Greek Language


Greek Language, language of the people of Greece, embracing the early, Attic, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and modern periods. It is the only member of the Greek subfamily of the Indo-European languages. The language spoken by the people of ancient Greece differs in several respects from the language spoken by present-day Greeks, which is known as Modern Greek. Both Ancient and Modern Greek employ the same alphabet, derived from that of the Phoenicians comprising 24 letters.


The Greek language was in use for centuries before the era of recorded history. Prehistoric peoples who migrated from Central and northern Asia to the more fertile lands to the south settled in various sections of Greece, in each of which a distinct dialect arose; the four main dialects were Arcado-Cyprian, Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic.

The Arcado-Cyprian dialect, about which very little is known, is the descendant of a form spoken in Mycenaean times in at least the Pelopónnisos and some of the southern islands. The deciphering (1952) of the so-called Linear B script, examples of which were found on tablets during the excavations made in Crete (Kríti) and on the mainland of Greece after 1900, revealed it as an ancestor (1500-1400 bc) of Arcado-Cyprian. These researches indicate that the Greeks were a literate people many hundreds of years before the period of the first Greek poet, Homer (probably the 9th century bc).

The Doric dialect, originally spoken in northern Greece, largely supplanted the Arcado-Cyprian dialect in the Pelopónnisos and came to be spoken also in the southern Cyclades (Kikládhes), on the island of Crete, and in the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, Sicily, and Italy. Most of the poems of Theocritus in the 3rd century bc were written in this dialect, and the language of Pindar has many traits found in Doric. Aeolic was spoken principally in the districts of Aeolis, Thessaly (Thessalia), and Boeotia. It was the language of the poets Alcaeus and Sappho and of three of the idylls of Theocritus. The Ionic dialect was spoken on many of the islands of the Aegean and on most of the western shore of Asia Minor. It was employed in various literary works of the 5th century bc, notably the writings of the physician Hippocrates and the historian Herodotus. The language of the Homeric poems is the result of a literary tradition that seems to have begun in the Mycenaean, come down through Aeolic and Ionic, and been given final shape in Attic; the largest element in it is Ionic.

From the Ionic dialect developed the Attic, the standard form of classical Greek. It was the language of Athens and the surrounding district of Attica and differed from the other Ionic forms chiefly in its contraction of vowels. Because of the political supremacy of Athens during and after the 5th century bc and the dominant role of Athenian art, philosophy, and drama, the Attic dialect superseded all others and became the chief literary language. Its influence was enhanced through its use by the greatest contemporary intellects, including the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the orator Demosthenes, Plato, and the historians Thucydides and Xenophon.

With the conquests of Alexander the Great and the extension of Macedonian rule in the 4th century bc, a shift of population from Greece proper to the Greek settlements in the Middle East occurred. In this period, known as the Hellenistic, the Attic dialect, spoken by the educated classes as well as by the merchants and many emigrants, became the language common to all the Middle East. As the Greeks mixed with other peoples, linguistic changes took place, Attic became the foundation of a new form of Greek, Koine, which spread throughout all areas of Greek influence. Koine was the language of the court and of literature and commerce throughout the Hellenistic empires.

Koine soon became differentiated into two groups, literary Koine and the vernacular, or popular, tongue. The literary language was spoken and used by the educated upper classes, who until the Roman conquest maintained a vigorous and independent intellectual and artistic life and, while not forgetful of the great writers of earlier times, developed the language to meet their own needs, especially those of abstract thought on the fields of philosophy, grammar, and the social and physical sciences. At the same time the language was simplified by elimination of many irregular or unusual grammatical forms, and changes of pronunciation took place. The musical quality of pure Athenian Attic was lost; vowel values began to be leveled out and diphthongs to have a single sound.

The vernacular tongue, on the other hand, was less influenced either by classical reminiscences or by the new developments of Hellenistic thought. It borrowed more freely from the vocabularies of Middle Eastern languages and suffered more severely from breakdown of the traditional grammar. It is known mainly from letters and documents on papyrus, and only slowly came to be used in literary works by lower-class writers. Of these the most important are the four Gospels of the New Testament, which, however, show a peculiar form of Koine, with a strong Semitic admixture. Later church fathers wrote in the literary language.

