Self-Access Centre - Greek

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Greek materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Greek at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Greek outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Greek. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Greek, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Greek on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading and grammar books. You can also watch online TV or listen to radio stations. There are links to BBC Languages programmes, which will allow you to learn Greek by watching interactive videos. You can also watch Greek films , TV recordings, or course videos.

A bit about the language

Greek (ελληνικά), an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, is the language of the Greeks. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. In its ancient form, it is the language of classical ancient Greek literature and the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In its modern form, it is the official language of Greece and Cyprus and one of the 23 official languages of the European Union. Spoken by approximately 13 million people, including minority and emigrant communities in numerous parts of the world, its written form uses the Greek alphabet.


  • Syllabic ancient script (Linear B)

Greek has been spoken in the Balkan Peninsula since around the late 3rd millennium BC. The earliest written evidence is found in the clay tablets dating from 1400 BC, found in the region of Knossos, in Crete, making Greek one of the world's oldest recorded living languages. Among the Indo-European languages, its date of earliest attestation is matched only by the Anatolian languages.

The later Greek alphabet is derived from the Phoenician alphabet; with minor modifications, it is still used today. The Greek language is conventionally divided into the following periods:

Proto-Greek: the assumed last ancestor of all known varieties of Greek which is not recorded. Proto-Greek speakers possibly entered the Greek peninsula in the early 2nd millennium BC. Since then, Greek has been spoken uninterruptedly in Greece.

Mycenaean Greek: the language of the Mycenaean civilization. It is recorded in the script on tablets dating from the 15th or 14th century BC onwards.

Ancient Greek: in its various dialects was the language of the Archaic and Classical periods of the ancient Greek civilization. It was widely known throughout the Roman Empire. Ancient Greek fell into disuse in western Europe in the Middle Ages, but remained officially in use in the Byzantine world, and was reintroduced to the rest of Europe with the Fall of Constantinople and Greek migration to the areas of Italy.

Koine Greek: The fusion of various ancient Greek dialects with Attic, the dialect of Athens, resulted in the creation of the first common Greek dialect, which became a lingua franca across Eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Koine Greek can be initially traced within the armies and conquered territories of Alexander the Great, but after the Hellenistic colonization of the known world, it was spoken from Egypt to the fringes of India. After the Roman conquest of Greece, an unofficial diglossia of Greek and Latin was established in the city of Rome and Koine Greek became a first or second language in the Roman Empire. The origin of Christianity can also be traced through Koine Greek, as the Apostles used it to preach in Greece and the Greek-speaking world. It is also known as the Alexandrian dialect, Post-Classical Greek or even New Testament Greek, as it was the original language the New Testament was written in.

Medieval Greek, also known as Byzantine Greek: the continuation of Koine Greek during Byzantine Greece, up to the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. Medieval Greek is a cover term for a whole continuum of different speech and writing styles, ranging from vernacular continuations of spoken Koine that were already approaching Modern Greek in many respects, to highly learned forms imitating classical Attic. Much of the written Greek that was used as the official language of the Byzantine Empire was an eclectic middle-ground variety based on the tradition of written Koine.

Modern Greek: Stemming from Medieval Greek, Modern Greek usages can be traced in the Byzantine period, as early as 11th century. It is the language used by modern Greeks and apart from Standard Modern Greek, there are several dialects of it. The tradition of diglossia, the simultaneous existence of vernacular and archaizing written forms of Greek, was renewed in the modern era in the form of a polarization between two competing varieties: Dimotiki, the vernacular form of Modern Greek proper, and Katharevousa, meaning 'purified', an imitation of classical Greek, which was developed in the early 19th century and used for literary, juridic, administrative and scientific purposes in the newly formed modern Greek state. The diglossia problem was brought to an end in 1976, when Dimotikí was declared the official language of Greece and it is still in use for all official purposes and in education, having incorporated features of Katharevousa and giving birth to Standard Greek.

  • Acropolis of Athens

Historical unity and continuing identity between the various stages of the Greek language is often emphasised. Although Greek has undergone morphological and phonological changes comparable to those seen in other languages, there has been no time in its history since classical antiquity where its cultural, literary, and orthographic tradition was interrupted to such an extent that one can easily speak of a new language emerging. Greek speakers today still tend to regard literary works of ancient Greek as part of their own language. It is also often estimated that the historical changes have been relatively slight compared with some other languages. Ancient Greek texts, especially from Biblical Koine onwards, are thus relatively easy to understand for educated modern speakers. The perception of historical unity is also strengthened by the fact that Greek has not split up into a group of separate national daughter languages, as happened with Latin.

Greek words have been widely borrowed into the European languages, including English. Moreover, Greek words continue to be a basis for words like: anthropology, photography, isomer, biomechanics, cinema, physics etc. and form, with Latin words, the foundation of international scientific and technical vocabulary (e.g. all words ending with "-logy"- "discourse"). An estimated 12% of the English vocabulary has Greek origin, while numerous Greek words have English derivatives.

