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Attention: The details in this post are not intended to be completely accurate and may contain mistakes, misrepresentation and gross simplifications.
I’m over 50 days already in Greece and I have gotten a little bit used to the Greek language. I’m nowhere near good so this might contain errors but I thought I would give you all a small representation of the Greek language and what you would experience if you were around to learn it. I’m going to write mostly in Roman letters so that everybody can read it and keep it simple. Here goes…
About the Greek letters (and pronunciation)…
I have already written about learning the letters of the Greek alphabet. Learning to read Greek with sufficient accuracy is not a big problem either. I can read it now and pronounce the words given some time. My reading speed is not very good, though. I have talked to a girl who also studied Greek for two years, has a C1 diploma of Greek and she said she still doesn’t read it as fast as she would read the Latin alphabet. It is normal and probably not something you can do much about. The speed is obviously even worse for texts with words you do not recognize.
As you have seen in my post, the letters are straightforward. Talking about Modern Greek, you only have to learn the letters and a few extra combinations such as ου which is pronounced like in soup while it should be pronounced oi in boy, αι which is pronounced like the French é and then you’re good to read it. I sometimes still have problems with ντ becomes it is seemingly pronounced nd and d by some people and I do not know which is correct (the one in the middle – nasal (n) and d supposedly – is but I might have problems with this nasal sound). Same for γκ this is pronounced either ng or g). I am also not sure if I pronounce the sounds of letters γ (g) and δ (d) correctly but at least I seem to be understood.
So, in summary, Greek pronunciation is just 24 easy letters and some combinations thereof… very regular, pretty easy.
Stress oh stress
Oh, there is more. Every word is actually stressed in Greek. Not only that, the stress mark must be shown in every word. Here’s an example of a Greek text for you (I hope I got that right):
Μου αρέσουν λίγο οι γλώσσες.
With correct accent, it could be transcribed as:
Mou arésoun lígo oi glósses.
Well, in informal chat, Greeks would write it something like this:
Mou aresoun ligo oi glwsses.
But the fact remains that every word that has more than one syllable has an accent and it has become a part of the word in some way. This is actually very good for language learners like me because we can remember how to pronounce the words correctly like this.
If you are still wondering what stress is, consider this example. In English you say EXport and some kind of emphasis is put on the syllable ex. For example, it would be wrong to say exPORT emphasizing PORT and the word would be stressed incorrectly. In Greek, all words are like that. The same English word would be written éxport to emphasize the place of the stress if English had adopted the Greek system of stress.
Languages like Russian or Lithuanian have dynamic stress which changes with different forms of words as well but it is usually not shown on words which is a pity because it would actually make the language so much easier for learners and enable getting easier solutions of problems concerning agreeing on the pronunciation of the word among native speakers.
How to construct sentences
Okay, so now we can talk about how to make phrases in Greek. I don’t know where to start. Perhaps we will start with verbs.
I found it kind of strange that verbs don’t have the infinitive (*to*) form in Greek. What they have instead is the first person form which is the key to other forms and is used in dictionaries.
There is one single form… for example, let’s talk about finishing, the form in Greek is τελειώνω which would be written teleióno and considering that ei together is pronounced simply as i, it is pronounced telióno as well (that is what I will use in the examples for ease).
This form means I finish. Then you have five different forms for all of the tenses, so roughly teliónis for you finish, telióne for he finishes, teliónoume, teliónete and teliónoun (remember that ou is pronounced like in soup). This is pretty easy and pretty regular.
Also there is another case of these where the last letter is stressed such as μιλώ which is miló for I speak. It can also be written as μιλάω that is miláo which is a form I like a bit more (and these two are changed interchangeably something like he was not and he wasn’t in English). Then these have slightly different endings as it goes milás for you, milái for he, miláme for we, etc. Still pretty easy.
As it has been pointed out by a commentator Tsela below, there is another conjugation for words such as boró which which is in fact similar to the first one mentioned except that it also has stress on the first syllable.
Some verb magic
If you want to connect two verbs together you have to put na in the middle of them. For example, I want is thélo (th pronounced like in the English word this) and I do is káno so if you want to say I want to finish you have to say thélo na káno. Same for you want to do: thelis na kanis, etc. It is not very hard.
However, káno is a bit of an exception here because na does not force káno to change to its second form. It is not the case for most other verbs because they change to their second form after káno.
The second form of verbs
So, if you want to say I want to finish you have thélo, na and telióno but then telióno changes to its second form. The second form of verbs ending in ono is oso so the second form of telióno is telióso. So if you want to say I want to finish you say thélo na telióso which sounds much cooler to me.
Most of the verbs change like that so for example if you want to say I want to speak you change miló to milíso (it changes like that because its ending is stressed) so you have thélo na milíso.
Many different Greek endings have change patterns so for example gráfo (I write) becomes grápso, niótho (I feel) becomes nióso, etc. Then there are some which you cannot guess from patterns and have to learn separately. For example, vlépo (I see) becomes do after na which is kind of hard to foresee.
Of course, this second form can not only be used for thélo (I want) but instead for practically all cases where you have two verbs together (I can see, I want to have, etc.)
The second form is more important than you think…
You would think that you would only use the second form after na but actually it has a lot more uses than that.
