Overview of the Greek Language

Greek, the first language of Western civilization, is considered by many to be the most effective and admirable means of communication ever devised. On its own, Greek constitutes a separate branch of the Indo-European family though it shows some affinity with Armenian and Indo-Iranian. It is, with Hittite and Sanskrit, among the oldest attested Indo-European languages. It also has the longest record in the family, from 1400 BCE until now (with an interruption between 1150-800 BCE). For these reasons, Greek is essential to the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European language and culture. On the other hand, even though a great part of the language has been lost, Greek literature occupies a special place in Western culture and humanistic studies. From Greece, the Greek language spread early to Cyprus (12th c. BCE), and southern Italy (8th c. BCE). Today, Greek is the Official language of Greece, with about 11,000,000 speakers and another 700,000 of Cypriot Greek in southern Cyprus. The language spoken in northern Cyprus is Cypriot Turkish.
In 1830 Greece finally won its freedom and a new kingdom was formed with Athens and the Peloponnese at its core. The dialects spoken in these regions became the basis for the standard spoken language of today’s Greek society. This standard was not formed directly from the folk songs and poetry of earlier peasant society, however. A purified, katharevusa (Καθαρεύουσα) form of Greek was devised. Efforts to impose it were heavily influenced by the old Atticism, though, and the attempt to produce a prose medium broad enough to cover both formal and colloquial situations has proved extraordinarily difficult. Even today the language question still presents problems, yet the continuing growth of educational institutions as well as journalism and the broadcast media have begun to affect a solution. The distance between demotic and katharevusa is narrowing as a way of speech arises which combines aspects of both.

 Greek Linguistic Features

In the course of its long history, the Greek language has evolved towards phonological and morphological simplification. Modern Greek has a much smaller vowel system than the ancient language, pitch accent was lost, there was a reduction in the number of grammatical cases and declension paradigms, non-finite verb forms were also reduced and in many circumstances nominal and verbal constructions replace synthetic morphology.

a) Phonology: evolving from Classical Attic Greek to Modern Greek, the vowels gradually reduced from12 to 5, and vowel length is no longer phonemic, i.e., contrastive, There were 11 diphthongs and none any longer. Conversely, in contrast to the vowels, the consonants were rather simple and have actually increased from 15 to 20 in Modern Greek. Word stress “accent” has been retained and occurs only on one of the last three syllables of a word.

b) Morphology Nominal Case: Nouns are inflected for gender, number and case. Adjectives agree with their nouns in gender, number and case. Gender: masculine, feminine, neuter. Number: singular & plural.

c) Syntax   Word order is quite free although not every combination is allowed. The order Subject-Verb-Object is more frequent than others in the modern language, but it can be changed to put an element in focus or to highlight a topic. For example, Verb-Subject-Object order may be used in sentences presenting wholly new information. In Classical Greek the order Subject-Object-Verb was the predominant one.

Scripts and Orthography

The Greek Alphabet, was based on a North Semitic alphabet transmitted through the Phoenicians. The Greek script includes 24 letters, and it hasn’t changed since classical times, but nowadays it is pronounced quite differently.


During the Hellenistic period, many loanwords from Latin entered Greek. Later, Italian, Slavonic and Turkish words were adopted. More recently, the main source of loans have been French and especially English.

 A Touch of Greek Literature

Full of pity, his spirit embraced Crete. Crete to him was a living warm creature with a speaking mouth and weeping eyes; a Crete that consisted not of rocks and clods and roots, but thousands of forefathers who never died and who gathered, every Sunday in the churches. Again and again they were filled with wrath, and in their graves they unfolded a proud banner and rushed with it into the mountains. And on the banner the undying Mother, bowed over it for years, had embroidered with their black and gray and snow-white hair the three undying words: FREEDOM or DEATH.
Nikos Kazantzakis, Freedom or Death