Notebook, 1993-


Greek Language

Greek Language, member of the Indo-European family of languages. It is the language of one of the major civilizations of the world and of one of the greatest literatures of all time. By the 16th cent. B.C., Greek-speaking people were established in Greece, probably having come as invaders from the north. In antiquity there were a number of dialects of the Greek language, the most important of which were Aeolic, Arcadian, Attic, Cyprian, Doric, and Ionic. Ancient Greek was prevalent in the Balkan peninsula, the Greek islands, W Asia Minor, S Italy, and Sicily. Because of the political and cultural importance of Athens in the classical period of Greek history, the Athenian dialect, Attic, became dominant. From Attic there developed an idiom called the Koiné which means "common" or "common to all the people" and which became a standard form of Ancient Greek. After Alexander the Great the Koiné developed into an international language that remained current in the central and E Mediterranean regions and in parts of Asia Minor and Africa for many centuries. Most of the New Testament was written in the Koiné, which helped to gain a wide audience for Christianity. Byzantine Greek, based on the Koiné, was the language of the Byzantine or East Roman Empire, which lasted from A.D. 395 until it was crushed by the Turks in 1453. The earliest surviving texts in Ancient Greek are of the 15th cent. B. C. and are written in a script known as Linear B, which was deciphered in 1953 by Michael Ventirs. Later documents, including inscriptions and literary works, are written in the Greek alphabet, which was derived from the script of the Phoenicians c. 9th cent. B.C. A variety of the Greek alphabet is still used today for the Greek language. Both the nouns and verbs of Ancient Greek were highly inflected. The verb had active, middle and passive voices; indicative, subjunctive, optative, and imperative moods; singular, dual, and plural numbers; and many tenses. The noun had three genders [masculine, feminine, and neuter] and five cases [nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative]. Unlike Latin, Greek had a word for the definite article. Three accents are used for Greek, the acute [´], the grave [`], and the circumflex [ˆ]. In Ancient Greek they denoted a pitch accent related to the length of vowels, but in Modern Greek they serve as a stress accent. A symbol known as a rough breathing ['] over an initial vowel represented the h sound in Ancient Greek, while the symbol for a smooth breathing [,] over an initial vowel made clear the absence of aspiration. Though still retained today, the breathing marks no longer indicate pronunciation. In punctuation, the semicolon [;] stands for the question mark, and a raised dot [.] denotes the semicolon and colon. Modern Greek stems directly from the Attic Koiné and dates from the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 to the present. The official language of Greece and one of the official languages of Cyprus, Modern Greek is spoken today by about 10 million people, chiefly in Greece and the Greek islands [8 million speakers], Turkey [500,000 speakers], Cyprus [450,000], and the United States [400,000]. The Greek language has not changed much in its long history. The differences are largely in pronunciation and vocabulary, but they also include divergences in grammar. Modern Greek, for example, has absorbed a number of loan words from Turkish and Italian, although its vocabulary is essentially that of Ancient Greek. However, the spoken form of Modern Greek differs markedly from the written form. The latter, referred to as Katharevousa, is used by the government, the Greek Orthodox Church, the schools, and the mass media. It is much more like Ancient Greek than the former, which is called Démotiké. Démotiké is the language of popular speech and is employed for conversation generally, although a literature in démotiké has recently developed. It has more foreign loan words and simpler grammar than Katharevousa. Many modern scientific and technical words in English and other Western languages are derived from Greek. It has been estimated that 12% of the English vocabulary is of Greek origin . . . .

[Harris, William H., and Judith S. Levey, eds. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1975.]



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