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In the fascinating world of historical linguistics, the ancient Greek language is like a powerful god, casting long and tangled beams of influence toward modern languages and beyond. And that’s only natural. Humanity’s most foundational knowledge was first articulated in the ancient Greek language. Whether we’re talking about Plato’s dialogues, Homer’s Iliad, or the forward-looking explorations in science, astronomy, and mathematics, we owe a lot to ancient Greece and its language.
So, let’s embark on a journey through time and explore the history of the ancient Greek language. We will look at its profound impact on modern languages and culture and how it differs from modern Greek. With a little help from the Greek gods and goddesses, you’ll see that ancient Greek is not a relic of the past but a living legacy echoing everywhere in the modern world.
Men think about the Roman Empire a lot, but I believe ancient Greece is just as fascinating. What do you think?
Ancient Greek Language – Historical Journey
Stretching over millennia, the historical journey of the ancient Greek language can be considered as epic as Homer’s Odyssey. Spoken by some of the most influential people in human history, ancient Greek has known the world in a way we never will.
But before going over its tale, a clarification needs to be made. When we say “ancient Greek”, most think of the language spoken before our era. However, what we call “ancient Greek” is actually just a phase in the evolution of the Greek language. The periods in which the Greek language was divided are:
- Proto-Greek: This is the earliest form of Greek that was not directly attested but inferred.
- Mycenaean Greek: Dating from the 16th to 12th centuries BC, it’s the most ancient attested form of Greek.
- Ancient Greek: Used during the “Dark Ages” and Classical periods (1200-300 BC), this version of Greek was spoken widely across regions and was used in literature and philosophy.
- Hellenistic Greek (Koine): A common dialect that evolved following Alexander the Great’s conquests. It was the lingua franca across the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East and the language of the Christian New Testament.
- Medieval Greek: Spanned from the 5th to 6th centuries to the 15th century, representing the language of the Byzantine Empire.
- Modern Greek: This is the contemporary version of Greek, influenced by historical events like the Ottoman rule and the establishment of the modern Greek state. The language underwent purification, removing foreign influences, and there were debates over its official form.
The Greek language has one of the longest written records of any language, first appearing in a syllabic script on clay tablets from the 14th-13th centuries BCE and resurfacing after a four-century gap in the Greek alphabet. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, which includes Sanskrit, Latin, and Germanic languages, tracing back to a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European.
Spanning an oral tradition of 4,000 years and a written tradition of 3,500 years, Greek boasts the lengthiest lineage among Indo-European languages, making it one of the oldest languages in the world. Many consider it unique due to its unbroken historical continuity and we can’t help but agree!
Ancient Greek – the language of the Homeric Poems
Ancient Greek, the language of the “Dark Ages” and the Archaic and Classical periods (1200-300 BCE), emerged following the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. Despite the abandonment of the standardized Mycenaean language, local vernacular dialects persisted and evolved into various Greek dialects over time.
These dialects were significantly influenced by social interactions, economic activities, tribal mixings, and conflicts, leading to a collective linguistic and cultural consciousness among the Greek people. Ancient Greek dialects heavily influenced the era’s literature, with each piece closely tied to a specific dialect that reflected the Greek tribe and its unique socio-economic contexts.
Ancient Greek writing during this archaic period featured the “Boustrophedon” style (literally “ox-turning”, after the manner of an ox plowing a field), where alternate lines of text were reversed, a technique observed in earlier civilizations. Nevertheless, around the 8th century BC, the Greek alphabet was standardized.
Dialects of Ancient Greece
Before the conquest by the Macedonians in the late 4th century BCE, there was no unified Greek language; rather, various competing dialects existed. Each city or region had its standard for inscriptions, and though these dialects were diverse, the Greeks had a concept of a shared linguistic identity and could understand other dialects.
These dialects, including Attic and Ionic, Aeolic, Arcadocypriot, and Doric, with sub-dialects like Macedonian Greek, resulted from the Greek tribes’ geographic dispersion, varied settlement locations, and political autonomy.
Naturally, this complex linguistic landscape, characterized by many dialects and writing styles, highlights nothing more than the rich diversity and evolution of the ancient Greek language.
Iconic texts written in the ancient Greek language
The most important pieces of writing we have from this period are the Homeric Poems: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The two epic poems are foundational to Greek education and culture and remain pivotal works in European literary tradition. The Iliad narrates the rage of Achilles during the Trojan War, while The Odyssey follows Odysseus’s journey home after the war. Over time, the composition methods of these epics have been a subject of extensive debate between experts.
