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Greek language

Greek (Ελληνικά</i>)
Spoken in: Greece, Cyprus, south Albania, south Italy, south Former Yugloslav Republic of Macedonia, central and south Bulgaria, Turkey and surrounding countries
Region: The Balkans
Total speakers: 15 million
Ranking: 74
Genetic classification: Indo-European

   Modern Greek

Official status
Official language of: Greece, Cyprus (and the European Union)
Regulated by: --
Language codes
ISO 639-1el
ISO 639–2gre (B) / ell (T)
See also: Language – List of languages

The Greek language (Greek Ελληνικά, IPA /ɛˌliniˈka/ – "Hellenic") is an Indo-European language with a documented history of some 3,000 years. Ancient Greek in its various forms was the language both of classical Greek civilisation and of the origins of Christianity, and was a first or second language over a large part of the Roman Empire. It has been studied in schools and universities in many countries from the Renaissance onwards. Modern Greek, which differs in many ways from Ancient Greek but is still recognisably the same language, is spoken by approximately 12 million speakers worldwide, most of whom live in Greece. Greek is traditionally written in the Greek alphabet.

Table of contents


Main article: History of the Greek language

Greek has been spoken in the Balkan Peninsula since the 2nd millennium BC. The earliest evidence of this is found in the Linear B tablets dating from 1500 BC. The alphabet normally used was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet in c. 1000 BC and, with minor modifications, is still used today.

Two main forms of the language have been in use since the end of the medieval Greek period: Dhimotikí (Δημοτική), the Demotic (vernacular) language, and Katharévusa (Καθαρεύουσα), an imitation of classical Greek, which was used for literary, juridic, and scientific purposes during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Demotic Greek is the official language of the modern Greek state, and the most widely spoken by Greeks today.

Modern Greek is similar to the ancient Greek language, more so than Italian is to Latin, for example. It is claimed that an "educated" speaker of the modern language can read ancient texts, but this is surely as much a function of education as of the similarity of the languages. Still, Koinē /ciˈni/, the version of Greek used to write the New Testament and the Septuagint, is relatively easy to understand for modern speakers.

Greek words have been widely borrowed into the European languages: astronomy, democracy, philosophy, thespian, etc. Moreover, Greek words and word elements continue to be productive as a basis for coinages: anthropology, photography, isomer, etc. and form, with Latin words, the foundation of international scientific and technical vocabulary. See English words of Greek origin, and List of Greek words with English derivatives.


Greek is its own independent branch of the Indo-European language family. The ancient languages which were probably most closely related to it, Ancient Macedonian language (perhaps even a dialect of Greek) and Phrygian, are not well enough documented to permit detailed comparison. Among living languages, Armenian seems to be the most closely related to it.

Geographic distribution

Greek is spoken by about 12 million people mainly in Greece and Cyprus but also in many other countries where Greeks have settled, including Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the USA.

Official status

Greek is the official language of the Hellenic Republic (Greece) where it is spoken by about 98.5% of the population. It is also, alongside Turkish, the official language of the Republic of Cyprus.


The pronunciation of Modern Greek has changed considerably from Ancient Greek, although the orthography still reflects features of the older language. The examples below are intended to represent Attic Greek in the 5th century BC. Although ancient pronunciation can never be reconstructed with certainty, Greek in particular is very well documented from this period, and there is little disagreement among scholars as to the general nature of the sounds that the letters represented. See W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca – a guide to the pronunciation of Classical Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1974. ISBN 0–521–20626-X.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet:

Ancient Greek – short

The short e (ε in Greek orthography) is shown in the table as mid close vowel [e] but it may have been nearer to [ɛ].

  Front Back
Close unrounded i  
Close rounded y  
Close-mid e o
Open a  

Ancient Greek – long

The [] (ου in Greek orthography) may still have been [] in the fifth century.

  Front Back
Close unrounded  
Close rounded
Open-mid ɛː ɔː

Modern Greek

The systematic distinction between long and short vowels has been lost in Hellenistic Greek.

  Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid               o
Open-mid ɛ  
Open a  


In the International Phonetic Alphabet:

Ancient Greek

Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k g
Aspirated Plosive            
Nasal m n ŋ
Trill r ̥ r
Fricative s z h
Lateral approximant l

Note: [z] was an allophone of [s], used before voiced consonants, and in particular in the combination [zd] written as zeta ( ζ ). The [r ̥] (voiceless r) written as rho with a rough breathing ( ) was probably an allophone of [r].

Modern Greek

Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar
Plosive p b t d c ɟ k g
Nasal m ɱ n ɲ ŋ
Tap ɾ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ç ʝ x ɣ
Affricate ts dz
Approximant j
Lateral approximant l ʎ


The greek language contains certain sandhi rules, some written, some not. n (ν) before bilabials and velars becomes /m/ and /ŋ/ respectively, and is written μ (συμπάθεια, "sympathy") and γ (συγχρονίζω, "synchronize"). One should note that, when n (ν) becomes m (μ) in a word it is also pronounced as /m/ (/m/+/p/ equals /b/ so in reality nobody pronounces it /sympathia/, but /sybathia/) as in english "sympathy", while when it changes to /ŋ/ (γ) it is STILL pronounced /n/, just like the english derivative "synchronize". A notable exception to this rule is the word συγγνώμη (freely translated "I'm sorry") in which /n/ is phoneticaly dropped and the word is pronounced "si/ŋ/nomi" (this is actually an older form of the word, the current orthography is συγνώμη in which /n/ is dropped both phoneticaly and literally). The word ἐστὶ (estí, IPA /ˌɛsˈti/), which means "is" in Ancient Greek (q.v. Modern Greek είναι) gains n, and the accusative articles τόν and τήν in Modern Greek lose it, depending on the beginning letter of the next word (if it's a consonant,n is usually dropped). In the phrase "tón patéra" (τον πατέρα), which means "the father" (accusative case), instead of being dropped, n is assimilated into the second word (creating "to npatera") and, following the example above, np is pronounced /mp/ or, more accurately, /b/, thus producing the sound /to batera/. As a side note, I should mention that the latter example is equivalent to the english use of "gimme" instead of the correct "give me", and it certainly is not a written rule of the greek language.

Historical sound changes

The main phonetic changes between Classic and post-Classic (Hellenistic) 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 vowels i, ē, y, ei, oi (ι, η, υ, ει, οι) have all become i. The consonants b, d, g (β, δ, γ) became v, dh, gh (dh is /ð/ and gh is /ɣ/). The aspirated consonants , , (φ, θ, χ) became f, th, kh (where the new pronunciation of th is /θ/ and the new pronunciation of kh is /x/).


Greek, like all of the older Indo-European languages, is highly inflected. For example nouns (including proper nouns) have five cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative), three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), and three numbers (singular, dual and plural). Verbs have four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and optative), three voices (active, middle and passive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and various other forms. Modern Greek is one of the few Indo-European languages that has retained a synthetic passive.

Dhimotikí, has lost the dative, except for in a few expressions like εν τάξει (en táxei /ɛn ˈdaˌksi/), which means "OK" (literally: "in order").
Other noticeable changes in its grammar include the loss of the infinitive, the dual number and the simplification of the system of grammatical prefixes, such as augment and reduplication.

Writing system

Greek is written in the Greek alphabet which dates from the 8th century BC. The Greek alphabet consists of:

24 Capital Letters:

Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε, Ζ, Η, Θ, Ι, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Ο, Π, Ρ, Σ, Τ, Υ, Φ, Χ, Ψ, Ω.

25 Small Letters (sigma has two forms, one used at the end of words):

α, β, γ, δ, ε, ζ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, μ, ν, ξ, ο, π, ρ, σ (ς), τ, υ, φ, χ, ψ, ω.


