The Greek Language

The Greek Language

Introduction
History of the Greek Language
The Beginnings
The Development of Modern Greek
Katharevousa & Demotiki
Aspects of the Greek Language
Ancient and Modern Greek
Regional Dialect and Accents
The Greek Alphabet
Accentuation Of Greek Texts
Polytonic and Monotonic Systems of Accentuation
Transliteration and Transcription
Personal Names
Addresses
Greece and Cyprus
Further Reading


Introduction

Greek is spoken by the 11 million inhabitants of Greece and four fifths of the population of Cyprus, numbering a further 700 000. It is also spoken around the world in the diaspora of Greeks who have emigrated for political or, far more commonly, economic reasons to the USA, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. In terms of number of native speakers it ranks well down the list of world languages. However, culturally its importance is disproportionate. As the language of classical Greek philosophy and literature and, later, as the language of the Christian Gospels and the early Church, it has profoundly shaped Western thought.

Like any other language Greek has evolved over the ages, but Modern Greek can justifiably trace its pedigree back through the Athens of Pericles to the Trojan wars and indeed to some of European man's first attempts at recording his ideas in writing. This very history has been a deep influence on the way Greeks of today view their language and, incidentally, makes it very difficult to summarise the history of Greek within the compass of a short essay such as this.

Indeed this is a very personal selection of topics related to Greek, largely chosen as having a bearing on aspects of translation of Modern Greek. It is not intended to be a set of working notes for translators of Greek; that would be a far more ambitious project. It is more a brief historical background and a pot-pourri of aspects of the Greek language which we hope may be of interest to the non specialist who occasionally has to deal with Greek, whether in a translation agency, an in-house translation department or as a business person dealing with Greece. We have tried to ensure our facts are correct but we do admit to being guilty of oversimplification at times - unavoidable when dealing with so complex and diverse a subject in such a short space. We hope you find at least something of interest in the following pages.

History of the Greek Language

The Beginnings

The earliest records of written Greek are inscribed on baked mud tablets found at the beginning of the present century in the ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete and, later, at sites on the Greek mainland. Written in a syllabic script known as Linear B in which each symbol represents a consonant plus vowel combination, they can be dated to the period immediately before the demise of the Minoan civilization of Knossos which occurred in about 1450 B.C. Most of the tablets are no more than inventories of property or deal with agricultural production and produce. However they represent the earliest records of any European language.

Script in Linear B

Linear B was essentially a syllabic script with each symbol representing a consonant-vowel combination

The dating of the Knossos tablets does not of course tell us anything of when Greek was first spoken in the Balkan Peninsula and in the lands around the Aegean Sea. Archaeological evidence and the development of dialects would indicate this predated the Knossos tablets by at least five hundred years.

The earliest inscriptions in the forerunner of today's Greek alphabet date from about 750 B.C., long after the Mycenaeans, mainland successors to the Minoans and heroes of the Trojan wars, had declined in influence and at about the time the poet Homer is said to have lived.

Homer, who together with Hesiod is the earliest of the famous writers of ancient Greece, is the subject of a vast scholarly literature. Some deny the existence of an individual poet and see the man as a personification of a long tradition of oral poetry while others have gone as far as to identify him with the "inventor" of the Greek alphabet, using his innovation to record the oral poetry of a long bygone age. Whatever the truth may be, it is generally held that parts of the Iliad use language that long predates the eighth century B.C. and that some of the descriptions of weapons and fighting techniques are consistent with the archaeological evidence from Mycenaean sites contemporary with the fall of Troy in about 1250 B.C. (according to archaeological evidence; 1184 B.C. according to the scholar Eratosthenes).

Early Greek Inscription

A very early Greek (around 650 BC) inscription with the text running from left to right then doubling back to run from right to left. This form of writing, resembling the path of the ox-drawn plough across a field, is known as boustrophedon. Unlike the example of linear B above, this is an early forerunner of the Greek script still in use today.

When considering ancient Greece it is important to be aware of the cultural and political background which was very different to that of a modern nation state. For much of this period Greece was fragmented into city states with their satellite colonies, each with its own political system and cultural values; these may, at various times, have traded with each other, fought each other or formed military alliances. In many cases they did all three. This separateness was reinforced by the Greek language which had evolved as a number of regional dialects through successive southern movements of Greek speaking peoples. The distribution of these dialects reflected patterns of migration and colonization and it did not follow that geographical closeness led to similarities in dialect. For example the Greek of Arcadia, the harsh mountainous interior of the Peloponnese, was closer to the Cypriot dialect than the Doric dialect used in the neighbouring southern Peloponnese. This is usually explained in terms of the colonization of Cyprus by Mycenaean Greeks from the Peloponnese in the late bronze age while the Doric Greeks, who moved into the Peloponnese after the Mycenaeans, never penetrated the inhospitable heartland of Arcadia. A further twist to dialect in ancient Greece is the practice of using a particular dialect for a particular literary form irrespective of the native speech of the author. Thus choral poetry is usually written in Doric even if written by a Boeotian such as Pindar or when used in Athenian (Attic) tragedy.

