Ancient Greek includes the forms of the Greek language used in ancient Greece and the ancient world from around the 9th century BC to the 6th century AD. It is often roughly divided into the Archaic period, Classical period, and Hellenistic period.
It is preceded by Mycenaean Greek and succeeded by Medieval Greek. Koine is regarded as a separate historical stage although its earliest form closely resembles Attic Greek and its latest form approaches Medieval Greek. There were several regional dialects of ancient Greek, of which Attic Greek developed into Koine.
Ancient Greek was the language of Homer and of fifth-century Athenian historians, playwrights, and philosophers, as well as being the original language of the New Testament of the best-selling book in world history, the Christian Bible. Ancient Greek has contributed many words to English vocabulary and has been a standard subject of study in educational institutions of the Western world since the Renaissance. This article primarily contains information about the Epic and Classical periods of the language.
DialectsAncient Greek was a pluricentric language, divided into many dialects. The main dialect groups are Attic and Ionic, Aeolic, Arcadocypriot, and Doric, many of them with several subdivisions. Some dialects are found in standardized literary forms used in literature, while others are attested only in inscriptions.
There are also several historical forms. Homeric Greek is a literary form of Archaic Greek used in the epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in later poems by other authors. Homeric Greek had significant differences in grammar and pronunciation from Classical Attic and other Classical-era dialects.
HistoryThe origins, early form and development of the Hellenic language family are not well understood because of a lack of contemporaneous evidence. Several theories exist about what Hellenic dialect groups may have existed between the divergence of early Greek-like speech from the common Proto-Indo-European language and the Classical period. They have the same general outline, but differ in some of the detail. The only attested dialect from this period is Mycenaean Greek, but its relationship to the historical dialects and the historical circumstances of the times imply that the overall groups already existed in some form.
Scholars assume that major ancient Greek period dialect groups developed not later than 1120 BC, at the time of the Dorian invasions—and that their first appearances as precise alphabetic writing began in the 8th century BC. The invasion would not be "Dorian" unless the invaders had some cultural relationship to the historical Dorians. The invasion is known to have displaced population to the later Attic-Ionic regions, who regarded themselves as descendants of the population displaced by or contending with the Dorians.
The Greeks of this period believed there were three major divisions of all Greek people – Dorians, Aeolians, and Ionians, each with their own defining and distinctive dialects. Allowing for their oversight of Arcadian, an obscure mountain dialect, and Cypriot, far from the center of Greek scholarship, this division of people and language is quite similar to the results of modern archaeological-linguistic investigation.
One standard formulation for the dialects is:
- West Group
- * Northwest Greek
- * Doric
- Aeolic Group
- * Aegean/Asiatic Aeolic
- * Thessalian
- * Boeotian
- Ionic-Attic Group
- * Attic
- * Ionic
- ** Euboean and colonies in Italy
- ** Cycladic
- ** Asiatic Ionic
- Arcadocypriot Greek
- * Arcadian
- * Cypriot
Arcadocypriot apparently descended more closely from the Mycenaean Greek of the Bronze Age.
Boeotian had come under a strong Northwest Greek influence, and can in some respects be considered a transitional dialect. Thessalian likewise had come under Northwest Greek influence, though to a lesser degree.
Pamphylian Greek, spoken in a small area on the southwestern coast of Anatolia and little preserved in inscriptions, may be either a fifth major dialect group, or it is Mycenaean Greek overlaid by Doric, with a non-Greek native influence.
Most of the dialect sub-groups listed above had further subdivisions, generally equivalent to a city-state and its surrounding territory, or to an island. Doric notably had several intermediate divisions as well, into Island Doric, Southern Peloponnesus Doric, and Northern Peloponnesus Doric.
The Lesbian dialect was Aeolic Greek.
All the groups were represented by colonies beyond Greece proper as well, and these colonies generally developed local characteristics, often under the influence of settlers or neighbors speaking different Greek dialects.
The dialects outside the Ionic group are known mainly from inscriptions, notable exceptions being:
- fragments of the works of the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos, in Aeolian, and
- the poems of the Boeotian poet Pindar and other lyric poets, usually in Doric.
Related languages or dialectswas an Indo-European language. Because of no surviving sample texts, it is impossible to ascertain whether it was a Greek dialect or even related to the Greek language at all. Its exact relationship remains unclear. Macedonian could also be related to Thracian and Phrygian languages to some extent. The Macedonian dialect appears to have been replaced by Attic Greek during the Hellenistic period. Late 20th century epigraphic discoveries in the Greek region of Macedonia, such as the Pella curse tablet, suggest that ancient Macedonian has been a variety of north-western ancient Greek or replaced by a Greek dialect.
