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Fascinating Facts About the Greek Language

The Greek Empire: simply uttering those words conjures up grandiose images of the ancient kingdom, with its unmistakable art and architecture. Greece has produced some of the most influential figures in human history, including philosophers like Plato and Socrates, scientists such as Aristotle and Hippocrates, and leaders like Alexander the Great. But even if you’re a whiz in Greek history, how much do you know about the Greek language? Did you know that it was the first language to use vowels in its alphabet? Or that the Greek question mark is a semicolon? Continue reading to learn more surprising facts about the Greek language that you didn’t learn in your global history class.

1. The word “alphabet” refers to the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.

The first two letters in the Greek alphabet are alpha (α)and beta (β). Therefore, even though English uses Roman letters, the word “alphabet” actually refers to Greek characters!

2. Greek words have three genders.

Like German, the Greek language has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Therefore, the word “the” can take three forms: in masculine form, it is o; in feminine form, it is η; and in neuter form, it is το.

3. The longest word to appear in literature is Greek.

It’s said that the longest word ever to appear in literature is found in Assemblywoman, a play written in 391 BCE by Greek playwright Aristophanes. It has a whopping 171 letters, and refers to a fictional dish consisting of several different types of meat. If you’re feeling brave, try to pronounce it without making a mistake:

4. Around 12% of English words derive from Greek.

Greek hugely influenced English, and as such, many technical and scientific terms derive from Greek (especially prefixes). For example, mathematics, astronomy, and biology are of Greek origin. Additionally, almost every English word that starts with ph (e.g., philosophy, photograph, phobia, phenomenon) comes from Greek.

5. English has influenced Greek, too.

Though it hasn’t had quite the impact that Greek has had on English, the English language has significantly affected Greek. For example, the verb φρικάρω (pronounced “freak-are-oh”) comes from the English word “freak out”. And γκλαμουριά (pronounced “glamour-ee-ah”) derives from “glamour”.

6. Until 1976, there were two different official versions of Greek.

Before 1976, Greek had two variations. Demotic was used in most casual contexts, as well as in literature. Katharevousa, on the other hand, was used in academia, law, newspapers, and the armed forces. In 1976, however, the Greek government adopted Demotic as the sole official language.

7. The Greek alphabet was the first to use vowels.

The Greek alphabet has a long history, and has been around since the 9th century BCE. It was the first alphabet to use vowels; before that, written language consisted only of consonants.

8. The Greek question mark looks like a semicolon.

Greek uses a different alphabet from English, and even the punctuation is different! Indeed, the Greek question mark is a semicolon (;), and is used at the end of questions.

9. It was originally written from right to left.

Ancient Greek, like modern-day Hebrew and Arabic, was written from right to left. It then went through a period of boustrophedon, meaning that lines alternated between right-to-left and left-to-right script. Nowadays, it’s written only from left to right.

So even if you’ve read the Iliad and the Odyssey from front to back, now you also know which Greek play contains the longest word to ever appear in literature!

The word polyglot, which refers to somebody who speaks many languages, derives from Greek: poly means “many”, and glotta means “tongue”