Geographic distribution

Greek is spoken by about 13.1 million people, mainly in Greece and Cyprus, but also worldwide by the large Greek diaspora. There are traditional Greek-speaking settlements in the neighbouring countries of Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, as well as in several countries in the Black Sea area such as Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and around the Mediterranean Sea, Southern Italy, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and ancient coastal towns along the Levant. The language is also spoken by Greek emigrant communities in many countries in Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Germany, in Canada and the United States, Australia.

Official status

Greek is the official language of Greece, where it is spoken by almost the entire population. It is also, nominally alongside Turkish, the official language of Cyprus, though Turkish has seen limited official use by the Republic of Cyprus since the Turkish invasion of 1974. Because of the membership of Greece and Cyprus in the European Union, Greek is one of the organization's 23 official languages. Furthermore, Greek is officially recognized as a minority language in parts of Italy and Albania, as well as in Armenia and Ukraine.

The arts in Greece

The classical and pre-classical antiquity period of Greek literature stretches from Homer until the 4th century BC and the rise of Alexander the Great. Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. This of course is an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless true that the Greek world of thought was so far-ranging that there is scarcely an idea discussed today not already debated by the ancient writers. The earliest known Greek writings are Mycenaean, written in the Linear B syllabary on clay tablets. These documents contain prosaic records largely concerned with trade (lists, inventories, receipts, etc.); no real literature has been discovered. Several theories have been advanced to explain this curious absence. One is that Mycenaean literature, like the works of Homer and other epic poems, was passed on orally, since the Linear B syllabary is not well-suited to recording the sounds of Greek. Another is that literary  works, being the preserve of an elite, were written on finer materials such as parchment, which have not survived.

Epic poetry

  • Homer (statue presently in the British Museum)

At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The figure of Homer is shrouded in mystery. Although the works as they now stand are credited to him, it is certain that their roots reach far back before his time. The Iliad is the famous story about the Trojan War. It centres on the person of Achilles, who embodied the Greek heroic ideal. While the Iliad is pure tragedy, the Odyssey is a mixture of tragedy and comedy. It is the story of Odysseus, one of the warriors at Troy. After ten years fighting the war, he spends another ten years sailing back home to his wife and family. During his ten-year voyage, he loses all of his comrades and ships and makes his way home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar. Both of these works were based on ancient legends. The stories are told in language that is simple, direct, and eloquent. Both are as fascinatingly readable today as they were in ancient Greece.

Another great poet of the preclassical period was Hesiod. Unlike Homer, Hesiod speaks of himself in his poetry; it remains true that nothing is known about him from any external source. He is thought to have lived and worked around 700 BC. His two works were Works and Days and Theogony. The first is a faithful depiction of the poverty-stricken country life he knew so well, and it sets forth principles and rules for farmers. Theogony is a systematic account of creation and of the gods. It vividly describes the ages of mankind, beginning with a long-past Golden Age. Together the works of Homer and Hesiod comprised a kind of Bible for the Greeks; Homer told the story of a heroic relatively-near past, which Hesiod bracketed with a creation narrative and an account of the practical realities of contemporary daily life.

Lyric poetry

  • Greek lyre

The type of poetry called lyric got its name from the fact that it was originally sung by individuals or a chorus accompanied by the instrument called the lyre. The first of the lyric poets was probably Archilochus of Paros, circa 700 BC. Only fragments remain of his work, as is the case with most of the poets. The few remnants suggest that he was an embittered adventurer who led a very turbulent life.


The Greeks invented the epic and lyric forms and used them skilfully. They also invented drama and produced masterpieces that are still reckoned as drama's crowning achievement. In the age that followed the Greco-Persian Wars, the awakened national spirit of Athens was expressed in hundreds of superb tragedies based on heroic and legendary themes of the past. The tragic plays grew out of simple choral songs and dialogues performed at festivals of the god Dionysus. Wealthy citizens were chosen to bear the expense of costuming and training the chorus as a public and religious duty. Attendance at the festival performances was regarded as an act of worship. Performances were held in the great open-air theatre of Dionysus in Athens. All of the greatest poets competed for the prizes offered for the best plays.


Like tragedy, comedy arose from a ritual in honour of Dionysus, but in this case the plays were full of frank obscenity, abuse, and insult. At Athens the comedies became an official part of the festival celebration in 486 BC, and prizes were offered for the best productions. As with the tragedians, few works still remain of the great comedic writers. Of the works of earlier writers, only some plays by Aristophanes exist. These are a treasure trove of comic presentation. He poked fun at everyone and every institution. For boldness of fantasy, for merciless insult, for unqualified indecency, and for outrageous and free political criticism, the comedies of Aristophanes are unrivalled. In The Birds he held up Athenian democracy to ridicule. In The Clouds he attacked the philosopher Socrates. In Lysistrata he denounced war. Only 11 of his plays have survived.