Differences from Proto-Indo-EuropeanAncient Greek differs from Proto-Indo-European and other Indo-European languages in certain ways. In phonotactics, ancient Greek words could end only in a vowel or ; final stops were lost, as in γάλα "milk", compared with γάλακτος "of milk". Ancient Greek of the classical period also differed in both the inventory and distribution of original PIE phonemes due to numerous sound changes, notably the following:
- PIE became at the beginning of a word : Latin sex, English six, ancient Greek ἕξ.
- PIE was elided between vowels after an intermediate step of debuccalization: Sanskrit ', Latin generis, Greek *genesos > *genehos > ancient Greek γένεος, Attic γένους "of a kind".
- PIE became or : Sanskrit ', ancient Greek ὅς "who" ; Latin iugum, English yoke, ancient Greek ζυγός.
- PIE, which occurred in Mycenaean and some non-Attic dialects, was lost: early Doric ϝέργον, English work, Attic Greek ἔργον.
- PIE and Mycenaean labiovelars changed to plain stops in the later Greek dialects: for instance, PIE became or in Attic: Attic Greek ποῦ "where?", Latin quō; Attic Greek τίς, Latin quis "who?".
- PIE "voiced aspirated" stops were devoiced and became the aspirated stops φ θ χ in ancient Greek.
The examples below represent Attic Greek in the 5th century BC. Ancient pronunciation cannot be reconstructed with certainty, but Greek from the period is well documented, and there is little disagreement among linguists as to the general nature of the sounds that the letters represent.
Consonantsoccurred as an allophone of that was used before velars and as an allophone of before nasals. was probably voiceless when word-initial. was assimilated to before voiced consonants.
Vowelsraised to, probably by the 4th century BC.
MorphologyGreek, like all of the older Indo-European languages, is highly inflected. It is highly archaic in its preservation of Proto-Indo-European forms. In ancient Greek, nouns have five cases, three genders, and three numbers. Verbs have four moods and three voices, as well as three persons and various other forms. Verbs are conjugated through seven combinations of tenses and aspect : the present, future, and imperfect are imperfective in aspect; the aorist ; a present perfect, pluperfect and future perfect. Most tenses display all four moods and three voices, although there is no future subjunctive or imperative. Also, there is no imperfect subjunctive, optative or imperative. The infinitives and participles correspond to the finite combinations of tense, aspect, and voice.
AugmentThe indicative of past tenses adds a prefix /e-/, called the augment. This was probably originally a separate word, meaning something like "then", added because tenses in PIE had primarily aspectual meaning. The augment is added to the indicative of the aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect, but not to any of the other forms of the aorist.
The two kinds of augment in Greek are syllabic and quantitative. The syllabic augment is added to stems beginning with consonants, and simply prefixes e. The quantitative augment is added to stems beginning with vowels, and involves lengthening the vowel:
- a, ā, e, ē → ē
- i, ī → ī
- o, ō → ō
- u, ū → ū
- ai → ēi
- ei → ēi or ei
- oi → ōi
- au → ēu or au
- eu → ēu or eu
- ou → ou
In verbs with a preposition as a prefix, the augment is placed not at the start of the word, but between the preposition and the original verb. For example, προσβάλλω goes to προσέβαλoν in the aorist. However compound verbs consisting of a prefix that is not a preposition retain the augment at the start of the word: αὐτομολῶ goes to ηὐτομόλησα in the aorist.
Following Homer's practice, the augment is sometimes not made in poetry, especially epic poetry.
The augment sometimes substitutes for reduplication; see below.
ReduplicationAlmost all forms of the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect reduplicate the initial syllable of the verb stem. The three types of reduplication are:
- Syllabic reduplication: Most verbs beginning with a single consonant, or a cluster of a stop with a sonorant, add a syllable consisting of the initial consonant followed by e. An aspirated consonant, however, reduplicates in its unaspirated equivalent: Grassmann's law.
- Augment: Verbs beginning with a vowel, as well as those beginning with a cluster other than those indicated previously reduplicate in the same fashion as the augment. This remains in all forms of the perfect, not just the indicative.
- Attic reduplication: Some verbs beginning with an a, e or o, followed by a sonorant, reduplicate by adding a syllable consisting of the initial vowel and following consonant, and lengthening the following vowel. Hence er → erēr, an → anēn, ol → olōl, ed → edēd. This is not actually specific to Attic Greek, despite its name, but it was generalized in Attic. This originally involved reduplicating a cluster consisting of a laryngeal and sonorant, hence h₃l → h₃leh₃l → olōl with normal Greek development of laryngeals.
