Greek Language History

The Greek language is well known for being one of the oldest languages. In fact, it has the most extended history of all Indo-European languages. The earliest inscriptions of Greek words written using the Ancient Greek alphabet date back to 1400 BC, equating to 3,400 years of written records. At the time, more people were speaking Greek than any other language across the Mediterranean.

Today, the Ancient Greek language is dead, and there is no longer a native-speaking community. Instead, Modern Greek is spoken – the version of the language that evolved from Ancient Greek through the Medieval Greek intermediate. Around 13 million people speak Greek worldwide today, most of whom live in Greece and Cyprus. The Greek language also holds a minority status in Albania and is used co-officially in a few municipalities.

Throughout its long history from Ancient Greek to Modern times, the Greek language has been highly influential. Many notable literary works were written in Ancient Greek, including texts on science and philosophy. In addition, many Greek words for scientific terms were adopted in English, such as mathematics, astronomy and athletics. Even today, some words are often used as a basis for coining new scientific vocabulary.

As you might imagine, learning Greek history is fascinating. Where did the Ancient Greek alphabet come from? How did the Greek language evolve into the modern standard of the language? How did it go from becoming the most spoken language in the Mediterranean to today being spoken only by 12 million people worldwide? Here, we answer all these questions, heading back to the origins of the Greek history from the beginning.

Greek language Origin

The ancestor of the Greek language is Proto-Greek. Greek sound changes emerged around 2000 BC, differentiating this language from its closest Indo-European relatives. Linguists are unsure whether this sound shift happened in the Greek Peninsula or whether people speaking Greek migrated to Greece sometime after.

A new version of the Greek language emerged in the 15th century BC. The Mycenaean civilisation spoke it, the first distinctly Greek society; hence, it is referred to as Mycenaean Greek. Mycenaean Greek was the first of several ancient dialects spoken throughout the Archaic and Classical eras. Learning Greek also became more widespread during this period as numerous important texts were written in Ancient Greek.

Under the rule of Alexander the Great (365 BC to 323 BC), Koine Greek emerged. This version of the Greek language fused Greek words from Ionain and Attic – two Ancient Greek dialects – and was the first common form of Greek. It became the lingua franca across much of the Mediterranean, particularly the Eastern regions. People were learning Greek, speaking Greek and writing in the Ancient Greek alphabet – including the infamous translation of the Septuagint.

Modern “Greek Language”

After Koine Greek came Medieval Greek, the link between the Ancient Greek alphabet and language and Modern Greek spoken today. Its beginnings can be dated back to the 3rd century, but the main turning point in Greek language development was in the 7th century. From this point onward, it was the only language used for official purposes in the Byzantine Empire.

Medieval Greek should not be seen as a single vernacular but rather as a continuum of various dialects. People speaking Greek used different styles, and Greek words were written using several alphabets. By the time the Modern Greek emerged in the 1450s, it had entered a state of diglossia – separate populations used two versions of the language (Demotic Greek and Katharevusa), and words became increasingly polarised.

When Greece was established as an independent state in 1829, the Katharevusa dialect was chosen as the official language – the use of the Demotic dialect was forbidden in official settings. This resulted in a linguistic war called the Greek language question. The Demotic dialect was eventually accepted for use by the government in 1974. Today, this vernacular is the official language of Greece and Cyprus and the version taught to students learning Greek.

Greek Language Alphabets & Writing System

The earliest inscriptions of the Greek language are written in Mycenaean Greek, which uses the Linear B script. This is a syllabic script and the earliest attested form of the Ancient Greek alphabet. It was not uncovered and deciphered until the beginning of the 20th century by English architect Michael George Francis Ventris, an exciting time for people interested in learning Greek history.

After a lapse of several centuries, Mycenaean Greek stopped being written, and the Greek alphabet came into use. This alphabet is the earliest known script that used distinct letters for vowels and consonants. During the classic and archaic periods, several forms of the alphabet were used to write Greek words. However, by the end of the 4th century BC, a standardised alphabet had been introduced known as the Euclidean alphabet.

This unified alphabet for the Greek language consists of 24 letters, ordered from alpha (α) to omega (ω). Words were originally written using a single letter case, but upper case and lower-case characters were introduced in the modern era. Ancient and Modern Greek also use slightly different diacritic marks for words due to pronunciation changes when speaking Greek. Other than that, the alphabet has remained largely unchanged throughout history.

Geographical Distribution

The Ancient Greek alphabet is widely regarded as dead. Despite some literary works still being published in the language (such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter), there are no native Ancient Greek-speaking people. However, many people are interested in learning Greek words and phrases because of its rich history and the influence of the Greeks on science and philosophy.

Moreover, the Modern Greek language is alive and thriving. It is the official language of Greece – a country of around 13 million – of which 99% speak Greek. In addition, the Greek holds official status in Cyprus (alongside Turkish). When Greece and Cyprus joined the European Union (1981 and 2004, respectively), Greek also became an official language of the EU and is used in all official EU communications.

The language holds minority status in the parts of Albania closest to the Greek border due to migration from Greece into Albania during the 1980s. It is also a recognised language in Apulia and Calabria in Southern Italy, where large Greek communities could be found historically. Although not officially recognised, there are also around 300,000 Greek speakers in Germany and Australia.

Greek Translation Services

As you can see, the Greek language has a fascinating history. Despite being one of the oldest languages, the Ancient Greek alphabet is largely unchanged, and many Greek words have found their way into other modern languages to coin words for science and philosophy.

Its rich history and influence have resulted in many people learning Greek. With more than 13 million people speaking Greek worldwide, Greek translation services are seeing increased demand. They can help businesses in all industries communicate with Greek-speaking populations across the globe.

If you need a professional Greek translation, we can help. Our vast network means we have the expertise to translate across various industries, including engineering, healthcare, and law. Contact us today to get a quote for your Greek translation project.