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Greek ( , or , ), an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, is the language of the Greeks. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. In its ancient form, it is the language of classical ancient Greek literature and the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In its modern form, it is the official language of Greecemarker and Cyprusmarker, and spoken by approximately 15 million people (first language for ca. 12 million), including minority and emigrant communities in numerous parts of the world. Its written form uses the Greek alphabet.


Greek has been spoken in the Balkan Peninsula since around the late 3rd millennium BC. The earliest written evidence is found in the Linear B clay tablets in the "Room of the Chariot Tablets", an LMIII A-context (c. 1400 BC) region of Knossosmarker, in Cretemarker, 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 the Anatolian languages.

The later Greek alphabet (unrelated to Linear B) is derived from the Phoenician alphabet (abjad); with minor modifications, it is still used today. The Greek language is conventionally divided into the following periods:
  • Proto-Greek: the assumed last ancestor of all known varieties of Greek which is not recorded. Proto-Greek speakers possibly entered the Greek peninsulamarker in the early 2nd millennium BC. Since then, Greek has been spoken uninterruptedly in Greece.
  • Mycenaean Greek: the language of the Mycenaean civilization. It is recorded in the Linear B script on tablets dating from the 15th or 14th century BC onwards.
  • Ancient Greek: in its various dialects was the language of the Archaic and Classical periods of the ancient Greek civilization. It was widely known throughout the Roman Empire. Ancient Greek fell into disuse in western Europe in the Middle Ages, but remained officially in use in the Byzantine world, and was reintroduced to the rest of Europe with the Fall of Constantinople and Greek migration to the areas of Italymarker.
  • Koine Greek: The fusion of various ancient Greek dialects with Attic, the dialect of Athensmarker, resulted in the creation of the first common Greek dialect, which became a lingua franca across Eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Koine Greek can be initially traced within the armies and conquered territories of Alexander the Great, but after the Hellenistic colonization of the known world, it was spoken from Egyptmarker to the fringes of Indiamarker. After the Roman conquest of Greece, an unofficial diglossy of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Romemarker and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire. The origin of Christianity can also be traced through Koine Greek, as the Apostles used it to preach in Greece and the Greek-speaking world. It is also known as the Alexandrian dialect, Post-Classical Greek or even New Testament Greek, as it was the original language the New Testament was written in.
  • Medieval Greek, also known as Byzantine Greek: the continuation of Koine Greek during Byzantine Greece, up to the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. Medieval Greek is a cover term 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: Stemming from Medieval Greek, Modern Greek usages can be traced in the Byzantine period, as early as 11th century. It is the language used by modern Greeks and apart from Standard Modern Greek, there are several dialects of it.

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: Dimotiki, the vernacular form of Modern Greek proper, and Katharevousa, 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 Dimotikí was declared the official language of Greece and it is still in use for all official purposes and in education, having incorporated features of Katharevousa and giving birth to Standard Greek.

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, there has been no time in its history since classical antiquity where its cultural, literary, and orthographic tradition was interrupted to such an extent that one can easily 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. It is also often estimated 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 twelfth-century Middle English is to modern spoken English." Ancient Greek texts, especially from Biblical Koine onwards, are thus relatively easy to understand for educated modern speakers. The perception of historical unity is also strengthened by the fact that Greek has not split up into a group of separate national daughter languages, as happened with Latin.

Greek words have been widely borrowed into the European languages, including English: mathematics, astronomy, democracy, philosophy, thespian, athletics, theater, rhetoric etc. Moreover, Greek words and word elements continue to be productive as a basis for coinages: anthropology, photography, isomer, biomechanics, cinema, physics etc. and form, with Latin words, the foundation of international scientific and technical vocabulary, e.g. all words ending with "-logy" ("discourse"). An estimated 12% of the English vocabulary has Greek origin, while numerous Greek words have English derivatives.

Geographic distribution

Greek is spoken by about 14 million people, mainly in Greecemarker and Cyprusmarker, but also worldwide by the members of the Greek diaspora. There are traditional Greek-speaking settlements in the neighbouring countries Albaniamarker, the Republic of Macedoniamarker, Bulgariamarker and Turkeymarker, as well as in several countries in the Black Seamarker area such as Ukrainemarker, Russiamarker, Romania, Georgiamarker, Armeniamarker and Azerbaijanmarker, and around the Mediterranean Seamarker, Southern Italy, Israelmarker, Egyptmarker, Lebanonmarker 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 Kingdommarker and Germanymarker, in Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker, Australia, as well as in Argentinamarker, Brazilmarker and others.

Official status

Greek is the official language of Greece where it is spoken by about 99.5% of the population. It is also (alongside Turkish), the official language of Cyprus. Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. Greek is officially recognized as a minority language in parts of Italymarker and Albaniamarker, as well as in Armeniamarker and Ukrainemarker.

