Is Greek a Dead Language? (What About Ancient Greek?)

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

Recently, I've seen this question posed on the internet. Is Greek a dead language?

It's the kind of question that's quite easy to answer on the surface, but a little harder if you want to go in-depth. Greek is not a dead language. But will it ever become endangered? And what about Ancient or Classical Greek?

Modern Greek Is Thriving In Greece

Greek is the modern-day language of Greece, a country of over 13 million people who all speak Greek as their native language.

It's clear that Greek is not a dead language, nor is it dying, even though the statistics indicate that the future generations of Greeks will be smaller than they've been in a long time.

There is, however, no need to fear that the modern Greek language will die out anytime soon, and even if the Greek birth rate is low, there's nothing that keeps it from rising in the coming years.

Is Ancient Greek (or Classical Greek) Dead, Then?

What the question really hints at, of course, is Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek, the Ancestor of Modern Greek is widely regarded as a dead language.

It's the language in which Greece's famous philosophers wrote their works, and it's in the Ancient Greek translation that the modern-day bible was preserved throughout the centuries.

Is Ancient Greek ACTUALLY Dead?

Ancient Greek is widely considered a dead language. There's no doubt about that, but just for the sake of argument, let me try and explore a little deeper:

Is Ancient Greek is really dead at all?

For one thing, literary works and translations are still being produced and translated into Ancient Greek.

Harry Potter is available in Ancient Greek (link to amazon) and in recent times, poetry and other works have been written and published in Ancient Greek as well.

The number of books is not astounding, but the mere fact that there are still being translated, written, and published books in Ancient Greek... Is the language really dead, then?

Join over 50,000 other Greek learners

Let me help you learn Greek (I'll also show you my favorite Greek resources for learning quickly and efficiently).

Do you want in?

No spam. Ever.

Ancient Greek Is Just An Early Version Of Modern Greek, Not A Dead Language

Another question that you could pose is what makes a language. For Ancient Greek to be considered dead, you'd have to consider it a unique language separate from Modern Greek. But if it's a second language, where did Modern Language come from then?

Modern Greek is, of course, the modern development of Ancient Greek, meaning that it wouldn't be strictly true be wrong to classify the two as two independent units. It would, in any case, be extremely hard to say for sure when Ancient Greek ceases to be Ancient Greek and starts being something else.

Ancient Greek became Modern Greek in a similar way to how Old English became Modern English. But would you consider Old English a dead language?

A language is only really dead when it dies off and stops being spoken altogether.

What Is A Dead Language Really?

So If Ancient Greek can't be considered a dead language because it's just an earlier version of the Greek language people speak today, what about other "ancient" languages that aren't spoken anymore in their earlier form?

  • Is Old Norse a dead language, since we know that it turned into the modern Scandinavian languages?
  • Isn't Ancient Egyptian, in a way, just an earlier version of the Coptic language of some modern-day Egyptian minorities?
  • Is Proto-Indo-European even a dead language, since what I am now writing could be considered to be a modern dialect of just that language?

The answer, of course, is that it depends on how you look at things. Linguists all agree that English is a language, not a dialect of Indo-European - and so on. There doesn't seem, however, seem to exist a stead-fast way of drawing a line in the sand for when a language ceases to be one tongue and turns into another.

So Is Greek a Dead Language?

To sum up, I don't believe that you could say that Greek is a dead language. Even Ancient Greek is a language that's still in use and produces new works, even if they're mostly symbolic.

Ancient Greek never died off. It turned into Modern Greek, which is a flourishing, living language, that continues to influence the world and leave its mark today.

If you follow this argument, however, almost no ancient language is really dead, which makes the term almost meaningless.

So to get the most out of the term - and to answer the question while leaving the proverbial dead horse alone (finally): Dead languages are called dead because they are very different from any modern forms of it, and because they're not spoken in their ancient form anymore.

So in that sense, Ancient Greek is dead, but Modern Greek is not.

If you'd like to learn more about Greek, go read my article on how to learn the Greek language.