An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Name: Hellenic.

Classification: Indo-European, Hellenic.

Overview. On its own, Greek constitutes a separate branch of the Indo-European family though it shows some affinity with Armenian and Indo-Iranian. It is, with Hittite and Sanskrit, among the oldest attested Indo-European languages. It has also the longest record in the family, from 1400 BCE until now (with an interruption between 1150-800 BCE). For these reasons, Greek is essential to the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European language and culture. On the other hand, though a great part has been lost, Greek literature occupies a special place in Western culture and humanistic studies.

  In the course of its long history, Greek evolved towards phonological and morphological simplification. Modern Greek has a much smaller vowel system than the ancient language, pitch accent was lost, there was a reduction in the number of grammatical cases and declension paradigms, non-finite verb forms were also reduced and in many circumstances nominal and verbal constructions replace synthetic morphology.

Distribution: From Greece, the Greek language spread early to Cyprus (12th c. BCE), southern Italy (8th c. BCE) and western Anatolia. During the Hellenistic period it spread even further to the Middle East, Afghanistan, north-western India and some areas of Central Asia. In the Middle Ages, Greek lost ground in much of Asia but remained important in the Byzantine empire.

    Today, Greek is restricted to Greece and Cyprus with some vestigial pockets in Albania, Turkey, Egypt (Alexandria), southern Italy and Ukraine. There are, in addition, substantial expatriate communities in Great Britain, USA, Canada and Australia.

Speakers. About 12.6 million in the following countries:





Great Britain



















Status. Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus.

Varieties. From the founding of the Greek Republic there has been divergent attitudes towards the influence of tradition in the spoken language, some favoring a Puristic (Katharevousa) form of it, modeled on Classical Greek, and others preferring Demotic (Dimotiki), a vernacular form. Besides this diglossia, there are several regional dialects. The Northern dialects are those of the mainland (Rumelian, Epirote, Thessalian, Macedonian, Thracian) while the Southern dialects are those of the Peloponesse and of the islands (Ionian, Cretan, Cypriot). The standard language is based on the Peloponnesian dialect. Two other noteworthy geographic varieties, quite different from the standard, are Tsakonian, a descendant of ancient Doric that is spoken still in the eastern Peloponesse, and the Pontic dialects, spoken once along the Black Sea coast, but found now mostly in Greece itself.

Oldest Documents. They are a number of clay tablets in Mycenaean Greek written in 1400 BCE., in the Linear B syllabary, found in Knossos (Crete).


1400-1150 BCE. Mycenaean. Clay tablets in Linear B.

800-500 BCE. Archaic. Represented by the works of Homer and Hesiod.

500-350 BCE. Classic. The principal dialect was Attic.

350 BCE-400 CE. Hellenistic Koiné. Greek spreads to many regions of the Ancient World.

400-1100. Byzantine.

1100-1600. Medieval.

1600-present. Modern.


a) Classical Attic Greek

Vowels. The vowel system of Ancient Greek was complex including twelve monophthongs and eleven diphthongs. There were short and long vowels, and vowel length was phonemic.

monophthongs (12): most of them were pronounced at the front, including four high front vowels distinguished by vowel length and presence of lip rounding (short and long [y]) or absence of it (short and long [i]).


diphthongs (11): short  aj, oj, ew, aw, yj

  1. long   e:j, a:j, o:j, e:w, a:w, o:w 

Consonants (15). In contrast to the vowel system, the consonantal system was rather simple. It had three manners of articulation (voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, voiced), and three main points of articulation (labial, alveolar and velar). In Mycenaean Greek, there were also labio-velar consonants, which later merged with the other stops.


  1. [s] became [z] before voiced consonants, and [n] became [ng] before velar consonants.

  2. The archaic glides [j] and [w] were lost in many positions in Classical Greek, though they did remain as the second element of several diphthongs.

Accent: Ancient Greek had pitch or musical accent: rising, falling, and rising-falling (in long vowels and diphthongs). They are marked, respectively, with acute, grave and circumflex accents in transliteration. Accent could occur only  on the antepenultimate, penultimate or ultimate syllable.

  1. b) Modern Greek

Vowels (5). The complex vowel system of the ancient language has been drastically reduced to five basic vowels, with neither vowel length distinction nor diphthongs:


Consonants (20). There is some disagreement about the basic consonants of the modern language. In particular, many scholars consider its voiced stops as allophones of the voiceless ones and not as fundamental sounds. The aspirated stops and the [h] of Ancient Greek were lost but, in compensation, many fricatives appeared.


Accent: the pitch accent of Ancient Greek was lost. Stress accent occurs only on one of the last three syllables of a word.

