The Greek language, an odyssey to immense global influence
Written by Nelson Walker
On 28 May 2024

Greek is a language making up the independent Hellenic languages branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Greek is native to Greece, Cyprus, Italy (in Calabria and Salento), southern Albania, other parts of the Balkans region, the Black Sea coast, Anatolia (large peninsula and region in Turkey) and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greek language in the Eastern Mediterranean (Wikimedia Commons)

History of the language

The Greek language has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning at least 3400 years of written records.

During Antiquity – the period of cultural European history between the 8th century BC and 5th century AD – Greek was by far the most widely-spoken lingua franca in the Mediterranean world.

Ancient Greek dialects (Wikimedia Commons)

It eventually became the official language of the Byzantine Empire – the continuation of the Roman Empire centred in Constantinople during the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages – and developed into Medieval Greek.

Greek dialects in the late Byzantine period (Wikimedia Commons)

The Greek language uses the Greek alphabet which has been used for around 2800 years. Previously, Greek had been recorded in writing systems such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary.

The Greek alphabet emanated from the Phoenician script and was the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Coptic, Gothic and many other writing systems.

Greek alphabet (Wikimedia Commons)

It is the world’s oldest-recorded living language with the earliest written evidence being a Linear B clay tablet found in Messenia that dates to between 1450 and 1350 BC.

Greek has played a fundamental role in the history and evolution of the Western world. It is the language in which many of the foundational texts in science and philosophy were originally composed. Along with Latin, Greek is the predominant source of international scientific vocabulary.

The New Testament of the Christian Bible was also originally in Greek.

Together with the Latin texts and traditions of the Roman world, the Greek texts and Greek societies of Antiquity make up the objects of study in the Classics discipline.

Where Greek is spoken today

Today, modern Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus, and it is an official language of the European Union. It is spoken by over 13 million people across Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Italy, Albania and many other countries of the Greek diaspora.

Flag of Greece (Wikimedia Commons)

Greek is spoken worldwide and there are significant Greek communities in the United States, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and throughout the European Union, especially in Germany.

Greek diaspora in the world (Wikimedia Commons)

Historically, notable Greek-speaking communities and regions were found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean – in what are today southern Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Libya – in the area of the Black Sea and to a lesser extent in the Western Mediterranean in and around previous Greek colonies Massalia, Monoikos and Mainake.

Greek is an official language in the regions of Apulia and Calabria in Italy.

It is a minority language in Albania and used co-officially in some of its municipalities, in the districts of Gjirokastër and Sarandë.

There is a sizeable Greek-speaking minority in Albania near the Greek-Albanian border. A significant percentage of Albania’s population has knowledge of the Greek language because of the wave of Albanian immigration to Greece in the 1980s and 1990s.

Before the population exchange in 1923, there were Greek-speaking communities in Turkey (in Pontus and Cappadocia).

A small Greek-speaking community can also be found in Bulgaria near the Greek-Bulgarian border.

Influence of the language

Greek has had a huge influence on the composition and development of Indo-European languages over the course of history. Modern languages have many borrowings from Greek and there are at least 50,000 words of Greek origin in English alone.

The word ‘alphabet’ is composed of ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.

Ancient Greek, like Arabic and Hebrew, was written from right to left. However, nowadays, like all other Indo-European languages, Greek is written from left to right.

Interestingly, the symbol used for a question mark in Greek is a semi-colon (;).

The Greek language has influenced so many facets of life throughout its history, including science, religion, philosophy, literature and culture. It continues to have a massive impact on our current lives in the Western world.

If you liked this piece on the history and use of the influential Greek language, make sure to check out this post on the Turkish language.

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