have likewise remained largely the same over the course of the language's history but with significant changes in the number of distinctions within each category and their morphological expression. Greek verbs have synthetic inflectional forms for:

Ancient Greek Modern Greek
Person first, second and third also second person formal
Number singular, dual and plural singular and plural
tense present, past and future past and non-past (future is expressed by a periphrastic construction)
aspect imperfective, perfective (traditionally called aorist) and perfect (sometimes also called perfective; see note about terminology) imperfective and perfective/aorist (perfect is expressed by a periphrastic construction)
mood indicative, subjunctive, imperative and optative indicative, subjunctive,[19] and imperative (other modal functions are expressed by periphrastic constructions)
Voice active, middle, and passive active and medio-passive


Many aspects of the syntax of Greek have remained constant: verbs agree with their subject only, the use of the surviving cases is largely intact (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. However, the morphological changes also have their counterparts in the syntax, and there are also significant differences between the syntax of the ancient and that of the modern form of the language. Ancient Greek made great use of participial constructions and of constructions involving the infinitive, and the modern variety lacks the infinitive entirely (instead having a raft of new periphrastic constructions) and uses participles more restrictively. The loss of the dative led to a rise of prepositional indirect objects (and the use of the genitive to directly mark these as well). Ancient Greek tended to be verb-final, but neutral word order in the modern language is VSO or SVO.


Greek is a language distinguished by an extensive vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary of Ancient Greek was inherited, but it includes a number of borrowings from the languages of the populations that inhabited Greece before the arrival of Proto-Greeks.[20] 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, but in some cases, words have changed meanings. Loanwords (words of foreign origin) have entered the language mainly from Latin, Venetian and Turkish. During the older periods of Greek, loanwords into Greek acquired Greek inflections, thus leaving only a foreign root word. Modern borrowings (from the 20th century on), especially from French and English, are typically not inflected.

Greek loanwords in other languages

Greek words have been widely borrowed into other languages, including English: mathematics, physics, astronomy, democracy, philosophy, athletics, theatre, rhetoric, baptism, evangelist, etc. Moreover, Greek words and word elements continue to be productive as a basis for coinages: anthropology, photography, telephony, isomer, biomechanics, cinematography, etc. and form, with Latin words, the foundation of international scientific and technical vocabulary like all words ending with –logy ("discourse"). There are many English words of Greek origin.[21]


Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. The ancient language most closely related to it may be ancient Macedonian,[22] which many scholars suggest may have been a dialect of Greek itself, but it is so poorly attested that it is difficult to conclude anything about it.[23] Independently of the Macedonian question, some scholars have grouped Greek into Graeco-Phrygian, as Greek and the extinct Phrygian share features that are not found in other Indo-European languages.[24] Among living languages, some Indo-Europeanists suggest that Greek may be most closely related to Armenian (see Graeco-Armenian) or the Indo-Iranian languages (see Graeco-Aryan), but little definitive evidence has been found for grouping the living branches of the family.[25] In addition, Albanian has also been considered somewhat related to Greek and Armenian by some linguists. If proven and recognised, the three languages would form a new Balkan sub-branch with other dead European languages.[26]

Writing system

Linear B

Linear B, attested as early as the late 15th century BC, was the first script used to write Greek. It is basically a syllabary, which was finally deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in the 1950s (its precursor, Linear A, has not been deciphered to this day). The language of the Linear B texts, Mycenaean Greek, is the earliest known form of Greek.

Cypriot syllabary

Another similar system used to write the Greek language was the Cypriot syllabary (also a descendant of Linear A via the intermediate Cypro-Minoan syllabary), which is closely related to Linear B but uses somewhat different syllabic conventions to represent phoneme sequences. The Cypriot syllabary is attested in Cyprus from the 11th century BC until its gradual abandonment in the late Classical period, in favor of the standard Greek alphabet.

Greek alphabet

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Ancient epichoric variants of the Greek alphabet from Euboea, Ionia, Athens, and Corinth comparing to modern Greek.

Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet since approximately the 9th century BC. It was created by modifying the Phoenician alphabet, with the innovation of adopting certain letters to represent the vowels. The variant of the alphabet in use today is essentially the late Ionic variant, introduced for writing classical Attic in 403 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 Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters, each with an uppercase (majuscule) and lowercase (minuscule) form. The letter sigma has an additional lowercase form (ς) used in the final position:

upper case
lower case
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 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 (rough and smooth breathing), 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 saw a rapid decline in favor of uniform usage of the acute during the late 20th century, and it has only been retained in typography.

