Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

About Modern Greek

Greek is the official language of Greece. It is used in Government, schools and the media and spoken by about 10 million in Greece, about 600.000 of the inhabitants of Cyprus and another 3 to 4 million Greeks of the Diaspora, mainly in the U.S, Australia, Canada, South America and many European countries.

It is called Modern Greek to distinguish it from Ancient Greek, or Demotic Greek to distinguish it from “Katharevousa”, a hybrid of Ancient Greek and Colloquial Greek introduced as the “official” language, after the War of independence (1821).

Greek is a highly inflected language and belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. It has lent grammar elements and vocabulary to some of the other European languages. It is estimated that 12% of the English vocabulary is of Greek origin. If you are a physician or a mathematician, chances are you already know some Greek.

The earliest surviving texts of Ancient Greek form date since 15 century BC, although the writing (Linear B which was deciphered only in 1953), was different from the one we are familiar with today. The Greek alphabet used in classical times derives from the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, when the best-known works using the Greek alphabet, the Homeric poems Iliad and Odyssey, were written. From the classical times on, the dialect of Greek used in Athens, called “koine” (=common), became a widely used popular language as well as the dominant language of the intellectuals from the Mediterranean basin (hence the name “Hellenistic” for many cultures there). Byzantine Greek, an essential language for the Orthodox Church, was derived from “koine” and was used colloquially until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 while Modern Greek also derives directly from it.

After the War of Independence (1821), in an effort to underscore the ethnic and historic identity of the newly created Greek state through language, intellectual elite introduced Katharevousa, a hybrid of Ancient Greek and the colloquial language used in everyday life. At the beginning of the 20th century, many writers became disenchanted with the gap between the official Katharevousa and the reality of the spoken language. They started to write in what they called the language of the people, or Demotic Greek. It was not until the 70’s that Demotic Greek became the official language.

The Greek language, throughout its long history, has been influenced by political and historical events but the general tendency has been toward simplification. The grammar became simpler while the vocabulary changed to accommodate the times. A remarkable simplification of the accent system took place in the 70’s when all but one accent were eliminated. Greek, as it is written and used today, is an elegant and highly structured language and the building material for crafting exquisite poetry: two Greek poets, Elitis and Seferis, received the Nobel Prize. It is also a tool to learn and understand a rich culture that is as vibrant today as it was in ancient times.

Sources: GREEK Grammar by Routledge, Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition