A fishing boat is tied up at the pier on Ios.

Learning Greek

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A Study Guide

The Cyprus Broadcasting Company originally broadcast the program Greek By Radio some time ago. It is available online today, in the form of 105 audio files making up the original program, plus corresponding pages with the complete text of each lesson, plus tables of vocabulary, comment boards and chatrooms, and so on.

The following is nothing more than my notes from working through some of the course. It is not a course, it is just my outline, the result of me trying to organize my thoughts and assemble a short summary of what was learned in each lesson. Partly to serve as a guide to finding specific topics, and partly to force me to deal repeatedly with the material and thereby learn a little more.

What should you do?

Do the lessons by listening to and speaking along with their audio files. I found the audio files very difficult to do on their own — I really needed to have a printed copy of the lesson. Each notes page starts with the new vocabulary words for that lesson, possibly a small table showing the conjugation of a verb or something similar, and then it is just a transcription of the audio file's content.

I wanted something that just summarized what the lesson was about and let me quickly review the points, not the details, so I put this series of pages together.

What else could you do?

You could buy a commercial Greek language course.

I did an introductory Italian class from Pimsleur before a trip to Italy, and found Pimsleur's approach to be quite good. It was 20 lessons of 30 minutes each.

A basic and cheap grammar reference also makes sense, such as the one sold by Dover.

How does this course compare to Pimsleur?

I don't think that I'm all that qualified to compare the two, as I have only done the first part of this course and one introductory Pimsleur course in a different language, but I'll try...

Greek By Radio
Speed It goes very fast, in two ways: Big chunks of syntax are added in each lesson, and there is very little time to respond in the sections where you are to respond to the recorded speakers. I wonder — there were a couple of references to the program being 15 minutes long, but the audio files are often just 12 to 14 minutes long. Were some pauses compressed in creating the audio files?
Duration 12 to 17 minutes per lesson. Most of them in the first module of 15 lessons are between 12:10 and 13:50, those in the second module are from 14:20 to 16:34.
Density There is a lot of material in a short time in each lesson! While lessons start with a short review of some of the new words or concepts from the previous lesson, I found that there was too much in each lesson to absorb the material by simply going through the lessons. Some review on my own between lessons was needed, and that is why I put these pages together — the enforced review of finding and documenting the new information in each one. The lessons also have you listen to some rather detailed descriptions and answer questions about them: Ellie has a red dress and a brown coat, and the flowers are in the vase on the table, and the keys are in the box on the desk. Then you are asked what color her coat is, where are the keys, what's on the table, questions I might get wrong in English!
Taught the numbers 1-10 in one lesson, and the numbers 11-20 in the next one. The second, after having you listen to a native speaker count from 11 through 20 twice, and then one number at a time with you repeating, said "And now you know the numbers from eleven to twenty." I wouldn't go that far....
Grammar coverage Teaches the full six combinations of person and plurality: first, second, and third person, both singular and plural.
Interaction Quite a bit of just listening to native speaker examples.
Supporting material Includes a precise transcription of each lesson. I could not have gotten very much out of the lessons beyond number 4 or 5 without those transcriptions!
Timeliness The transcription of the first lesson has an added note from the editor: The programs were recorded on Cyprus in the mid-1960s. A more formal language (καθαρεύουσα or katharevousa) was used in that time and place, and the lessons contain a small number of those older pronunciations, words, and phrases no longer current in mainland δημοτική (or demotiki Greek).

Later lessons had us discussing phonograph record players and fountain pens!
Cost Free! You are asked to donate, and I did as it is a nice resource.
Pimsleur Italian I
Speed Lots of repetition in early modules, a near obsession with eating or drinking something here or there, and where is Piazza San Marco and Via Venato? But the repetition was there for a reason, helping you get "over the hump" with some fundamentals of a general pattern of syntax.
Duration 30 minutes per lesson.
Density The repetition was tedious, especially in the earlier lessons, but it was helpful. And I still found that each lesson was challenging. The end seemed to come just in time, before the material could get to be overwhelming. Greek by Radio did get overwhelming, requiring me to frequently pause and reverse the audio to replay a sentence or two that I had simply missed. That was made worse by the limited time for responses.
Taught the numbers a few at a time, in random order, teaching you how to use the numbers rather than how to count. Challenging drills would have them say two numbers that you already learned, add them in your head, and say the answer. Or they would say a number, and you were to add four or subtract twenty and say the answer.
Grammar coverage What I learned was mostly for one-on-one interaction. Forms for "We would like ..." and similar were not included!
Interaction Much more speaking by the user.
Supporting material Rather obsessively insisted that I must never look at any written language because that could confuse me. That left me wondering if the Italian word for now was abesso or avesso. I cheated and looked it up: adèsso.
Timeliness Completely current as far as I know.
Cost I found it greatly reduced at The Strand bookstore in New York for something like US$ 15, a tiny fraction of the list price.