Bearing in mind that while Homer flourished in the 8th century B.C. (and some of his language was archaic even for that period) and Aristotle did not die until 322 B.C., not only do the texts popularly associated with ancient Greek writing span a considerable period of time (at least equal to the period between the present day and Shakespeare) but are composed in a number of distinct dialects. There is thus, at least in one sense, no such thing as standard ancient Greek common to all speakers - although maybe one such candidate did emerge. During the classical period Athens acquired such political and cultural dominance among the Greek city states that the Attic dialect of the 4th century B.C. began to be accepted as the universal standard, at least for Greek prose.

However politics were soon to bring about further and more radical change to the Greek language, perhaps the most dramatic in its tortuous history. Philip II of Macedon (382 - 336 B.C.) followed by his yet more ambitious son, Alexander the Great (356 - 323 B.C.), a man whose ambition stopped at nothing short of becoming master of "all the known world", swept away the traditional city states, uniting Greece and the near and middle east into a massive empire extending south to Egypt and east into India. Although the Macedonian court was thought of by other Greeks of the time as provincial and only barely civilized, Philip seems to have been a man of culture and used his wealth to bring to his court only the best money could buy (among his imports was the philosopher Aristotle as tutor for the young Alexander!) and adopted the Attic dialect as the language of his empire. The far reaching effect of this was, for the first time, to replace the dialects with a standard national language. However the extent of the empire also meant many people whose native tongue was not Greek attempted to express themselves through the medium of the classical Attic dialect resulting in an erosion and simplification of the language and changes in pronunciation that remain until this day. This form of Greek is known as the common language or koine. It is the language in which the Christian Gospels were originally composed and which is still used, largely unchanged, in the Greek Orthodox liturgy.

It may be supposed that when the Romans arrived in Greece (Greece became a Roman protectorate in 146 B.C.) and the near east, Greek would have been superseded by Latin. However if anything the reverse was true, the study of Greek being mandatory for the educated Roman, and the use of Greek was widespread throughout the eastern part of the Empire. The Empire itself was to divide in 395 A.D. with the eastern half being ruled from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the capital founded by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 A.D. In the 6th Century A.D. Greek became the official language of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. Long after the Western Empire and Rome itself fell prey to invaders, the Byzantine Empire persisted under increasing pressure from Islam in the east and crusaders and avaricious Frankish and Italian princes in the west until the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. By this time most of present day Greece had been occupied and colonized by Franks and Venetians, themselves later to fall to the expanding Ottoman Empire. Thus just as western Europe was beginning to emerge with the start of the renaissance, a modern dark age finally descended on the Greek-speaking world.

The Development of Modern Greek

It was not until the uprising against the Turks in 1821 that the modern Greek state was born. However this did not stop Greek intellectuals of the eighteenth century dreaming about the institutions of an independent Greece, in particular the language that was, together with Orthodox Christianity, to be one of the unifying factors of the new nation. One of the most influential of these was Paris-based Adamandios Korais (1748 - 1833) who was, unwittingly, to fire one of the most bitter debates of modern Greece.

Reinventing a language may, today, seem a rather pointless occupation but to the Greeks of the late 18th century plotting revolution against the Ottoman Turks, there were important practical questions to be resolved. Although a tradition of Greek literature had been maintained through the years of occupation by Frank, Venetian and Turk, this had been achieved mainly through the flowering of isolated centres of culture over relatively brief periods (e.g. Crete during the 16th & early 17th centuries and later in the Ionian islands after the fall of Crete in 1669). However in the main, Greek had become a largely oral culture and the problem perceived by the founders of the Greek state was in what language should the constitution and laws of Modern Greece be drafted and what should be the language used in education and administration? Historically the answer would have been to revert to the Attic Greek of classical Athens, the language in which Plato had written over two thousand years earlier. Such a solution was also attractive owing to the preoccupation with classical culture then widespread in western Europe and which was the stimulus for much of the support given to the movement for Greek independence by philhellenes such as the poet, Byron. Even though Greek has undergone fewer changes over time than most languages, such a radical solution was seen by most as, although possibly desirable, in practice, impossible. Korais' prescription was, in his words, 'a middle way' reforming the spoken language of his time on ancient principals and thus katharevousa, literally "purifying language" came into existence.