Scripts and Orthography

    Mycenaean was written in the Linear B syllabary, usually inscribed in clay tablets. A similar system, the Cypriot syllabary, was used in ancient Cyprus from 1050-250 BCE. From the 9th century BCE onwards a different writing system, the Greek alphabet, emerged, which was based on a North Semitic alphabet transmitted through the Phoenicians.

    The Greek script includes 24 letters. It hasn't changed since classical times but nowadays it is pronounced quite differently. We show first the transliteration of Ancient Greek (Attic) and its reconstructed pronunciation with the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (between square brackets). After them, those of Modern Greek.

  1. a)Ancient Greek

-the vowel [u:] is written with the diphthong ου.

-the phonetic value of zeta is disputed; it might have been [zd] as shown above or the affricate [dz].

-ς is a form of sigma [s] used in word-final position.

  1. b)Modern Greek

-the vowel [u] is written with the diphthong ου.

-the letter gamma is pronounced [j] before i/e and [ɣ] elsewhere.

-the affricates ts and dz are represented by the digraphs τσ and τζ.

-ς is a form of sigma [s] used in word-final position.


  1. Nominal. Nouns are inflected for gender, number and case. Adjectives agree with their nouns in gender, number and case.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter.

  1. number: singular, plural. In ancient Greek there was also a dual number. From the 5th c. BCE its use was restricted, disappearing in the Hellenistic period.

  1. case:

  2. Mycenaean (6): nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, genitive, dative-locative.

  1. Archaic & Classical (5): nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative.

  2. The Proto-Indoeuropean ablative was absorbed by the genitive and the instrumental and locative by the dative. There are three declension types with several sub-types each:

  1. I.a-stems including predominantly feminine nouns: e.g. tīmḗ (honor), khṓrā (‘country’).

  2. II.o-stems including mostly masculine and neuter nouns: eg. lükos (‘wolf’), zdügón (‘yoke’).

  3. III.mixed gender. Stems ending in a consonant or in the vowels i or u: eg. feminine phleb- (‘vein’), neuter genes- (‘race’), masculine basileu- (‘king’).


  1. Modern (4): nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive.

  2. The genitive has also a dative function. The assignment to an inflectional class is based on gender (all accents are marked with an acute sign). Typical paradigms are those of masculine patéras ('father') and ánthropos ('man'), feminine kardiá ('heart'), neuter biblío ('book').


  1. articles: Ancient Greek had a definite article, originated from a demonstrative pronoun, inflected for case, gender and number. The modern language has indefinite and definite articles, both inflected for case and gender (the definite also for number). The indefinite is enas (masc.), mia (fem.), ena (neuter); the definite is o (masc sg.), oi (masc. pl), i (fem sg.), oi (fem. pl), to (neuter sg.), ta (neuter pl.).

  1. compounding: Greek preserved the Indo-European ability to form nominal compounds. They are frequent but usually limited to two elements. Only the last element is inflected.

  1. Verbal.

  2. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p. In the ancient language there was also a dual number though it was seldom used.

  1. tense/aspect:

  2. Ancient: present, imperfect, aorist (simple past), perfect, pluperfect, future, future perfect.

  3. The pluperfect and future perfect are not found in Proto-Indo-European being Greek innovations; the future perfect is usually passive. They all result from the combination of three tenses (present, past, future) and three aspects (perfective, imperfective, aoristic).


  1. The perfective aspect indicates a completed action whose results continue to exist, it is expressed in the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect. The imperfective aspect indicates an incomplete or ongoing action; it is expressed in the present, imperfect and future. The aoristic aspect refers to a single occurrence; it is expressed in the aorist and in the future. The simple future, even if it has a single form, may express a single occurrence ('He will buy') or a continuous action ('He will be buying').

  1. Modern: present, simple past, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, future, future perfect, conditional, conditional perfect. They are also a combination of a temporal dimension (present, past, future) and an aspectual dimension (imperfective, perfective):


  1. There are two conjugations. The first conjugation is the most numerous and includes all verbs stressed on the last syllable of their stem in the present tense.

  2. The present, imperfect and future derive from the imperfective stem. The present add its own personal endings to it. The future tense is formed by adding the proclitic particle tha (‘will/shall’) to the present. The imperfect is based on the same stem as the present tense but it has its own set of personal endings; when the stem begins in a consonant and the conjugated form has only two syllables the augment e is prefixed to the verb.

  1. The simple past, perfect, pluperfect and future perfect derive form the perfective stem. The simple past (equivalent to the classical aorist) has the same endings and augment as the imperfect. The perfect is formed with the present of the auxiliary éxo (‘have’) + a non-finite form. The pluperfect is similar to the perfect but the past tense of éxo is used instead. The future perfect is formed with tha + the perfect. Two other tenses are formed with tha: the conditional (from the imperfect), and the conditional perfect (from the pluperfect).

