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  • Writer's pictureStefanos Karampalis

The Greek Language: History

Greek is the language of an independent branch of the Indo-European language family and the official language of both Greece and Cyprus. A native of the southern Balkans, western Asia Minor, and the region around the Aegean, it is the Indo-European language with the longest and most well-documented history, spanning 34 centuries of written records. The Greek alphabet emerged from the Phoenician script and ended up giving rise, in turn, to the Latin, Cyrillic, Coptic, and several other writing systems.

The Greek language played an important role, shaped Europe’s history and influenced both the Western world and Christianity; specifically, the ancient Greek literature includes monumentally important works, which influenced the later Western literature; prominent works include epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Also, several of the fundamental texts of Western philosophy, such as the Platonic dialogues and the works of Aristotle, were written in Greek; The Christian Bible’s New Testament was written in Greek (koine) too. The study of Greek texts and ancient societies was the discipline of Classical History and Archeology together with Latin texts and traditions from the Roman world.

The Greek language was a lingua franca widely spoken in the world around the Mediterranean Sea, and even elsewhere, during Classical Antiquity, stretching from the 8th century BC up to the Western Roman Empire’s fall in 476 AD. Later, Greek became the official language of the Byzantine Empire.

Generally, the Greek language is no longer very widespread, and is spoken by about twelve (12) million people. This number includes the population of Greece, a little more than 80% of the population of Cyprus, as well as the relatively small Greek diaspora, scattered around the world - in the USA, Australia, Canada, the Black Sea countries and Russia.

New words in other languages, especially in the areas of Exact and Medicine usually use Greek roots and words to be formed; Along with Latin, Greek is also the predominant source of international scientific vocabulary and more than fifty thousand English words originate from Greek.

Modern Greek, the official language of Greece and Cyprus, differs in many ways from ancient Greek and is spoken by about 12 million people as mentioned earlier. In Greece, it is spoken by almost the entire population. It is also, together with Turkish, the official language of Cyprus, although the official use of Turkish has been limited by the Republic of Cyprus since the 1974 Turkish invasion. Due to the accession of Greece and Cyprus to the European Union, Greek is, currently, one of its 24 official languages. In addition, Greek is officially recognized as a minority language in parts of Italy and Albania, as well as in Armenia and Ukraine, not to mention the Greek diaspora in European and American countries, as well as in Australia. This diaspora is formed not only by descendants of Greeks from Greece but also by individuals born from waves of emigration that almost extinguished the ancient Greek communities from places like Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, etc.

The modern Greek language - that is, speech initially restricted to a certain stratum of the populations of southern Greece, with the addition of learned components and foreign elements (mainly French and English) - only became the official language of the country in 1976. To this date, the official language was the so-called "catarévussa", the classic Greek, a bookish variant modeled on the Byzantine Greek. The debate over linguistic reform, which started in the middle of the 19th century, had the city of Athens as its epicenter and the poet Kostís Palamás as the main figure.

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