If you’re thinking about learning Greek, likely because you’re going on vacation to Greece or Cyprus or even moving there, you may find yourself a little daunted at the prospect.
Between the strange alphabet, the odd sounds, the unfamiliar vocabulary and the confusing grammar, learning Greek must be difficult, right?
Well, yes, but also no.
Greek can be a slightly challenging language to learn. For English speakers, it’s certainly going to be more difficult than languages like French, German and Spanish, but much easier than languages like Mandarin or Korean. The primary reason for Greek’s difficulty for English speakers is its complex grammar and different alphabet.
In this article, I’ll expand on what makes Greek easy to learn and also what makes Greek relatively hard to learn.
Overall, it’s not as bad as it seems.
The Greek alphabet
Let’s first shoo the biggest elephant out the room: the Greek alphabet is pretty easy to learn.
I know it looks weird at first glance, but look again and you’ll recognize half, if not more, of the letters already.
Our alphabet, the Latin alphabet derives from the Greek one and, as such, many letters are the same.
Sure, many letters will have odd forms (why is “m” μ, and how did ν turn into “n”?) and some are really out there, like ψ (“ps”) and Θ (“th”), but there’s nothing truly outlandish like the Hebrew alphabet.
Once you sit down and set yourself to learning it, you can read entire words within a day or two, even less if you already know the Cyrillic alphabet (the two are very similar).
Sentences and paragraphs will follow in a week or two, and after a few months, reading Greek will feel natural to you, and you won’t feel like you put any real effort into it.
There is a small caveat to the above: writing Greek.
One of the weird idiosyncrasies of the language is that it has a lot of digraphs (two letters that make one sound) as well as letters that sound the same.
For example, there are two ways to spell “e” as in the first “e” in “ever” (ε and αι), two ways to spell “o” as in “over” (ο and ω) and five(!) ways to spell “i” as in “key” (ι, υ, η, οι and ει).
This isn’t a problem when reading the language, it just takes some time to get used to it, but it makes spelling incredibly hard.
As a result, even educated native speakers make a mess of spelling, and learners are almost naturally expected to make a dog’s dinner out of it, especially complicated words.
Generally speaking, most Greeks won’t give you too hard a time over any spelling mistakes you make, so you shouldn’t either.
Learning the letters is one thing, saying them the right way is another.
If you’ve ever heard Greek spoken, it can sound a little like Spanish at first thanks to the “th” sound and the vowels coming out clearly.
This can be a little tricky for English speakers as we have a tendency to “swallow” sounds a little, so you need to teach yourself to move them forward in your mouth.
Speakers of Germanic and Slavic languages seem to have less trouble with the sounds.
Other than that, the news is mostly good here as Greek is phonemic: it’s pronounced the same way it’s written, though keeping digraphs in mind.
There are very few silent letters to keep an eye on, as well, which is nice. One of the very few is the word for “Thursday” (πέμπτη), where the second π is silent.
There is again one small caveat, though, namely the way Greek lays stress on syllables.
The good news is that the stress is always clearly marked with an accent (ο τόνος) and there usually is only one per word.
It can only fall on one of the last three syllables, though any word of two syllables or more has to have it (exceptions apply).
So far, so simple.
The bad news is that the stress can move around depending on how a word changes.
In verbs it can denote a change in tense, while the stress can jump around in nouns, too, when they change case or number.
Again, it’s nothing too difficult, but it makes laying the stress correctly a little tricky at times.
When it comes to Greek vocabulary, you may expect some good news, but in all honesty it’s middling at best.
Though many words in most Indo-European languages and beyond have Greek roots (“psychotherapy,” “chromatography”) aside from these kinds of universal terms, Greek is very different from most other languages, even in the same family.
In fact, though it is Indo-European, Greek is an isolate within that family, so it’s very different in many ways.
As such, learning Greek vocabulary is pretty tough at times as most words are very different. For every time you see a word you may know, like χρώμα (“color”) or ψυχή (“heart, spirit”), you’ll find ten more that seem unconnected, like “baby” (μωρό) or “water” (νερό).
There are also a lot of false friends: where any word in English with “graph” in it may mean “painting” or “picture,” in Greek the word γράφω means “to write,” nothing to do with pictures.
