Why learn Modern Greek?

Greece is an amazing country: a fusion of west and east, of ancient and modern; a beautiful, exciting, disparate land with an extraordinary, 4000-year history of civilisation, philosophy, mythology, oppression, bloodshed, resistance and creativity.

Although Greece is currently a fairly quiet player on the world stage, it is remarkable how much the nation has contributed, over the centuries, to world culture. Among a huge number of other achievements, the Greeks invented democracy, developed a great many of the mathematical theorems we still use today, created a form of tragic drama that is still popular today and founded the Olympic Games.

Language is another significant area where the ancient Greeks left a lasting legacy. For a start, the Roman alphabet we use in English was derived, indirectly, from the Greek. And then there are all the thousands of English words with Greek origins. The word alphabet itself, of course, comes from the names of the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. (Actually it's vita in Greek).

If you are not familiar with the Greek alphabet, you may feel it would be hard for you to learn it. In fact, in our experience, people can usually grasp it in only a few weeks. Some of the letters are confusing because they are the same shape as the Latin ones we use in English but correspond to a different sound - they take some practice. Others are just like ours and the rest are new shapes. Have a look and see what you think.

Greek character Its name Its sound
Αα alpha a, as in father
Ββ vita v, as in vase
Γγ gama somewhere between gh and y
Δδ thelta th, as in then
Εε epsilon e, as in egg
Ζζ zita z, as in zoo
Ηη ita ee, as in feet
Θθ thita th, as in think
Ιι iota ee, as in feet
Κκ kappa k, as in kettle
Λλ lamtha l, as in last
Μμ mi m, as in mother
Νν ni n, as in nut
Ξξ ksi x, as in box
Οο omikron o, as in not
Ππ pi p, as in pie
Ρρ ro rolled r
Σσ (ς at the end of a word) sigma s, as in sky
Ττ taf t, as in tall
Υυ ipsilon ee, as in feet
Φφ fi f, as in fish
Χχ hi kh, as in Scottish loch
Ψψ psi ps, as in tops
Ωω omega o, as in not

As far as the Greek language is concerned, although its alphabet is the same as it was in Classical times, there have been changes in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. For historical reasons, in 1976 the form known as Demotikí - Modern Greek - was adopted as the official national language.

Modern Greek is similar to Ancient Greek and still uses the majority of the words that have come into English from the ancient language. There are exceptions - the modern word for water, for example, is not hydro but neró - but a vast amount of the vocabulary an English person would recognise is the same in Modern Greek as it was in Ancient Greek.

It might be putting it too strongly to suggest that knowledge of English will help you to guess the meaning of Greek words, although this can be true. However, it is certainly the case that once you have learnt what a Greek word means it very often makes sense and is easy to remember.

For example:

φιλος (filos) means friend, ανθρωπος (anthropos) means man or person, σοφια (sofia) means wisdom

When we look at the English words philanthropy and philosophy, everything fits into place.


φωνη (foni) means sound, πολυ (poly) means much or many, κακος (kakos) means bad

… which we can see in polyphonic, and cacophony.

The Greek letter vita (β) generally became b as it moved into English but, taking that into account, we can easily learn φοβος (fovos), which means fear, and also βιος (vios), which means life (in the sense of life story) - particularly once we know that γραφω (grafo) means I write.

There are many, many more instances like these. So you see, Greek is actually not that difficult, is it?!

Recommended Reading

If you are interested in learning Greek, have a look at the Greek language books we recommend to accompany any course you take or for maintaining/improving your Greek by yourself.

If you are interested in the life and culture of Greece or Cyprus, have a look at our recommendations for books about or set in Greece, the Greek Islands and Cyprus. These books are in English, a range of fiction and non-fiction that we have enjoyed and hope you will too.

If you are planning a trip to Greece, the Greek Islands or Cyprus (see below), don't go without your Lonely Planet Guide.

Some Quick Facts About Greece

Official name:
Hellenic Republic


Capital city:

Mainland - Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly, Sterea Ellada, Attica, the Peloponnese

Over 2,500 islands
For a pretty comprehensive list of Greek islands, see the Wikipedia entry.

For an accessible overview of the main islands, see Matt Barrett's Greek Island Synopsis.

10,688,058 (2006 estimate)


Greek Orthodox

Multi-party democratic republic with unicameral legislature

Internet domain:

Country calling code:

If you are interested in learning more about contemporary Greece, you might also like to look at the following websites:

Matt Barrett's Travel Guide to Greece

Greek Ministry of Tourism

Athens News (in English)

Some Quick Facts About Cyprus

After years as a British colony, Cyprus became an independent state on 16th August 1960. Following bitter fighting between the island's Greek and Turkish populations, in 1975 Cyprus was divided into the Greek area - approximately two thirds of the island - and the Turkish area in the northern third of the island.

Official name:
The Republic of Cyprus
(The Turkish Cypriots refer to northern Cyprus as The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus but this is recognised only by Turkey.)

Greek and Turkish

Capital city:

784,301 (2006 estimate)
- of whom approximately 77% are Greek, 18% Turkish and 5% other

In the Greek Cypriot area: Cypriot pound
In the Turkish Cypriot area: Turkish lira

Broadly speaking, the 77% of the population who are Greek are of the Greek Orthodox faith and the 18% who are Turkish are Muslim.

Multi-party democratic republic with unicameral legislature
(The internationally recognised parliament is controlled by Greek Cypriots. There are seats allocated to Turkish Cypriots but they have not been taken up since the 1960s. The Turkish Cypriots have their own Assembly.)

Internet domain:

Country calling code:

If you are interested in learning more about Cyprus, you might also like to look at the following websites:

Official website of the Republic of Cyprus

Cyprus Access Panel



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