Learning Greek


Island - a painting by Gina Ware

People do panic about learning Greek but if you want to spend some time in this amazing country it is so worth it! For many people who fall in love with Greece and want to live and work there they have had little contact with the language previously and it presents a big challenge to even get started.

Lots of people confidently declare that of course there is a lot of Greek to be found in English. Well it’s true of course but most of it was not actually imported from Greece but from Holland. A genius called Erasmus invented a simplified pronunciation standard for Ancient Greek to make life easier for academics who used it as an international language. Because of Erasmus we talk about Biology and not Viology and say Automatic not Aftomatic.

However there is still a lot of Real Greek (as she is spoken) inherent in English and other European Languages. Some of it came with the Romans (and their Greek slaves perhaps who were often tutors to the family’s children) but some of it is much older than that. It is said the Druids spoke fluent Greek and were in contact with many intellectuals and philosophers from Greece at a pre-Roman and pre-Christian time when conventional history teaches us that the British were an uncivilised bunch of ug-ugs. As you discover this amazing language you may well start to notice some correctly pronounced Greek jumping out at you from old English words and place names (I’m planning a blog page one day on this but it might take a while!).

Greek is a beautiful and fascinating language to get involved with and if you take a step-by-step approach to it you might find it is not as bad as you think. There are a growing number of Internet resources available and at last these are going beyond the phrasebook standards of ordering meals and booking into hotels. I’ve done my best to select the best and offer you an easy way to find your way around what is online and, as far as possible to conduct your studies by yourself.



Before you get started in earnest you need to pay attention to 4 things.

Dictionaries, the Alphabet, setting up your computer to deal with Greek characters nice and easily and ENGLISH Grammar.


Sort out the computer issue first. I’ve seen some really complicated explanations of how to do this but this one is easy (I did it!):



Obviously all the starter courses I will show you here start with the Greek alphabet but here’s an excellent online tutorial from Filoglossia that should get you started nice and easily. It has audio recordings of the letters and some exercises to practise with:


Things to remember about the Greek alphabet:

Βητα, Ββ is pronounced V

If you want to make a B sound you need to use μπ

Where ΄ύψιλον Υ υ follows α or ε it is pronounced ff (think of it as a soft v instead of as an English u). Υψιλον Υυ is said ee unless it is after a vowel when it becomes f

Actually, it is a bit more complicated than that. I suggest you check out this excellent interactive page on letter combinations at Filoglossia for help over this .


Γαμμα Γγ is not a straight g – it’s gh – you need to listen to a Greek person say it – it took me ages and my efforts were very hilarious to my students especially as I was prone to ask where my grandma (γιαγιά) was when I was looking for my glasses (γυαλιά).

Δέλτα Δδ is more of a hard th than a d. A hard D is expressed with ντ

Think of Zήτα Ζζ as dz, not just z

There are two forms of Σίγμα Σ when it is in the lower case: σ is used anywhere inside the word and ς is used at the end of a word. It is the same letter though.

There are two O’s though – Oμικρον (Οο)and Ωμεγα (Ωω) (as in Rοck and Rωll)

Don’t be deluded by the fact that in English we say Sychology for Psychology. Psi Ψψ needs you to say the P in Psee

Likewise Ksee Ξξ – say the K when it is at the beginning of a word

For some obscure reason there are 5 ways of spelling the sound of English E. They are

ει (ΕΙ) (έψιλον + ιότα)

η (Η) (ήτα)

ι (Ι) (ιότα)

υ (Υ) (ύψιλον (I know, why do they bother with all these vowels?)

and slightly different for e as in egg

¨ε (Ε) (έψιλον)

χ (Χ) (χι) Chi is Hchee as in Scottish loch – a bit of a monster I know – try not to spit….

The ‘tonos’ (accent) does not change the sound of the accented letter as in French but tells you where the emphasis should be in pronunciation so you need to learn to see it. There is allegedly a rule about where it should go in the word but it is often broken. In general it is usually to be found wherever English ears would least expect it.

