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It's All Greek To Me

April 14, 2017

Although "It's All Greek to Me" is a common phrase, Greek isn't actually as foreign to English as the saying would have you believe. In fact about 6% of English vocabulary is derived from Greek! Some estimates even put this influence as high as 12% to 15%. And when we focus on technical and scientific vocabulary the proportion of Greek climbs dramatically.

There are roughly 13 million native speakers of Greek with the majority (11 million) living in Greece where it is the only official language. The second highest concentration is found in Cyprus where nearly 1 million people speak Greek. Surrounding countries like Italy, Albania, and Turkey have minority Greek populations as well.

How did Greek become so widespread? You can thank Alexander the Great for that. As his empire expanded so did the Greek language. Over the centuries, the various dialects became quite different from one another. At one point the written and spoken form of Greek were so different from one another that a state of diglossia formed in Greece. This was quite a problem until 1976 when the spoken, Demotic, form of Greek became the official language of the state and today is known as Standard Modern Greek.

Aside from having a unique sound and written style, Greek is a very culturally important language. In fact, some of the greatest literature in Western civilization was written in Greek including the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Interestingly enough when compared to other languages which developed during the same time period, Greek has not changed much since its inception. Many speakers of modern Greek can recognize the vocabulary and grammar found in ancient texts quite easily.

People approaching Greek as a second language often find it intimidating because it uses both SVO (subject, verb, object) and VSO (verb, subject, object) word order depending on the context. Compared to English, Greek is a highly inflected language. Though this can be intimidating it is still an historically and culturally important language with a rich history; one which is definitely worth learning.

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