Other literary works of art representative of this period include:
- Plato’s Dialogues
- Sappho’s poems
- Herodotus’ Histories
- Euripides’ tragedies
- Aesop’s fables
- Sophocles’ tragedies
Many of these names seem familiar because their works were so forward-looking they are still relevant today. Ancient Greece has not only inspired epic tales but has also infused the Western ethos with archetypal narratives, symbolic imagery and food for thought for millennia to come. Now you see why this period in time is so talked about!
Ancient Greek Writing System and Alphabet
Did you know the word ‘alphabet’ originates from the initial two letters of the Greek alphabet, ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’? While this may seem like a fun piece of unimportant trivia, you’ll soon discover that the influence of the ancient Greek language on modern languages is far greater than we think.
The Greek alphabet, a symphony of symbols, laid the foundational notes for the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, and Gothic writing systems, among many others. Used for approximately 2,800 years to this day, it is the earliest known alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels and consonants. Greeks adopted and adapted it from the earlier Phoenician alphabet.
However, the earliest attested form of the Greek language is a clay tablet written in the Linear B script. Historians claim that it dates to between 1450 and 1350 BC. Unrelated to the Greek alphabet, which emerged around the 8th century BC, Linear B last appeared in the 13th century BC. The centuries between the two writing scripts, where no Greek writings have been found, is referred to as the Greek Dark Ages.
Cultural Influences of Ancient Greek on the Western Civilization
Ancient Greece’s influence on Western civilization is undeniable, and you’ll soon see why. For example, where do you think the Olympic Games came from? Or where did democracy originate? They’re both products of Ancient Greece, of course!
The Ancient Olympic Games were held at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, every four years. Unsurprisingly, the origins of the Ancient Olympics are rooted in myth and legend, notably involving Hercules and Zeus. It’s believed Hercules (or Heracles) named the Games ‘Olympic’ and introduced the tradition of hosting them every four years. After finishing his twelve labors, Hercules supposedly built the Olympic Stadium to honor Zeus. He then marked a distance called “stadion” after walking 200 steps, which became a unit of measurement.
We can’t know how much of this is true. But one thing we know for sure: inscriptions at Olympia place the inception of the Ancient Olympics in 776 BC. Apparently, they reached their peak somewhere between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE and then slowly declined in significance as the Romans gained influence in Greece.
From politics and governance to philosophy and science, Greek terminologies and ideas laid the foundations for Western thought. Words like ‘democracy’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘astronomy’ are testimonials of Ancient Greek’s influence on today’s world. But let’s go into a little more detail.
Ancient Greek influence on governance and philosophy
Given the fact that democracy and republicanism originated in ancient Greece, it’s no wonder that the lexicon of modern governance is replete with Greek-rooted words.
The principles of Western political thought were shaped by the Greek ideals of democracy, rooted in the philosophies of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. More precisely, the ideas laid out in Aristotle’s Politics have become integral to how modern societies practice democracy.
At the same time, the ideas of these influential thinkers on logic, ethics, and metaphysics also continue to influence contemporary philosophical debates and guide our exploration of fundamental questions about existence, morality, and the nature of reality. Their brilliant minds concocted theses that are still relevant millennia later. Isn’t it mind-blowing?
If you had any doubts about ancient Greece’s influence, know that the word ‘philosophy’ itself is of Greek origin. It is derived from ‘philosophia’, which means “love of wisdom”.
Ancient Greek influence on art, architecture, and literature
Beyond politics and philosophy, Greek mythology is probably the one that influenced Western culture the most. The epic tales of gods, goddesses, demigods, and heroes have inspired numerous artists, writers, and thinkers to create their next big work of art. If you look into it, you’ll see that the influence of Greek myths can still be found everywhere, from literature and sculpture to popular culture and advertising.
At the same time, the ancient Greek epics and plays are also foundational for Western literature. Some of the most popular tragedies and comedies in history are still those of ancient Greece. Examples include the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes.
Just as significant for the modern world are the ancient Greek art and architecture. The principles of symmetry, harmony, and proportionality influenced Western architectural designs, including the construction of monuments and public buildings. The Greek column, for example, is a beloved element we’ve seen even in fashion!
Ancient Greek influence on science and mathematics
If we ask scientists, they’ll say that ancient Greeks made their most significant contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. For example, the principles and theorems formulated by Pythagoras are integral to the scientific heritage that has shaped Western civilization. Nowadays, children as young as 12 or 13 learn Pythagoras’ theorems in geometry – which, by the way, is another word of Greek origin.
Another excellent example of how the great thinkers of ancient Greece influenced the way our world looks like today is Hippocrates. Considered the “Father of Modern Medicine”, Hippocrates’ name is well-known even by those not familiar with medical practices due to his famous ethics oath called the Hippocratic Oath. Initially, the oath mandated a new physician to vow, invoking several healing deities, to adhere to particular ethical guidelines. It represents the Western world’s first articulation of medical ethics, laying down foundational principles that continue to be critically important even in today’s medical ethics.
