A Guide to Greek: 10 facts about the Greek language

Useful facts about the Greek language

Translation in greek


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1. Where is Greek spoken?

Greek is the official language of Greece, which is also called the Hellenic Republic, and is also one of the official languages of the Republic of Cyprus. There are big Greek and Cypriot communities in the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, Chile, South Africa and Russia, but also in neighbouring countries, such as Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

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2. What you already know about Greek

It's estimated that around 30% of the English vocabulary consists, directly and indirectly, of words of Classical Greek origin. Most of them are technical and scientific terms.

Words of Greek origin are often used at the beginning of a word, such as:

aero from   ἀήρ [aeer], air

auto from  αὐτός [aftos], self

cata from  κατά [kata], down

hyper from  ὑπέρ [yper], over

hypo from  ὑπό [ypo], under

mono from  μόνος [monos], one alone

psych from  ψυχή [psychee], the mind

tele from  τῆλε [teeleh], distance

photo from  φῶς, φωτός [phos, photos], light

meter from  μέτρον [metron], measure

And also at the end of a word, such as:

logy from  λέγειν [leyein], to speak

phone from  φωνή [phonee], sound

chrome from  χρῶμα [chroma], colour

Breaking down a word of Greek origin often helps decipher the meaning. You may recognise:

biography from  βίος [veeos], life, and  γραφή [graphee], writing

astronomy from  ἄστρον [astron], star, and  νόμος [nomos], arranging

polytechnic from  πολύς [polees], many and  τέχνη [techne], skill

Many of these words and their pronunciation have evolved in Modern Greek. In this guide, all words are pronounced following the Modern Greek pronunciation standards.

So, now you know where they come from, you can give yourself some  κῦδος [kythos], glory, the next time you talk about these things!

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3. How hard is it to learn?

It’s fairly easy to learn to read Greek as most letters and sounds already exist in English.

The Greek language has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, so the word the is written in three ways:  ο [o] for masculine,  η [ee] for feminine,  το [to] for neuter. Moreover, the word the is also used before place names, for example  το Λονδίνο [to Lonthino], literally the London, or a person’s name, for example  η Μαρία [ee Maria], the Mary.

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4. The most difficult words or tongue twisters

Here are some of the most challenging Greek tongue twisters:
 Μια πάπια μα ποια πάπια, μια πάπια με παπιά
[Meea papeea ma poeea papeea, meea papeea me papeea]
A duck, but which duck, a duck with ducklings

The longest word in the Greek language consists of no less than 78 syllables and 171 letters and it’s every actor’s nightmare:

Λοπαδο¬τεμαχο¬σελαχο¬γαλεο¬κρανιο¬λειψανο¬δριμ¬υπο¬
τριμματο¬σιλφιο¬καραβο¬μελιτο¬κατακεχυ¬μενο¬κιχλ¬επι¬
κοσσυφο¬φαττο¬περιστερ¬αλεκτρυον¬οπτο¬κεφαλλιο¬κιγκλο¬
πελειο¬λαγῳο¬σιραιο¬βαφη¬τραγανο¬πτερύγων

[Lopatho¬temacho¬selacho¬galeo¬kranio¬leipsano¬drim¬hypo¬
trimmato¬silphio-karavo-melito¬-katakechy¬meno¬kichl¬-epi¬
kossypho¬phatto¬perister¬alektryon¬opte¬kephallio¬kigklo
¬peleio¬lagoio¬siraio¬baphe¬tragano¬pterygon]

Liddell & Scott’s lexicon translates this as:
name of a dish compounded of all kinds of dainties, fish, flesh, fowl, and sauces

It’s said to be the longest word ever to appear in literature

The ingenious mind behind its creation is Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright, who invented this word for his comedy   Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι, [Ekklesiasousae], Assemblywomen (circa 392 BC)

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5. Know any good Greek jokes?

Mother-in-laws, Western Europeans and Pontic Greeks are usually on the receiving end of many Greek jokes. Here’s a fairly innocent one:

  Τα κουνούπια Ο Κωστίκας και ο Γιωρίκας πάνε εκδρομή στο βουνό. Αφού βρήκανε μέρος δίπλα σε μια λίμνη κατασκηνώνουν. Στήνουν τη σκηνή τους ανάβουν φωτιά και κάθονται να φάνε. Αφού τελειώσουν ξαπλώνουν να κοιμηθούν όμως τους κάνουν επιδρομή τα κουνούπια και τους τσακίζουν οπότε αποφασίζουν να φύγουν και να πάνε αλλού. Μαζεύουν τη σκηνή τα πράγματα τους σβήνουν τη φωτιά περνούν το αυτοκίνητο και ανεβαίνουν πιο ψηλά στο βουνό. Ξαναστήνουν τη σκηνή ανάβουν φωτιά και ξαπλώνουν να κοιμηθούν. Ο Γιωρίκας όμως κάθεται ξαπλωμένος και κοιτάζει έξω όπου κάποια στιγμή βλέπει πυγολαμπίδες να πετούν μπροστά από τη σκηνή. Φρικάρει πετάγεται πάνω και αρχίζει να φωνάζει στο Κωστίκα σήκω Κωστίκα ξύπνα σήκω να φύγουμε τα κουνούπια πήραν φακούς και μας ψάχνουνε.