When you install your Greek fonts, if you want to accent a letter you need to master the art of holding down the ; key at the same time as the letter key. If you practice you’ll get it.

Finally, in Greek a Question Mark is not ? but ‘;’


Anyone who has arrived at this page from my English Language teaching pages will know that I never shut up about Pop-up Dictionary. Trust me, it is not because sales of this inexpensive (and free to try) software yield me vast profits!.

I’m a person who gets on well with words. At the age of 12 I was school spelling champion having taken out girls from 4 classes above me. [and yes, 40 years later I am still on about it!]. Basically I’ve got an almost photographic memory for words and letters. However, despite learning Ancient Greek at school and so having absorbed the alphabet and the gist of the language quite early, when I came to try to learn Modern Greek I found it really difficult to memorise vocabulary. It just wouldn’t go in. My mind didn’t take the normal snapshot, it certainly didn’t bother to auto-record things like the tonos (the accent in all Greek words over one syllable). I was faced with the awful prospect of having to make some effort to learn it.

Then I discovered Pop-up Dictionary. As some of the problem was evidently coming from my eyesight not being as good as it was the first thing I loved about it was the fact that I could make it REALLY LARGE. I’m also keen on colour – it stops me going to sleep – so I was also pleased that I could change the look of the dictionary and brighten it up with nice colours and great big fonts. It’s great because I can clearly see the tonos which I was missing altogether before when trying to learn words off the page in normal size print.

Pop-up Dictionary also has some pretty unique features for a translation dictionary. The biggest advantage to my mind is the way you can just add any word you discover or look up to your ongoing test facility (you’ll have to see it work to understand what I mean). It is an absolutely cracking way to look up words as and when you need them quickly and accurately, and also an extremely effective way to learn vocabulary. And it’s not just for Greek, you can download any number of dictionary files for over 60 languages (See my post The World’s Dictionary)That’s why I selected it as the recommended dictionary software for this blog. Go and see for yourself at Pop-up Dictionary’s website and download your own free version here.

You should also try to get hold of a good quality and up to date Learner’s dictionary. I recommend the Oxford Learners range as every entry has a clear example of actual use which you will find invaluable in deciding which of many option words you really need. If you only get one, get the English to Greek version so you can look up words you need as that is what you will do most of to start with. However as you progress you are likely to want a Greek-English as well (especially if you are an English Teacher or planning on doing some translation.) Sorry no links at the moment, I’ll get some here soon.

Note: I publish a series of Daily Words lists for English learners on this website. In fact, using Pop-up Dictionary, the same lists are ideal for English speakers who are learning Greek or any other language. Check out the Daily Words page and get busy creating yourself some fast and effective vocab tests.


It’s a good idea to bone up on your English Grammar before attempting the Greek variety. Get a grip on Subject and Object because endings of nouns change according to whether they are the doing something or it is being done to them. They also change when something belongs to them (as they do in English when we add an “ ’s ” – bet you didn’t realies that is the genitive case of the noun)

It’s a good idea to revise Grammar terms before getting stuck into learning any language – things like the difference between different sorts of pronouns, subject, object, personal, relative, possessive etc.

Spending half an hour or so on this page:


And this one:


could save you a lot of headaches as you study the Grammar of any new language, but perhaps most especially Greek. You will have some new grammar concepts to learn like the changing endings of nouns and it will help a lot if you are very clear in your mind about grammar concepts like subject and object, and the different varieties of pronouns [subject, object, possessive, personal, relative etc], Just revising grammar terms so that if something says ‘relative pronoun’ or ‘continuous tense’ (often called Progressive nowadays) you don’t have to search around in your mind to get an idea of what is meant. So a bit of a revision course on your own language’s grammar can speed your progress and make learning less tiring.