In an old construction, if you wanted to express the future and say I will do you would say I want to do because want implies that it will happen in the future (you still want it). As we have already mentioned, it would be thélo na káno. However, in speech thélo na simply got shortened to tha (Greek θα) and that became the future marking particle.
Thus you also use the second form for the future. You want tha milíso for I will speak, tha grápso for I will write, etc. That works wonders.
But wait… there’s more. The second form for the past too!
Now not only the second form is used in the future, it is also used in the past. You just slightly change the endings and you have the past forms. For example, you had milíso for the form of miló (I speak). You can change it to mílisa and you got I spoke which is the past. In a similar fashion you get milíses for you spoke, milíse for he spoke, etc. This is not terribly difficult, is it.
Stress usually falls on the second to last syllable so if you have less than three syllables you have an extra letter (usually é) added in the beginning so káno (which is both the first and the second form) becomes kana but that’s only two syllables so it becomes ékana for I did. Same for égrapsa for I wrote, etc.
The mediopassive voice is creeping me
Right, the only thing that rains on the parade here is the Greek mediopassive voice (just called simply passive in Modern Greek). First, though, the word for to be.
The words for to be
The word for to be look different (like in many languages). In Greek they are different because they don’t end in ω like most verbs do in their first form. Here’s a table with the word for to be in Greek:
|είμαι (ímé)||είμαστε (ímasté)|
|είσαι (ísé)||είστε, είσαστε (ísté)|
|είναι (íné)||είναι (íné)|
The Modern Greek mediopassive voice
Alright, so you have some word, such as telióno. If you say telióno that’s fine, you finish something. But if you are a day for example and you want to say I finish myself, you would say telióno-eímai which has become teliónomai in Greek. Thus to say the day is finishing you could say i méra teliónetai which would mean the day finishes itself. You could also use this to say *I wash myself* in one word and similar things. Greek uses that a lot.
Now it would be fine if the endings weren’t a bit messed up so you get forms such as telionithika, etc (I still haven’t learnt those forms fully).
Also there are some words like skéftomai (I think), koimámai (I sleep) or onirévomai (I dream) which only have the passive voice and do not have active voice because if you, say, think, in the Greek mind you are doing something to yourself instead of just doing something so it’s passive.
Alright, a bit annoying, but it still sometimes sounds cool and is not so hard to learn after all.
Noun articles, declensions and other changes…
Nouns are things to describe objects such as apple, table, language or cucumber. In Greek, they have different genders which are actually three like in a lot of Indoeuropean languages: masculine (male), feminine (female) and neuter. Thus you have o skílos for dog (masculine), i gáta for cat (feminine) and to spíti for house (neuter).
These are not so very hard because they can usually be told by the ending of the word. If anything, you also have the article which is different or every gender and in the end it is okay not to get the genders right too.
Now nouns, their articles and adjectives (things that describe them) all change in some ways. The good news are that these changes are not so hard. You can get a good overview of the changes in Glavkos blog-posts for masculine masculine, neuter, neuter and feminine nouns and I have also left comments about the broad patterns I have noticed there.
In summary… noun changes for you
Let’s go with o skílos which is a masculine word meaning the dog.
If you want to say the house of the dog you change you say to spíti tou skílou where o skílos changes to tou skílou. Thats the first change you will have.
If you want to say that something is being done with the dog or use the dog with prepositions such as with, from, on, concerning, etc. you say to skílo where o skílos changes to to skílo. You could say, for example, tha pao me to skilo which means I will go with the dog (because me means with). You could also say blepo to skilo which means I see the dog. That is the second change.
The third change is when you want to call the dog where you say skílé as in dog, come here!.
Then you have all of these three changes for the plural too (except endings in the plural usually change even less and the changes are even more predictable). You have different endings for nouns for all three genders as well as for adjectives (word such as black, good, etc.) and even articles but in the end it’s not that much. Of course, I still get a lot of the endings wrong and I haven’t memorized all of them that well but that’s not a big obstacle to speaking Greek and they come with time. The situation seems to me similar like that in German except in German you can’t tell the gender of a word by the ending whereas in Greek you usually can.
My summary about nouns could be this: nouns change but not very much.
Alright, Greek words are another matter. They are usually different from English although some of them have roots in English and that is very nice.
A thing is to kósmos (as in cosmos), a soul is psichí (as in psychic), vivlío (written biblio, think the Bible) – book, etc. Otherwise some of the words seem unfamiliar and I have to learn a lot of them by rote with flashcards. Here are ten random words for you from my yesterday flashcard learning so that you can find how similar – or different – they are.
As you can see, not very similar. Still a few of these words look familiar (métrios – perhaps related to meter, anapsichí – looks related to psyche). I try to learn them and use associations to remember them better which is not always easy and I keep forgetting a lot of words but I have moved on a lot as well.
The Modern Greek language does not seem very difficult to me. Sure, there are things to learn and the words are not very familiar, etc. thus it is definitely harder to learn than say Portuguese. However, the pronunciation is not overly complicated and it is totally phonetic (what you see is what you get… unlike English), the changes in words are not so drastic as in other languages so that you can usually trace back the original form from other forms (unlike Estonian, for example) and it has been simplified a great deal since Ancient Greek so if there still are people learning Ancient Greek, Modern Greek is not that difficult and definitely learnable. That’s my conclusion so far.
The Cool Thing
As far as verbs are concerned, you can use the cool Greek Verbs Online Conjugator. Solves a lot of problems while learning. :)
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