The greatest achievement of the 4th century was in philosophy. There were many Greek philosophers, but three names tower above the rest: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The  influence these thinkers on Western society is extensive. Socrates himself wrote nothing, but his thought (or a reasonable presentation of it) is believed to be given by Plato's early socratic dialogues. Aristotle is virtually without rivals among scientists and philosophers. The first sentence of his Metaphysics reads: "All men by nature desire to know." He has, therefore, been called the "Father of those who know." Aristotle was a student at Plato's Academy, and it is known that, like his teacher he wrote dialogues, or conversations, but none of them still exist today. The body of writings that has come down to the present probably represents lectures that he delivered at his own school in Athens, the Lyceum. Even from these books the enormous range of his interests is evident. He explored matters other than those that are today considered philosophical. The treatises that exist cover logic, the physical and biological sciences, ethics, politics, and constitutional government. There are also treatises on The Soul and Rhetoric. His Poetics has had a great influence on literary theory and served as an interpretation of tragedy for more than 2,000 years. With his death in 322 BC, the classical era of Greek literature drew to a close.

Epictetus, who died about AD 135, was associated with the moral philosophy of the Stoics. His teachings were collected by his pupil Arrian in the 'Discourses' and the 'Encheiridion' (Manual of Study). Diogenes Laertius, who lived in the 3rd century, wrote 'Lives, Teachings, and Sayings of Famous Philosophers', a useful sourcebook. Another major philosopher of his period was Plotinus. He transformed Plato's philosophy into a school called Neoplatonism. His 'Enneads' had a wide-ranging influence on European thought until at least the 17th century.

Hellenistic Age

By 338 BC all of the Greek city-states except Sparta had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon. Philip's son Alexander the Great extended his father's conquests greatly. In so doing he inaugurated what is called the Hellenistic Ages. Alexander's conquests were in the East, and Greek culture shifted first in that direction. Athens lost its preeminent status as the leader of Greek culture, and it was replaced temporarily by Alexandria, Egypt.

The city of Alexandria in northern Egypt became, from the 3rd century BC, the outstanding centre of Greek culture. It also soon attracted a large Jewish population, making it the largest centre for Jewish scholarship in the ancient world. In addition, it later became a major focal point for the development of Christian thought. The Museum, or Shrine to the Muses, which included the library and school, was founded by Ptolemy I. The institution was from the beginning intended as a great international school and library. The library, eventually containing more than a half million volumes, was mostly in Greek. It served as a repository for every Greek work of the classical period that could be found.

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

While the transition from city-state to empire affected philosophy a great deal, shifting the emphasis from political theory to personal ethics, Greek letters continued to flourish both under the Successors (especially the Ptolemies) and under Roman rule. Romans of literary or rhetorical inclination looked to Greek models, and Greek literature of all types continued to be read and produced both by native speakers of Greek and later by Roman authors as well.

Science and mathematics

  • Map of Europe according to Strabo

Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who died about 194 BC, wrote on astronomy and geography, but his work is known mainly from later summaries. He is credited with being the first person to measure the Earth's circumference. Much that was written by the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes has been preserved. Euclid is known for his Elements, a treatise on geometry, which has exerted a continuing influence on mathematics. From Archimedes several treatises have come down to the present. Among them are Measurement of the Circle, in which he worked out the value of pi; The Method of Mechanical Theorems, on his work in mechanics; The Sand Reckoner; and On Floating Bodies. A manuscript of his works is currently being studied. The physician Galen, in the history of ancient science, is the most significant person in medicine after Hippocrates, who laid the foundation of medicine in the 5th century BC. Galen lived during the 2nd century AD. He was a careful student of anatomy, and his works exerted a powerful influence on medicine for the next 1,400 years.

Strabo, who died about AD 23, was a geographer and historian. His 'Historical Sketches' in 47 volumes has nearly all been lost. They remain as the only existing ancient book covering the whole range of people and countries known to the Greeks and Romans through the time of Augustus. Pausanias, who lived in the 2nd century AD, was also a geographer. His Description of Greece is an invaluable guide to what are now ancient ruins. His book takes the form of a tour of Greece, starting in Athens. The accuracy of his descriptions has been proved by archaeological excavations. The scientist of the Roman period who had the greatest influence on later generations was undoubtedly the astronomer Ptolemy. He lived during the 2nd century AD, though little is known of his life. His masterpiece, originally entitled The Mathematical Collection, has come to the present under the title Almagest, as it was translated by Arab astronomers with that title. It was Ptolemy who devised a detailed description of an Earth-centred universe, a notion that dominated astronomical thinking for more than 1,300 years. The Ptolemaic view of the universe endured until Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers, who replaced it with heliocentrism.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org