Language Trivia

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Did you know this about... Greek?

01The Greek language is believed to be one of the oldest European languages, with an oral tradition of 4000 years and a written tradition of approximately 3000 years. Its evolution over millennia was characterized by its strength during the golden age of Athens, and the Democracy; its use as a lingua franca throughout the Middle Eastern world spread by Alexander the Great and his successors as far as India during Hellenistic period; its adaptation as the language of the new religion, Christianity; its use as the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire; and its proclamation as the language of the Byzantine Empire.

02The Greeks were the first Europeans to learn to write with an alphabet, and from them alphabetic writing spread to the rest of Europe, eventually leading down to all modern European alphabets. Incidentally, the Greeks tried writing once before. Between 1500 and 1200 BCE, the Mycenaeans, an early tribe of Greeks, adapted the Minoan syllabary to write an early form of Greek. However, the syllabary was not well suited to write Greek, and the exact pronunciation of Mycenaean words remains somewhat obscure. The alphabet, on the other hand, allowed a more precise record of the sounds in the language.

03The current Greek alphabet was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet approximately 3,000 years ago. There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet: 17 consonants and 7 vowels. Greek was the first alphabet to use letters for both consonants and vowel sounds: before that, only the consonants were written. Greek is currently written from left to right, just like English, although this wasn't always the case. In the beginning, it could be written from right to left, and even in alternating directions on each line.

04A major division existed between the ordinary spoken language known as demotic and a formal version known as katharevousa, which was developed in the eighteenth century until the 1970’s to revive elements of ancient Greek and develop a national language that did not favour any regional dialect. Katharevousa was used for most state documents, in many newspapers, and in secondary school instruction until 1976 but has been displaced by demotic Greek since that time, which became the official national language.

05Greek has been a major influence on hundreds of languages. About 12% of the English vocabulary, mainly technical and scientific terms derives from Greek. e.g mathematics, astronomy, geography, biology, politics, democracy, athletics, marathon, technology, electricity, antibiotics, telephone etc. Almost every English word that starts with ‘ph’ is of Greek origin. e.g philosophy, physical, photo, phrase, phoneme, phobia, phenomenon, philanthropy. The prefixes such as poly, chrono, auto, and micro and the suffixes phobia, meter, gram, and graph are also Greek in origin.

06The English word alphabet comes to from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

07Many Greek letters are used in science and mathematics. They are usually used for constants, variables, and functions. Some examples include: Δ Delta - a difference or change in quantity, π Pi - the constant 3.14159 used in calculating the circumference and volume of a circle, λ Lambda - represents the wavelength of light in physics, θ Theta - often used to represent an angle, or Σ Sigma - used to represent a summation of a number of items.

08The Centre for the Greek language (Κέντρον Ελληνικής Γλώσσας) is a cultural and educational organization which acts as a coordinating, advisory and strategic organ of the Greek Ministry of Education on matters of language education and policy. Among the aims of the CGL are the overall support and promotion of the Greek language, organization of teaching of Greek to foreigners, support to teachers and production of all relevant materials that may contribute to the promotion and spread of the Greek language in Greece and abroad.

What does Greek sound like? Listen to a Greek radio station here.