A big difference between Greek and English lies in the verbs. To be honest the problem is far worse for Greeks learning English than the other way round but it is not to say it is easy. One of the hardest things for learners of Greek is dealing with the fact that a change of tonos (accent) and maybe one letter can alter the tense. It is essential to say things out loud as you learn – really open your mouth and enunciate your words in what might seem an exaggerated manner to a reserved British person.  Once again you will be at an advantage if you spend some time thinking about English verbs and how they work before you tackle the Greek ones. A big concept to get your head around is the difference between Simple [I work, I worked etc] and Continuous or Progressive Tenses [I am working, I was working]. You will come across some differences between Greek and English in this. Greek Irregular Verbs are notoriously difficult. They do in fact fall into several categories – the Harry Foundalis resource in the links down below is the most useful place to learn this that I have ever found. I recommend that site enthusiastically.

Basic French will help you to understand that nouns can be masculine or feminine but it’s good to realise early on that Greek doesn’t work much like French in other respects. Thankfully in Greek genders of nouns are more likely to be what you would expect – He’s are masculine, She’s are feminine and Its are Its mostly. (does that make sense?). It doesn’t help with abstract nouns of course. And small children are all Its.

One more good tip: I’ve asked a lot of fluent foreign Greek speakers what their best tip is for learning the language. Apart, obviously from being here and having to get on with life, they all say that they improved their language most by watching TV (what a good excuse for sofa-sitting!). There are lots of English and American shows on Greek TV which are shown with Greek subtitles. You have to be aware that the subtitles are not always an exact translation (often a source of much hilarity to young Greeks who have learnt enough to realise how the subtitles are watered down!) but it is invaluable to see things like verbs turning up in their different forms in a “real” context.

OK, that’s my ramble. Here are the links:


Greek Language Software

See my post on the excellent and very reasonably priced Transparent Learn Greek Before You Know It

The best online courses:

Hellas Alive

I just found this at the site of the Hellenic American Union (HAU). It is not actually available yet (Feb 3rd 08) and I can’t tell whether it is free or you have to pay something but it does look really good so I’m putting it on here so you can keep an eye on it. HAU administer the most recognised qualification for Modern Greek as a Second Language (see below) and it looks as if this new material Is intended to support that.

The course books that HAU list are probably the best choices for anyone needing to study seriously.


J David Eisenberg’s serious and useful Langintro site:


Filoglossia: Good site. Don’t miss the links to more pages and relevant exercises up in the top right hand corner of each page. I nearly did:


Learn Greek Online is probably the most popular and well known site for students of Modern Greek. It has good lessons and resources including an online dictionary and a very lively forum you might enjoy.


George Exadaktylos’s blog contains very useful links. He’s on the team developing Hellas Alive for HAU


Speak Greek has online resources, good free downloads (warning: Before you download the Kanlis course make a special folder for it – it comes in bits.) There are also small ads for teachers of Greek in the UK.


Great resources from the BBC’s Talk Greek section. If you haven’t discovered BBC Learning materials for a vast array of subjects or haven’t looked in recent times then check them out. They have developed some amazing resources and they’re all free.


Harry Foundalis’s excellent resource – his explanation of the ‘two flavours’ of Greek verbs finally cracked it for me.


Modern Greek Verbs by Joe Schaffner of Rhodes – EXTREMELY thorough resource includes full expositions of numerous Greek verbs. I have found it invaluable as it is by no means possible to guess how verbs are going to go from basic lists in books.



Delfini, Syros

UK examining board Edexcel administer the Modern Greek GCSE

Here’s the main page


Here you can get hold of some free past papers for the A/S level. I’ve read they are going to make past papers for the GCSE available for free from April 08 which will offer new learners a useful benchmark but at the moment you have to buy them.

Certificate of Attainment in Modern Greek

This exam is administered by the Hellenic American Union in Athens. Here’s the page with the important information you need to study, register and take the test. A good thing to do if you intend to seek work in Greece in the long-term. The Hellas Online resource I mentioned at the top of the page is being developed by these people and will probably offer good materials for this course.


That lot should get you started I should think – Κάλη Τύχη!

The photos on this page are mine, taken in Syros. You can see some more from my Syros collection at my other blog Syros Paintings

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank


2 thoughts on “Learning Greek

  1. Pingback: Learn Greek, English or 100 others quickly and cheaply « Passing English

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s