Do You Need to Speak Greek?

Communicating in Greece is easier than you might think. For starters, the majority of Greeks speak  English. But a little knowledge of the Greek language will go along way to make your stay much more enjoyable.


We are so accustomed to to getting constant feedback and instructions in our daily lives from linguistic, visual, and audio clues, that we go about our day to day routines without thinking about them. We don’t really think about them until they become absent.

Being in a place where such aids are incomprehensible could be very stressful for a traveler.

At best, their absence can be a nuisance (as when you get lost, for example), and at worst it can be dangerous (if a warning sign cannot be read).

On the other hand, you might feel liberated in the absence of such familiar clues that constantly remind you how to behave and how to live every single moment.

If you think about it, traveling and vacationing is usually such an enjoyable experience because we have to unlock new ways of communicating, and in the process we get to re-define our own thoughts and selves.

If you plan a trip to Greece, there is no reason to be too worried about the language.

The country and its people are so accustomed to visitors that it has adopted to accommodate their comfortable experience.

If you speak English you will have no problems since most road, street, and vendor signs provide information both in Greek and English.

If you are driving on the highway you will find that every single sign provides both Greek and English language text regarding instructions or place names.

Just about every young person in Greece also speaks English today since it is taught in the public schools, and if you need assistance or directions you will have no problems finding someone you can communicate with.

In developing inter-personal relationships, you will find that locals appreciate it a great deal if their guests make an effort to speak their language.

Simple things like greeting someone in the morning with a “kalimera” instead of “good morning”, will go along way in making friends with your hosts.

In addition, enquiring about words and their meaning is an excellent way to carry a conversation for hours between people who don’t share a common language.

Pick up some phrase books before you go to Greece and familiarize yourself with some common phrases so you can develop a basic understanding of the language structure.

The Greek Alphabet

These are the Letters of the Greek Alphabet:

Αα, Ββ, Γγ, Δδ, Εε, Ζζ, Ηη, Θθ, Ιι, Κκ, Λλ, Μμ, Νν, Ξξ, Οο, Ππ, Ρρ, Σσς, Ττ, Υυ, Φφ, Χχ, Ψψ, Ωω

You probably have heard the term “it’s all Greek to me”, which means that Greek is somewhat incomprehensible to decipher.

Putting all preconceptions aside though, take a close look at the letters of the alphabet, and count the letters you are already familiar with.

Be careful though, some of the letters look like their Latin counterparts, but the sounds they make are very different.

It might come as a surprise, but about half of these letters appear exactly the same as in the english alphabet.

Half your work is done. Now concentrate on learning the other twelve and the sounds they make.

The Greek alphabet consists of 24 letters. They, along with the 7 diphthongs (two letters together that make one sound) make up the entire language.

The Greek Consonants

β, γ, δ, ζ, θ, κ, λ, μ, ν, ξ, π, ρ, σ/ς, τ, φ, χ, ψ

The Greek Vowels

α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω

The Greek Diphthongs

Besides the letters of the alphabet, certain sounds of the Greek language are represented with the following diphthongs:

ου = sounds like the english ‘u’ in ‘put’
αι = sounds like the english ‘e’ in ‘get’
αυ = ‘av’ (as in ‘average), or ‘af’ (as in ‘after’
ευ = ‘ev’ (as in ‘every’), or ‘ef’ (as in ‘left’)
ει = all three sound like ‘i’ in ‘lid’

About the Greek Letter Sounds

Every letter or diphthong (with the exception of the last two) make one distinct sound.

Greeks who learn the english language always have trouble hearing or even knowing when a letter (like ‘A” for example) makes what sound.

With Greek there is never a question what sound a letter represents in a word.

Also, there are no silent letters in the Greek language. Every letter in a word is pronounced with its one distinct sound.

This makes it easier for non-native speakers to be able to read the Greek words they see once they memorize the letters of the Alphabet and their sounds.

Transliteration of Greek into English and other languages

Because of the diference between the Latin and Greek characters one of the most challenging aspects for a traveler is the recognition of some words even after they have been transliterated to English.

Sometimes different Latin characters are used to describe the same sound, word, or letter.

For example, the words Pireas and Piraeus refer to the port of Athens. A traveler should easily understand that they refer to the same city despite the difference in transliteration.

In other cases the difference might not be as subtle though. Evia and Euboea is the same large island off Boiotea or Viotia, and a traveler might find it difficult to understand how these words refer to the same place.

As you travel around Greece keep your mind open and be on the lookout for different transliterations of the same names.

The best way to handle this difficulty would be to sound-out the words and to see if they sound alike. Kerkyra and Corcyra look different but sound just about the same, and they refer to the island of Corfu (Corfu is the English name so don’t get confused).