A Brief History Of The Greek Language
The Greek language has been around for a very long time. Going back to the earliest Greek writings, there are over 3,400 years of documentable history contained within. Before we get to how many people speak Greek, a brief history, then, is in order; and it’s going to have to skim over quite a few details. So bear with us.
Greek is a part of the Indo-European language family, meaning it’s distantly connected with a huge number of languages spoken in the world, including English, Spanish, German, Bulgarian and Iranian. As Indo-European splintered into various languages thousands of years ago, the Hellenic branch broke off, and Greek is the primary (if not the sole) member of this language group.
The first written evidence of Greek comes from the 15th century BCE in the form of Linear B, a writing system that the Mycenaean Greeks adapted from the neighboring Minoans. There isn’t a huge amount of Linear B writing that has survived until today — mainly clay tablets that record accounts of Mycenaean palaces — but it’s the first record we have of Greek culture.
The Greek language evolved over the next several centuries, and there was a variety of dialects spoken throughout the Mediterranean region. The dialects could roughly be divided into West, Aeolic, Arcado-Cypriot and Ionic-Attic groups, all of which formed Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek comprises the language spoken in the region of Greece from about the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE, thus encompassing a huge amount of time. During this period, Homer’s epics were written, the Roman Empire rose and fell, and the basis for all Western Civilization was constructed.
In roughly the 4th century BCE, one form of Greek became popular enough to become the lingua franca of the region: Koine Greek. It evolved from Attic Greek, the dialect spoken in Athens. This language was spoken by Alexander the Great, and it was also the language that the New Testament of the Christian Bible was written in.
Koine Greek went on to evolve into Medieval/Byzantine Greek — which lasted from roughly the 6th to the 15th centuries CE, when the Byzantine Empire fell — which then became Modern Greek. Today, there are several dialects of Greek spoken, as well as attempts to keep Ancient Greek alive.
How Many People Speak Greek In Greece?
When it comes to how many people speak Greek in Greece, in total we can estimate there are around 10.7 million people, which is almost the entirety of the country. Greece has by far the most Greek speakers of any country in the world.
Demotic Greek is also the official language of Greece. It’s specifically Demotic Greek (the language spoken by modern Greek people), because for a long time there was an argument over which version of Greek should be made the official national language. This centuries-long feud over which Greek should be taught in schools and used in the government was known as the Greek language question.
On the one hand, some people argued that Demotic Greek made more sense as the official language, because it was what people actually speak. On the other hand, some people wanted to use Katharevousa, a version of Greek that is much closer to Ancient Greek (though not exactly the same, as it was invented in the 18th century). The Greek language question was feuded over from the 18th century all the way to 1976, and it raised issues of identity, culture and history. In the end, however, Demotic Greek won out.
How Many People Speak Greek In Other Countries?
Do you know how many people speak Greek who don’t live within that Mediterranean nation’s borders? There aren’t a huge number of Greek speakers outside of Greece, but there are a few smaller populations.
Cyprus, an island country in the Middle East, has about 1,168,500 Greek speakers, and it’s one of the official languages of the country. Turkish is also an official language, but in name only, as over 80 percent of the population speaks Greek.
The United States has around 365,000 Greek speakers, reflecting waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. During World War II and the Greek Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Greeks moved to the United States. While some lost their native tongue over time, there’s still a strong Greek-speaking population.
Australia has 252,000 Greek speakers, which is the largest population outside of Europe. In the early 20th century, Australians encouraged Europeans to move to their country, and many did. This was in part thanks to the Greco-Turkish War and the Greek genocide during and after World War I, in which hundreds of thousands of Greek people living in Asia Minor were killed. And there was another large migration in the decades following World War II as well.
Neighboring Albania has 15,200 Greek speakers, and it’s a working language in a few of the southern regions of the country.
Greek speakers also pop up in a few other countries around Europe and the Middle East. Here are a few with the most according to Ethnologue, in descending order of speaker population: Italy (20,000), Ukraine (5,830), Turkey (3,600), Romania (2,560) and Hungary (1,870).
Beyond these, Greek pops up in places all over the world. Because Greece is part of the European Union, Greek is one of the 24 official languages of the organization. Greek words still play a major role in science, math, literature and etymology because of its millennia-long legacy. While Greek speakers are highly concentrated in one region of the world, the language’s historic role and vibrant modern culture makes it a useful language to learn.