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Differences between Modern and Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek and Modern Greek are two versions of a language with more than three millennia of history. In this article, we will briefly explain the main differences and similarities between them.

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Let’s define Modern and Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek is generally understood as the dialect used in the region of Attica (Ἀτττικὴ Ἑλληνική) and some of the Cyclades islands around the 5th century BC. This dialect, unlike others such as Ionian (spoken on the Aegean coasts of modern-day Turkey) or Doric (Spartan Greek), established itself as a literary language and is therefore the dialectal variant of Ancient Greek that is still studied in schools as the language of Ancient Greece. Attic Greek was used by prestigious authors such as Xenophon, Plato, Thucydides, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

In the Hellenistic period, Greek evolved into the Koine language (ἡ κοινὴ ɣλῶσσα), i.e. the common language, which enriched Attic Greek with contributions from the languages of Alexander the Great’s empire and other Greek dialects. Koine was the lingua franca from the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea to India, and the New Testament was written in it.

Modern Greek

It is the natural evolution of the Koine spoken during the Middle Ages. Already during the Byzantine era, distinct phonetic and grammatical characteristics developed which created a situation of diglossia, i.e. a situation of coexistence of two linguistic varieties in the same territory. During the Modern Age and the Turcocracy (Ottoman rule), Modern Greek adopted vocabulary from Ottoman Turkish, Venetian, Latin, the Slavic languages of south-eastern Europe and later from French and English.

With the creation of the independent modern Greek state in the 19th century, the linguistic question of the demotic variant (δημοτική) or the clean language (καθαρεύουσα, Katharevousa) arose. The latter sought to purge modern Greek of foreign influences, especially Turkish and was the only official language of Greece until 1976.

Today, although this purist version of the Greek language is not official, it has left an important influence on everyday spoken and written language. Modern Greek today can be said to include both demotic and Katharevousa structures or vocabulary, with speakers moving across a linguistic spectrum in which both versions coexist.

Main differences between Ancient and Modern Greek

In addition to the lexicon, we can highlight the following differences:

  1. Ancient Greek has 5 cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive and dative), while Modern Greek retains the dative only in fossilised structures of the Katharevousa.
  2. Modern Greek distinguishes between singular and plural, whereas Ancient Greek had a dual number, i.e. it referred to two elements constituting a natural pair.
  3. Ancient Greek distinguishes between long and short vowels, whereas Modern Greek does not. This difference between long and short vowels was fundamental to the metrics of texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
  4. The pronunciation of most diphthongs is different in Ancient and Modern Greek.
  5. Ancient Greek has active and passive voice infinitives, while Modern Greek lacks this verb form.
  6. Ancient Greek has an optional desiderative mood, which is replaced by a periphrasis in Modern Greek.
  7. Ancient Greek has an intermediate voice between the active and the passive: the middle voice, which was used to express an action that falls on the subject itself. The middle voice has been replaced by the passive in Modern Greek.
  8. Although classical texts were originally written in capital letters, without spaces and without accentuation, Ancient Greek (as well as Katharevousa) uses the polytonic accentuation system with 6 accents: acute, grave, circumflex, rough spirit, soft spirit and umlaut. The polytonic system was abolished in 1976 and replaced by the monotonic system.

Are Greeks able to understand Ancient Greek?

Ancient Greek is taught at schools and universities in Greece and Cyprus.

However, in spite of the vocabulary similarities, most Greeks are not able to fully understand Ancient Greek.