As many people know, the Greek language was the basis for all Indo-European languages and has a particularly special position in the canon of Western history. However, the language spoken at the time of the Ancient Greek antiquity and the language that is spoken today in modern Greece are very different but related.
Thousands of years of political, social and cultural change, along with the Greek diaspora and the changes wrought by industry, have left their mark on this beautiful and historic language.
How Old Is Ancient Greek?
While there have been many changes to the Greek language since ancient times, something remarkable is the fact that the language, relative to the passage of time, has actually changed very little. While there have been significant changes to the pronunciation and spelling in many areas, compared with the evolution of languages like Latin to Italian and the rest of the Romance languages, Greek is relatively similar.
It is said that a scholar who spoke only Ancient Greek would be able to read a contemporary Greek newspaper with ease, while a scholar familiar only with Latin would be very ill-equipped to read a contemporary Italian newspaper.
Ancient Greek Language
Greek is part of the Hellenic language system of the Indo-European language family. It's earliest origins were found in Mycenae, where it was written in a language called Linear B, between 1,500 and 1,200 B.C. Another variety of Greek was written in Crete, using something called the Cypriot syllabary. The alphabet currently recognizable as the proper Greek alphabet has been used since approximately 750 B.C.
Much of the alphabet was adapted from the Phoenician and Canaanite alphabets, and by the early 4th century B.C. the alphabet had settled into what would come to be known as "the Greek alphabet." This was the very first writing system to include vowels.
Originally the way the language was written was that lines were written horizontally, running from left to right, and then the next line would begin on the right and run back to the left. Eventually, horizontal writing from left to right became the standard.
What Are the Oldest Documents Written in Greek?
Many people know Greek as the language of Aristotle, Euripides, Socrates and other philosophers. However, aside from philosophy and tragedy, some of the most foundational texts in the fields of science, astronomy, mathematics, biology and logic were written in the Greek language. The Platonic dialogues and two of the most famous epic poems in all of literature, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," written by Homer were composed in Greek.
The Bible in Greek
Of tremendous importance, both culturally as well as politically, was one of the most famous documents ever to be recorded, which happened to be written in Greek: the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, which was an iteration of the language that flourished between Ancient Greek and Modern Greek. The texts written in ancient Greek are, together with texts in Latin written during the Roman empire, the earliest records of intellectual and cultural development that people have in the Western world. They are known as the classics.
During the period of antiquity, Greek was the language spoken and written in much of the Mediterranean world and as far east as West Asia and beyond.
However, in the modern era, the Greek language experienced a diglossia, meaning that both ancient dialects and the more modern iteration of the languages were spoken at the same time. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and the language was solidified into a form that was used in most writing and speaking by the early 19th century.
How Did Ancient Greek Influence Other Languages?
The Greek language has had a profound influence on all Indo-European languages, including the English language. While contemporary English has many "loan" words from languages like French, Italian and Spanish, many of the words that are a foundational part of the English language are directly derived from Ancient Greek.
Words like grammar, economy, architect, telephone are all based or rooted in Greek words. Beyond vocabulary, however, there is a tremendous impact on the development of English and the Romance languages as people know them that can be traced to the influence of Greek.
Most of the English language can be more obviously traced to Latin and French. However, those languages, too, were influenced by Greek. The clearest influence is in the English lexicon and in the conceptualizing of language. Because so many root words in English are Greek, they are imbued with a similar sentiment. In an abstract way, since language can create thought, Ancient Greek affects the way English speakers think and conceptualize to this day.
More than 150,000 words in the English language can be attributed to the direct influence of the Greek language. Words, for example, that begin with the letter "ph" are particularly easy to trace back to Greek. Beyond words, the influence of the Greek language has had a cultural impact on English and the rest of the western world.
The concept of tragedy comes directly from plays written in Greek. The expressions like "Achilles Heel," "Midas Touch" and "Trojan Horse" come directly from mythology written in Greek.
Is Ancient Greek a Dead Language?
