Rough Greek Overview: Modern Greek From A Learner’s Perspective

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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.

Oh 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.

Greek words

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.

strength sthénos
wooden ksílinos
strength sthénos
easy, weak elafrís
companion o síndrofos
naugty átachtos
beast o ktínos
leisure i anapsichí
I stop pávo
middle métrios
wind o ánemos

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.

Conclusion

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. :)

Similar Posts:

Here're The Resources To Learn Modern Greek!
Attacking Greek From All Sides: Podcasts, Practice, Progress. History.
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13 Comments


  1. ·

    Hi there,

    I personally have been studying Modern Greek for three years (on my own, no official courses, but the free one from kypros.org and the Hellenic American union podcasts) and I have to agree with most of what you wrote: Modern Greek is very neat, it is easy to read, but two things are difficult: learning the vocabulary and the devilish passive conjugations :) .

    I know you said you probably made errors, but there were a few in there I thought you really should correct:
    – after introducing (correctly) θα (tha) as the abbreviation of θέλω να (thélo na), you then consistently write it down as “fa”. That is incorrect. It's really “tha”, as you originally wrote. It's pronounced with the same “th” sound as in English “think”, not with the “f” sound of “fight”. I know that they sound similar, but if you know English you should be able to separate them, since English has both those sounds as well.
    – milíso (μιλήσω) gives mílisa (μίλησα) in the past tense, not *milísa (*μιλήσα). Since the next paragraph deals with the fact that the accent needs to be put on the second-to-last syllable, this makes this mistake a bit weird :) .
    – You mentioned the verbs with the accent on the next-to-last syllable (τελειώνω, θέλω, etc…), and the verbs with the accent on the last syllable with an -áo alternative (like μιλώ/μιλάω). You forgot the last group, the verbs with the accent on the last syllable but no -áo alternative, like μπορώ (mporó) “I can”. Their conjugation is different from both other groups, although they otherwise are quite similar to the -áo verbs.
    – the noun “changes” are called “cases”, and form the declension of a noun. Declension is like conjugation, but for nouns instead of verbs.
    – you might have liked to mention that the absence of infinitive makes things slightly easier in some cases (or at least makes them look more regular). For instance, “I want to do” is indeed thélo na káno (θέλω να κάνω), but “I want you to do” is also simply thélo na kánis (θέλω να κάνεις), i.e. the construction is the same no matter the combination of persons between “want” and “do”. I personally find that very neat, and I don't miss the infinitive for a second :) .

    I also have some advice concerning pronunciation that you might like to have:
    – δ is actually very easy to pronounce when you know English: it's the same sound as “th” in “the”, “this” or “that”. It's *not* the same sound as “th” in “think” though (in Greek it's spelled as θ). In English “th” is used for both sounds, but it should be easy to tell them apart.
    – γ has two pronunciations basically: in front of an i or é sound (sound, not necessarily spelling), it's simply pronounced like English “y” when it's used as a consonant, i.e. as in “your”. In front of an a, o or u/ou sound, it's pronounced like a soft scratching at the back of your mouth (not unlike the French r, but a bit less throaty). Do you have any problem with χ as well?
    – about μπ, ντ and γκ/γγ: don't worry too much about those. They can indeed be pronounced respectively as mb/b, nd/d or ng/g. The truth is different speakers will use either alternative, sometimes both in the same sentence, and both are equally acceptable! (many speakers won't even *hear* the difference) There are only two cases where only one pronunciation is allowed, but they are easy to remember. First, at the beginning of a word, the normal pronunciation should always be respectively b, d and g. In fast speech, when the previous word ended in a vowel (or in very slow speech), you might still hear mb, nd or ng, but you needn't copy that way of speaking. Just stick to the easy ones. Second, in loanwords (words originally from another language that Modern Greek took over, or foreign words spelled using Greek letters), you should simply pronounce them *as they were pronounced in the original word*. For instance, the word for “sandwich”: σάντουιτσ is pronounced sándouits, because the original word had already an “nd” sound. But Γκρεγκ (English “Greg”) will be pronounced greg, and not *greng, because that's how it's pronounced in English. That said, many Greek people actually don't hear the difference unless you point it at them, so you shouldn't worry too much about them.

