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F - 36 : Could Homer order a Greek Coffee?

Many of the participants in this year’s sailing learned ancient Greek when doing the humanities at High School. Always wondered whether they understand any modern Greek. Based on some funny interviews on YouTube, I now guess not that much. It seems that Homer would not be able to order a Greek coffee in Athens today. Nobody would understand him. Nor would he know the word for coffee.

Homer singing his Iliad to passer-byes - probably nobody would have understood his chant

As far as I know, Greek is the only language that is classified in “ancient” and “modern”. There is no ancient English or French. These two languages came into existence after Roman time. The Greek language is more than 3’000 years old and consisted of many dialects. Homer’s Iliad was written as a blend of dialects – nobody spoke his Greek. He borrowed words and syntax from various parts of Greece.

Greek Dialects spoken during Classical Greek time (6th to 4th century BC)

As every language, Greek is a living thing and changes over time. Some of the changes are easy to understand once explained. The ancient Greek word for house is “Oikos”. The modern Greek word is “Spiti”. The ancient word survives in our word economics; “Oikonomia” meaning household management. Or ecology; “Oikoslogia” means the study of relationships between humans or living organisms. The modern word “Spiti” comes from the Latin word "hospitium", the Greco-Roman term for hospitality. Latin was for 700 years the official language in Greece.

The Ancient Greek Alphabet had letters which are not

in use any longer

Unfortunately, nobody knows how ancient Greek dialects were pronounced. Sound could not be recorded (yet). The closest we can get is the Greek alphabet. Based on Phoenician, it is almost phonetical. But we know from English and French how the written word deviates from the spoken word. Just think of Worcester Sauce. Using analogies with other languages, researchers believe that the intonation of ancient Greek was more complex than today. We know that double consonants were used in ancient Greek.

Koine (common Greek) around 300 BC - dark blue indicates majority of people speak Koine; light blue = Ancient Greek is the official language

Modern Greek is based on Koine, the “common” or “shared” Greek spoken in the eastern Mediterranean from the time of Alexander the Great (4th century BC) to the Roman Emperor Justinian (6th century AD). The New Testament was written in Koine. It was the language of the common people and the Mediterranean’s Lingua Franca – used by government officials, merchants and writers. It also was the language of post-classical Greek literature and scientific writing and used by Plutarch and Polybius. During the Byzantine Empire, Koine evolved into Medieval Greek which then became Modern Greek. To this day, Koine is the liturgical language of the Greek Orthodox Church.

There are a few major differences between ancient and modern Greek:

1. The ancient Greeks used only capital letters

There was also no space between letters

2. Greeks did not use Arabic numerals for their numbers (kind of obvious). They used the alphabet to express numbers.

The Greek Number System was complex and had no Zero

3. Modern Greek lost the Dative as a case (as did English and French), the Optative Mood in all tenses to express wishes for the future or hypothetical outcomes and also the infinitive

4. Many words changed their meaning. Hearing the word angel, we think of heavenly creatures. In Koine Greek it simply meant messenger. “Angelos” are messengers of the Lord. Same is true for the word “Diabolos”, which meant accuser. It became our word for devil.

5. Last but not least, there are thousands of things which did not exist or were not known to ancient Greeks. Like cars or coffee to come back to our title.

Testing your Greek with news covers from the Sovereign Debt Crisis*) What does it say?

There were several attempts to resurrect Ancient Greek as national language after 1830. But the efforts came to naught. What would be the reference? Homer's Greek? Greek of the Classical Period? Koine? The project failed due to its inner contradictions. One legacy is that every Greek in High School has to learn Ancient Greek.

Some people believe that anybody who pays attention to their Greek class in humanities, should be able to understand up to 70% of modern Greek - with a dictionary almost 90%. Will be interesting to find out who paid attention. We have four weeks’ time!

*) Greece's newspaper Ethos states "Deal or Grexit" whilst the Kathimerini asks "Euro or Drachma on Sunday?"

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