Six Varieties of Greek You Should Know About

July 13, 2015 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Greek is one of those languages that you hear referenced all the time in terms of literature and history, but maybe never looked any further into it. It happens to be the only Indo-European language with a written record 34 centuries old. The Greek writing system has been used for almost all of the time it has existed as a language, with the exception of a short period in early Greek history when other systems were used. This same writing system is what the Cyrillic, Latin, Armenian, and many other modern writing systems are based on.

Besides its importance in terms of linguistics and writing, Greek also has played a huge role in the history of the Western world. All Western literature that you may have read was most likely influenced by Greek epic poems and literature. Anything you’ve read about Western philosophy is based on the works of Aristotle, Plato, and all of the other great Greek thinkers. Even our legal system and government have Greek writings to thank for providing a strong base.

You can probably tell now just how important the Greek language is to Western society. However, that doesn’t give you much information in terms of the diversity of dialects within the Greek language itself. To better illuminate you, here are the eight most important dialects of Greek:

1. Demotic Greek

This dialect played a key role in forming what we know now as Standard Modern Greek. Demotic Greek can be loosely defined as the Greek that is spoken by the people, as opposed to what you would see written. Throughout its existence, it’s had to compete with the more “proper” written variety of Greek, creating a culture of diglossia where people spoke one dialect but wrote in another. Beginning in the late 19th century, however, writers began to write in Demotic, probably due to its popularity. Though it still is used today, it isn’t the same as it used to be, back when it was a naturally evolved vernacular that came from Ancient Greek and changed with the people who spoke it and the time period. Nowadays, you will find that it has taken on some characteristics of Katharevousa Greek, a more archaic form that is more closely related to the Classic Greek dialects. It is also referred to as Standard Modern Greek and Modern Greek and is now the official language of Greece.

2. Katharevousa Greek

Katharevousa Greek played the role of antagonist in the story of spoken vernacular vs. written standard. It was actually born in the 19th century out of a compromise between Demotic Greek and Ancient Greek and was used in literature as well as official purposes. However, it never really became a spoken language, as Demotic was so much more popular and had a much less formal and archaic feel to it. Katharevousa has many words and word formations taken straight from Ancient Greek, but otherwise uses the same syntax and grammar as Demotic (or Modern) Greek. It was used for formal and official purposes up until 1976, when Demotic Greek was made the official language. Adamantios Korais, a Greek intellectual in the early 19th century, came up with the idea for a language like Katharevousa, as a way to appease those who favored more archaic forms of Greek and those pushing for a more modern vernacular. Despite being a dialect created out of the need for a compromise between formal (and archaic) Ancient Greek and Modern Greek, Katharevousa is considered formal now, and the word itself has even come to mean “formal language”.

3. Tsakonian Greek

Of all the varieties of Greek, Tsakonian Greek is probably the one with the least mutual intelligibility with Standard Modern Greek. It is spoken fluently only by a couple hundred people, all of them advanced in age, so it is currently at risk of disappearing altogether. It is also the only living language descended from Doric Greek, and Ancient Greek dialect. Since it is so different from the other Greek dialects, some linguists like to think of it as a completely separate language. The Peloponnese region of Greece is where most of its speakers live, in small villages and towns that are found in the mountains. Even though it is not such a popular dialect of Greek, Tsakonian can be divided into three groups: Northern, Southern, and Propontis. In general, the grammar of Tsakonian is much simpler than that of Standard Modern Greek, with very little case inflection and simpler conjugations in general. The Standard Modern Greek writing system is used, with some added characters used to represent sounds that aren’t used in Standard Modern Greek.

4. Cappadocian Greek

Cappadocian Greek has an extremely interesting history. It can be found in the area of Greece that used to be part of Turkey, which gives you a clue that it was influenced a lot by Turkish. Central and Northern Greece are where most of the speakers of Cappadocian Greek live today. This particular type of Greek evolved from Byzantine Greek. However, at one point in the history of Cappadocian Greek, after a battle in 1071 that left this region with its ties to Greece cut. During this time, Turkish was the lingua franca of the region, so it became an even greater influence on Cappadocian Greek. In some cases, people who originally spoke Cappadocian switched over to Turkish. Some of the earliest written records of Cappadocian Greek include the poems of the Persian poet Rumi, even though they were written in Arabic script. Unfortunately, those, along with other poems by Rumi’s son, are some of the only written records we have of Cappadocian Greek, and they are rather difficult to interpret. On top of that, those are records of early Cappadocian Greek, not even Medieval or Modern Cappadocian Greek. There are no written records of Modern Cappadocian Greek.

5. Griko Greek

This dialect is one of the few Greek dialects that is spoken in a country other than Greece. Griko Greek speakers are mostly found in the Calabria and Apulia regions of Italy. Though it obviously is quite different from Standard Modern Greek, it has retained a fair amount of mutual intelligibility with it. There is some dispute over how Griko actually developed, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was born during the time when Southern Italy was colonized by Ancient Greece. This happened in the 8th century BC, during the time of Magna Graecia. Griko may be based on Doric Greek, an Ancient Greek dialect, as it has some similar linguistic elements. Of course, it also has many elements that show the huge Italian influence on the language, something that is inevitable when a dialect of one language is found in an area where another language is usually spoken. Though at least 20,000 people speak Griko, the Italian government didn’t officially recognize Griko and the Griko community until 1999. Those who speak Griko are usually ethnically Greek as well, and the Griko community has a rich history of songs, poetry, and music.

6. Mariupolitan Greek

Another dialect of Greek spoken in an area that is not part of modern day Greece is Mariupolitan Greece. The story of how it came to be is extremely interesting and is directly linked to the history of the Greek empire. It all starts on the Crimean Peninsula, when it was part of the Byzantine Empire and was mostly Greek-speaking. This area is now part of the Ukraine, and formerly the USSR. After the fall of Constantinople, it became a Greek principality and remained under Greek control until 1475, when it became part of the Ottoman Empire. Because of time spent under Ottoman rule, many ethnic Greeks of the Crimean Peninsula didn’t speak a form of Greek. Those who did, however, spoke what would be known as Mariupolitan Greek. Today, there are about 17 villages in the region that speak this dialect of Greek. Linguistically, it is similar to another Greek dialect, Pontic, so much so that some linguists consider it a dialect of Pontic. However, most linguists agree that the issue isn’t so simple and maintain that it is its own dialect of Greek. A revival of the language happened in 1917, and included a lot of literature written in the dialect.

As you can see by now, there are quite a few varieties of the Greek language. All of them descend from Ancient Greek, and some even retain some characteristics of Ancient Greek dialects, like Mariupolitan and Tsakonian. Most of them are spoken in what is now modern day Greece, but a few can be found in regions of other countries that used to be under Greek rule. Almost all of them are mutually intelligible with Standard Modern Greek, except perhaps for Tsakonian Greek. As with most languages, the dialect of Greek that you will hear depends on the region you are in. All of the dialects and varieties of Greek help us to see and understand a bit better the rich history of Greece and the Greek language, which has influenced so many cultures, including our own.

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Category: Foreign Language

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