Katharevousa & Demotiki

Needless to say, even from the earliest days, not everyone was happy with Korais' 'middle way'. Some thought his proposed reforms had not gone far enough while others, particularly literary writers, thought katharevousa too remote from the speech of the common people. It was not long before an alternative was proposed, adapting and systematizing the common spoken language of the people, demotiki. The debate between proponents of these two approaches was fierce; academics were sacked for using demotiki and the language question even led to rioting in the streets. In the twentieth century the language debate took on a political significance with social reformers claiming that katharevousa was being used as an instrument to deny the common man access to education and advancement while nationalist governments generally tended to favour katharevousa.

The battle was finally won as recently as 1976 with the adoption of demotiki as the language of education and administration. Katharevousa is still sometimes encountered in legal texts but its demise will no doubt be spurred by the fact that classical Greek is no longer widely taught in Greek schools. There is a now a reasonable, if not perfect, consensus on what comprises "good" Modern Greek based largely on demotiki but not averse to the occasional inclusion of a katharevousa phrase where tradition or common sense would justify it. This is sometimes referred to in British academic circles as Standard Modern Greek (SMG).

It has been suggested that the language question inhibited Greeks from putting pen to paper. Whilst this claim may seem extreme, certainly expressing oneself in writing revealed much about one's political and social ideas and invited criticism from one of the language factions. Greeks no longer have this excuse for failing to express themselves in writing! Indeed they do not need any excuse for expression in any form, written or oral, as anyone can establish by a brief visit to a coffee shop or even a street corner!

Aspects of the Greek Language

Ancient and Modern Greek

The question many non Greek speakers want to ask and no Greek speaker seems to want to answer is "How close is Modern Greek to Classical Greek?" The reason for such reluctance is that without some detailed knowledge of the language on the part of the questioner, which by his very question he does not have, it is very difficult to give an adequate answer. Indeed it is rather like trying to describe the difference between blue and turquoise to a person blind from birth! We will however attempt a reply.

The first thing to note is the form of the question itself. As has already been indicated "ancient" Greek covers a broad range of language. The Greek of Plato (427 - 347 B.C.), the epitome of classical Attic prose, is very different to that used by Homer. Again the koine of the New Testament is very different to that of Plato; indeed the transition to the koine is one of the most radical periods of change in the language over its long history. Let us then compare then Plato's Greek to that of his modern Athenian counterpart almost two and a half millennia later.

The changes involve pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The ancient pronunciation with rising and falling tones has given way to a strong stress accent on the dominant syllable of each word. The system of long and short vowels is gone, all vowels having an equal, indeterminate, length and some consonants have changed their sound, notably Beta has changed from b to v, Gamma from g to gh, and Delta from d to dh. Grammatical changes include the loss of the dative (although not in katharevousa) and changes to the verb, notably formation of the future tense. Much of Plato's vocabulary remains but meanings may have shifted and may have taken on a more modern sense; however it has been added to by neologisms and loan words from Latin as well as French, Italian and Turkish, and nowadays English. Indeed classical words are often still used in katharevousa such as oikos for house (while demotiki uses spiti from the Latin root hospes via an older Greek form ospition), ichthys for fish (while demotiki uses psari).

Overall the changes, particularly if those of pronunciation are ignored, are far less than the differences between say Latin and Italian. For a number of reasons, Greek is more resistant to change than most languages. In matters of language Greeks have always looked back to the past. In classical Athens the words of Homer were revered and at the time of the development of the koine, many looked to the excellence of the Attic prose with writers such as Plato as their model. The koine itself was later, as the language of the Gospels, to become a model. To grossly oversimplify, it is probably fair to say the difference between Plato's Greek and that of the present day parallels the difference between the English of Chaucer (c.1340-1400) and modern English.

Regional Dialect and Accents

If having carefully followed your home study course in Modern Greek you find that you cannot understand a single word spoken by the fishermen at a Cretan quayside or by the villagers in a Cypriot mountain village, do not be dismayed. Many Greeks will share your predicament! Most regions of Greece have their local dialect (of more modern origins than the dialects of ancient Greece) some of which are very marked. However assuming your pronunciation is correct and you are putting the stress on the correct syllables (one of the most common errors for the student of Modern Greek) they should understand you. Dialects are never used in written Greek other than in literature or for special effect. Indeed the very centralized organization of Greek education and the effect of films and television is leading to a decline in the use of dialect outside the most rural of areas.