As you can see, Ancient Greece’s cultural influence is a treasure trove of wisdom that continues to inspire and shape the Western world to this day. These were only a few of the ideas and personalities that persisted through the ages. If you care to study the entire period of Ancient Greece, you’ll discover that many more people thought, said, or did great things during this time. So many that we start to wonder whether they had access to a magical fountain of endless inspiration!
Ancient Greek Language Influence on Modern Languages
Now that you have an overview of the intellectual and artistic heritage we received from ancient Greece, it’s time to take an even closer look at languages. Because yes, the Ancient Greek language has carved its imprints not just in the annals of history but in the very syntax and semantics of modern languages. English, Spanish, and French are probably the most important bearers of Greek influences.
Whenever you say a word like ‘psychology’, ‘theater’, or ‘chronology’, you pay tribute to the ancient Greek language. Still, the linguistic legacy is not limited to vocabulary but extends to idiomatic expressions, grammatical structures, and even rhetorical styles. Keep in mind the fact that this influence happened despite the geographical distance between ancient Greece and the English-speaking world.
Enriching the modern lexicon
So, how does the ancient Greek language live on through the modern languages? Well, as we already settled, one of the most striking manifestations of its influence is on the vocabulary. The terms beginning with ‘ph-’ are probably the most obvious examples. Words like ‘philosophy’, ‘physical’, ‘photograph’, ‘phrase’, and ‘philanthropy’ all have roots in ancient Greek.
What’s more, they are all very similar in all major languages. Let’s take ‘geography’ for instance. The word came in English from French, which in turn got it from Latin. Finally, Latin borrowed the word from the Greek geōgraphia, with gē meaning ‘earth’ and -graphia meaning ‘writing’. A fascinating journey to be had for a single word! Now, if you look at how to say ‘geography’ in different languages, you’ll notice that all of them are very similar:
As you can see, ancient Greek words have infiltrated the English language through a complex route, often via Latin and French, but their imprint is unmistakable. Although modern English contains numerous borrowed words from languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, a significant portion of them actually originate from ancient Greek.
This is just one example among countless others where a modern English word owes its existence to Ancient Greek ancestry. As a matter of fact, it’s estimated that more than 150,000 English words can be traced back to their Greek origins.
English words of Greek origin
|English word||Greek origin|
|biology||from ‘bios’ (life) + ‘logia’ (study), referring to the study of life and living organisms|
|mathematics||from ‘máthēma’ meaning ‘that which is learnt’|
|astronomy||from the adjective ‘astronomos’ meaning ‘star-arranging’|
|philosophy||from ‘philos’ (love) + ‘sophia’ (wisdom), meaning the love of wisdom|
|psychology||from ‘psyche’ (soul) + ‘logia’ (study), referring to the study of the soul|
|politics||from ‘politiká’ meaning ‘affairs of the cities’|
|democracy||from ‘dēmos’ (people) + ‘kratia’ (power or rule), signifying a system where power is vested in the people|
|anatomy||from ‘ana’ (up) + ‘tomia’ (cutting) meaning dissection, it refers to the study of the body’s structure|
|academy||from Akadēmos, the hero after whom Plato’s garden was named|
|bibliography||from ‘biblion’ (book) + ‘graphia’ (writing), referring to the listing of books and other written works|
|chronology||from ‘chronos’ (time) + ‘logia’ (study), it refers to the arrangement of events in time order|
|dinosaur||from ‘deinos’ (terrible) + ‘sauros’ (lizard)|
|telephone||from ‘tēle’ (far) + ‘phonē’ (sound)|
|atmosphere||from ‘atmos’ (vapor) + "sphaira" (sphere)|
|theology||from ‘theos’ (god) + ‘logia’ (study)|
|cardiology||from ‘kardiā’ (heart) + ‘logia’ (study)|
|technology||from ‘tekhnē’ (art, craft) + ‘logia’ (study)|
Expressions that originated from Greek
Apart from Latin phrases, the only thing that can make you sound like a true erudite without much work are the expressions that originated from Greek.
As we already discussed, ancient Greece and its fascinating mythology have been very influential in Western culture. And if you need more proof to be sure of it, stick around, and let’s look at some iconic expressions that originated from Greek myths.
1. Achilles’ heel
Describes a weakness in spite of overall great strength or resilience.
According to the legend, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, dipped him into the River Styx to prevent his foretold death. However, she held him by the heel, making it his vulnerability later in life. Achilles was ultimately killed during the Trojan War from wounds to his heel, ankle, and torso.
2. Pandora’s box
Refers to something that creates a lot of new problems that you did not expect.
