Greek language

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The Greek language, occasionally called Hellenic (in Modern Greek: ελληνικά, ellinika or ελληνική γλώσσα, elliniki glossa; in Ancient Greek: ἑλληνικὴ γλῶττα, hellēnikḕ glō̃tta), is a language mainly spoken in Greece and Cyprus, belonging to the Indo-European language family. It is written in the Greek alphabet.


Earliest stages

The Greek language appeared[1] as a spoken language at the end of the 3rd millennium BC, deriving from the Proto-Indo-European language. The first Greek-speaking tribes descended probably from an Indo-European branch, arriving through the inner Balkans and originating from the northern shores of the Black Sea. Those Proto-Greeks settled firstly in Epirus and then in the rest of Greece by assimilating previous populations: Greek was spread in the Ionian Islands and continental Greece during the last centuries of the 3rd millennium BC, then in the Aegean islands and western Anatolia during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.

The first entrance of Greek into the historical record is from a number of clay tablets found at the Bronze Age site of Knossos, written with a syllabic system called Linear B, around 1250 BC. It was totally different from the current Greek alphabet. In 1952 AD, Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, and discovered to be a very early stage of the Greek language, or Mycenean.

Ancient Greek

For more information, see: Ancient Greek language.

Greek then developed into the group of dialects known as Ancient Greek. It adopted its current alphabet, the Greek alphabet, approximately around 800 BC, being an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, thanks to trade between Greece and Phoenicia.

The most prominent Ancient Greek dialect was Attic, the language of Athens during the “Classical period”, which embraces the 4th and 5th centuries BC. This is the language of Demosthenes, Plato and Thucydides. Ionic is a dialect that was most famously used by the historian Herodotus. A limited amount of writing has come down to us in the other Ancient Greek dialects (such as Aeolic, Arcadian-Cypriot, and Doric). The inclusion of Ancient Macedonian in Greek is debated. Greek writers (and poets in particular) came to associate the dialects with particular styles of poetry. Aeolic, for instance, was the dialect of the poet Sappho. The Doric dialect came to be associated with Bucolic poetry, to such an extent that the poet Theocritus removed all non-Doric traces from his poems about the countryside. Similarly, though early scholars believed it to be an early stage of Ionic, the language of the Homeric poems has also been shown to be a literary language.[2]

Attic Greek enjoyed wide use during the Classical period, and came to be even more widespread in the post-classical period as Koiné Greek. During the Roman Empire, even as well-educated Romans were expected to have command of the literature of the Classical period, the unprestigious Koiné came to have wide use through much of the Empire as the language of business, the everyday and the lower classes.

In the first centuries of the common era, the new Christian religion and the Greek language had an intense, productive relationship. Most crucially, the New Testament was written in Koiné Greek, and much of the proselytizing of the early Christians must have taken place in Greek. Furthermore, Greek played an important role in the elaboration and refinement of Christian doctrine. Greek writers were at the forefront of every major theological debate and were widely influential, even on writers in Latin.

Cicero had earlier complained that the Latin language was not well-suited to philosophy, and Christians writing in Latin had similar problems. After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and the definition of orthodoxy became a matter of state, many Latin-speaking theologians looked east to Greek-speakers and their long tradition of philosophical inquiry for clarification.

During the last centuries of Antiquity, Ancient Greek underwent some important phonetic and phonological changes that prefigured the main pronunciation features of Byzantine and Modern Greek.

Byzantine Greek

As the western half of the Empire gave way to its successor states, knowledge of Greek there became a rarity and Latin continued to be dominant in Western Europe through the Middle Ages. The eastern half of the Roman Empire (nowadays called “Byzantine Empire”) continued about its business and did so, as it always had, in Greek. Interestingly, though they maintained only tenuous connections with the Latin West, they continued to consider themselves "Romans." (Today, for the sake of tradition and convenience, they are usually called "Byzantines.") Most Byzantine writers preferred to express themselves in Attic Greek, the language of ancient Athens; Byzantine prose was also significantly influenced by late antique rhetorical manuals and the writings of the Greek fathers of the church. The use of this traditional form of language was an important factor in the social and cultural identity of Byzantine writers; thus, Theophylact of Ochrid served as the archbishop of Ochrid (modern-day Ohrid, in Macedonia), but in some ways remained more closely connected to Constantinople than to his Macedonian surroundings.

As the Byzantine Empire continued, the Attic language used by the educated increasingly diverged from the spoken language. From the eleventh or twelfth century on, literature began to be composed in demotic Greek, the lower form of the Byzantine diglossia. The epic Digenes Akritas describes the exploits of its hero in demotic Greek, some of the poems associated with the name of Theodore Prodromos are written in demotic Greek, and the Chronicle of the Morea survives in two demotic Greek versions. Despite the increased use of demotic Greek for literary purposes, Attic Greek continued to be cultivated in the Byzantine Empire, up to and even beyond its fall.

Modern Greek

Emergence of Modern Greek

The Greek language continued to change, developing into what is now Modern Greek. Modern Greek emerged progressively during the Modern Era, after the fall of Constantinople and of the Byzantine Empire (1453), under the subsequent Ottoman Empire (especially from the 15th to the 19th centuries) and along with the independence of Greece in 1821. Popular Greek was continuously evolving—especially in morphology and lexicon—but remained constantly in contact with the old, learned and archaic Byzantine Greek used by the Orthodox Church. As a result, since the independence of Greece in 1821, Modern Greek has been cultivated under two competing varieties:

  • Dimotiki (the “popular language”), always widespreadly spoken, but official only since 1976.
  • Katharevousa (“the purifying language”), rarely spoken, although official between 1821 and 1976.