    I hope it helps! Greek is a beautiful language, so keep it up! It has enriched my life, hopefully it'll enrich yours as well :) .


  2. ·

    Dank je wel, ik heb de fouten gecorrigeerd.

    It is really interesting because I have been using the very same courses for my Greek learning too! I am at lesson 63 in that and also I have found out that I am a bit above what Cyprus has to offer (plus the courses looked boring to me) so I just checked the wordlists of all the lessons from most of Cyprus courses for unknown words and made flashcard wordlists to learn them. There are words like ερμάρι there that seem not to be very helpful but you never know. :)

    I have also been listening to podcasts and radio lately although I still can't pick up all that much but my comprehension seems to be improving. I'll probably make a post about that in the future.

    Thanks for the tips of the pronunciation too. I have asked people and got different opinions on ντ, μπ and γκ/γγ and your comment puts everything into place.

    Also, I guess I am in a bit different situation rather than you because you have been learning the language for a long time and I am in Greece for three months and trying to learn the language there through active studying and speaking practice (which I don't get as much as I would like to get due to not very fortunate circumstances and election of the living place). I think I will stop active studying after my stay in Greece ends although I might continue listening to various programmes or trying to read texts and learn the language that way. I still have until the end of the summer to go so I hope I will learn A LOT during that time.


  3. ·

    This is a very detailed and useful post for beginners in the Modern Greek language…Great job (Ι feel thankful also for the links to my blog). Some remarks:

    Η μέρα τελειώνει > The day comes to an end

    Τελειώνομαι > means that I become perfect ethically

    http://www.greek-language.gr/greekLang/modern_g

    I definitely would agree with you that Modern Greek is not that difficult. It is easier than Russian or German , which I tried to learn both with no great results so far. It is far more simlified from the other blends of Medieval or Koine or Ancient Greek…It is phonetic since one has learnt the rules of pronunciation. And it is definitely a first step for those who want to dive in Hellenic Classic Studies …Definitely not the other way around (studying Ancient Greek won't help you too much to learn Modern Greek).


  4. ·

    Hehe, I see you speak Dutch too. Although Dutch is my main language nowadays, it's not my mother tongue :) . I'm French by origin :) .

    The Kypros course was the one I started with. Only this year I moved to the HAU podcasts, and I wouldn't have been able to follow them had I not finished the Kypros course first. And don't underestimate the usefulness of words like ερμάρι! There are enough people around using cupboards :) .

    The deal with ντ, μπ and γκ I finally understood one day about a year ago. I was on holidays on Lesbos with my partner and Dutch friends. We were talking to Greek friends who suddenly said that one of my Dutch friends looked like “Adónis” (as they pronounced it). My Dutch friend felt extremely flattered (we use that word in Dutch, stressed that way, to mean an extremely good looking man), which caused much confusion among our Greek friends. After 5 minutes of misunderstanding, I finally got it: they were only saying that he looked like a friend of theirs called Αντώνης, not like 'Αδονης! When I said: “you mean “Andonis””, my Greek friends answered: “yes, “Adonis””. That's when I realised that they just didn't make the distinction between the “d” sound and the “nd” sound in this position. Afterwards, things were much clearer :) .

    Although I've been learning Modern Greek for quite a while, I've actually got less speaking practice than you. I only ever speak Greek when I'm in Greece, and that's only been 3 weeks a year for the last three years. And in my experience, no amount of active studying can replace a few days of actual practice.

    One thing you can do in order to keep your Greek level after you left Greece is to ensure you've got friends there with Skype! :) It's truly helpful, and better (and cheaper) than phone calls :) .

    Well, have a nice time in Greece! :)


  5. ·

    Mais ça va parce que je parle aussi le français. Mon secret est que je parle pas couramment la pluparte de mes langues et puis c'est pas difficil d'apprendre de parler un peu (ou un peu plus qu'un peu dans quelques cas).

    Well, 3 weaks a year for three years makes it about 9 weaks which is about the same as me now (I've been here for 7 weeks), so I guess we would be on the same level. Of course, I'm cramming Greek very fast now while you have had the time to learn and internalize it so I assume you should be better than me. Oh well, I plan to catch up in the last month. :)

    The problem with that is that I do not really like Skype. I would much prefer life communication. Well, I still plan not visiting the islands while I'm here so I'll have a reason to come back. Or perhaps I'll be getting more practice when I come back too. We'll see… Now it's too early to think about things like that.