During the 1st and 2nd centuries ad a group of scholars advocated a return to the pure Attic dialect of the 5th and 4th centuries bc. Despite the vigorous support of the philosopher Galen and the grammarian Phrynicus (flourished 2nd century ad) and the brilliant use of the dialect by such writers as Lucian, the so-called Atticist movement was not wholly successful. Many great writers of the 2nd century and later, including the essayist and biographer Plutarch and the geographer Pausanias, used the literary Koine, but Atticists also continued to arise and occasionally dominated the literary scene, for instance, the great orator, Libanius (flourished 340-80). With the destruction of the libraries in Alexandria in the civil wars of the 3rd century and by the Roman emperor Theodosius in 191 and the closing of the Athenian schools of philosophy by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 529, even the literary language, which was deviating more and more from the spoken and living vernacular, became confined to the church, to a few scholars, and to the hack writers of the time.

As the Byzantine Empire declined, its territory became divided into small independent states. The literary Koine, which was confined to the great cultural centers, remained static, but the vernacular Koine broke up into many local dialects, developing further as it was influenced by the migrating peoples in the Middle East: the Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Bulgarians, and Albanians, among others. The Balkans meanwhile gradually became isolated from the great naval and commercial enterprises of Westen Europe, which was becoming concerned with the New World.


Throughout the Byzantine period and the years of Ottoman domination, the Greek literary language remained largely static; the main literature produced was hagiography, theological works, and religious poetry. Toward the end of the 18th century, a rising Greek bourgeoisie, with the beginnings of a national consciousness, began to develop. Until about 1880, however, the leaders of this bourgeoisie were mainly shipowners and roving merchants who lived in Greek colonies outside Greece and based their linguistic as well as their cultural standards on an idealized Athenian heritage. In Greece proper, which remained under Ottoman rule, the energies of the people were absorbed by revolutionary activities aimed at national independence. In the 19th century, after freedom had been achieved, the Greeks faced more immediate problems than the linguistic, with the result that no uniform language was established throughout the new nation.

Late in the 19th century, Greek scholars and writers concerned themselves with a systematization of the popular tongue for purposes of education and communication. The leaders of this widespread movement were known as Demotikists, because the vernacular language is called Demotike. Prominent among such advocates were the poet Dionysios Solomos, and the French philologist of Greek descent Jean Psichari. The principal results of the movement were the creation of a vernacular grammar and the production of a large body of literary works based on the achievements, life, and customs of the people. In present-day Greece the vernacular is the chief medium of most Greek novelists and poets.

Opposed to the Demotikists were the purists, the advocates of a purified Greek (Katharevousa). These scholars aimed primarily at reawakening the Greek people to a consciousness of their ancient cultural heritage. The purists disregarded the widespread use of the written and spoken vernacular, espousing an elegant, scholarly, artificial language based on Ancient Greek and remote from the speech of everyday life. They counseled study of the ancient authors, with emphasis on the traditional stylists and poets. The leading scholars of this movement included several professors of philology at the University of Athens. As a result of the campaigns waged by the purists, the government adopted Katharevousa, but in 1976 demotic Greek became the official language by an act of Parliament. It became the language used by the government, virtually all the newspapers, and most university professors.

The purist and vernacular forms of Modern Greek differ chiefly in that the grammar, orthography, and vocabulary of the former are much closer to Ancient Greek. Phonetically the two are identical, both varying from Ancient Greek principally in the substitution of stress for pitch in accented syllables and in the altered pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs. In the word anthropoi (“men”), for example, the final diphthong oi is pronounced in Modern Greek as a single sound, the English long e.

The principal grammatical differences between Modern and Ancient Greek are in declension and verbal conjugation. In declension, Modern Greek (purist and vernacular) has abandoned two basic forms used in Ancient Greek: the dual, a form indicating that a noun, pronoun, or adjective refers to two persons or things; and the dative case, which is now used only in a few idiomatic expressions. The dual form has also been abolished from verbal conjugation, as have the optative mood (used in antiquity to indicate doubt or desire) and the infinitive. In place of the specific verb forms used to denote the various tenses in Ancient Greek, Modern Greek makes extensive use of auxiliary verbs. The Ancient Greek imperative forms have been largely supplanted by the use of an auxiliary with the subjunctive form of the verb.

In vocabulary, Modern Greek vernacular is characterized by the use of a large number of words borrowed directly from foreign languages, especially from Italian, Turkish, and French, and by a great facility for combining words. The purists, however, avoid the use of foreign words, preferring to meet the demand for new words to express new concepts by coining words based on analogous Ancient Greek expressions, striving at all times to preserve the Ancient Greek forms and idioms.

Contributed By:
George E. Duckworth
Morton Smith

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