  1. We show below the conjugation of gráfo (to write):


  1. mood

  2. Ancient: indicative, subjunctive, optative, imperative. The optative is used to express potentiality or wish.

  1. Modern: indicative, subjunctive, imperative. The subjunctive is marked with the proclitic particle va.

  1. voice:

  2. Ancient: active, middle, passive. The passive voice was formally distinct from the middle only for the future and aorist tenses.

  1. Modern: active, medio-passive. The latter may have a middle or passive sense according to context.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, and  several participles.

  2. Ancient. It had twelve infinitives and equal number of participles resulting from the combination of four tenses (present, future, aorist, and perfect) and three voices (active, middle, and passive). Besides, it had two verbal adjectives, one of them indicating necessity.

  1. Modern. It has no proper infinitive and only two participles: present active, and present medio-passive, both expressing a continuous aspect (e.g., 'while buying', and 'being bought', respectively). Another non-finite form is used to form only the perfect and pluperfect.


    Word order is quite free although not every combination is allowed. The order Subject-Verb-Object is more frequent than others in the modern language, but it can be changed to put an element in focus or to highlight a topic. For example, Verb-Subject-Object order may be used in sentences presenting wholly new information. In Classical Greek the order Subject-Object-Verb was the predominant one.

    Modern Greek is characterized by the development of analytical forms by means of particles, as well as with nominal and verbal constructions. The genitive case, for instance, can be expressed by prepositional phrases. The tendency within the verbal system is the same, as shown by the use of preverbal markers for the future, the subjunctive and non-second person imperatives.


Ancient Greek had a number of non-Indo-European words of undetermined Balkan origin. It also borrowed from Semitic, Hittite and Iranian. During the Hellenistic period, many loanwords from Latin entered Greek. Later, Italian, Slavonic and Turkish words were adopted. More recently, the main source of loans have been French and especially English.

Basic Vocabulary (Modern Greek)

Key Literary Works

  1. c. 740   Iliad. Homer?

  2. Epic poem on the Trojan War launched by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, to avenge the abduction of his brother’s wife, Helen, by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The greatest heroes of the confronting armies are Achilles, the foremost warrior of Agamemnon, and Hector, the eldest son of Priam.

  1. c. 710   Odysseia (Odyssey). Homer?

  2. Epic poem narrating the adventurous and fantastic travels of Odysseus (Ulysses), king of the island of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy. They lasted ten years until his return home where his wife Penelope and son Telemachus were harassed by pretenders to the throne during his prolonged absence.

c. 498-446   Epinikia (Epinician Odes). Pindar

  1. Choral poetry celebrating the victories obtained by athletes at the Pythian, Olympic, Isthmian, and Nemean games.

c. 472-458    Tragedies. Aeschylus

  1. The first great Greek tragedies that perdure, seven in total: Persians (472), Seven against Thebes (467), Suppliants (463), Oresteia trilogy (458), and Prometheus Bound.

c. 445-430    History. Herodotus

  1. The first history of the ancient world, its main subject is the wars between Greeks and Persians.

c. 430-400    The Peloponnesian War. Thucydides

  1. A scientific, contemporary, account of the wars between Spartans and Athenians. It is unfinished breaking off in 411.

c. 440-406   Tragedies. Sophocles

  1. They innovate with the introduction of a third actor increasing the number of characters and their interactions. The seven extant plays (Ajax, Antigone, Trachiniae, Oedipus the King, Electra, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus) deal with flaws of character and ignorance that lead men, inevitably, to their tragic ends.

c. 438-406   Tragedies. Euripides

  1. Nineteen plays are extant, among them: Medea, the cruel revenge of a woman abandoned by her husband; Electra, who murdered her mother to avenge the murder of her father; Trojan Women, the sufferings of women and children of the defeated leaders in the Trojan war; Iphigenia at Aulis, who was sacrificed by her father to be able to send his forces against Troy. In Euripides tragedies, men are not heroes, they are rather helpless victims of their emotions and desires and of the conditions surrounding them; their suffering is not part of a divine plan.

c. 426-388   Comedies. Aristophanes

  1. They are satires characterized by fantasy, public denunciation, and political criticism. Eleven have survived intact, among them Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata deal with the weariness of war and the craving for peace. Birds, its most fantastic comedy, can also be read as a political satire on the doomed Greek expedition to conquer Syracuse in Sicily. In Frogs, Dionysus, the god of drama, goes to Hades in search of Euripides but brings back Aeschylus, instead.