    Thanks for your comments!


  6. ·

    Wow, τελειώνομαι has a meaning that is very difficult to guess from the root word itself.

    That page you linked to says:
    Η αναζήτηση δεν επέστρεψε κανένα αποτέλεσμα.
    Which of course means the search did not return any results (I know all the words in that sentence, wow!). That might be a problem of the comment formating software here, though.

    Yup, I'm glad you agree (it is rear to see native speakers agreeing on the facility of their language). Well don't take me wrong though – Greek is still a challenge and it takes people years to learn. I have met a girl who has been here for 1.5 years and still knows nothing except the food ordering vocabulary (she's very good when it comes to ordering food in Greek, though). Another guy had been here for a similar time and he even learned Spanish while he was abroad so I assume he knows what language learning is about but he told me that Greek seemed too difficult for him so he only learned some nouns during his stay, verbs and other things seemed too difficult to him.

    I guess a lot of people get turned away by the alphabet (which is actually not that difficult) or the seeming difficulty from looking at the amount of the verb forms without giving Greek closer look. That's a real pity.


  7. ·

    I know well that script is an obstacle with all non-latin written languages. Some languages , like Serbian, have both or very strict transliteration rules. In Greek it is a pity that such system does not exist yet ( the reasons can be traced in the division of the Orthordox and the Roman Catholic Church)….That might be helpful in the first steps when someone tries just to learn the basics , but sooner or later he must switch to the greek script if intrested to control fully the language…


  8. ·

    Well, with Greek, though, there's no excuse to not learning it. I could understand how it is hard to learn the Thai alphabet, Katakana or things like that but Greek is just too easy. The World's languages would be a bit dull if they all used the same alphabet. I also love the fact that the Modern Greek alphabet is the same from Ancient Greek.


  9. ·

    What I am proposing is not a new Greek alphabet, but a credible system of transliteration that almost exists in every language. It is not that hard after all….

    I think that nobody would accept to change the Greek alphabet. It is our history after all …
    But to creat a funcional system of transliteration is a completely different subject of conversation.


  10. ·

    That is a good idea, although probably hard to implement. I saw a suggestion for replacing the special letters of the Lithuanian alphabet like that because those cause a lot of problems sometimes. Say the word furious is įtūžęs which would be written as ituzes in where it is impractical or by people who just don't care to type in the letters. The suggestion was to write it as iituuzees or in a similar manner which would solve the problem. The thing is, people who don't care, don't care, and for others it just look too weird and unnecessary to begin typing in some special system.


  11. ·

    Well , I still have a long way with Russian …My plan is for this year is fully try to practice Russian and get exposed in every possible way. I can speak, because of my experience ..whenever I travel to Russia I feel home and start to speak the language from the 1st second.
    But, here in Greece although I know a lot of Russo-phones it is practically impossible to talk with them, because they immediately switch to Greek….
    For the moment I will try to read, listen and write more and more in Russian …Next year I will try to give a B2 or C1 exam, in order to read more systematically….I hope to have a good level of mastery until the end of June next year….


  12. ·

    With regards to the reading speed, have you considered the possibility that not even the Greeks can read their language as fast as a native English speaker can read theirs? I know that Japanese/Chinese can't read their own writing system at the same speed that we can English simply because of the nature of it, it's like trying to get a Civic to go the same speed as a Corvette, it's just not going to happen because it wasn't designed with that in mind.

    Cheers,
    Andrew


  13. ·

    That is an interesting idea for Chinese. I once asked a Chinese person for his reading speed which he told me to be something along the lines of 'normal' so I assumed it is technically more or less the same. I also heard that it could be a lot faster too because they can write words in blocks (in a single character). Their 140 characters limit in twitter is also too big: it's good for a short article. On the other hand, I can see your point it could be slower too because it takes some time to recognize the characters. I never investigated much into the issue, though.

    As for Greek, I don't think reading speed is an issue here. It's arguably simpler than English thus it should be read even faster.

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