Because of all this, learning vocabulary is definitely the most time-consuming part of learning Greek and really shouldn’t be underestimated: this is where Greek difficulty spikes.
Ancient Greek and Koine
If you speak Ancient Greek or have learned some Koine, you may expect there to be a lot of overlap between them.
However, as we explain in this article, there’s a lot less than you’d think.
Greek is an old, old, old language and has changed many times over the millenia it’s been around.
On top of that, there have been thousands of dialects spoken, too, which muddies the waters further.
For one, the grammar of modern Greek is a lot simpler — something we’ll talk about more in a bit — but also the words have changed a lot.
Knowing older forms of Greek can come in handy when learning modern Greek vocabulary, though.
For example, the word “hospital” (νοσοκομείο) has the ancient words for “sickness” and “place” in it, making it the “place for the sick.”
I had several years of ancient Greek in school and little things like that helped me pick up little things like that a bit quicker, but don’t expect your studies in these older forms to give you a massive head start, either.
Last but not least, let’s talk about Greek grammar.
The news here is actually pretty good: the basics of Greek grammar are pretty easy to grasp.
Once you get into more advanced territory or want to graduate to Koine or ancient Greek the headaches will start, but learning common tenses and basic noun declension isn’t too bad.
Greek nouns (ουσιαστικά) change depending on their function in the sentence, so you have three cases: the nominative (ονομαστική, subject), the accusative (αιτιατική, object) and the genitive (γενική, possessive).
If you’re new to cases, then Greek is pretty easy because there’s only three and they’re pretty obvious, you’ll pick them up in no time. It’s no German with its blurred distinctions between cases.
As another upside, many cases look exactly the same, especially in some masculine words and many feminine and neuter ones (people who know ancient Greek are now sighing in relief).
If you’re coming from a language with cases (especially Russian with its six cases or Finnish with its insane fifteen), then Greek is easy because there’s only three cases.
It’s a win-win, either way.
Greek verbs (ρήματα) are a little more complicated, though. There are several major tenses which you need to know to sound halfway educated, plus there are some really weird quirks.
For one, Greek doesn’t have an infinitive, instead it uses a form of the subjunctive to get that meaning across (να + modified verb).
You can also chain these together, creating these odd, run-on sentences that make perfect sense in Greek but nowhere else. It takes some getting used to.
Another quirk is that the stress “jumps” in the past tense, meaning the way a verb is pronounced changes when the action happened the day before.
None of these things are major and you’ll get used to them in time, but it takes a minute before you get your head around them.
However, if you compare modern Greek’s verbs to the horror show of verbs in romance languages (Spanish and its three basic future tenses serving as a great example), then it’s easy as pie.
If you’re not sure whether learning Greek is a smart move after reading all the above, let me put you at ease: Greek isn’t difficult, it’s just tricky.
You need to learn your basics (start with hello and goodbye in Greek), need to learn the weird stuff, and then you’re good to go. It’s really not that bad. The toughest thing is the vocabulary.
However, even if you have a hard time with Greek, there’s an amazing upside: the Greeks.
Greek people are incredibly proud of their culture and language and they just love it when a foreigner is learning to speak it.
This is probably amplified by the fact that very few people are learning it: it’s definitely no Spanish or Chinese.
The effect is that when you do try and learn, the effects are almost immediate: people that barely acknowledged me in the gym became ardent teachers of slang when they heard me fumble my way through basic greetings.
A grumpy pharmacist who never smiled started calling me “buddy” when I asked him how he was doing one day.
Greek is one of the most rewarding languages I have ever learned to speak because of the way the overwhelming majority of Greeks will welcome it when you do.
On top of that, Greeks being Greeks, they’re very relaxed about making mistakes. You’ll rarely be corrected and most people will go out of their way to make sense of what you said when you do foul up.
It’s a great experience, overall.
Though there’s no need to speak Greek when visiting Greece or Cyprus, I recommend you learn at least a little tourist Greek.
If you’re moving to either country, you’re denying yourself an amazing experience if you don’t check out the beginner’s guide to learning Greek.
Καλή τύχη. 😊