Greek VS Italian - Similarities And Differences Of Two Mediterranean Languages

avatarMille Larsen
10 mins read

Greek and Italian are two languages spoken in Southern Europe in Mediterranean countries with ancient histories and world-famous cultures.

Greece and Italy have a lot in common. They're the two countries that laid the foundation for what we consider western civilization today and they have a historical bond dating back to antiquity. They're the birthplaces of the now-dead Ancient Greek and Latin, two languages that helped shape the world we know today.

The modern descendants of these languages are Italian and Greek. But how much do these languages actually have in common?

Greek and Italian, although both belonging to the Indo-European language family, are very different. Italian is a Romance language whereas Greek is Hellenic, meaning that they're only very distantly related. Greek grammar is completely different from Italian, and it uses another alphabet altogether. While Italian has a few Greek loan-words, the two languages are worlds apart vocabulary-wise.

In the following, I'm going to compare the two languages in terms of alphabets and how they're pronounced, how their grammars compare, as well as their vocabulary.

I've previously made a similar comparison of Greek and Latin, which you might find interesting as well!

The Greek And Italian Alphabets And How They're Pronounced.

Greek and Italian use different alphabets, but interestingly, the Italian alphabet is actually derived from the Greek variant which originally spread to present-day Italy when the Greeks had a small colony in the region.

Since then, it evolved into the Latin alphabet which is used all over the world today, but the Greeks continue to use a modernized version of the script they've used for millennia.

Below, I'll try going through all the letters and sounds of the Italian and Greek alphabets. As it's the case with almost all languages, more sounds exist than what is represented by the alphabet, so I won't be able to compare all possible sounds.

I also won't always be able to find a correct English equivalent to each individual sound, which means that you'll have to take the comparison with a grain of salt.

But without further ado, let's look at the two alphabets:

Italian letterPronunciationGreek letterPronunciation
A aLike "A" in "fat"Α αLike "A" in "fat" or "far"
B bLike "B" in "book"Β β"V" as in "voice"
No equivalentΓ γLike the French "R", but softer. Sometimes like a "G" or "Y" (example)
C cLike "CH" in "channel" (if followed by i/e) otherwise like "C" in "cat"No equivalent
D dLike "D" in "dim"Δ δLike the "TH" in "the"
E eLike "E" in "electric" or in a long form.Ε εLike "E" in "electric"
No equivalentΘ θLike "TH" as in "thanks"
F fLike "F" in "fan"Φ φLike "F" in "fan"
G gLike "G" in "Giraffe" (if followed by i/e) otherwise like "G" in Gate"No equivalent
H hSilent letter, but when following C or G, it turns the sound into "C" as in "cat" and "G" as in "gate"No equivalent
I iLike "EE" in "sweet"Ι ιLike "EE" in "sweet"
Η ηLike "EE" in "sweet"
K kLike "C" in "cat" (only used in loan-words)Κ κLike "C" in "cat"
L lLike "L" in "loan"Λ λLike "L" in "loan"
M mLike "M" in "mother"Μ μLike "M" in "mother"
N nLike "N" in "nasty"Ν νLike "N" in "nasty"
O oLike "O" in "open"Ο οLike "O" in "slot"
Ω ωLike "O" in "slot"
P pLike "P" in "pasta"Π πLike "P" in "pasta"
Q qLike "Q" in "quarter" (always followed by "u")Comparable to "Κ κ", but without the following "U" sound.
R rA thrilled "R" like in Scottish or Indian English (example)Ρ ρA thrilled "R" like in Scottish or Indian English (example)
S sLike "S" in "soap"Σ σ/ς, Ϲ ϲLike "S" in "soap"
T tLike "T" in "take"Τ τLike "T" in "take"
U uLike "OO" in "loot"No equivalent
V vLike "V" in voice"Comparable to "Β β"
X xLike "KS" in "axe" (only used in loan-words)Ξ ξLike "KS" in "axe"
No equivalentΧ χLike "CH" in Scottish "loch", but softer. (example)
Y yLike "I" in "imagine" (only used in loan-words)Υ υLike "I" in "imagine"
Z zLike "TS" in "cats" or "DS" in "adds"Ζ ζLike "Z" as in "zoo"
No equivalentΨ ψLike "PS" in "lapse"

Interestingly, both Greek and Italian mostly use sounds we also have in English, even if there isn't one single letter for it. Yet, the two alphabets are very different from one another, and there are several letters that represent sounds that don't exist in both languages.

Differences Between The Italian And The Greek Alphabet

The major differences are:

  • "Α α" the Greek "A" can be pronounced in two ways, whereas the Italian "A" only comes in one version.
  • "B" doesn't exist in Greek. While the letter "Β β" used to represent a "B" sound in Ancient Greek and actually is the ancestor of the "B" in the Latin language, the sound no longer exists in Modern Greek.
  • "Γ γ", also known as "gamma" in Greek hasn't got a lot to do with a "G". It's closer to the "French R" even though it isn't exactly the same. Italian (and English) has no equivalent to this letter.
  • "C c" in Italian, when pronounced like the "CH" in "chat", doesn't exist in Greek, but when it is pronounced like in "cat" it can be replaced by the Greek "Κ κ".
  • "D d" in Italian isn't really comparable to the "Δ δ" (delta) in Greek, even though delta is actually the ancestor of the Italian (and English) D. In Greek it is pronounced like the "TH" in "the".
  • "Θ θ" does not exist in Italian. It is pronounced like the "TH" in "thanks".
  • "G g" doesn't exist in Greek even though "Γ γ" is sometimes considered a kind of "G".
  • "H h" is a silent letter even in Italian, so the fact that it doesn't exist in Greek doesn't make much of a difference. When pronouncing foreign words, Greeks tend to pronounce the "H" as a "Χ χ" (The "CH" sound in "loch").
  • "O o" is pronounced from the front of the mouth in Italian, like the "O" in "open" whereas the Greek "Ω ω" and "Ο ο" are pronounced more like the "O" in "slot" or "otter".
  • "U u" which is pronounced "OO" like "loot" in Italian has no equivalent in Greek.
  • "Χ χ" which is pronounced like the "CH" in the Scottish word "loch" does not exist in Italian.
  • "Z z" in Italian and "Ζ ζ" in Greek both represent ways that "Z" can be pronounced in English, but the "TS" and "DS" (like "cats" and "adds" and "pizza") don't correspond to the Greek "Ζ ζ" which is more like in the word "zoo".
  • "Ψ ψ" which is pronounced like "PS" in "lapse" has no direct equivalent in Italian.

Those are 13 major differences out of a total of 30 letters between the two languages. A fair bit, to say the least. And while Italian can be fairly different from languages it's more closely related to than Greek, the difference in pronunciation illustrated above doesn't really bring the two languages any closer.

How Do The Italian And Greek Grammar Compare?

Italian and Greek grammar is quite different, but interestingly enough, Greek and the ancestor of Italian, Latin, do seem to have a few things in common. They both have three genders and a case-system, where nouns and adjectives change depending on the role they take in a sentence.

Italian, as a descendant of Latin, has lost the third gender as well as the case-system. In fact, the only widely-spoken descendant of Latin that has kept both the three genders and the case system (although simplified) is Romanian.

In terms of verbs-conjugation, Italian and Greek have similarities, but the differences are big. For instance, Greek verbs include person and number as a suffix when conjugated, meaning that personal pronouns aren't strictly necessary. In Italian, these details aren't included in the verbs.

When it comes to tenses, Greek and Italian look at the present differently. The Italian present tense works a lot as it does in English, but in Greek, the present tense would indicate that something happens continuously or repeatedly, and never instantaneously.

"The cat is jumping" would mean that the cat has a tendency to jump, or that it is in a process of continuously jumping non-stop (which might be the case).

In order to describe an action that takes place "right now", Greek uses the "aorist" tense, which is something Italian doesn't have.

There are obviously many more differences in Italian and Greek grammar, but when comparing the two from a birds-eye perspective, they're different without appearing to be complete opposites, like it would be the case for Chinese and Japanese for example.

Greek And Italian Vocabulary

Italian has many loan-words that originally came from Greek, and Greek actually has a few from Italian as well. This exchange of words is due to the two Mediterranean countries' shared history throughout the centuries, but especially in classical times.

Latin adopted a wide range of Greek loan-words long before it evolved into Italian, which means that not only Italian but all other descendants of Latin have plenty of Greek loan-words. As do most European languages which, in turn, have been significantly influenced by Latin.

The loan-words that seeped from Ancient Greek into Latin illustrate quite well the state of the two civilizations when they had this exchange because they include a very large number of scientific, political, and philosophical terms.

Root vocabulary that wasn't borrowed from one language to the other doesn't seem to have a lot in common, however, so for the most part, Italian and Greek are very dissimilar vocabulary wise.

A Short Text In Greek And Italian

Finally, before rounding up this article, I thought that a hands-on comparison of a short sentence translated into both languages could be interesting. It would serve in illustrating especially the differences in vocabulary, but also how syntax and grammar make for quite different texts in both languages.

In order to make the texts more comparable, I'll try running the Greek version through a transliteration tool so that it'll be written in the Latin alphabet.

But first, let's come up with a sentence we can translate:

All the fruit that I grow on the fruit trees in my garden disappear before I am able to harvest them, and it hasn't helped to have the neighbor's children stand guard beneath the trees while I nap.

First let's see it in Italian:

Tutti i frutti che coltivo sugli alberi da frutto nel mio giardino scompaiono prima che io sia in grado di raccoglierli, e non ha aiutato i figli del vicino a stare di guardia sotto gli alberi mentre faccio un sonnellino.

And now in (Latinized) Greek:

Óla ta froúta pou megalóno sta oporofóra déntra tou kípou mou exafanízontai protoú boréso na ta synkomíso kai den voíthise na stamatíso ta paidiá tou geítona káto apó ta déntra enó koimámai.

Okay - as you can see, the two texts don't look much alike. Except for the Greek word "froúta" which actually is a loan-word from the Latin, "fructas".

Generally, however, from looking at the two texts, there should be no doubt that Greek and Italian are really rather different.

Conclusion: How Different Are Italian And Greek?

So how similar are Greek and Italian?

Not a lot!

The two languages, despite both belonging to the Indo-European language family, each have their own branches on the language tree. They aren't very much alike at all.

Comparing Greek to Italian is a little like comparing any of the two to English. Or Russian. The grammar is very different, the vocabulary is not at all similar and the pronunciation is like night and day. With a few exceptions of course.

Many people would assume that Italian and Greek had a lot in common because of their similar cultures, histories, and geographic proximity.

But in reality?

They just haven't.