Modern Greek/Lesson 1x

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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. During older periods of the Greek language, loan words into Greek acquired Greek inflections, leaving thus only a foreign root word. 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 state. 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 to the writing system[edit]

Fortunately, Greek is spelled mostly phonetically and the Greek alphabet is very easy to learn. You have probably already seen quite a few of the letters before, since they're used in maths, physics and chemistry. Others, particularly the uppercase letters, are often identical or very similar to Latin letters (the letters most of the western European languages, including English, use). Here are some letters that you can immediately recognise, in their upper and lowercase forms:

Letter Pronunciation
Α α alpha
Ι ι iota (yotta)
Κ κ kappa
Ο ο omicron
Τ τ tau (taf)

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).
  • Lowercase kappa and iota looks exactly like a miniature version of the uppercase letter.
  • The lowercase tau is also a miniature version of the capital one, whereas the Latin lowercase "t" is written as 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. το is the one for neuter.

Here's how to pronounce the letters you just learned:

  • Α α is pronounced as the a in father, the IPA symbol is [a]
  • Ι ι is pronounced as the ee in meet, the IPA symbol is [i]
  • Κ κ is pronounced as in keep.
  • Ο ο is pronounced as in obey, the IPA symbol is [o]
  • Τ τ is pronounced as in time (without the extra air at the end that native English speakers like to add), [t]

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)

Wait!!! Why is there an accent on the omicron?
This accent indicates that the word 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 is stressed. 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.

I would like to introduce you to one more letter in this lesson:

Ρ ρ

This is the letter Rho. It looks like P, but it's actually the Greek equivalent of R. Be careful not to confuse it. Its pronunciation is closer to a Spanish R than an English one.

Knowing this letter and the ones introduced above, you can read quite a few new words. For example, do you recognise the following country names: Ιράκ, Κροατία, Κατάρ? The city Κάιρο? And κάρτα, which means "card" in Greek?

If so, you have already begun to read Greek. Please continue with the next lesson, where you will learn a few more letters and many more words.


Α α - Ι ι - Κ κ - Ο ο - Τ τ
Greek Transliteration English
Τότο Tóto Toto
κακάο kakáo cocoa
κότα kóta hen
Ρ ρ
Greek Transliteration English
Ιράκ Irák Iraq
Κροατία Kroatía Croatia
Κατάρ Katár Qatar
Κάιρο Káiro Cairo
κάρτα kárta card

Continuation of alphabet lessons: Modern Greek/Lesson 2x[edit]