Ancient & Modern Greek: Similarities and Differences

It has been nearly 2,800 years since Homer wrote the Odyssey and about 2,400 years since Plato wrote the Republic. To put that in perspective, linguists estimate that English appeared only about 1,500 years ago.

Old English is challenging for modern-day English speakers to understand. Even works by Chaucer, the 14th-century English author, are often read in modern English translations. So, it is natural to wonder how much Ancient and Modern Greek have in common.

The first thing to note is that Ancient Greek is an umbrella term covering a range of dialects, including Attic, Ionic, and Doric. Students of classics usually learn Attic Greek, a dialect used in Athens during the classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE).

From Ancient to Modern Greek

Ancient Greek did not transform into modern Greek overnight; the language evolved through several intermediary stages, including Koine Greek and medieval Greek.

Historical factors, like the conquests of Alexander the Great, caused the Greek language to spread; in parts of the Mediterranean, it became a lingua franca —a means of communication by people with different native languages. This form of Greek is called Koine (“common”).

As a lingua franca spoken by many non-native speakers, the language underwent a simplification of some of the features of Ancient Greek. By the way, Koine is also significant because it was the language used to write the New Testament.

Koine evolved into medieval Greek, a form of the language spoken and written for nearly 1,000 years, from the 5th to the 15th centuries CE and gradually evolved into the modern form of the language.

Similarities in Vocabulary

The vast majority of modern Greek words come from ancient Greek.

English Modern Greek Ancient Greek
language γλώσσα (glóssa) γλῶσσα (glôssa)
love αγάπη (agápi) ἀγάπη (agápe)
friend φίλος (fílos) φίλος (phílos)
sun ήλιος (ílios) ἥλιος (hélios)
night νύχτα (nýchta) νύξ (núx)
sea θάλασσα (thálassa) θάλασσα (thálassa)
color χρώμα (chróma) χρῶμα (khrôma)
work εργασία (ergasía) ἐργασία (ergasía)
woman γυναίκα (gynaíka) γυνή (guné)
sleep ύπνος (ýpnos) ὕπνος (húpnos)
old παλαιός (palaiós) παλαιός (palaiós)
voice φωνή (foní) φωνή (phoné)
wealth πλούτος (ploútos) πλοῦτος (ploûtos)
writing γραφή (grafí) γραφή (graphé)
name όνομα (ónoma) ὄνομα (ónoma)
shape μορφή (morfí) μορφή (morphé)
music μουσική (mousikí) μουσική (mousiké)
foot πόδι (pódi) πούς (poús)
memory μνήμη (mními) μνήμη (mneme)
wind άνεμος (ánemos) ἄνεμος (ánemos)
power δύναμη (dýnami) δύναμις (dúnamis)
word λέξη (léxi) λέξις (léxis)
knowledge γνώση (gnósi) γνῶσις (gnôsis)
city πόλη (póli) πόλις (pólis)
nature φύση (fýsi) φύσις (phúsis)
tree δέντρο (déntro) δένδρον (déndron)
plant φυτό (fytó) φυτόν (phutón)

Differences in writing

In ancient Greek manuscripts, words were not separated by spaces, a format used by some modern languages, such as Thai and Japanese. In contrast, Modern Greek uses spaces to separate words.

Also, ancient Greek only had capital letters, whereas medieval and modern Greek have both the lower-case and upper-case forms of the letters.

Grammatical differences

Ancient Greek has five grammatical cases for nouns —nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and vocative— that indicate the purpose of a word in a sentence. In modern Greek, the dative case has disappeared, leaving just four grammatical cases for nouns.

Ancient Greek has three grammatical numbers —singular, plural, and a “dual” form used occasionally for two things— but modern Greek has lost the dual form.

There are four “moods” for verbs in ancient Greek—indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and optative—depending on the type of statement. Modern Greek (along with, for the most part, Koine and medieval Greek) uses only the indicative, subjunctive, and imperative moods.

On the other hand, modern Greek uses all three grammatical genders— masculine, feminine, and neuter—that were used in ancient Greek.

Attic Greek has a definite article but no direct equivalent of the indefinite article, while modern Greek has both definite and indefinite articles.

Pronunciation differences

The contrast between long and short vowels that existed in ancient Greek is not found in modern Greek.

Two other significant sound changes are betacism and iotacism.


Betacism refers to the following sound change: the letter beta (β) is pronounced as a ‘b’ in ancient Greek, whereas in modern Greek it is pronounced as a ‘v’.

Table: Vocabulary words which illustrate the sound changes between ancient and modern Greek resulting from betacism
English Modern Greek Ancient Greek
library βιβλιοθήκη (vivliothíki) βιβλιοθήκη (bibliothéke)
problem πρόβλημα (próvlima) πρόβλημα (próblema)
life βίος (víos) βίος (bíos)
week εβδομάδα (evdomáda) ἑβδομάς (hebdomás)
king βασιλιάς (vasiliás) βασιλεύς (basileús)
barbarian βάρβαρος (várvaros) βάρβαρος (bárbaros)


Iota is the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet. Its phonetic symbol is [i], and its pronunciation corresponds to the “ee” sound in the English words “meet” and “feet.”

Several distinct vowels (and diphthongs) found in ancient Greek have converged in modern Greek. As a result, modern Greek has many spellings for the same sound.

The following vowels and vowel-combinations had distinct pronunciations in ancient Greek. But, in modern Greek, they have all converged to the long “ee” sound.

In modern Greek:

To learn more about the Greek language, see this comparison of Greek and Latin and this list of the 1000 most common modern Greek words.