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Lesson Transcript

Intro

Hi, everybody! Stefania here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I’ll answer some of your most common Greek questions.
The Question
The question for this lesson is “Can I understand Ancient Greek if I learn Modern Greek?”
Explanation
"Ancient Greek" is a very general term for all the different forms of Greek that existed before Modern and Medieval Greek. Archaic and Classical Greek with their many dialects, such as Attic, Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic among others, are Ancient Greek as well as Koine Greek, the common language of the Byzantine Empire.
The gap between these forms of Ancient Greek and today's Modern Greek, officially called Demotic Greek, grows or becomes smaller depending on the era and dialect. The older the Greek, the more different it is from Modern Greek.
You might be wondering "How different is Ancient Greek from Modern Greek?"
Well, although the alphabet hasn't changed much since the Classical Period, the grammar and accentuation system have been simplified today. Apart from the active and the passive voice, there used to be a middle voice, as well as a dative case along with the nominative, genitive, accusative, and vocative case. Ancient Greek uses infinitives in a way that Modern Greek doesn't. The optative verb mood as well as some diacritics didn't survive and there used to be an extra number called "dual" apart from the singular and the plural. Many words of course have changed, as well as the endings of inflected words and the formation of tenses and other verb forms.
Here are some examples.
Το «ὕδωρ» σημαίνει «νερό» στα αρχαία ελληνικά. (To "ídor" siméni "neró" sta arhéa eliniká.)
"Ὕδωρ means ‘water’ in Ancient Greek."
Το «πῦρ» σημαίνει «φωτιά» στα αρχαία ελληνικά. (To "pir" siméni "fotiá" sta arhéa eliniká.)
"Πῦρ means ‘fire’ in Ancient Greek."
So now you might be wondering if a native Greek speaker understands any Ancient Greek at all.
Depending on the era and dialect, Ancient Greek might be totally incomprehensible even to a native Greek, like the Archaic Greek in the works of Homer, also called Homeric Greek, or somewhat comprehensible, like the Koine Greek of the New Testament.
Actually, many people ask me if studying Modern Greek will help them understand the New Testament. Koine Greek is not that far from Modern Greek. Most educated Greeks would probably understand a large part of it because of the language feel and instinct, also because ancient Greek is taught in high schools and there are still relics of it in Modern Greek. Nonetheless, a translation is always required and there are always many high school students who really struggle and end up going to cram schools to keep up.
Here are some more examples.
Ο Όμηρος αναφέρεται στη θάλασσα ως «ἅλς». (O Ómiros anaférete sti thásasa os "als." )
"Homer refers to the sea as ἅλς."
Δόξα τω Θεώ τα κατάφερα! (Dóxa to Theó ta katáfera!)
"Thank God I made it!"
A native Greek speaker who has never studied ancient Greek would struggle understanding it and would misinterpret even texts in the somewhat more familiar Koine Greek.
A non-native who is just studying Modern Greek would recognize a few familiar words here and there, but overall, a piece of ancient Greek text wouldn't make much if any sense, unless his or her fluency is near-native level.
To give you an idea, at first sight the gap between Homeric Greek and Modern Greek is probably near as great as the gap between Old English and Modern English, while the gap between Koine Greek and Modern Greek is probably similar to the gap between Middle English and Modern English, with Classical Greek being somewhere in between.
Here are some sample sentences.
Η κοινή φράση «τοις μετρητοίς» είναι σε πτώση δοτική. (I kiní frási "tis metritís" íne se ptósi dotikí.)
"The common phrase τοις μετρητοίς ("cash") is in the dative case."
«Εὖ ζῆν» σημαίνει το να ζεις καλά. ("Ef zin" siméni to na zis kalá.)
"Εὖ ζῆν means ‘to live well.’"
Coming back to the initial question,
"Can I understand Ancient Greek if I learn Modern Greek?"
My answer would have to be "Not really."
So my advice is to focus on whatever Greek you need to know, either ancient or modern, without any expectation that by learning one you will easily understand the other.

Outro

How was the lesson? Pretty interesting, right?
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them!
Γεια χαρά! (Ya hará!)

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