The myth of Pandora’s box originates from the story where Prometheus steals fire from the gods to give to mankind. As a punishment for humanity, the gods create Pandora, the first woman, and give her a box with strict instructions not to open it. Overcome by curiosity, Pandora opens the box, releasing all the world’s troubles. Only Hope remains trapped inside.
3. Herculean task
Refers to a task that requires extremely great strength or effort.
Hercules, a hero born from Zeus and a human mother, was renowned for his immense strength. According to the legend, Hera, Zeus’ wife, cast a spell on Hercules that drove him mad and caused him to kill his wife and their two children. Remorseful and devastated, Hercules sought out Apollo, the god of truth and healing and another son of Zeus, pleading to be penalized for his actions.
Thus, he was tasked with completing twelve extremely challenging “labors”. These labors included daunting tasks such as retrieving the guardian dog from the underworld and defeating the multi-headed Hydra. Hence, the term ‘Herculean’ describes any job or task that is incredibly difficult and requires enormous strength.
4. The Midas Touch
Refers to a person who has good fortune.
The phrase originates from the Greek myth of King Midas of Phrygia, who was granted a wish by the god Dionysus. Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Unfortunately, this blessing became a curse as his food, water, wine, and even his beloved daughter Zoe turned to gold upon his touch, illustrating the unintended consequences of his ill-considered desire for wealth.
5. The Apple of Discord
Refers to an object or issue that causes strife, contention, or rivalry among those who encounter or possess it.
The expression ‘apple of discord’ originates from ancient Greek mythology. It refers to a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘to the fairest’ that was thrown into a feast of the gods by Eris, the goddess of discord. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple, leading to a dispute that eventually resulted in the Trojan War.
These are just a few of the witty expressions Greek myths left us with. So, feel free to expand your search and use them wisely in your day-to-day conversations. Not only are they a fun way to sound cooler, but they will also broaden your knowledge of the world. I mean, you definitely can not call someone a ‘narcissist’ without knowing Narcissus’ legend, right?
Differences Between Ancient Greek and Modern Greek
Centuries of political, social, and cultural transformations, coupled with the dispersion of Greek populations and industrial changes, have profoundly influenced the evolution and richness of the Greek language. Thus, the transition from the ancient Greek language to the modern Greek language was all about adaptation and evolution. The language spoken in Plato’s Greece is indeed very different from the language spoken today in Greece. However, it is said that a person proficient in Modern Greek can generally understand about 50% of ancient Greek texts due to similar root words.
So, how different is ancient Greek from modern Greek? Let’s take a closer look.
- Phonetics: The evolution from Ancient to Modern Greek involved significant phonetic and semantic changes, affecting both the sound and meaning of words. For example, Ancient Greek featured long and short vowels (which were important for poetry), various diphthongs, single and double consonants, and different types of stops. In contrast, modern Greek now has only short vowels and consonants. In addition, the pronunciation of several combinations of vowels (diphthongs) has also changed.
- Grammar: Ancient Greek had five cases and features like a dual number to refer to pairs and specific moods for desires and self-affected actions. Modern Greek, on the other hand, retains the dative case only in specific expressions and has dropped the dual number. Besides, certain verb forms and moods present in Ancient Greek are absent.
- Orthography: While ancient Greek used the polytonic orthography with many accents and only capital letters, modern Greek keeps only two diacritics and uses both small and capital letters like in English.
All in all, the transformation from ancient to modern Greek is characterized by a movement towards phonetic, grammatical, and semantic simplification while retaining core elements of the language’s rich history.
To summarize everything we learned about the ancient Greek language, let’s look at some frequently asked questions.
Is ancient Greek still spoken today?
Just like Latin, the ancient Greek language is still used in scholarly circles and ecclesiastical domains, preserved in texts and liturgies. However, nobody speaks ancient Greek natively anymore.
What are the main influences of ancient Greek on the English language?
A lot of English words, concepts, and idiomatic expressions are of Greek origin. For example, the words that begin with the letter ‘ph’ are particularly easy to trace back to Greek.
What writing system did ancient Greeks use?
The earliest attested writing system used by ancient Greeks is a clay tablet written in the Linear B script. It is hypothesized to be descended from the older Linear A script which is undeciphered. However, around the 8th century BCE, Greeks adopted the Greek alphabet used today.
How can I learn to speak ancient Greek?
Learning to speak ancient Greek may prove difficult because we still don’t know how the ancient Greek language sounded. For this reason, you can never be sure whether your pronunciation is correct or not. However, learning the language is not impossible. Our advice is to learn modern Greek first and then move to its predecessor with the help of classic texts and scholarly resources.
Speak Greek like a true philosopher
The Modern Greek language may not be the exact same ancient lingo Platon spoke. But it is just as cool or even cooler!
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