People often refer to Latin as a "dead language." In some sense, this is true. There are very few people who speak Latin fluently, and there is nowhere on the planet where Latin is the official or even a second language of communication. So given that Latin and Ancient Greek flourished at the same time, is Ancient Greek a dead language, too? Well, yes and no.
The ancient Greek language, the way it was spoken and written in its earliest years, is no longer the form of Greek that thrives today. But that is in the same way that the English spoken in the United Kingdom and in the United States is different from the Old English you read in Chaucer and other early writings. That doesn't make English a dead language.
The Ancient Greek language is among the most versatile in the world and has gone through thousands of years and is still relatively similar to its original form. The fact that it has had such influence and such longevity is a testament to its richness, its effectiveness and the brilliance of its structure. The fact that old texts are still readable to modern Greek speakers is impressive as well. It is also evidence that i is a language that is very much alive.
Why Did the Greek Language Change?
As one of the oldest languages on the planet, unless the Greek people had stayed isolated from the rest of the larger world, the Greek language was bound to change. Exposure to the Byzantine Empire, their proximity to Italy and their tenure under the control of Turkish rule meant that the language absorbed words, phrases and expressions from each of these outside influences. This is how the language stayed robust and hardy and survived centuries intact.
The changes that have occurred to alter the course of the Greek language have, in almost every case, happened in terms of pronunciation and diacritic. This is the biggest change in ancient Greek vs. modern Greek.
Although accent marks are not uncommon in modern Greek, ancient Greek had significantly more in the way of diacritic and directions on pronunciation, stressing syllables, etc. The Greek language today has been much simplified but still retains the most critical characteristics of its earlier forebearer.
Was Greek Mythology a Religion?
Some of the most widespread subjects in Greek cultural history are the Greek myths. The Greeks believed in a system of gods and goddesses who lived atop Mount Olympus and whose whims guided everything from the weather, the seasons and the harvest to the squabbles and romantic liaisons of the citizens of the world. The Greek myth stories tell everything about the world the Greeks inhabited and present strong moral fables that are still in cultural circulation today.
People do know that in Ancient Greece citizens worshiped these gods, made sacrifices and prayers to them and believed that the events happening in their lives were directly traceable to how angry or happy they had made the gods. The names of the gods and goddesses are still widely known and popular.
The Greek myths have had a tremendous impact on virtually every culture in the Western world and in much of the East as well. Contemporary retellings of the myths populate entertainment, and the seasons are in some places still acknowledged as belonging to certain gods or goddesses.
While the adoption of Christianity in the Greek world changed the worship from the ancient gods and goddesses of the pantheon to the Judeo-Christian Bible, the cultures of gods and goddesses persist and are still relevant. The footwear brand Nike is named after the goddess Nike. Cupid, derived from the Greek god Eros, is still invoked in Valentine's Day.
Is Greek the Oldest Language in the World?
Greek is one of the oldest languages in the world and is certainly among the very first written languages on earth. Regardless of whether or not it is the first language to be written, it is the language with the longest history of alphabetic graphology of any on earth.
Despite the fact that Greek culture has a majority oral tradition, the fact that the Greek language has been written down for so many centuries gives the Greek culture and the Greeks unprecedented access to the thoughts and history of their ancestors.
While so much of Europe struggled in the Dark Ages where intellectual growth was stifled and advancements in literacy stopped short, Greek civilization continued to flourish. From creating what people know of the modern theater, to the Socratic method of learning, which is still used today, the civilization was alive with thought and progress. Greece was also, the cradle of democracy, the system still widely used throughout the world in service of equality, fairness and majority rule.
Regardless of conflicts, invasions and shifts in the world, the Greek language and culture has been a surprisingly resilient one. Since the earliest days of recorded history, Greece has been at the vanguard of all development. In ancient times through the Middle Ages, Greece was a veritable powder keg of new ideas, interesting concepts and the desire to further intellectual growth and development.
Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.