Dimotiki or Demotic (δημοτική, that is “popular language”) is a standard variety derived from everyday use. Since the 19th century, it has represented nearly all common spoken usage, literature, song lyrics and movie dialog. It was eventually codified in 1941 by Manolis Triantafyllidis in his grammar. However, it was recognized as the sole, official language by the Greek government only in 1976, as a symbol of the people's power, in reaction to the dictatorship of the colonels (1967-1974). Before 1976, its supporters had to struggle hard to obtain its official recognition.


Katharevousa (καθαρεύουσα, that is “purifying language”) was the official standard from the independence of Greece, in 1821, until 1976. It combined the morphology of Ancient or Byzantine Greek with a modern pronunciation. It was a somewhat archaic variety, used in various formal writings, in ultra-formal speech and in the rites of the Orthodox Church. But it never gained any wide acceptance in general speech, nor in literature, song lyrics, or film scripts.

Nowadays, its use is limited to the rites of the Orthodox Church, to only one newspaper (Ἑστία, Estia) and to the emblematic names of some institutions, buildings and streets (such proper names are even maintained and inserted in written and spoken Dimotiki). For example, the National Bank of Greece bears a Katharevousa name, Εθνική Τράπεζα της Ελλάδος, Ethniki Trapeza tis Ellados, instead of a Dimotiki name which would be Εθνική Τράπεζα της Ελλάδας, Ethniki Trapeza tis Elladas.

Features of Modern Greek (Dimotiki)


Dimotiki phonetics shares a lot of features with the Byzantine and is notably different from the ancient (though some important phonetic changes already occurred during the last centuries of Antiquity, in Hellenistic and Roman times).


Dimotiki morphology is somewhat simpler than those of Ancient Greek and Byzantine Greek (but more complicated, for example, than that of German). The verbal system is much more analytic and simpler than that of the ancient, but nouns and adjectives still have a rich declension system.


There are a lot of common loanwords in Dimotiki, taken from Turkish, Northern Italian (Venetian), Italian, English and French.

On the other hand, Dimotiki also uses and has revived a considerable number of words from Ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek and Katharevousa. Sometimes the archaic declensions of revived words are kept in Dimotiki, thus creating a morphologic subsystem embedded in the general modern system.

Balkanic features

Some structural characteristics of Dimotiki are shared with languages of the Balkans that are not directly related to Greek. This convergence is due to a long contact and is called the Balkan sprachbund. It involves Dimotiki Greek, Romanian, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Turkish and Romany.

Writing system

The spelling of Dimotiki, based on the venerable tradition of the Greek alphabet, is quite conservative. Fortunately, the written language has regular and predictable rules of pronunciation: each grapheme has to be pronounced in a precise way, leaving the user in no doubt.

However, there are often different ways of writing the same sound, which can only be explained in terms of the etymology of Ancient Greek. Different spellings stand for different ancient pronunciations that merged between the end of Antiquity and the Contemporary Era.

  • The sound [i] is written ι, η, υ, ει, οι or υι.
  • The sound [o] is written ο or ω.
  • The sound [e] is written ε or αι.
  • The sound [g] is written γγ or γκ.
  • The sequences [av] and [ev] are written and εβ or αυ and ευ; similarly, the sequences [af] and [ef] are written and εφ or αυ and ευ.
  • Many consonant sounds are written with single or double letters, such as [v] (β/ββ), [ð] (δ/δδ), [k] (κ/κκ), [l] (λ/λλ), [m] (μ/μμ), [n] (ν/νν), [p] (π/ππ), [r] (ρ/ρρ), [s] (σ/σσ), [t] (τ/ττ).

Since 1982, an important spelling simplification, called the monotonic system, has been in force. Only two diacritics have been kept: the acute accent (´), matching with the stress of the modern pronunciation, and the dieresis (¨), indicating that two vowels are pronounced separately (both signs may be combined: ΅). This spelling reform has replaced the former convention, called the polytonic system, which used a difficult collection of various, written diacritics (´, `, ˜, , , ¨). Most of them had lost their phonetic value since Antiquity. Nowadays, only the monotonic system is required in everyday use but some individuals, newspapers and publishing houses still prefer the polytonic system for esthetic reasons. The polytonic system is difficult to write but it can be easily read and converted into the monotonic system.

Diacritics are avoided above uppercase letters:

  • A diacritic is put above a lowercase but goes on the upper left side of an initial uppercase: ύφαλος becomes Ύφαλος (ýfalos “underwater reef”).
  • In all-uppercase writings, all diacritics are removed except the dieresis: ύφαλος becomes ΥΦΑΛΟΣ (ýfalos “underwater reef”), νερό becomes ΝΕΡΟ (neró “water”); Ταΰγετος becomes ΤΑΫΓΕΤΟΣ (Taÿ́getos “Taygetus”).


  1. Information about the earliest stages retrieved in: SERGENT Bernard (1995) Les Indo-Européens: histoire, langues, mythes, Paris: Payot, pp. 115-121, 413-415.
  2. Homer's language is mostly Ionic, but with an admixture of words from other dialects.