Modern Greek/Lesson 01.1

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About the Greek language[edit]

Biblical Greek. This section of the Codex Alexandrinus contains Luke 12:54-13:4.

The Greek language is one of the oldest written languages in the world, and Greek literary culture extends back in time even past the invention of writing, to the time of Homer. Greek is a language distinguished by an extraordinarily rich vocabulary. The vast majority of Modern Greek vocabulary is directly inherited from ancient Greek, like άνθρωπος (anthropos - man) or θάλασσα (thalassa - sea). Words of foreign origin have entered the language mainly from Latin, Italian and Ottoman Turkish. Greek is also a highly inflected language. During its older periods, loan words into Greek acquired Greek inflections, leaving thus only a foreign root word. However, modern borrowings (from the 20th century on), especially from French and English, are typically not inflected.

Up until the twentieth century, the archaic (καθαρεύουσα, "katharevousa," "purist") form of the language was the only one with cultural prestige, and was the formal language of government. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the written language was changed to resemble the modern spoken language, becoming the modern demotic language (δημοτική, "of the people"), which is now the official language of the Greek and Cypriot states. The last change became effective as late as 1981, with the abolition of the polytonic system. This book is about the modern language, not classical or biblical Greek.

Introduction[edit]

This is the Greek alphabet:

Αα Ββ Γγ Δδ Εε Ζζ Ηη Θθ Ιι Κκ Λλ Μμ Νν Ξξ Οο Ππ Ρρ Σσς Ττ Υυ Φφ Χχ Ψψ Ωω

Each letter also has a name which is slightly different from how we say them in English. An excellent way to learn the Greek alphabet with good pronunciation, is through an alphabet song, like this one on YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PL-vatFTecrNVDgJHWaBLS9Kyc9QZxEUxI&v=YVq3587vT6s

Greek is generally pronounced as it is written. Six letters are virtually identical to English, and are the subject of this section. Section 2 covers another 12 letters with similar sounds as in English but have different printed forms (some may be familiar from math and science classes). Section 3 covers the last six letters for which there is no exact equivalent in English. Section 4 covers digraphs, which are two letters that when put together, sound different from each letter individually. (E.g. In English “ph” is a digraph for the sound /f/.) The summary covers other things that help with reading Greek, such as accent marks.

IPA ( International Phonetic Alphabet ) letters are used for pronunciation:

Letter English Name Greek Name Pronunciation
Α α alpha άλφα /a/, similar to father *
Ε ε epsilon έψιλον Somewhere between the /ɛ/ and the /e/ in the American pronunciation of cemetery ( in the same order )
Ι ι iota (yota) γιώτα /i/ as in feet
Κ κ kappa κάπα /k/ as in cook
Ο ο omicron όμικρον /o/ as in for
Τ τ tau ταυ /t/ as in stop **

Notes:

  • English pronounces /ɑ/ from the back of the mouth, whereas Greek makes /a/ from the front of the mouth.
  • The Greek /t/ is unaspirated. It's without the extra puff of air at the end that English T has everywhere except after S.


The capital letters are all exactly the same as in the Latin alphabet. The small letters show some subtle differences:

  • The lowercase alpha looks similar to the 'single-story' lowercase 'ɑ' in English (not the double-story a).
  • The lowercase epsilon looks like a miniature script e.
  • The lowercase iota is written as a miniature of its uppercase letter with a tail, similar to a lowercase i in script (except the dot is excluded).
  • Lowercase kappa can be written like a miniature version of the uppercase letter; however, the letter is also frequently written in its calligraphic form ϰ.
  • The lowercase tau can be a miniature version of the capital one with a tail, whereas the Latin lowercase "t" is written with a cross-stroke.


Knowing these few letters, you can already understand when a cartoon shows people shouting "α!" or "ο!". ο also happens to be the masculine article.

Let's practice reading some more. For example, do you know the American band whose greatest hit was "Africa"? It's Τότο. (All solutions can be found at the bottom of this page)

Why is there an accent on the omicron?

This accent indicates that the stress should be on the ο. It's pronounced TOto, not toTO. Every Greek word of at least two syllables gets one accent indicating which syllable has primary stress. This is a great feature for learners, since - unlike in English or German for example - you don't have to memorize the stress.

Here's another word for practice: κακάο. This is what the Greeks call cocoa. And κότα means "hen" in Greek.


You have already begun to read Greek. Please continue with the next section Modern Greek/Lesson 1.2, which covers Greek letters with the same sound as in English but with different forms.

Solutions

Α α - Ι ι - Κ κ - Ο ο - Τ τ
Greek Transliteration English
Τότο Tóto Toto
κακάο kakáo cocoa
κότα kóta hen
Κ κ
Greek Transliteration English
Κροατία Kroatía Croatia