It’s All Greek to Us!

It may have passed unremarked by many, but February 9th was International Greek Language Day, a day to celebrate the language that has contributed so greatly to so many other languages around the world. In fact, you may not know it, but if you speak an Indo-European language you almost certainly speak some Greek already.  

Don’t think so? Maybe you don’t believe in astrology but you read your horoscope everyday. Are you interested in psychology or biology (or any -ology, for that matter)? Have you been concerned about the pandemic? You’ve probably been thinking about the techniques used to analyze the microbes that cause disease and how to make sure a given diagnosis is reliable. Cooking has seen a bit of a renaissance with so many of us staying home, and maybe you’ve tried your hand at some new dishes involving butter or olives.  You’ve almost certainly looked up some of these things on your telephone, and all the while you’ve been using Greek automatically.

I’ll spare you the agony of listing every word we’ve adopted from Greek and instead share with you a few facts about this rich language, still spoken by almost 14 million people:

  • Greek belongs to an independent branch of the Indo-European language family
  • In the ancient Mediterranean world Greek was the English of its day: widely spoken and seen as a necessity for commerce and as the language of status and power
  • The Greek alphabet is the direct ancestor of the Latin, Cyrillic, and, most likely, Armenian alphabets, among others
  • The official language of Greece is Greek, but Greece is also a member of La francophonie (the international organization of countries that have French as an official language or have ties to French culture)
  • The Greek language existed in two versions, dimotiki, or spoken Greek, and the artificial katharevousa, or literary Greek, from 1821 (the founding of the modern Greek state) until 1976 when the issue was settled in favor of a slightly modified dimotiki
  • At its height the empire of Alexander the Great spread to what is now India and left its mark on the religion, art, and language of the region
  • Greek is the official language of two countries (Greece and Cyprus), and one international body (the European Union)
  • Much ancient and medieval Greek literature is still comprehensible to modern Greek speakers, so much so that Harvard professor Margaret Alexiou contends that the Greek of Homer is closer to Modern Greek than Middle English is to Modern English

Hopefully you’ve found this myriad of facts interesting, and I apologize if, somewhere along the way, it morphed into a stereotypical list of Greek derived lexical items. 

Χαρούμενη (αν και καθυστερημένη) Παγκόσμια Ημέρα Ελληνικής Γλώσσας σε όλους!

Michael Reid
Michael Reid, Managing Editor at MultiLingual, is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant who lives in Athens, Greece, with over 20 years of experience. He speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competence. He also speaks just enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.


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