Rather different is the question of accents. Again virtually every region of Greece has its local accent, some being clearer for the foreigner to understand than others.

The Greek Alphabet

The earliest Greek texts, such as the linear B tablets of Knossos, were written in syllabic scripts. The Greek alphabet, from which we derive our own alphabet via the Etruscans and Romans, came into use in the 8th century B.C. being adapted from the Phoenician alphabet; since Phoenician, a semitic language, had no vowels in its alphabet, the Greeks used consonants not needed for the representation of Greek for the six Greek vowels. A number of letters have disappeared from some of the early forms of the Greek alphabet, most notably wau or digamma which came between Epsilon and Zeta. This is the reason that Greek numbering systems runs Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, ST, Zeta etc - ST taking the place of the ancient digamma that 'died' two thousand five hundred years ago!

The earliest users of the alphabet wrote from left to right or right to left as the mood took them. The more indecisive used a curious system known as boustrophedon in which the text would run from left to right (or vice versa), reach the end of the line and double back to run right to left like the furrows of a plough! Boustrophedon is Greek for "turning of the ox". These experiments were abandoned long ago in antiquity and Modern Greek, like Classical Greek, is written from left to right.

Classical Greek used a numbering system based on letters. Nowadays the Arabic numerals, as used throughout the western world, are used in Greece. The ancient numbering system, as mentioned above, is still retained for numbering lists and is preferred over Roman numerals (e.g. i, ii, iii, iv etc) which are only rarely used in Greek.

Accentuation of Greek Texts

Few will have failed to notice that Greek text is written with accents on most words. The more perceptive will have noted that on certain texts the accents look more elaborate than on others. The ancient Greeks did not bother with accents, indeed they did not even bother to leave spaces between words and sentences! The accents and breathings were a result of the radical transformation of the Greek language that occurred in the period 400 - 200 B.C., the introduction of koine. The Greeks of 5th century B.C. Athens did not need accents or breathings; they would have been brought up as children to speak Greek and knew when an initial vowel was aspirated or not and how to pronounce words correctly. The problem came when Greek was used by a much wider public, many not native speakers. It was to assist these that the accents and breathings were introduced (reputedly by Aristophanes of Byzantium in about 200 B.C.).

Polytonic and Monotonic Systems of Accentuation

The traditional (polytonic) system uses three accents Accent 1, Accent 2 and Accent 3 every initial vowel carries one of two breathings: Breathing
1 if the vowel is aspirated (i.e. it is pronounced as if preceded by an h) or Breathing 2 if it is not. This is known as the polytonic system of accentuation and is used for most classical texts and until recently, for Modern Greek. As an accentuation system for Modern Greek it has one major disadvantage - it is far more complicated than it need be. In Modern Greek initial vowels are never aspirated thus the breathings are redundant. Classical Greek pronunciation used a system of rising and falling tones for which the polytonic system was originally designed whereas Modern Greek has a strong stress accent - a constant source of difficulty for the foreigner trying to speak Greek! Thus all that is needed is a single accent to indicate the stressed syllable in words of more than one syllable which is the basis of the monotonic system. The abandonment of the polytonic system, a logical reform, has made Greek spelling, although not trouble free since the long and short vowels of classical Greek are still retained although no distinction is made in pronunciation, a lot easier both for learners of the language as well as a generation of Greek school children.

Extract from a Modern Greek newspaper   The opening
of a modern edition of Aristotle

An extract from a modern Greek newspaper (left) and the opening of a modern edition of a work by the philosopher Aristotle (384 - 322 BC). Notice the three accents and breathings used in the classical text in contrast to the single accent of the modern script.

Transliteration and Transcription

The problem of rendering Greek names of people and places in the Latin alphabet would appear trivial. In fact it is hard to devise any system which is entirely consistent at the same time as giving some guide to pronunciation. There are of course tables of English equivalents of the Greek letters, often found in encyclopaedias and similar reference books, although these usually are based on classical Greek pronunciation which is considerably different to that of Modern Greek (changes to the sounds of many Greek letters occurred at around the time of introduction of the koine). There are however similar systems for Modern Greek and these are useful for transliteration of, for example, library catalogues where consistency is more important than a guide to pronunciation. Transcription is often of more value but more open to inconsistency particularly in handling the diphthongs. Does one transcribe -ou as -ou or -u?

