Greek Language

Since language constitutes one of the most important elements of Greek culture and its best transmitter, it is interesting to see, in brief, how the Greeks speak today, how the Ancient Greek language became the modern one known today.

Here is a brief history of the Greek language to help us understand its changes and its evolution. Modern Greek is a descendant of the Ancient language and is affiliated to the part of the Greek or Hellenic branch of Indo-European.

History and evolution of the language

We propose below information about the evolution and history of the language in Greece. From the first written language to the language used in the 20th century.

The First written language

The first written Greek letters were found on baked mud tablets, in the remains of the Minoan Knossos Palace of Crete island. This language is known as Linear A and it has not been fully decoded till today. The most famous example of Linear A is written in the famous Phaistos Disc. In the 12th century BC, a new language started to develop, called Linear B, where each drawing symbol is a consonant-vowel combination. Linear B dates from the Mycenaean civilization. In the late 9th and early 8th century BC, the language found was based on the Phoenician syllabary, written from left to right and back again. This form of the inscription is the closest to the modern language of today.

The Classical Period

During the Classical period (6th-4th century BC), the territory of Greece was divided into numerous states and each one had its own dialect. The two more important dialects were the Ionic and the Attic. During this period, Athens established itself as the political, economic and cultural center of the Greek world, and therefore the Attic idiom started to be used as a common language.

After the expeditions of Alexander the Great, Attic dialect was also expanded in the depths of the East and it was spoken by millions of people. This gradually led to a mixing dialect which was the beginning of the koine, or common dialect, mostly known as the Hellenistic Koine. This type of language survived through centuries and became an official language of the Roman Empire later on. The koine is the original language of the New Testament and the basis for the development of Medieval and Modern Greek. This language was developed all through Byzantine times.

Katharevousa and Dimotiki

With the creation of the modern Greek State in 1829, the question of the language, as an important part of the nation-building process, had to be resolved. After about 4 centuries of Ottoman occupation, Greece had mostly an oral culture due to all these centuries of different dominations. The question was the choice of language used in administration and education. One of the suggestions, to re-use the Attic language, was very attractive, especially because all the Western Europe was charmed by the Ancient Greek culture, and it would have been a great stimulus for the philhellenes. It proved impossible from a practical point of view.

So, the Greek scholar Adamantios Korais (1748-1833), suggested reforming the spoken language of those times on ancient principals. This suggestion was accepted and the katharevoussa (meaning purified language) was created. The theme became politicized: a distinction rose between the Katharevoussa, which became the high-style language associated with official functions such as governmental affairs, education and religion, and the dimotiki language (popular language) used by common people in their everyday life.

20th-century language

In the 20th century, the Greek language debate took a huge political significance: academics were sacked for using Dimotiki, riots were taking place in the streets and a lot of people were claiming that Katharevoussa was being used as an instrument of denying access to education to the common people. Nationalist governments like the dictator of the Junta, Ioannis Papadopoulos, favored Katharevoussa. The struggle between the proponents of Dimotiki and Katharevoussa raised various social attitudes and political positions.

The theme was eventually solved in 1976, with actions of the after dictatorship government. Dimotiki language was adopted in education and administration and it has been kept since then as the formal language of modern Greece.

The last thing worth mentioning is that most regions in Greece have their local oral dialects, never used as writing means. Every region has, of course, its local accent.

More: Learn some Greek | Useful expressions