Reduplication is also visible in the present tense stems of certain verbs. These stems add a syllable consisting of the root's initial consonant followed by i. A nasal stop appears after the reduplication in some verbs.
Writing systemThe earliest extant examples of ancient Greek writing are in the syllabic script Linear B. Beginning in the 8th century BC, however, the Greek alphabet became standard, albeit with some variation among dialects. Early texts are written in boustrophedon style, but left-to-right became standard during the classic period. Modern editions of ancient Greek texts are usually written with accents and breathing marks, interword spacing, modern punctuation, and sometimes mixed case, but these were all introduced later.
Sample textsThe beginning of Homer's Iliad exemplifies the Archaic period of ancient Greek :
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ' ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ' ἐτελείετο βουλή·
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
The beginning of Apology by Plato exemplifies Attic Greek from the Classical period of ancient Greek:
Using the IPA:
Transliterated into the Latin alphabet using a modern version of the Erasmian scheme:
Translated into English:
In educationThe study of ancient Greek in European countries in addition to Latin occupied an important place in the syllabus from the Renaissance until the beginning of the 20th century. Ancient Greek is still taught as a compulsory or optional subject especially at traditional or elite schools throughout Europe, such as public schools and grammar schools in the United Kingdom. It is compulsory in the liceo classico in Italy, in the gymnasium in the Netherlands, in some classes in Austria, in klasična gimnazija in Croatia, in Classical Studies in ASO in Belgium and it is optional in the humanities-oriented gymnasium in Germany. In 2006/07, 15,000 pupils studied ancient Greek in Germany according to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, and 280,000 pupils studied it in Italy. It is a compulsory subject alongside Latin in the humanities branch of the Spanish bachillerato. Ancient Greek is also taught at most major universities worldwide, often combined with Latin as part of the study of classics. It will also be taught in state primary schools in the UK, to boost children's language skills, and will be offered as a foreign language to pupils in all primary schools from 2014 as part of a major drive to boost education standards, together with Latin, Mandarin, French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
In Christian education, especially at the post-graduate level, the study of ancient Greek is commonplace if not compulsory. As a lingua franca of the Roman world at the time of Jesus, the Bible's accounts of his life and the rest of the New Testament were written in Greek; since these books form a vital part of Christian theology, studying the language they are written in is commonplace for those studying to become pastors or priests.
Ancient Greek is also taught as a compulsory subject in all gymnasiums and lyceums in Greece. Starting in 2001, an annual international competition was run for upper secondary students through the Greek Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs, with Greek language and cultural organisations as co-organisers. It appears to have ceased in, having failed to gain the recognition and acceptance of teachers.
Modern real-world usageModern authors rarely write in ancient Greek, though Jan Křesadlo wrote some poetry and prose in the language, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, some volumes of Asterix, and The Adventures of Alix have been translated into ancient Greek. Ὀνόματα Kεχιασμένα is the first magazine of crosswords and puzzles in ancient Greek. Its first issue appeared in April 2015 as an annex to Hebdomada Aenigmatum. Alfred Rahlfs included a preface, a short history of the Septuagint text, and other front matter translated into ancient Greek in his 1935 edition of the Septuagint; Robert Hanhart also included the introductory remarks to the 2006 revised Rahlfs–Hanhart edition in the language as well. Akropolis World News reports weekly a summary of the most important news in ancient Greek.
Ancient Greek is also used by organizations and individuals, mainly Greek, who wish to denote their respect, admiration or preference for the use of this language. This use is sometimes considered graphical, nationalistic or humorous. In any case, the fact that modern Greeks can still wholly or partly understand texts written in non-archaic forms of ancient Greek shows the affinity of the modern Greek language to its ancestral predecessor.
An isolated community near Trabzon, Turkey, an area where Pontic Greek is spoken, has been found to speak a variety of Modern Greek, Ophitic, that has parallels, both structurally and in its vocabulary, to ancient Greek not present in other varieties. As few as 5,000 people speak the dialect, and linguists believe that it is the closest living language to ancient Greek.
Ancient Greek is often used in the coinage of modern technical terms in the European languages: see English words of Greek origin. Latinized forms of ancient Greek roots are used in many of the scientific names of species and in scientific terminology.
- – Information on the history of the Greek language, application of modern Linguistics to the study of Greek, and tools for learning Greek
- – Berkeley Language Center of the University of California
- – A summary of the latest world news in Ancient Greek, Juan Coderch, University of St Andrews