After the writing reform of 1982, most diacritics are no longer used. Since then, 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.


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, principally distinguishing ό,τι (ó,ti, "whatever") from ότι (óti, "that").[27]

Latin alphabet

Greek has occasionally been written in the Latin script, especially in areas under Venetian rule or by Greek Catholics. The term Frankolevantinika / Φραγκολεβαντίνικα applies when the Latin script is used to write Greek in the cultural ambit of Catholicism (because Frankos / Φράγκος is an older Greek term for Roman Catholic). Frankochiotika / Φραγκοχιώτικα (meaning "Catholic Chiot") alludes to the significant presence of Catholic missionaries based on the island of Chios. Additionally the term Greeklish is often used when the Greek language is written in a Latin script in online communications.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Greek at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Ancient Greek at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Cappadocian Greek at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Mycenaean Greek at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Pontic at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Tsakonian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    (Additional references under 'Language codes' in the information box)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Greek". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ "Greek language". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
  4. ^ Renfrew 2003, p. 35; Georgiev 1981, p. 192.
  5. ^ Gray & Atkinson 2003, pp. 437–438; Atkinson & Gray 2006, p. 102.
  6. ^ "Ancient Tablet Found: Oldest Readable Writing in Europe". National Geographic Society. 30 March 2011. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  7. ^ A comprehensive overview in J.T. Hooker's Mycenaean Greece (Hooker 1976, Chapter 2: "Before the Mycenaean Age", pp. 11–33 and passim); for a different hypothesis excluding massive migrations and favoring an autochthonous scenario, see Colin Renfrew's "Problems in the General Correlation of Archaeological and Linguistic Strata in Prehistoric Greece: The Model of Autochthonous Origin" (Renfrew 1973, pp. 263–276, especially p. 267) in Bronze Age Migrations by R.A. Crossland and A. Birchall, eds. (1973).
  8. ^ Dawkins & Halliday 1916.
  9. ^ Ethnologue
  10. ^ Browning 1983.
  11. ^ Alexiou 1982, pp. 156–192.
  12. ^ "Greece". The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 23 January 2010.
  13. ^ "The Constitution of Cyprus, App. D., Part 1, Art. 3". Archived from the original on 7 April 2012. states that The official languages of the Republic are Greek and Turkish. However, the official status of Turkish is only nominal in the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus; in practice, outside Turkish-dominated Northern Cyprus, Turkish is little used; see A. Arvaniti (2006): Erasure as a Means of Maintaining Diglossia in Cyprus, San Diego Linguistics Papers 2: pp. 25–38, page 27.
  14. ^ "The EU at a Glance – Languages in the EU". Europa. European Union. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
  15. ^ "Greek". Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Archived from the original on 18 November 2008. Retrieved 8 December 2008.
  16. ^ "List of Declarations Made with Respect to Treaty No. 148". Council of Europe. Retrieved 8 December 2008.
  17. ^ Ralli 2001, pp. 164–203.
  18. ^ The four cases that are found in all stages of Greek are the nominative, genitive, accusative and vocative. The dative/locative of Ancient Greek disappeared in the late Hellenistic period, and the instrumental case of Mycenaean Greek disappeared in the Archaic period.
  19. ^ There is no particular morphological form that can be identified as 'subjunctive' in the modern language, but the term is sometimes encountered in descriptions even if the most complete modern grammar (Holton et al. 1997) does not use it and calls certain traditionally-'subjunctive' forms 'dependent'. Most Greek linguists advocate abandoning the traditional terminology (Anna Roussou and Tasos Tsangalidis 2009, in Meletes gia tin Elliniki Glossa, Thessaloniki, Anastasia Giannakidou 2009 "Temporal semantics and polarity: The dependency of the subjunctive revisited", Lingua); see Modern Greek grammar for explanation.
  20. ^ Beekes 2009.
  21. ^ Scheler 1977.
  22. ^ Hamp 2013, pp. 8–10, 13.
  23. ^ Babiniotis 1992, pp. 29–40; Dosuna 2012, pp. 65–78.
  24. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Graeco-Phrygian". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  25. ^ Renfrew 1990; Gamkrelidze & Ivanov 1990, pp. 110–116; Renfrew 2003, pp. 17–48; Gray & Atkinson 2003, pp. 435–439.
  26. ^ Holm 2008, pp. 628–636.
  27. ^ Nicolas, Nick (2005). "Greek Unicode Issues: Punctuation". Archived from the original on 6 August 2012. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  28. ^ Androutsopoulos 2009, pp. 221–249.


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