Greek Language Past and Present

Greek is the official language of Greece where it is spoken by close to 99 per cent of the population. Alongside Turkish, Greek is also the official language of Cyprus. Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. It is officially recognised as a minority language in Turkey, Italy and Albania. Today, it is spoken by approximately 15–25 million people worldwide.

Ancient Greek

Greek is one of the world’s oldest surviving languages. It has a documented history of 3,500 years, the longest of any Indo-European language. It has been spoken since the 2nd Millennium BC, with the earliest evidence of the language found in the Room of the Chariot Tablets in Crete, which were written in ‘Linear B’, or Mycenaean Greek. Together with Chinese and West Semitic languages, Greek is one of the very few living languages directly descended from a language recorded in the Bronze Age.

As with all languages, the Greek language has changed over its long history. Its different forms are often named after the historical era in which they were spoken: Mycenaean Greek, Classical Greek, Hellenistic or Koine Greek, Medieval or Byzantine Greek, and Modern Greek.

Modern Greek

Most Modern Greek vocabulary is directly inherited from ancient Greek, although the meaning of some words has changed. Over the centuries words from other languages have entered the language, mainly from Latin, Italian and Turkish. In more recent years Greek has also incorporated many French and English words.

Two main forms of the language have been in use since the end of the Medieval Greek period: the Demotic (vernacular) language, and Katharevusa, an imitation of classical Greek. Katharevusa was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for literary, legal, administrative and scientific purposes. Demotic Greek was declared Greece’s official language in 1976. It is now referred to as Modern Greek.

Dialects

Apart from standard Modern Greek there are also Greek dialects, spoken by large numbers of people.

  • Cypriot Greek is spoken by 578,000 people in Cyprus
  • Pontian Greek is spoken by 200,000 people in Greece
  • Cretan is spoken by 500,000 people on the island of Crete.

These dialects are also widely spoken by Greek Australians. Unlike the dialects of other languages, speakers of Greek dialects are often able to understand the official national language, in this case Modern Greek.

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