Greek language

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Greek (Ελληνικά)
Spoken in: Greece, Cyprus
Region: The eastern Mediterranean
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 639-1 el
ISO 639-2 gre (B) / ell (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

Greek (Greek Ελληνικά, IPA /ɛˌliniˈka/ – "Hellenic") constitutes its own branch of the Indo-European languages. It has a documented history of 3,500 years, the longest of any Indo-European language. It is spoken by 15 million people primarily in Greece and Cyprus, but also in many Greek emigrant communities around the world.

Greek is written in the Greek alphabet, the first true alphabet (as opposed to an abjad or abugida) and the ancestor of the Latin. The Cyrillic alphabet was originally framed by writers of Greek, and several of its letters are direct borrowings. Ulfilas took letters from both Greek and Roman scripts for his Gothic alphabet; the Norse runes may also have been influenced directly by Greek as well as by Latin.



Main article: History of the Greek language

This article does not cover the reconstructed history of Greek prior to the use of writing. For more information, see main article on Proto-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 later Greek alphabet is unrelated to Linear B, and was derived from the proto-Sinaitic writing system in parallel with Phoenician (abjad) between c. 1450 BC and 1100 BC, with minor modifications, is still used today. Greek is conventionally divided into the following periods:

  • Hellenistic Greek (also known as Koine Greek): The fusion of various ancient Greek dialects with Attic (the dialect of Athens) resulted in the creation of the first common Greek dialect, which gradually turned into one of the world's first international languages. Koine Greek can be initially traced within the armies and conquered territories of Alexander the Great, but after the Hellenistic colonisation of the known world, it was spoken from Egypt to the fringes of India. After the Roman conquest of Greece, an unofficial diglossy of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Rome and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire. Through Koine Greek it is also traced the origin of Christianity, as the Apostles used it to preach in Greece and the Greek-speaking world. It is also known as the Alexandrian dialect, Post-Classic Greek or even New Testament Greek (after its most famous work of literature).

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 Katharévousa (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 now the official language of the modern Greek state, and the most widely spoken by Greeks today.

It has been claimed that an "educated" speaker of the modern language can understand an ancient text, 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, biomechanics 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 (which in fact is 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

Modern Greek is spoken by about 15 million people mainly in Greece and Cyprus. There are also autochthonus Greek-speaking populations in Turkey, southern Albania, southern Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Sicily. The language is spoken also in many other countries where Greeks have settled, including Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Official status

Greek is the official language of Greece where it is spoken by about 99.5% of the population. It is also, alongside Turkish, the official language of Cyprus. Due to the membership of Greece and Cyprus, Greek is one of the 20 official languages of the European Union.


This section describes the phonology of the Modern Greek language.

All phonetic transcriptions in this section use the International Phonetic Alphabet

Vowel sounds

Greek has 5 vowel sounds, all phonemic:

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


Greek has a repertoire of 29 consonant sounds. The number of phonemes depends on the analysis, but may be as few as 15, assuming for example that the sound [b] is represented in the underlying form as /mp/, which is also its standard orthographic representation. (cf. Newton)

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

Greek p, t and k are not aspirated as they are in English. They tend to be voiced to [b], [d] and [g] in Cretan and Cypriot dialects.

Standard Modern Greek does not have double consonants within words, although some dialects (notably Cypriot) do.

Sandhi rules

Greek has certain sandhi rules, some represented in the orthography, some not.

/n/ before bilabials and velars becomes /m/ and /ŋ/ respectively, and is written μ (συμπάθεια, "sympathy") and γ (συγχρονίζω, "synchronize").

When n (ν) becomes m (μ) it is also pronounced as /m/ in Northern Greece (/sympathia/), whereas Southern Greeks conflate μ+π to /b/ (/sybathia/).

Pre-velar N changes to (γ) and may be pronounced /ŋ/ or /n/, although the latter is usually indicative of careless enunciation. An exception to this rule is the word συγγνώμη (freely translated "I'm sorry") in which /n/ is phonetically dropped and the word is pronounced "si/ŋ/γ/nomi" (this is actually an older form of the word, the current orthography is συγνώμη in which /n/ is dropped both phonetically and literally).

The sequence /nð/ is pronounced /nd/.

The sounds /k/ and /g/ before the front vowels /i/ and /ɛ/ are palatalized, becoming /c/ and /ɟ/. In some dialects, notably in Crete and Cyprus, they become /ç/ and /ʝ/.

The word ἐστὶ (estí, IPA /ˌɛsˈti/), which means "is" in Ancient Greek (q.v. Modern Greek είναι), gains a "euphonic" 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/ in Northern Greece and /b/ in Southern Greece, thus producing the sound /to batera/.

Some of these rules are optional, and reflect the formality of speech. While everyday spoken Greek sounds artificial if the sandhi rules are not used, a formal or official speech may sound equally awkward if sandhi rules are used.


