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Modern Greek

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Number of Speakers: 12 million

Key Dialects: Katharevousa, Dimotiki, Saracatsan

Geographical Center: Greece

Greek, or Ellinika, as it is called in Greece, is spoken by 9,859,850 in Greece or 98.5% of the population (1986). Small populations of speakers are also in adjacent countries: Albania (60,000); Cyprus (578,000); Egypt (60,000); Italy (20,000); Bulgaria (11,000). It is also spoken around the world by a significant number of speakers who have emigrated for political or, more commonly, economic reasons to the USA (458,699); Germany (314,000); Poland (114,000); Australia (106,677); Canada (104,455); Georgia (100,000); Ukraine (104,000); Russia (105,000); South Africa (70,000); United Kingdom (200,000); Sweden (50,000); Kazakhstan (47,000) and smaller populations--under 20 thousand speakers--in Austria, Turkey, Armenia, Paraguay, Malawi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Congo, and Bahamas.

Greek is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. It belongs to the Attic subgroup of the Greek group, that also includes Cappadocian Greek, Ancient Greek, Pontic, Romano-Greek, all spoken in Greece, and Yevanic, which is spoken in Israel. The Greek family also includes the Doric subgroup with Tsakonian being the only representative.

The official and spoken literary dialect is Standard Modern Greek (i.e Mackridge 1985, Holton, et al, 1997) which developed from the spoken Dimotiki while keeping a number of more formal and archaic characteristics found in Katharevousa. Katharevousa is an archaic literary dialect that is almost extinct now though until very recently traces of its presence were still distinguishable in law documents, the church and the armed forces. Finally, Saracatsan is the dialect spoken by the Saracatsani nomadic shepherds, mainly in the Ipiros area of West Greece.

A version of an alphabetical system developed in Ionia (the western coast of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands) and adopted in Athens in 403 BC assumed gradually the status of a standard throughout the Greek-speaking world and has retained this status until today. It contains 24 letters of which 17 are consonants and 7 vowels.

Modern Greek is a fusional, inflecting language, with grammatical information being indicated through the endings of inflected words. Endings encode values for several categories simultaneously, including gender, number, and case. There is agreement in these features within noun phrases between noun modifiers (adjectives, numerals, demonstratives) and head nouns. Definite noun phrases are introduced by a definite article. The personal pronouns have special forms, while demonstrative and other pronouns generally follow some nominal declensional pattern. Adjectives show comparative and superlative degree forms.

Voice, aspect, and tense morphology is present in the verbal system. Voice is formally distinguished in active and medio-passive (the second combining the Ancient Greek middle and passive voice characteristics). Aspect is a more complex issue in Modern Greek although a distinction between Imperfective, Perfective, and Perfect seems to explain in a relatively satisfactory way the aspectual differences in the use of verb forms. Finally, tense is also realized in a complex verbal inflectional system resulting in the following tense and aspect forms: imperfective non-past, imperfective past, perfective non-past, perfective past. Declarations or questions concerning future time are expressed with the use of ‘tha’ before any of the above mentioned verb forms resulting in different future verb forms. Therefore, future tense is part of the ‘mood system’ (subjunctive’), of the Greek language.

There is a Subject-Verb-Object word order preference especially in neutral pronunciations of sentences, in Greek. However, word order is relatively free and any permutation of ordering of subject, object and verb can be found. The same is true for Noun Phrase internal elements like adjectives, demonstratives, numerals and head-nouns. Although the default order is demonstrative-article-numeral-adjective-noun-possessor-relative clause, a number of different linear orders are also possible.

The language inventory contains also a number of weak pronominals (clitics), the positioning of which is before finite verbs and after nonfinite verbs. Verb and clitics form a verbal complex together with other verb-related material, like mood particles and tense affixes. Subjects are marked with nominative case, direct objects with accusative, and indirect object with genitive or the preposition ‘se’. Negation in Modern Greek is marked with the two markers ‘den’ and ‘min’ forming part of the verbal complex.

Complementation is essentially only with finite clauses headed by the subjunctive marker ‘na’ or by indicative complementizers ‘oti’, ‘pos’, or ‘pu’.

The speakers of Standard Modern Greek constitute the dominant speech community in Greece. It has spread geographically from the city centers of Athens and Thessalonica to the country and has now displaced most local dialects. There are still differences in accent patterns and in certain grammatical properties between for example Athenian and Macedonian Greeks (i.e. the use of accusative instead of genitive indirect object clitics in the Macedonian register). However, the differences are of minor importance. There are a number of other languages and dialects spoken in Greece by small populations: Arvanitika, Bulgarian, Pontic, Romani, Slavic, Tsakonian, and Turkish. Greek is the official language for education and government administration. However, minority languages are used as means of instruction in education, in select schools and in areas where the minority populations are concentrated (i.e. Turkish in Thrace). Other languages of different minority groups are freely used in communication (press, radio, and so on), at home, and between co-speakers of the language.

Modern Greek is the descendant of Ancient Greek. The ancient dialects that were spoken in different areas of Greece up to the 4th century BC were gradually superseded by a form of the language that became known as Elliniki Koine (common Greek), which was based on the Attic dialect of Athens.

This form of Greek Koine evolved through a series of historical changes that include the occupation by the Romans and the period of the Roman Empire, the birth of the Byzantium and the historical transition from Constantine I to Mehmet the Conqueror and the Fall of Constantinople to the birth of Modern Greek spanning from the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish occupation to the modern Greek state.

A basic characteristic of the strong relationship between the classical Greek tradition and the evolved language especially in its spoken form is the ‘diglossic’ turn that the evolution of the language took and in which a formal archaizing variety that speakers and writers modeled on Classical Greek was set against a vernacular innovative variety (Mackridge, 1985). One of the reasons that this distinction was gradually intensified is the lack of communication between the educated aristocracy in the centers and the isolated periphery, especially during the Turkish occupation. Thus the aristocracy continued to use a conservative variety faithful to the classicist written form while the people in the provinces of the empire were speaking gradually diverged regional dialects. The establishment of katharevousa as the governmental and administrative language of the state institutionalized the schism.

The problem of diglossia reached a significant historical point at the beginning of the twentieth century when a number of intellectuals started fighting against the adaptation of the formal katharevousa for the written form of the language, and started publishing their works in the spoken dialect of dimotiki.

The dialect spoken today (Standard Modern Greek) in contrast to pure dimotiki allows for a number of archaic elements and in the written form of the language a number of styles and elements that stem from more than one varieties are used. (Horrocks, 1997).

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Holton, David, Peter Mackridge & Irene Philippaki-Warburton. 1997. Greek, a Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language. London: Routledge.

Horrocks, Geoffrey. 1997. Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. London: Longman.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Mackridge, Peter. 1985. The Modern Greek Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.

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