A further complication is introduced by names that have a well established English form. Athens is instantly recognizable and neatly bypasses the choice between Athina or Athine or Athinai (the latter two being katharevousa forms) the same applies to the name Homer which when transcribed from its Modern Greek form as Omiros would probably not be recognized by the average English reader! However the address, 54 Homer St, is probably best left as Omirou 54 using the identical argument that Omirou is more likely to be recognized by the Greek postman than Homer.

Examples abound but one final conundrum must suffice. Generally transcription of Greek kappa (Kappa) as k is to be preferred as it is less phonetically ambiguous than c. This having been said does one transcribe the common Greek man's name as Costas or Kostas? If one chooses the latter is one, on grounds of consistency, also bound to refer to the Roman emperor as Konstantine (from which the name derives) rather than Constantine?

Personal Names

Greek names are sometimes quite long and like other Greek nouns they are inflected - that is their ending depends on the grammatical gender and case. In the case of men the name in the nominative will usually (but not always) take the ending -os (-os) e.g. Petros Constantinopoulos. What is much more interesting is the name of Mr Constantinopoulos' daughter, Eleni Constantinipoulou. Eleni (Helen) has a feminine nominative ending but the -ou ending of Constantinopoulou is masculine genitive. Grammatically women are property of their father! (it is not uncommon for more liberated women to avoid the -ou ending outside Greece i.e. Ms Constantinopoulos).

In Greek the middle name is, as in Russian, a patronymic. For example if our fictitious Mr Constantinopoulos' father was Georgios (George) he would be Petros Georgiou Constantinopoulos (note again use of the genitive) or, particularly in official documents, Petros Constantinopoulos tou Georgiou - Petros Constantinopoulos {son} of Georgios (or in view of the Greek preference for listing the surname first, Constantinopoulos Petros tou Georgiou). In the case of a woman she will take her father's name e.g. Eleni Constantinopoulou and nowadays will maintain it after marriage.

Addresses

The Greek for street or road is Odhos (odhos) and is hardly ever used in postal addresses which take the form of street name (in genitive) followed by number, with the post code and town appearing on the next line:

Omirou 54   54 Homer Street
115 25 Athina   115 25 Athens

If however the location happens to be an avenue or square this will appear as leoforos (leoforos) or plateia (plateia) respectively e.g. Leoforos Omirou 54. It is not uncommon to see an apparently very confusing address such as 28 Oktovriou & Omirou 54. This means the building is at number 54 Homer Street which is on the intersection with 28th October Street (28th October is Ochi Day - a national holiday commemorating the Greek repudiation of an Italian ultimatum in 1940).

Greece and Cyprus

There are certain differences between Greece and Cyprus but these are not primarily differences of language, rather they stem from the fact that Cyprus is an independent republic and, in its recent history, was governed by Britain for a period of eighty two years.

Indeed Greek as taught in schools in Cyprus is identical to that on the Greek mainland - in fact the same textbooks are used. The same applies to Greek as used in newspapers, magazines and on Cyprus radio and television. Like many regions of Greece, notably Crete and Macedonia, there is a local dialect and a local accent but in a formal context, particularly in written documents, no Cypriot would use dialect just as no High Court judge in Scotland would use words such as wee or bairn when giving a judgement in court although he may well use such terms when talking to his grandchildren!

Differences between the two countries arise mainly owing to differences in institutions, particularly the legal system which in Cyprus is based on the British system.

Further Reading

The standard English work on Modern Greek is The Modern Greek Language by P. Mackridge (Oxford University Press 1985); it is a detailed and scholarly account and not intended for the beginner. Should you wish to acquire a basic knowledge of Modern Greek there are a number of introductory courses including Colloquial Greek by N. Watts (Routledge 2004) for which there is an accompanying CD. An excellent and detailed survey of Greek literature since 1821 is to be found in An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature by R. Beaton (Oxford University Press 1999).

Greater detail on the development of Modern Greek including changes in grammar and vocabulary appears in The Development of the Greek Language by W. Moleas (Bristol Classical Press 2004). If katharevousa is of special interest an article by P. Mackridge appears in Background to Contemporary Greece Vol I edited by M. Sarafis and M. Eve (Merlin Press - London 1990).

Books on Classical Greek are, as to be expected, far more numerous covering virtually every aspect of the language and its literature; most of the more important ancient Greek texts are available in paperback translation. Should you wish to acquire a reading knowledge it may be worth examining Reading Greek by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (Cambridge University Press 1978) which comprises a series of extracts from classical texts of progressive difficulty together with an accompanying volume dealing with the grammar and vocabulary encountered in the texts.