The Greek Language

How to communicate in Greece if you don't speak Greek

We are so accustomed to live in places full of linguistic visual and audio clues that give us constant feedback and instructions as we go about our day to day routines. We don't really think about them until they become absent.

Being in a place where such aids are incomprehensible could be very stressful for a traveler. At best it can be a nuisance (as when one gets lost), and at worst it can be dangerous (if a warning sign cannot be read).

On the other hand, a traveler might feel liberated in the absence of familiar clues and instructions about how to behave, and how to live every single moment. If you think about it, traveling and vacationing is usually such an enjoyable experience because we are "forced" to unlock new ways of communicating, and in the process we get to re-define our own selves.

If you plan a trip to Greece, there is no reason to be too worried about the language. The country and its people are so accustomed to visitors that it has adopted to accommodate their comfortable experience.

If you speak English you will have no problems since most road, street, and vendor signs provide information both in Greek and English. If you are driving on the highway you will find that every single sign provides both Greek and English language text regarding instructions or place names.

Just about every young person in Greece also speaks English today since it is taught in the public schools, and if you need assistance or directions you will have no problems finding someone you can communicate with.

In developing inter-personal relationships, you will find that locals appreciate it a great deal if their guests make an effort to speak their language.

Simple things like greeting someone in the morning with a "kalimera" instead of "good morning", will go along way in making friends with your hosts. In addition, enquiring about words and their meaning is an excellent way to carry a conversation for hours between people who don't share a common language.

Pick up some phrase books before you go to Greece and familiarize yourself with some common phrases so you can develop a basic understanding of the language structure.

 

Greek

The Greek language has been in use since prehistoric times, with the earliest evidence of its written versions surviving to our date in the form of Linear B tablets which date back to the 14th century BCE. Sometime between 1000 BCE and 700 BCE the inhabitants of Greece adopted the Phoenician alphabet which by the end of the 5th c. BCE had transformed to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet which is still in use today.

In its 3500 year passage through history, the language has undergone a series of transformations, but modern Greek can easily be traced back to ancient Greek in the form of the letters, word roots, and structure.

In a dynamic country like Greece where ideas have been flowing freely and historical traditions define identities, the Greek language has never been homogenous throughout the land. Instead, different dialects have developed that diverge in various degrees from the official versions of the language.

 

In ancient Greece the best known Greek dialects are:

Over the thousand years the ancient Greek civilization spans, several other variations of the Greek language developed.

Most influential of these became the Attic Greek dialect which contained both Ionic and Doric influences. Attic Greek became common among the known civilized world in ancient times because Athens became such strong cultural influence in the Mediterranean, and because later Alexander the Great helped the language become common among his conquered people between Greece, Egypt and as far east as India.

Other dialects include Thessalic which was spoken in Thessaly, and the Boiotian (morphed from Aeolic in the area around Thebes). A little known fact is that Latin was later developed based on the Boiotian dialect.

Modern Greek Dialects

All these dialects were slight (or more severe) variations of the same language and were mutually understood by all.

Just like in ancient times modern, Greek present several dialects between the different geographical regions, and even within narrow geographical boundaries, one can find significant variations in the spoken language. The Greek spoken in Crete for example is distinct in the way certain sounds are pronounced. In every variation, different words are used to describe the same object, but the written language is common throughout the country thanks to the rigorous public education system that has pushed the literacy rate at 97.5% in the last thirty years.

The existence of many different dialects does not prevent one Greek from communicating and understanding with another in a comfortable manner. In fact every Greek jokes about how impossible it would be for a foreigner to learn Greek in its totality - reffering to the multitude of names for same things, and the different dialects.

 

Transliteration of Greek into English and other languages

Because of the diference between the Latin and Greek characters one of the most challenging aspects for a traveler is the recognition of some words even after they have been transliterated to English.

Sometimes different Latin characters are used to describe the same sound, word, or letter.

For example, the words Pireas and Piraeus refer to the port of Athens. A traveler should easily understand that they refer to the same city despite the difference in transliteration.

In other cases the difference might not be as subtle though. Evia and Euboea is the same large island off Boiotea or Viotia, and a traveler might find it difficult to understand how these words refer to the same place.

As you travel around Greece keep your mind open and be on the lookout for different transliterations of the same names.

The best way to handle this difficulty would be to sound-out the words and to see if they sound alike. Kerkyra and Corcyra look different but sound just about the same, and they refer to the island of Corfu (Corfu is the English name so don't get confused).

 

Next: The Greek Alphabet

 

map
Linear A script predates Greek
Linear A tablet from the Sitia Museum. From second millenium BCE, Zakros Palace.
Linear A script has yet to be deciphered.

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