Languages change dramatically over centuries. Pick up a copy of what is considered the first great work of English literature, the poem ''Beowulf,'' and it becomes clear that although the language is characterized as “Old English,” it is essentially a foreign language, incomprehensible. However, the difference in time periods expressed by the distinction of “modern” and “ancient” forms of a language does not guarantee that the two are different languages; just ask a native speaker of Greek.

Differences in Centuries, not Meanings

Historians place the transition from ancient to modern Greek in the mid-15th century A.D. However, the Greek language retains a powerful link between its ancient and modern forms, between what is known as “Ancient Greek” and “Modern Standard Greek,” that most Greeks today could read literature written in the sixth century B.C. and understand it, at least partially, because of the powerful tie that binds Greek as it appears today to its form millennia ago.

Becoming Ancient Greek

Although ancient and modern forms of the Greek language share many traits, it would be misleading to consider the two varieties of Greek identical. In fact, the concept of "Ancient Greek” is misleading. For centuries, Greek was split into more than seven regional dialects. Only in the fourth century B.C., under Alexander the Great, did a shared language develop. It was known as ''Koiné'' or ''Common Greek.'' It was from Koiné that ancient Greek, as it is understood today, was born.

Related Articles

Identical Alphabet, Different Pronunciation

Dialects aside, the greatest difference between ancient Greek and its modern form lies in pronunciation. Though the alphabets are nearly identical, pronunciation differs, especially with vowels. For example, in antiquity, Greek had four of what linguists would call vowel “heights." A “height” is a linguistic term for how far up or down the tongue must reach to create sound, such as the difference in position required to sound the “a” in “ask” and the “i” “little." Modern Greek simplified the ancient system into five basic vowel sounds.

Making Modern Greek

Modern Greek has shed many of the grammatical rules of its ancient predecessor. For instance, ancient Greek had a certain verbal mood known as the “optative,” which was used when expressing a wish or desire. Modern Greek has dispensed with that nuance-- as it has the “dual,” which was reserved for occasions used when a speaker wanted to describe two of something. And these grammatical changes, along with other shifts such as the elimination of certain prefixes and the adoption of the gerund (also known as the "-ing" verb form) are just a few of the relatively minor changes that distinguish ancient Greek from its modern counterpart.

The Mystery of Continuity

Despite their differences in pronunciation and grammar, it is ultimately the similarities between Greek in its ancient and modern forms rather than the differences that are most impressive. Other languages, including Italian and Spanish are derived from Latin, but those modern languages are so different from their predecessor that the ancient language is entirely foreign, impossible to understand without training. Though no single answer can account for the remarkable continuity in Greek, its ancient and modern forms are unified in part because of the deep national pride in a shared cultural past that Greek citizens have. This pride unites them at a fundamental level. Theirs was the language not just of Homer, but of Plato, Sophocles and other masters of ancient philosophy and literature. By preserving their connection to antiquity in language itself, Greeks today celebrate their cultural inheritance every time they speak.

About the Author

Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.