Greek is spoken by the 10 million inhabitants of Greece and some 82% of the population of Cyprus, numbering a further half million. It is also spoken around the world in the diaspora of Greeks who have emigrated for political or, far more commonly, economic reasons to the USA, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. In terms of number of native speakers it ranks well down the list of world languages. However, culturally its importance is disproportionate. As the language of classical Greek philosophy and literature and, later, as the language of the Christian Gospels and the early Church it has profoundly shaped Western thought.
Like any other language Greek has evolved over the ages, but Modern Greek can justifiably trace its pedigree back through the Athens of Pericles to the Trojan wars and indeed to some of European man’s first attempts at recording his ideas in writing. This very history has been a deep influence on the way Greeks of today view their language and, incidentally, makes it very difficult to precis the history of Greek in the compass of a short essay such as this.
Indeed this is a very personal selection of topics related to Greek, largely chosen as having a bearing on aspects of translation of Modern Greek. It is not intended to be a set of working notes for translators of Greek; that would be a far more ambitious project. It is more a brief historical background and a pot-pourri of aspects of the Greek language which we hope may be of interest to the non specialist who occasionally has to deal with Greek, whether in a translation agency, an in-house translation department or as a business person dealing with Greece. We have tried to ensure our facts are correct but we do admit to being guilty of oversimplification at times - unavoidable when dealing with so complex and diverse a subject in such a short space.
Ancient and Modern Greek
The question many non Greek speakers want to ask and no Greek speaker seems to want to answer is "How close is Modern Greek to Classical Greek?" The reason for such reluctance is that without some detailed knowledge of the language on the part of the questioner, which by his very question he does not have, it is very difficult to give an adequate answer. Indeed it is rather like trying to describe the difference between blue and turquoise to a person blind from birth! We will however attempt a reply.
The first thing to note is the form of the question itself. As has already been indicated "ancient" Greek covers a broad range of language. The Greek of Plato (427 - 347 B.C.), the epitome of classical Attic prose, is very different to that used by Homer. Again the koine of the New Testament is very different to that of Plato; indeed the transition to the koine is one of the most radical periods of change in the language over its long history. Let us then compare then Plato’s Greek to that of his modern Athenian counterpart almost two and half millennia later.
The changes involve pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The ancient pronunciation with rising and falling tones has given way to a strong stress accent on the dominant syllable of each word. The system of long and short vowels is gone, all vowels having an equal, indeterminate, length and some consonants have changed their sound, notably ‚ has changed from b to v, Á from g to gh, and ‰ from d to dh. Grammatical changes include the loss of the dative (although not in katharevousa) and changes to the verb, notably formation of the future tense. Much of Plato’s vocabulary remains but meanings may have shifted and may have taken on a more modern sense; however it has been added to by neologisms and loan words from Latin as well as French, Italian and Turkish, and nowadays English. Indeed classical words are often still used in katharevousa such as oikos for house (while demotiki uses spiti from the Latin root hospes via an older Greek form ospition), ichthys for fish (while demotiki uses psari).
Overall the changes, particularly if those of pronunciation are ignored9 are far less than the differences between say Latin and Italian. For a number of reasons, Greek is more resistant to change than most languages. In matters of language Greeks have always looked back to the past. In classical Athens the words of Homer were revered and at the time of the development of the koine, many looked to the excellence of the Attic prose of writers such as Plato as their model. The koine itself was later, as the language of the Gospels, to become a model. To grossly oversimplify, it is probably fair to say the difference between Plato’s Greek and that of the present day parallels the difference between the English of Chaucer (c.1340-1400) and modern English.
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The Greek Translation Specialists