  1. c. 380   Politeia (The Republic). Plato

  2. One of the most influential philosophical works of Antiquity, in the form of a Socratic dialogue. One of its main subjects is the definition of the just man and of the just social order. It also discusses the theory of forms and the immortality of the soul.

mid 4th c.   Oratory. Demosthenes

  1. In The Philippics, Demosthenes, the greatest orator of Ancient Greece, warned of the dangers of Macedonian expansionism embodied in the growing power of king Philip, and of the moral decline of Athens. In On the Crown, he acrimoniously defended himself from the attacks of Aeschines, his longstanding competitor and political opponent.

c. 275-270   Eidyllia (Idylls). Theocritus

  1. Short pastoral poems in hexameter verse, small vignettes on life in the countryside in a Mediterranean setting.

  1. c. 260   Aitia (Origins). Callimachus

  2. A long elegiac poem which has survived in fragmentary form. It deals with stories and legends about the Greek origins, religion and customs.

  1. c. 250   Argonautica (The Argonauts). Apollonius of Rhodes

  2. An epic poem in which magic and the supernatural play an important part. It tells the story of Jason's expedition, with fifty companions (the Argonauts), to the mysterious land of Colchis to bring back a golden fleece, in order to regain his throne. There, he finds Medea, a princess and sorcerer, who falls in love with him and helps him to succeed in several trials.

  1. 1st c. CE   Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime). Longinus

  2. In this work of literary criticism Longinus affirms that the sublime in literature is achieved not only by the excellence of language as thought before. For him, the sublime is the expression of a great and noble mind, which along with the technique and the imaginative power of the writer creates an overwhelming emotion in the reader.

70-119 CE   Bioi Paralleloi (Parallel Lives). Plutarch

  1. Biographies of Greek and Roman important public men whose lives and achievements are recounted and compared accompanied with ethical reflections.

  1. 143-176   Periegesis Hellados (Description of Greece). Pausanias

  2. The only surviving ancient description of Greece and its monuments dealing with topography, sculpture and buildings of each important city. With glimpses into mythology, religion, history, art, and daily life. Modern archeology has proved the accuracy of Pausanias descriptions.

  1. c. 170 CE   Satires. Lucian of Samosata

  2. In his satyrical essays Lucian criticized the literates and philosophers of his age, mocked institutions, ideas, and conventions and also man's inability to understand that wealth and fame are transient.

160-180 CE Ta Eis Heauton (Meditations). Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

  1. The daily reflections of a Roman emperor, written in Greek, during the troubled times of his reign. His thoughts are essentially the principles of Stoicism.

  1. 270 CE   Enneades (Enneads). Plotinus

  2. A series of short philosophical writings arranged by his pupil Porphyry in six books with nine essays each. Ennead 1 is about aesthetics, Enneads 2 and 3 about physics and cosmology, Ennead 4 deals with psychology, Enneads 5 and 6 with logic and metaphysics.

1900-1933   Poems. Constantine Cavafy

  1. He lived in Alexandria and published about 200 poems, written most of them after his 40th birthday. Blending Katharevousa and Dimotiki (the refined and the vernacular languages), he showed a non-conformist attitude mocking conservative values, and treated known historical themes in a lyric, intimate, way.

  1. 1946   Vios ke politia tou Alexi Zorba (Zorba the Greek). Nikos Kazantzakis

  2. The most popular novel of this prolific writer focuses on the relationship between two very different personae. One is an intellectual, the other is Zorba, an uneducated spontaneous man larger than life.

1931-1971   Poems. George Seféris

  1. Seféris renewed modern Greek poetry by introducing and combining symbolism, a subtle lyricism, and everyday speech. As a working diplomat, frequently far from home, he felt and expressed nostalgia for Smyrna, his birthplace, and the Mediterranean at large. He opposed the military dictatorship of Papadopoulos and reflected the tragic situation of the Greeks and of modern man.

1940-1996   Poems. Odysseus Elytis

  1. Elytis's poems, written in a rich musical language, insert classical Greek mythology and Byzantine motifs into contemporary life. One of his most famous works is To Axion Esti (Worthy it is) (1959) in which he combines the biblical story of the creation with modern Greek history.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Greek'. B. D. Joseph. In The World's Major Languages, 347-372. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  2. -'Attic Greek'. R. D. Woodward. In The Ancient Languages of Europe, 14-49. R. D. Woodard (ed). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  3. -Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language. D. Holton, P. Mackridge & I. Philippaki-Warburton. Routledge (1997).

  4. -History of the Greek Language: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity. A. Ph. Christides (ed.) 2007. Cambridge University Press (2007).

  5. -Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. G. Horrocks. Longman (1997).

  6. -Histoire du Grec Moderne. La formation d’une langue. H. Tonnet. Éditions L’Asiathèque (1993).

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