Another comment on katharevousa (or καθαρεύουσα) is found in A Traveller's History of Greece, where it is described in less glowing terms:

These efforts [to make the ethnic Greeks of Asia Minor in the early 1900s more aware of their heritage] were not helped by the imposition of a pseudo-classical language known as katharevousa, an artificial tongue that had never been spoken by anyone. The attempt to impose it as an "official" language cut ordinary people off from government, public life, and even from literature, and its alienating effects were felt until recent times.

Katharevousa came out of an early 1800s dream of getting everyone in Greece to speak Ancient Greek. Katharevousa was archaic, with syntactical, morphological, phonological, and lexical features of Ancient Greek. This meant that it was only partly intelligible to a Greek person without a higher education.

By the late 1800s, it had gotten to where an educated Greek citizen could usually figure out what written Katharevousa meant, with substantial effort, but they couldn't write it. Literacy was suffering.

Then in April 1967 a group of right-wing military officers seized power in a coup d'état. The regime of "The Colonels" as it was known was a time of strongly authoritarian government. Part of this was a link between Katharevousa and the government itself. Demotic or the common Greek language of the people was banned from education. Demotic Greek was criticized as a jargon or slang that didn't even have a grammar, and the language was accused of being connected to communism and treason.

When The Colonels' regime collapsed in July 1974, that was the end of Katharevousa. Article 2 of Law 309 — still written in Katharevousa as all laws were then — decreed that Modern Greek, the Demotic spoken by the people of Greece, should be the only language used in education at all levels. Standard Modern Greek became the official language of administration in 1977, and over the next ten years the whole legal system was converted and rewritten. In 1982 a presidential decree imposed the monotonic written accent system on all education. It uses only the tonos or mark for stress, and the diaresis to indicate separated vowel sounds (as the same mark does in English and French, as in naïve, coöperate, and Noël).


It is not too difficult to deal with the language. Really. You will have an advantage if you happen to know any Russian or other East Slavic languages, as Saints Methodius and Cyril devised the Cyrillic alphabet using Greek as much as possible in the cases of similar sounds. Apparently Methodius did most of the work but Cyril got the credit, hence the alphabet's name "Cyrillic" and not "Methodical".

Here's the alphabet — the capital and lower case Greek, the letter's name, and the very approximate English (and NATO and Old English and Scottish and French) equivalent. If you just see boxes or gibberish, use a better browser that understands Unicode.

Greek Name English
Α    α Alpha A as in "father"
Β    β Beta V as in "Victor"
Γ    γ Gamma G as in "goat"
Δ    δ Delta Ð as in "there"
Ε    ε Epsilon E as in "get"
Ζ    ζ Zeta Z as in "Zulu"
Η    η Eta I as in "feet"
Θ    θ Theta Þ as in "thick"
Ι    ι Iota I as in "feet"
Κ    κ Kappa K as in "Kilo"
Λ    λ Lambda L as in "Lima"
Μ    μ Mu M as in "Mike"
Greek Name English
Ν    ν Nu N as in "November"
Ξ    ξ Xi X as in "ox"
Ο    ο Omicron O as in "hOt"
Π    π Pi P as in "Papa"
Ρ    ρ Rho R as in "Romeo"
Σ    ς, σ Sigma S as in "Sierra"
Τ    τ Tau T as in "Tango"
Υ    υ Upsilon I as in "feet"
Φ    φ Phi F as in "Foxtrot"
Χ    χ Chi CH as in "loch"
Ψ    ψ Psi PS as in "lapse"
Ω    ω Omega O as in "note"
Greek English
αι ai as in "aisle"
αυ av as in "mauve" before vowels or voiced consonants
af as in "off" otherwise
ει ee as in "feet"
ευ ev as in "ever" before vowels or voiced consonants
ef as in "left" otherwise
ηι ee as in "feet"
ηυ iv as in "shiver" before vowels or voiced consonants
if as in "if" otherwise
οι ee as in "feet"
ου oo as in "food"
υι ee as in "feet"

Because of a process called ἰωτακισμός or iotacism, many vowels and diphthongs in Ancient Greek converged so that in Modern Greek η, υ, ει, ηι, οι, and υι are all pronounced the same as ι.