The Greek vowel letters with their pronunciation are α /a/, ε /ɛ/, η /i/, ι /i/, ο /o/, υ /i/, ω /o/. There are also vowel digraphs, traditionally called "diphthongs" though in Modern Greek they are phonetically monophthongal: αι /ɛ/, ει /i/, οι /i/, ου /u/. The two digraphs αυ, ευ are pronounced /av/ and /ɛv/ except when followed by unvoiced consonants, in which case they are pronounced /af/ and /ɛf/.

The Greek letters β and δ are pronounced /v/ and /ð/. The letter γ is generally pronounced /ɣ/, but before the front vowels /ɛ/ and /i/, it is pronounced /j/.

The Greek letters φ, θ, χ are pronounced /f/, /θ/ and /x/. The letter ξ stands for /ks/ and ψ stands for /ps/. The digraphs γγ, γκ are pronounced /ng/ and /g/ respectively.

Historical sound changes

See: Ancient Greek pronunciation


Ancient Greek, like all of the older Indo-European languages, was 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. Verbs are conjugated in four main tenses (present, aorist, perfect, and future), with a full complement of moods for each main tense, although there is no future subjunctive or future imperative. (The distinction of the "tenses" in moods other than the indicative is actually mostly of aspect.) In addition, indicative forms of the imperfect, pluperfect and future perfect exist. There are infinitives and participles for all corresponding finite combinations of tense and voice, excluding the imperfect and pluperfect. However, usage of ancient/obsolete grammatical forms and phrases is becoming increasingly common in current language in the absence of similar modern forms (e.g.: ειρήσθω εν παρόδω, French: a propos ; ευκαιρίας δοθείσης, Latin: data occasione).

Modern Greek has simplified some aspects of this system but is still largely a synthetic language. It is one of the few Indo-European languages that has retained a synthetic passive. The dative is lost 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 optative, infinitive and the dual number (with the exception of δύο, the numeral two, used undeclined in all cases); the reduction in the number of noun declensions, and the number of distinct forms in each declension; the adoption of the modal particle θα (a corruption of ἐθέλω ἵνα > θέλω να > θε' να > θα) to denote future and conditional tenses; the introduction of auxiliary verb forms for certain tenses; the reduction of participles to only two, one active and one passive; the extension to the future tense of the aspectual distinction between present/imperfect and aorist; the loss of the third person imperative, except in archaicisms such as ζήτω! ('long live!'); and the simplification of the system of grammatical prefixes, such as augmentation and reduplication.

Writing system

Modern Greek is written in the late Ionic variant of the Greek alphabet, the oldest discovered inscriptions of which date to the 8th or 9th Century BC, assumed its final form in 403 BC, and displaced other regional variants due to its use for the Attic Koine dialect during the Hellenistic era.

The Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters, each with a capital and small form: Α α, Β β, Γ γ, Δ δ, Ε ε, Ζ ζ, Η η, Θ θ, Ι ι, Κ κ, Λ λ, Μ μ, Ν ν, Ξ ξ, Ο ο, Π π, Ρ ρ, Σ σ ς (word-final form), Τ τ, Υ υ, Φ φ, Χ χ, Ψ ψ, Ω ω.

Ancient Greek subordination rules and verbs meaning

Ancient Greek is probably the closest language in syntax to Indoeuropean, spoken by the ancient Indoeuropean population before their migration over Europe. This similiarity has to be noted on the verb meaning, Greek verb, either ancient or modern does not indicate tense,the sensation of time as primary information, but the Greek verb describes the aspect of an action. "Aspect" means the quality of an action seen by the man who is talking or writing. Three aspects are used. The time information coexists with the aspect meaning only in the indicative mode, and only the future express the time in all the modes.

Present: indicates an evolving present action.

Aorist: indicates an action that is done and concluded in the same time or the action on its time of birth, without any time extension, as it is focused on a point, this is probably the hardest tense to translate, because in all modern languages, time is primary, not aspect.

Perfect: that can be stative, resultative or the most common, perfective, which means an action that is finished by the time of speaking, while stative presents the action of himself previously in movement now finished as the result of the previous movement.

  • Present: Tρέχoμεν είς τον ποταμόν, we run to the river, in the meaning we continue, are in progress to, we are running to the river.
  • Aorist: Aυτός έπεσε, he fell down, without any time extension, he fell, stop, the action ends in the same time of its birth.
  • Perfect: Oί πλείους γεγραφάσιν ούτω, the most have written this way, the action is now "perfect", concluded, this is an example of resultative perfect. Kέκτημαι χρήματα, I possess currency, in the sense I possess them because I've bought them, this is an example of stative perfect, this the stative consequence of the action that was previously moving.

