Greek, ancient and modern

I’ve recently started taking some classes in modern Greek – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since it would be nice to be able to speak it when I travel to Greece (my repertoire up until now has consisted of a relatively fluent ability to order kebabs, but little else). The first thing people normally ask when I mention that I’m learning modern Greek is “how different is it really from ancient Greek?” To which the answer is, well, a) I can’t really speak ancient Greek, as opposed to reading it (the average Classics course is generally more concerned with teaching the vocabulary you need to read about the Persian War than useful phrases like “excuse me, I’m lost, which way is the marketplace please?”), and b) even if I could, I’d still have a lot of trouble making myself understood if I went around speaking it in modern-day Athens, because the language has changed so much.

Although many words in modern Greek are spelt the same way as in ancient Greek, so recognising them when they’re written down is relatively easy for a classicist, the pronounciation has changed quite a lot – so actually understanding spoken Greek, let alone speaking it yourself, is a lot harder. (For example, the capital of Crete, Heraklion in English, would be pronounced something like ‘Hairakleyon’ in ancient Greek, but is now pronounced ‘Iraklio’). There have also been a lot of changes to the grammar, not to mention a lot of words borrowed from other languages that Greek has come into close contact with (e.g. Turkish) which knowing ancient Greek doesn’t help with at all. All of which means that occasionally, if I don’t know the modern Greek word I’m trying to say, I can take the ancient Greek equivalent, pronounce it slightly differently, and produce an approximation of a modern Greek word – but usually the effect is rather less comprehensible. I’ve always been particularly fond of the part of Louis de Berniėres’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (set on the Greek island of Kefalonia during WWII) where a British spy gets parachuted onto the island – he’s been selected on the grounds that, as a classicist, he’ll be able to speak Greek fluently, but his attempts to talk to the locals don’t quite get the results he was expecting:

[He] smiled and held out his hand. ‘Bunnios,’ he said ‘I cleped am’.The doctor shook the proffered hand through the window, and said, ‘Dr Iannis.’ ‘Sire, of youre gentillesse, by the leve of yow I wol speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng’. The doctor knitted his brows in bewilderment. ‘What?’…

The outlandish man bowed politely and shook Pelagia’s hand. She let it go limp in his, and could not conceal her astonishment. He smiled charmingly and said, ‘I preise wel thy fresshe beautee and age trendre, I trow.’ ‘I am Pelagia,’ she said, and then she asked her father, ‘What’s he speaking?… Do you think it’s Bulgarian or Turkish or something?’ ‘Greek of th’olde days,’ said the man, adding, ‘Pericles. Demosthenes. Homer.’ ‘Ancient Greek?’ exclaimed Pelagia, disbelievingly…The doctor tapped his forefinger to his forehand, and looked up triumphantly. ‘English?’ he asked. ‘Englonde,’ agreed the man. ‘Natheless, I prithee, by my trouthe…’ ‘Of course we won’t tell anyone. Please may we speak English? Your pronunciation is truly terrible. It hurts my head.’

I’m hoping that by the next time I visit Greece, I will at least be able to pronounce things in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody’s head! By the way, I also thoroughly recommend Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is a great book for many other reasons as well as the ancient-Greek-speaking British spy. Classicists, particularly classical archaeologists, did actually play a significant part in British intelligence in Greece during WWII, but that’s a subject for another post…


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

5 thoughts on “Greek, ancient and modern”

  1. You are absolutely right! I personally think that part of the blame is the fact you mention that is we are taught ancient greek through the classic texts which is the equivalent of teaching english from Shakespeare (not quite the analogy but you get the point). I bet understanding would be greater if ancient greek were taught as every other languange, simple at first and then building on grammar and vocabulary etc. Well sorry for the long comment but I am somewhat interested in languages and if you ever need help with your modern everyday greek by a native speaker don’t hesitate to ask me! (I m not a qualified teacher just an enthusiast).


    1. Thanks for the offer! I don’t know anything about how ancient Greek is taught in Greece (apart from worrying recent press coverage that it may be removed from the school curriculum soon) – certainly in the UK it would tend to be through simple sentences/texts for a long time before you get to read any real literature, but it would be interesting to know what the approach is when it’s being taught as an older version of one’s native language, rather than a completely foreign language!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are welcome and thank you for your interest in the teaching of ancient Greek. I’ll try my best to give you a concise briefing although I’m not a literature professor myself. The press is as usual overreacting. Ancient Greek will not be removed entirely from the curriculum but restricted to the last 3 years of secondary education (lyceum — roughely equivalent to college, what americans would call senior high) as it was before the last decade. Ancient Greek in secondary education was taught for 3 years from the 80s well into 2000s, around 2005 was expanded to 6 years (the whole secondary education). The main problem, however, according to my opinion is not one of time but one of approach. Essentially our students are taught ancient Greek from texts of Thucydides, Xenophon, Lysias, Sophocles and others. Fine as they may be these texts I think they are not suitable to really teach a language from.
        There is the false assumption that the knowledge of modern greek is a good starting point. What most people (and sadly most literature professors as well) tend to forget is that modern greek has changed from 1974 onwards. Greece till then effectively had two versions of the language (let alone ancient Greek). The formal version (katharevousa — meaning essentially “clean”) had many similarities to ancient Greek and it was the language of administration, law, science and most crucially education, in other words it was the official language. The common everyday language (dimotiki — from dimos δήμος) was spoken by everyone and also written but it was not acceptable for education or serious tasks. So, my generation and the next ones were taught a language quite far from ancient Greek. In the mid-80s another reform occured to greek (you probably know about it) the simplification of spelling mainly through the abolition of the (defunct from centuries) accent and breathing diacritics. This created a big problem of spelling. Diacritics were pretty much the same in all three forms of greek so students of the past didn’t have to struggle to memorise them from scratch as they do ever since then.
        So the core of the problem is that the ones teaching ancient greek cannot grasp the problem because they started from a different base than that of their students. Of course, as new generations of teachers come this problem is mitigated but the people making the decisions in the ministry and universities are still too old to understand that. Besides, in Greece the Literature discipline has been one of the most conservative elements of education and society in general and there is still resentment about the reforms of 40 and 30 years ago. If you also get politicians and the press into the mix you can understand why there is no easy way to teach ancient Greek in Greece!
        As a student my main griefs were basically two. Spelling of the diacritics and syntax. Word spelling is easy if you speak modern greek (same principles, almost same conjugation) and the grammar is just an enhanced version of modern grammar. Vocabulary can be tricky but it’s the easiest to overcome. Syntax in modern greek is not taught to exhaustive detail and is quite flexible but an excellent understanding of syntax is essential for ancient Greek.
        I think this answer is more long than it should be. Thank you again for reading all this and, please, forgive the inadequacies of my English.
        My offer of course stands and I’ll be more than happy to help you any way I can and discuss with you the peculiarities of modern Greek (or English).


          1. You are welcome Anna! I really enjoy this conversation! One interesting fact is that sometimes we use the widespread teaching of English in Greece to help with breathing diacritics in ancient greek. We tell students that if a greek word in english starts with an ‘h’ then in ancient greek it bears the “daseia” diacritic. Par example hemisphere – ημισφαίριο should have daseia over η than psili. Have a nice day and an enjoyable weekend!


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