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Learn about Greek Language and Culture

Overview of the Greek Language

Greek is the official language of Greece, as well as one of the official languages of Cyprus and the European Union. Beyond that, there are a few million people elsewhere in the world who claim Greek as their first language, including numerous speakers in Turkey, Albania, Canada, and the United States.

Greek is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Greek speakers, probably invaders from the Balkans, were established in the Greek peninsula by the 16th century B.C. Ancient Greek had many dialects including Aeolic, Arcadian, Doric, Cyprian, and Ionic. As Athens became the dominant political and cultural center of ancient Greece, the Ionic dialect spoken there-- Attic Greek-- formed the basis for a common dialect, the Koine dialect which was understood throughout the Greek-speaking world.

Modern Greek is derived from Koine. It became the official language of the kingdom of Greece in the 19th century. For a long while, there were two different versions of Greek in use. Demotic was the language used for creative literature and everyday speech. Katharevousa, on the other hand, was the official language of the armed forces, law, medicine, schools, newspapers, and broadcast media. In 1976 the Greek government adopted Demotic (Modern Greek) as the official language.

The Greek Alphabet

There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet: 17 consonants and 7 vowels. It was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet approximately 3,000 years ago. Greek was the first alphabet to use letters for both consonants and vowel sounds: before that, only the consonants were written. Greek is currently written from left to right, just like English, although this wasn't always the case. In the beginning, it could be written from right to left, and even in alternating directions on each line!

Greek Vocabulary

Greek has been a major influence on hundreds of languages. In English, approximately 12% of the words are derived from Greek. Did you know that the prefixes poly, chrono, auto, and micro are all taken from Greek? The suffixes phobia, meter, gram, and graph are also Greek in origin. The fact of the matter is that Greek forms the basis for thousands of terms used in mathematics, science, and technology.

But watch out for Greek words that sound like English. If someone says, kaLO taXIdi, you will look foolish if you check your wallet for taxi fare: what they are saying is, Have a nice trip. And aheeDEEah in Greek is not an idea-- it is disgust!

Greek Grammar and Greek Pronunciation

The second person singular is used to address friends, relatives and children. The second person plural is used when speaking to a group of friends, relatives or children, but it is also used as the formal singular form to express respect. To a stranger you would say, MiLAte GaleeKA? (Do you speak French?), but when speaking to a friend, MiLAee GaleeKA?

There are some interesting differences between English punctuation and Greek punctuation. For instance, a semicolon is used at the end of a question in Greek. And where English uses a comma to divide large numbers, Greek uses a period: the number 256,342,781 is written as 256.342.781. A period is also used to denote clock times, instead of a colon between the hours and the minutes.

There are three genders in Greek: feminine, masculine and neuter. The gender is determined by the ending of the noun. DROmos (street) and Andras (man) are masculine; KARta (card) and teeMEE (price) are feminine; doMAtio (room) and ksenodoHEEo (hotel) are neuter. Greek nouns decline (change form) according to case (nominative, accusative, genitive, and vocative) and number (singular and plural).

Greek is a phonetic language for the most part: the letters are pronounced in a uniform way. This predictability is very helpful for the learner. Moreover, words of more than one syllable usually have an accent mark over the vowel in the syllable that receives the spoken stress-- another aid for a foreigner wondering how to pronounce the words.

It has never been easier to start to speak Greek than with the language resources and Greek software programs available from Transparent Language. We wish you all the best with your study of modern Greek!

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