Ancient & Modern Greek: Similarities and Differences

Ancient Greek comprises several dialects, including Attic, Ionic, and Doric. Among these dialects, Attic Greek was spoken in Athens during the classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) and is also the dialect that students of ancient Greek usually learn.

From Ancient to Modern Greek

Ancient Greek did not directly evolve into modern Greek but developed through several intermediary forms of the language. Koine Greek and medieval Greek are two key stages of this evolution.

The Greek language spread far beyond Greece through Greek colonies and, especially, during the conquests of Alexander the Great, who came from the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia.

In large parts of the Mediterranean region, Greek became a lingua franca, serving as the language for communication among peoples with various native languages. This form of Greek came to be called Koine (“common”).

Koine Greek is an important step in the evolution from ancient to modern Greek. As a lingua franca, it was spoken by many non-native speakers, which contributed to a simplification of some of the features of ancient Greek. Koine is also significant as the language in which the New Testament was written.

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 that some modern languages, such as Thai and Japanese, also use. However, in modern Greek, spaces are used to separate words.

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

Grammatical differences

In ancient Greek, there are 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.

In ancient Greek, there are 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) use 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 various pronunciations in ancient Greek, all of which converged to the long “ee” sound in modern Greek.

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.