History of Greek

This article is an overview of the history of Greek.


Main article Proto-Greek language.

There are several theories about the origins of the Greek language. One theory suggests that it originated with a migration of proto-Greek speakers into the Greek peninsula, which is dated to any period between 2500 BC and 1700 BC. Another theory maintains that the migration into Greece occurred at a pre-proto-Greek (late PIE) stage, and the characteristic Greek sound-changes occurred later.

Linear B

The first known script for writing Greek was the Linear B syllabary, used for the archaic Mycenaean dialect. Linear B was not deciphered until 1953 (Michael Ventris). After the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, there was a period of about five hundred years when writing was either not used, or nothing has survived to the present day. Since early classical times, Greek has been written in the Greek alphabet, said to be derived from Phoenician. This happened about the time of Homer, and there is one obscure, fleeting reference in Homer's poetry suggesting that he might have been aware of writing in Linear B.

Ancient Greek dialects

main article: Greek dialects, Ancient Greek.

In the archaic and classical periods, there were three main dialects of the Greek language, Aeolic, Ionic, and Doric, corresponding to the three main tribes of the Greeks, the Aeolians (chiefly living in the islands of the Aegean and the west coast of Asia Minor north of Smyrna), the Ionians (mostly settled in the west coast of Asia Minor, including Smyrna and the area to the south of it), and the Dorians (primarily the Greeks of the coast of the Pelopennesus, for example of Sparta, Crete and the southernmost parts of the west coast of Asia Minor). Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were written in a kind of literary Ionic with some loan words from the other dialects. Ionic, therefore, became the primary literary language of ancient Greece until the ascendancy of Athens in the late fifth century. Doric was standard for Greek lyric poetry, such as Pindar and the choral odes of the Greek tragedians.

Attic Greek

Attic Greek, a subdialect of Ionic, was for centuries the language of Athens. Most surviving classical Greek literature appears in Attic Greek, including the extant texts of Plato and Aristotle, which were passed down in written form from classical times.

Hellenistic Greek - Koiné

main article: Koine Greek.

As Greeks colonized from Asia Minor to Egypt to the Middle East, the Greek language began to evolve into multiple dialects. Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC) was instrumental in combining these dialects to form the "Koiné" dialect (Κοινή; Greek for "common"). Imposing a common Greek dialect allowed Alexander's combined army to communicate with itself. The language was also taught to the inhabitants of the regions that Alexander conquered, turning Greek into a world language. The Greek language continued to thrive after Alexander, during the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 281 BC). During this period the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, appeared.

For many centuries Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. It was during Roman times that the Greek New Testament appeared, and Koiné Greek is also called "New Testament Greek" after its most famous work of literature.

Medieval and Modern Greek

Main articles: Medieval Greek, Modern Greek

Greek was the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire), until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. The decline of reading and writing among Greek speakers during the Ottoman Empire's domination of much of the Mediterranean, restricted the language's evolution to the scattered Greek educated circles, such as the aristocrats of the Ionian islands and the Phanariotes of Constantinople.

After the establishment of Greece as an independent state in 1829, the Katharévusa (Καθαρεύουσα) dialect—Greek for "purified language"—was sanctioned as the official language of the state and the only acceptable form of Greek in Greece. Katharévusa was a form of the language used by the Greek Orthodox Church since the Byzantine era (the Byzantine Empire used also two different Greek dialects), an attempt at language purification. The attempt was politically motivated, as the government was trying to capitalise on the cultural heritage of ancient Greece and the sympathy many Western intellectuals of the time had for the Greek fight for independence (such as Lord Byron). The whole attempt led to a linguistic war and the creation of literary factions: the Dhimotikistés (Δημοτικιστές), who supported the common (Demotic) dialect, and the Lóyii (Λόγιοι), or Katharevusyáni (Καθαρευουσιάνοι), who supported the "purified dialect". Up to that point, use of Dhimotikí in state affairs was generally frowned upon. The state doctrine stated that use of Katharévusa exaggerated the idea that there was a linear continuation in the speech and thought of the ancient Greeks, all the way from Pericles's ancient Athens to today's modern Athens. Use of the Demotic dialect in state speech and paperwork was forbidden.

The fall of the Junta of 1974 and the end of the era of Metapolítefsi 1974-1976, brought the acceptance of the Demotic dialect as both the de facto and de jure forms of the language for use by the Greek government.


Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (Longman Linguistics Library). Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 0582307090


A Brief History of the Greek Language

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