The Greek language (Ελληνικά) is an Indo-European language, born in Greece and once spoken also along the coast of Asia Minor. In classical times there were a variety of spoken dialects, most notably Ionic, Doric, and Attic.
Modern Greek has descended from ancient Greek, and is close enough to the ancient language so that a relatively well educated native speaker of modern Greek can read an ancient text and for the most part understand what it's about. A vast number of words and expressions have remained unchanged through the centuries, and have found their way into a number of other languages including Latin, German, French, and English.
There are many theories about the origins of the Greek language. One theory suggests that it originated with a migration of Proto-Greek speakers into Greece, which is dated to any period between 3,200 B.C. to 1,900 B.C. Another theory maintains that Greek evolved in Greece itself out of an early Indo-European language.
The first known script for writing Greek was the Linear B syllabary, used for the archaic Mycenaean dialect. Linear B was not deciphered until 1953. After the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, there was a period of about five hundred years when writing was either not used, or nothing has survived to the present day. Since early classical times, Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet, said to be derived from Phoenician. This happened about the time of Homer, and there is one obscure, fleeting reference in Homer's poetry suggesting that he might have been aware of writing.
Attic Greek was the language of Athens; most of the surviving classical Greek literature is in Attic Greek. Alexander the Great was instrumental in combining these dialects to form Koine Greek (from the Greek word for "common") (sometimes called New Testament Greek after its most famous work of literature). This allowed his combined army to communicate and was also taught to the inhabitants of the regions that he conquered, turning it into a "world language". The language evolved during the Hellenistic period, and for many centuries was the "Lingua Franca" of the Roman Empire. From this descended the Greek that was the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) and finally the modern Greek of today. Modern Greek has a more conservative form called Katharevousa, which includes numerous Ancient Greek words pronounced in a modern way, and the spoken form Dhimotiki, which since 1976 is the official language of Greece, instead of Katharevousa.
Greek, like many other Indo-European languages, is highly inflected -- for example, nouns have 5 cases, 3 genders, and 3 numbers, verbs have 3 moods, 3 voices, as well as 3 persons and 3 numbers and various other forms. Here is the definite article declined:
|Dative (indirect object+)||tô||tê||tô||tois||tais||tois|
|Accusative (direct object)||ton||tên||to||tous||tas||ta|
|Vocative (address sb)||ô||ô||ô||ô||ô||ô|
Modern Greek has lost the dative (except in a few expressions like en taxei OK), and some of the other forms have changed phonetically. In the following table the left-hand side uses a phonetic form suitable for Modern Greek only, while the right-hand side is the same thing written in the transcription for Ancient Greek, for easier comparison with the table above:
The main phonetic changes between Ancient and Modern Greek are a simplification in the vowel system and a change of some consonants to fricative values. Ancient Greek had five short vowels, seven long vowels, and numerous diphthongs. This has been reduced to a simple five-vowel system. Most noticeably, the sounds i, ê, y, ei, oi have all become i.
The consonants b, d, g became v, dh, gh (dh as in English this). The aspirated consonants ph, th, kh became f, th, h - where the new pronunciation of th is /T/ as in English thin.
Greek has sandhi rules, some written, some not. ν before bilabials and velars is pronounced "m" and "ng" respectively, and is written μ (συμπαθεια) and γ (συγχρονιζω) when this happens within a word. The word εστι "is" in Ancient Greek gains ν, and the accusative articles τον and την in Modern Greek lose it, depending on the start of the next word; this is called "movable nu". In τον πατερα "the father" the first word is pronounced "tom", and in Modern Greek (but not Ancient Greek, which had an independent "b" sound) the second word is pronounced "batera" because "mp" -> "mb".
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