[Ta kounoupya. O Kostikas kae o Yeeorikas pane ekthrome sto vouno. Aphou vreekane meeros thipla se meea limnee kataskeenonoun. Steenoun tee skeenee tous anavoun photeea kae kathontae na phane. Aphou teleeosoun xaplonoun na koeemeethoun omos tous kanoun epeethromee ta kounoupeea kae tous tsakizoun opote apophasizoun na phygoun kae na pane allou. Mazevoun tee skeenee ta pragmata tous sveenoun tee photeea pernoun to aftokineeto kae anevainoun peeo pseela sto vouno. Xanasteenoun tee skeenee anavoun photeea kae xaplonoun na koeemeethoun. O Yeeorikas omos kathetaee xaplomenos kae koeetazee ecso opou kapoea stigmee vlepee pygolabithes na petoun mprostah apo tee skeenee. Phreekaree petagetay pano kae arkhizee na phonazee sto Kostika seeko Kostika xypna seeko na phygoume ta kounoupeea peeran phakous kae mas psakhnoune.]

Mosquitos. Kostikas and Giorgikas are making a trip up the mountain. After they've found a space by the lake, they settle down. They put up their tent, make a fire, sit down and eat. Afterwards they lie down to sleep, but are attacked by an invasion of mosquitos. So they decide to go somewhere else. They collect their tent and things, put ot the fire, take their car and drive higher up the mountain. Again they put up their tent, make a fire and lie down to sleep. Giorgikas sits up and looks down, where he suddenly spots fireflies hovering around the tent. Panicking he jumps up and shouts to Kostikas: "Get up, Kostikas, the mosquitos are back with lamps and are looking for us!"

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6. If I learn Greek, will it help me with any other languages?

Greek is one of the oldest Indo European languages and forms an independent branch of the Indo European language family

Like Latin, Greek has influenced other languages around the world, so learning Greek might help you recognise and understand a number of words in other European and non European languages

However, while the Greek language has contributed to the English vocabulary in the past, with the introduction of new technologies and the globalisation of the media industry, there has been an influx, in recent decades, of English or Hellenised English words into the Greek vocabulary

For example, the Greek verb
 φρικάρω [frikaro] comes from the English to freak out, the verb
 παρκάρω [parkaro] from the English to park and the word
 γκλαμουριά [glamouria] from the English word glamour

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7. What not to say and do

When visiting Greece you will frequently hear the word
 μαλάκας [malakas] or
 μαλάκα [malaka] used freely amongst friends, especially amongst males. It’s slang for pal, stupid or incapable, but beware, it can be quite offensive to use malaka with someone you don’t know very well

If you’re driving in Greece and see another driver extend all their fingers with the palm of the hand pointing towards another driver in a forward motion, this isn’t them saying hi! A
 μούτζα [mouja] – it’s a traditional, insulting gesture used by the Greeks and is usually followed by a verbal insult such as
 να, μαλάκα [na, malaka], take that, malaka, or
 στραβάδι [stravadi], which roughly translates to watch where you’re going. The angry person might also use both hands to strengthen the gesture, smacking the palm of one hand against the back of the other, in the direction of the intended recipient... well, you get the gist!

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8. Famous quotations

Most ancient Greek personalities, such as philosophers and politicians, have left no writings of their own and thus any knowledge about their teachings or opinions comes primarily from other sources such as ancient authors who quote them or refer to them in their own work

 Eν οίδα ότι ουδέν οίδα [En eetha otee outhen eetha]
I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance
This is one of the most well-known quotes attributed to Socrates (469-399 BC), the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher of Plato and Xenophon

  Οι σοφοί άνδρες μιλούν επειδή έχουν να πουν κάτι. Οι ανόητοι επειδή κάτι πρέπει να πουν [Ee sophee anthres meeloun epeethee ekhoun na poun katee. Ee anoitee epeethee katee prepeee na poun]
Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something
Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) Greek philosopher and mathematician

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9. First ever publication

In 1900 in Crete, the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed a large number of clay tablets inscribed with the syllabic scripts Linear A and Linear B that were used by the Minoans and Myceneans during the 2nd millennium BC, primarily in religious inscriptions and administrative records. Linear A predates Linear B and is probably the oldest surviving record of an ancient Greek dialect

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10. How to be polite and show respect

Greek is one of those languages that differentiates between a formal and informal you:  εσύ [esy] for people you can be on first-name terms with, such as close friends and children, and  εσείς [eseis] in all other cases

People of all ages often address another person with  κύριε [kyrie], Mr or  κυρία [kyria], Mrs followed by their first name. This is a polite way to address people who are older than you are or can simply be used out of respect

Cheek kissing, one on each cheek, is almost obligatory when greeting friends but it’s quite uncommon between male friends. Try an informal handshake or a pat on the shoulder instead

Greek key phrases. Greek conversation phrases

Greek key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Greek alphabet. Greek road sign

The Greek alphabet

Get the lowdown on accents and different sounds

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