The most important rule that directs the Greek subordination is consecutio modorum that is a kind of consecutio temporum less rigid and more flexible. This rule orders the verb in the subordinate sentence, but not in order to express anteriority or posteriority. In fact, this rule orders that the mode of the subordinate sentence has to be storic or present according to the mode of the pricipal sentence. The modes are: indicative, that is storic or present according of which aspect is there, imperfect aorist and perfect, but not all perfect are considered storic indicatives. Subjunctive and imperative are always considered principal modes or present, while optative is always considered a storic mood. Infinite participle always accords to the principal mode. So, an aorist participle often does not express anteriority between his regent and his action. When in the principal, there is a storic indicative the subordinate has to be in the optative mode, doesn't matter which tense this optative is because the verb in Greek does not express time except in the indicative, so a present or aorist or perfect does not express present or anteriority, only the future optative expresses posteriority. When in the principal sentence there is a principal indicative or imperative or subjunctive the subordinate had to adopt sujunctive or indicative, subjunctive is used when the sentence has to express eventuality or consequentiality, indicative when the sentence has to be more certain and to express time. Some examples:

  • O Γυβρίας είπεν ο,τι Κύρον βουλοίτο ιδείν, Gruibias said that he wanted to see Cyrus, ειπεν is indicative aorist so a storic mode, βυλοιτο is as the rules command present optative ,while ιδειν is aorist infinite and as could be seen by the translation does not express anteriority in relationship to its regent, ειπεν.


Some common words and phrases

  • Greek (man): Έλληνας, IPA /ˈɛliˌnas/
  • Greek (woman): Ελληνίδα /ˌɛliˈniða/
  • Greek (language): Ελληνικά /ɛˌliniˈka/
  • hello: γεια /ʝa/ (informal, literally "health"), you say this only to people that you know well. When you address a stranger you use the more formal "good morning": καλημέρα /ˌkaliˈmɛɾa/
  • good-bye: αντίο /aˈdiˌo/ (formal), γεια /ʝa/ (informal)
  • please: παρακαλώ /paˌɾakaˈlo/
  • I would like ____ please: θα ήθελα ____ παρακαλώ /θa ˈiθɛˌla ____ paˌɾakaˈlo/
  • sorry: συγγνώμη /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 gaˌtalaˈvɛno/ (sandhi - see above) or /ðɛŋ kaˌtalaˈvɛno/
  • I don't know: δεν ξέρω /ðɛŋ ˈgzɛˌɾo/ (sandhi - see above) or /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 imon, o en tis uranis, ayiasthito to onoma su;
eltheto i basilia su; yenithito to thelima su, os en urano, ke epi tis yis;
ton arton imon ton epiusion dos imin simeron;
ke afes imin ta ofilimata imon, os ke imis afiemen tis ofiletes imon;
ke mi isenengis imas is pirasmon, ala rise imas apo tu poniru.
Oti su estin i basilia, ke i dinamis, ke i doksa is tus eonas;

The Nicene Creed in Greek

Πιστεύω εἰς ἕνα Θεόν, Πατέρα, παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς, ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων.
Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων. Φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, δι’ οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο.
Τὸν δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς Παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα.
Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπέρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα.
Καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατὰ τὰς Γραφάς.
Καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς καὶ καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός.
Καὶ πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετὰ δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς, οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ κύριον, τὸ ζωοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, τὸ σὺν Πατρί καὶ Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον, τὸ λαλῆσαν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν.
Εἰς μίαν ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν.
Ὁμολογῶ ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.
Προσδοκῶ ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν.
Καὶ ζωὴν τοῦ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος.


  • Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956 (revised edition), ISBN 0674362500. The standard grammar of classical Greek.
  • W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca - a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek. Cambridge University Press, 1968-74. ISBN 052120626X
  • Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (Longman Linguistics Library). Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 0582307090. From Mycenean to modern.
  • Robert Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 1983, ISBN: 0521299780.
  • Brian Newton, The Generative Interpretation of Dialect: A Study of Modern Greek Phonology, Cambridge University Press, 1972, ISBN 0521084970.
  • Crosby and Schaeffer, An Introduction to Greek, Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1928. A school grammar of anchient Greek
  • David Holton et al., Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language, Routledge, 1997, ISBN: 041510002X. A reference grammar of modern Greek.
  • Dionysius of Thrace, "Art of Grammar", "Τέχνη γραμματική", c.100 BC

See also

History of the
Greek language

(see also: Greek alphabet)
Proto-Greek (c3000BC)
Mycenaean (c1600BC-1100BC)
Ancient Greek
Aeolic, Arcadocypriot,
Attic, Doric, Ionic

Koine Greek (from c323 BC)
Medieval Greek (c330-1453)
Modern Greek (from 1453)
Cappadocian, Cypriot,
Demotic, Griko, Katharevousa,
Pontic, Tsakonic, Yevanic

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