Some common words and phrases

  • Greek (man): Έλληνας, IPA /ˈɛliˌnas/
  • Greek (woman): Ελληνίδα /ˌɛliˈniða/
  • Greek (language): Ελληνικά /ɛˌliniˈka/
  • hello: γειά /ʝa/ (informal), you only say this to people that you know well. When you address a stranger you use the more formal "good day": καλημέρα /ˌkaliˈmɛɾa/
  • good-bye: αντίο /aˈndiˌo/ (formal) (see above), γειά /ʝa/ (informal)
  • please: παρακαλώ /paˌɾakaˈlo/
  • I would like ____ please: θα ήθελα ____ παρακαλώ /θa ˈiθɛˌla ____ paˌɾakaˈlo/
  • sorry: συγνώμη /ˌsiˈɣnomi/
  • thank you: ευχαριστώ /ɛˌfxaɾiˈsto/
  • that/this: αυτό /ˌaˈfto/
  • how much?: πόσο; /ˈpoˌso/
  • how much does it cost?: πόσο κοστίζει; /ˈpoˌso ˌkoˈstizi/
  • yes: ναι //
  • no: όχι /ˈoˌçi/
  • I don't understand: δεν καταλαβαίνω /ðɛŋ kaˌtalaˈvɛno/
  • I don't know: δεν ξέρω /ðɛŋ ˈksɛˌɾo/
  • where's the bathroom?: πού είναι η τουαλέτα; /pu ˈiˌnɛ i ˌtuaˈlɛta/
  • generic toast: εις υγείαν! /is iˈʝiˌan/
  • juice: χυμός /ˌçiˈmos/
  • water: νερό /ˌnɛˈɾo/
  • wine: κρασί /ˌkɾaˈsi/
  • beer: μπύρα /ˈbiˌɾa/
  • milk: γάλα /ˈɣaˌla/
  • Do you speak English?: Μιλάτε Αγγλικά; /miˈlaˌtɛ ˌaŋgliˈka/
  • I love you: σ’ αγαπώ /ˌsaɣaˈpo/
  • Help!: Βοήθεια! /voˈiθiˌa/

The Lord's Prayer in Greek (Matt. 6:9–13)

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου· γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς·
τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφελήματα ἡμῶν, ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφίεμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ρῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.
Ὅτι σοῦ ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία καὶ ἡ δύναμις καὶ ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας·


Pater hēmōn, ho en tois ouranois hagiasthētō to onoma sou;
elthetō hē basileia sou; genethetō to thelēma sou, hōs en ouranōi, kai epi tēs gēs;
ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion dos hēmin sēmeron;
kai aphes hēmin ta opheilēmata hēmōn, hōs kai hēmeis aphiemen tois opheiletais hēmōn;
kai mē eisenenkēis hēmas eis peirasmon, alla rhusai hēmas apo tou ponērou.
Hoti sou estin hē basileia, kai hē dúnamis, kai hē doxa eis tous aiōnas;

The Nicene Creed in Greek

Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν, Πατέρα, παντοκράτορα, ποιητήν οὐρανοῦ καί γῆς, ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καί ἀοράτων.
Καί εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τόν Υἱόν τοῦ Θεοῦ τόν μονογενῆ, τόν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρός γεννηθέντα πρό πάντων τῶν αἰώνων. Φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεόν ἀληθινόν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι’ οὗ τά πάντα ἐγένετο.
Τόν δι’ ἡμᾶς τούς ἀνθρώπους καί διά τήν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν καί σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καί Μαρίας τῆς Παρθένου καί ἐνανθρωπήσαντα.
Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπέρ ἡμῶν ἐπί Ποντίου Πιλάτου καί παθόντα καί ταφέντα.
Καί ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατά τάς Γραφάς.
Καί ἀνελθόντα εἰς τούς οὐρανούς καί καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός.
Καί πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετά δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καί νεκρούς, οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
Καί εἰς τό Πνεῦμα τό Ἅγιον, τό κύριον, τό ζωοποιόν, τό ἐκ τοῦ Πατρός ἐκπορευόμενον, τό σύν Πατρί καί Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καί συνδοξαζόμενον, τό λαλῆσαν διά τῶν προφητῶν.
Εἰς μίαν ἁγίαν, καθολικήν καί ἀποστολικήν Ἐκκλησίαν.
Ὁμολογῶ ἕν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.
Προσδοκῶ ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν.
Καί ζωήν τοῦ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος.


W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca – a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1968–74. ISBN 0–521–20626-X

Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (Longman Linguistics Library). Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 0582307090

Crosby and Schaeffer, An Introduction to Greek, Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1928

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