It’s All Greek To Me: Modern Greek


The periodical Noumas, issue no. 12 (621), 2 March 1919 in the first page of which the manifesto of protest of poets, writers amd artists for the defence of demotic Greek is published. Athens, Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, Byzantine Greek did not cease to exist, even though it was no longer the tongue of an empire. It continued on as the form of used in the Greek-speaking part of the Eastern Orthodox church, and educated Greeks continued to write in it. However, there was a problem. Already by the 15th century the spoken language had diverged somewhat from the written language. This was not at all unusual. Formal, written Latin, or the Latin used in ancient Roman law courts, was already by the 1st Century CE somewhat different from informal, spoken Latin, as is demonstrated by some plays that portray lower-class Latin, and graffiti found in Pompeii. By the time western Europe was lost to the Roman Empire in the 5th Century Latin was already starting to evolve into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. The fall of Constantinople simply accelerated the process for Greek.

By the time the 18th century came along there was a clear distinction between spoken Greek and written Greek. The former was called demotic Greek, from the word δήμος “people”. The written Greek was basically late Byzantine, hearkening back to Hellenistic and Classical Greek. There were some significant differences.

  • Whereas demotic had dispensed with the dative form, the written Greek retained it.
  • The system of accents, originally indicating tones, made less and less sense because tones had dropped out of the spoken language and had been replaced by stress, which usually but did not always relate to the ancient ways of writing accents.
  • Contact with the Middle East and the Ottomans meant that spoken Greek had many new words that the written Greek would not use.
  • Pronunciation had changed significantly, which meant that new ways to pronounce old sounds had to be found.
  • The old verb forms of the future, perfect, pluperfect tenses, and even the infinitive disappeared from spoken Greek, but continued to be used in written Greek.
  • These verbal forms and the dative meant that the same meanings were now conveyed with the use of prepositions and markers for modes and tenses (which is more like English).
  • As well, word order became far more important in spoken Greek, whereas the written Greek was more flexible.
  • In spoken Greek irregular verbs became more regular, whereas in written Greek they stayed in the old, confusing forms.
  • In Ancient Greek there was no indefinite article – one figured it out by context. The article in Ancient Greek – ὁ, ἡ, τό – simply directed the attention of the listener or reader to the word to which it referred – it might be definite, and usually was, but, again, that was more a matter of context. The ancient article evolved in Modern Spoken Greek into the definite article, but it still functioned a bit differently from the definite article in English. For example, in Η Ελένη πίνει ένα ποτήρι κρασί “Helen drinks wine”, Helen takes the definite article H. Note that in ένα ποτήρι “a glass” the indefinite neuter article ένα appears.

There are more differences, but you get the picture. Ordinary Greeks spoke demotic, while educated and moneyed Greeks learned to write in an archaic form. This is called diglossia, where there are two forms of the language in use. Amongst Greek-speakers this became known as the Greek language question – should the written language be adapted so that it reflects how people actually speak, or should the written language still maintain old forms so that the connection with the ancient forms, whether New Testament or the Classics, is maintained.


The program of the performance Oresteia by Aeschylus, 1903 – translated into Demotic Greek. This was controversial. Archive of the Theatre Museum of Athens

This came to a head when Greece became independent in the 1820s and 1830s. The new nation had to issue publications, and by then the default Byzantine forms were seen to be too problematic. While some advocated for a radical change to a form of demotic, the traditionalists won out by advocating for a form developed in the 1790s called Καθαρεύουσα “Katharevousa”, which means “purifying”. This was an idealization of what the Greek language should be – retaining ancient cases and forms, and driving out foreign loanwords. It meant that the written language, as used in official publications and in the universities and schools – was still quite different from the spoken language, but it was not exactly ancient or medieval Greek, either. Because there was no one body determining what Katharevousa should be, the people wanting it fell into intense arguments over what the correct form should be. Meanwhile, ordinary Greeks, who had difficulty understanding it, continued to use demotic, and the newspapers (and later, radio, films, and television) followed suit. By the 1880s some poets and novelists abandoned Katharevousa and began writing in demotic, to great consternation. Even in the 20th Century this was controversial, but this was the form Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ) used. Cavafy the poet mostly used Demotic, but carefully used Katharevousa in the same poems with Demotic.

The use of Katharevousa became somewhat political, and when the Colonel’s Regime of 1967-1974 espoused the use of it a strong reaction ensued. The restored democracy under the centrist government of Konstantinos Karamanlis began the process of getting rid of it, and in 1976 they passed a law requiring that the schools use Standard Modern Greek in instruction. Forty years later Katharevousa is dead except in the Greek Orthodox Church (of course), and most Greeks under the age of sixty cannot read it except with difficulty. It sort of lives on in Standard Modern Greek, because Modern Greek incorporated some of the vocabulary of katharevousa, mostly formal words and types of address.

The last big step was in 1982 when the polytonic spelling was replaced by monotonic accents. This meant that the accent in any multi-syllable word was indicated, and it always indicated stress. A host of diacritical marks above and below the letters disappeared.


An illustration comparing Kathervousa with Modern Standard Greek. From a talk by Lilia Mouma “My Big Fat Greek Talk” at North American Polyglot Symposium 2016 (NAPS)

Fortunately I am learning this fairly straightforward Standard Modern Greek. My old New Testament Greek pops up in my head every once in awhile – “What happened to the word οἶνος and why did it get replaced with κρασί?” or, “You mean I don’t have to learn the pluperfect subjunctive!?!” – but I am quite happy not to have to learn two forms of the language.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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