Greek Language History

The history of the Greek Language begins, as far as the surviving texts are concerned, with the Mycenaean civilization at least as early as the thirteenth century BCE.

The earliest records of written Greek are inscribed on baked mud tablets found at the beginning of the present century in the ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete and, later, at sites on the Greek mainland.

Written in a syllabic script known as Linear B in which each symbol represents a consonant plus vowel combination, they can be dated to the period immediately before the demise of the Minoan civilization of Knossos which occurred in about 1450 B.C.

Unfortunately their decipherment has not revealed any great works of early literature; most of the tablets are inventories of property or deal with agricultural production and produce. However they represent the earliest records of any European language.

In the late ninth to early eighth century BCE script based on the Phoenician syllabi was introduced, with unneeded consonant symbols being reused to represent the Greek vowels.

The oldest surviving alphabetic inscriptions are written using this new system and date from the late eighth century BCE.

Greek Language was the defining feature of Greek culture. If you spoke fluent Greek, and were conversant with the basic features of Greek culture, you were considered to be Greek, regardless of your homeland or physical features. But Greek was not a uniform language. There were scores of dialects even within the tiny geographical area of mainland Greece. Ancient Greeks spoke in different ways from place to place so there were many Greek Language Dialects.

In Sparta they had the Doric dialect, in Athens they had the Attic dialect and other dialects in other places. This, however, didn’t prevent them from communicating and understanding each other without great difficulties, because the differences between the dialects were not very significant.

This language gradually (and because it became widespread) lost its old form and developed some new features that foretold the language that is spoken today. The language of the 3rd century A.D. shares many elements with modern Greek.

Greek is the official language of Greece, where it is spoken by approximately 10 million people. It is also one of the official languages of Cyprus, where there are an additional 600,000 speakers. Beyond that, some 3 million people elsewhere in the world claim Greek as their first language, including numerous speakers in Turkey, Albania, Canada, and the United States. Greek has been one of the official languages of the European Union since 1981.

If having carefully followed your home study course in Modern Greek you find that you cannot understand a single word spoken by the fishermen at a Cretan quay side or by the peasants in a Cypriot mountain village, do not be dismayed.

Many Greeks will share your predicament! Most regions of Greece have their local dialect (of more modern origins than the dialects of ancient Greece) some of which are very marked. However assuming your pronunciation is correct and you are putting the stress on the correct syllables (one of the most common errors for the student of Modern Greek) they should understand you.

Dialects are never used in written Greek other than in literature or for special effect. Indeed the very centralized organization of Greek education and the effect of films and television is leading to a decline in the use of dialect outside the most rural of areas.

Two main forms of the language have been in use since the end of the Medieval Greek period: Dimotiki, the Demotic (vernacular) language, and Katharevousa, an imitation of classical Greek. Demotic was the language used for creative literature and everyday speech.

Demotic Greek is the official language of the modern Greek state, and the most widely spoken by Greeks today. Katharevousa, on the other hand, was the official language of the armed forces, law, medicine, schools, newspapers, and broadcast media. In 1976 the Greek government adopted Demotic (Modern Greek) as the official language.

Few will have failed to notice that Greek text is written with accents on most words. The more perceptive will have noted that on certain texts the accents look more elaborate than on others. The ancient Greeks did not bother with accents, indeed they did not even bother to leave spaces between words and sentences!

The traditional (poly tonic) system uses three accents v ; and ‘ and every initial vowel carries one of two breathings: ` if the vowel is aspirated (i.e. it is pronounced as if preceded by an h) or ’ if it is not. This is known as the poly tonic system of accentuation and is used for most classical texts and until recently, for Modern Greek.As an accentuation system for Modern Greek it has one major disadvantage – it is far more complicated than it need be.

In Modern Greek initial vowels are never aspirated thus the breathings are redundant. Classical Greek pronunciation used a system of rising and falling tones for which the poly tonic system was originally designed whereas Modern Greek has a strong stress accent – a constant source of difficulty for the foreigner trying to speak Greek! Thus all that is needed is a single accent to indicate the stressed syllable in words of more than one syllable which is the basis of the monotonic system. The abandonment of the poly tonic system, a logical reform, has made Greek spelling, although not trouble free since the long and short vowels of classical Greek are still retained although no distinction is made in pronunciation, a lot easier both for learners of the language as well as a generation of Greek school children.

Modern Greek language has unique virtues : expressibility, flexibility, composing power, productivity, which means that it composes and produces words according to the needs of the speaker.

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