Characteristics of the language across its history

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 since 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), and included:
  • replacement of the pitch accent with a stress accent
  • simplification of the system of vowels and diphthongs (loss of vowel length distinction, monophthongization of most diphthongs, and some significant steps of iotacism)
  • development of the voiceless aspirated stop consonants and to the voiceless fricatives and , respectively; the similar development of to may have taken place later (these phonological changes are not reflected in the orthography: both the earlier and later phonemes are written with φ, θ, and χ)
  • possibly development of the voiced stop consonants , , to their voiced fricative counterparts (later /v/), ,

In all its stages, the morphology of Greek shows an extensive set of productive derivational affixes, a limited but productive system of compounding, as well a rich inflectional system. While 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 nominal morphology was the loss of the dative case (its functions being largely taken over by the genitive); in the verb, the major change was the loss of the infinitive, with a concomitant rise in new periphrastic forms.

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). Nouns, articles, and adjectives show all these distinctions but 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, though with significant changes in the number of distinctions within each category and their morphological expression. Greek verbs have synthetic inflectional forms for:
  • mood — Ancient Greek: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and optative; Modern Greek: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative (other modal functions are expressed by periphrastic constructions)
  • number — singular, plural (archaic Greek also had a dual number, although it was of rare use)
  • voice — Ancient Greek: active, middle, and passive; Modern Greek: active and medio-passive
  • tense — Ancient Greek: present, past, future; Modern Greek: past and non-past (future is expressed by a periphrastic construction)
  • person — first, second, third, second person formal form
  • aspect — Ancient Greek: imperfective, perfective (traditionally called aorist), perfect (sometimes also called perfective, see note about terminology); Modern Greek: perfective and imperfective

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, relative pronouns are clause-initial. But 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, while the modern variety lacks the infinitive entirely (instead having a raft of new periphrastic constructions) and uses participles more restrictedly. 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, while neutral word order in the modern language is VSO or SVO.

Greek is a language distinguished by an extensive vocabulary. The majority of the vocabulary of ancient Greek was inherited, but it does include a number of borrowings from the languages 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, Venetian and 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.


Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. The ancient languages which were probably most closely related to it, ancient Macedonian (which some linguistic scholars suggest is a dialect of Greek itself) and Phrygian, are not well enough documented to permit detailed comparison. Among living languages Greek seems to be most closely related to Armenian (see also Graeco-Armenian) or the Indo-Iranian languages (see Graeco-Aryan).

Writing system

Linear B was the first script used to write Mycenaean Greek, the earliest form of Greek attested. It is basically a sylabary, that was finally deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. Another similar system used to write the Greek language was the Cypriot syllabary.

Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet since approximately the 9th century 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 variant of the alphabet in use today is essentially the late Ionic variant, introduced for writing classical Attic in 403 BC.

The modern Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters, each with a capital (majuscule) and lowercase (minuscule) form. The letter sigma has an additional lowercase form (ς) used in final position.

Majuscule form
Minuscule form
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 (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.

See also


  1. Browning, Robert. Medieval and Modern Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1983. ISBN 0521299780
  2. Margaret Alexiou (1982): Diglossia in Greece. In: William Haas (1982): Standard Languages: Spoken and Written. Manchester University Press ND. ISBN 0389202916, 9780389202912
  3. The Constitution of Cyprus, App. D., Part 1, Art. 3 states that The official languages of the Republic are Greek and Turkish. [1]. 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 a means of maintaining diglossia in Cyprus, San Diego Linguistics Papers 2: 25-38. Page 27.
  4. Angeliki Ralli, Μορφολογία [Morphology], Ekdoseis Pataki: Athens, 2001, pp. 164-203
  5. 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.
  6. There is no particular morphological form that can be identified as 'subjunctive' in the modern language, but this term is sometimes encountered in descriptions, though the most complete modern grammar (Holton et al. 1997) does not use it, calling certain traditionally 'subjunctive' forms 'dependent', and for this reason 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 explication.


  • W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca - a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1968-74. ISBN 0-521-20626-X
  • Robert Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 1983, ISBN 0-521-29978-0. An excellent and concise historical account of the development of modern Greek from the ancient language.
  • Crosby and Schaeffer, An Introduction to Greek, Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1928. A school grammar of ancient Greek
  • Dionysius of Thrace, "Art of Grammar", " ", c.100 BC
  • David Holton, Peter Mackridge, and Irene Philippaki-Warburton, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-10002-X. A reference grammar of modern Greek.
  • Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (Longman Linguistics Library). Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 0-582-30709-0. From Mycenean to modern.
  • Brian Newton, The Generative Interpretation of Dialect: A Study of Modern Greek Phonology, Cambridge University Press, 1972, ISBN 0-521-08497-0.
  • Andrew Sihler, "A New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin", Oxford University Press, 1996. An historical grammar of ancient Greek from its Indo-European origins. Some eccentricities and no bibliography but a useful handbook to the earliest stages of Greek's development.
  • Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956 (revised edition), ISBN 0-674-36250-0. The standard grammar of classical Greek. Focuses primarily on the Attic dialect, with comparatively weak treatment of the other dialects and the Homeric .

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