The Ancient Greek language is the historical stage in the development of the Hellenic language family spanning the Archaic (c. 9th–6th centuries BC), Classical (c. 5th–4th centuries BC), and Hellenistic (c. 3rd century BC-6th century AD) periods of ancient Greece and the ancient world. It is predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek. Its Hellenistic phase is known as Koine ("common") or Biblical Greek, and in its late period mutates imperceptibly into Medieval Greek. Koine is sometimes regarded as a separate historical stage of its own, although in its earlier and more educated use it closely resembles Classical Greek. Prior to the Koine period, the language existed as highly divergent Ancient Greek dialects.
The Ancient Greek language is one of the most prominent in human cultural history, including the works of Homer, the playwrights and philosophers of the Athenian Golden Age, and the New Testament. It has made a large contribution to the vocabulary of English, including such essential terms as democracy and was a standard subject of study in Western educational institutions from the Renaissance through the early 20th century. The New Latin used in the scientific binomial classification system continues to draw vigorously from Ancient Greek vocabulary today.
This article treats primarily the Archaic and Classical phases of the language — see also the article on the Koine.
The major dialect groups of the Ancient Greek period can be assumed to have developed not later than 1120 BC, at the time of the Dorian invasion(s), and 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; moreover, 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 ancient Greeks themselves considered there to be three major divisions of the Greek people, into Dorians, Aeolians, and Ionians (including Athenians), each with their own defining and distinctive dialects. Allowing for their oversight of Arcadian, an obscure mountain dialect, and Cyprian, far from the center of Greek scholarship, this division of people and language is quite similar to the results of modern archaeological-linguistic investigation. This is very important to realize because of the content and the change that has occurred.
One standard formulation for the dialects is:
West and non-west Greek is the strongest and earliest division, with the non-west in subsets of Ionic-Attic (or Attic-Ionic) and Aeolic vs. Arcado-Cyprian, or Aeolic and Arcado-Cyprian vs. Ionic-Attic. Often non-west is called East Greek.
The Arcado-Cyprian group is 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, spoken in a small area on the south-western coast of Asia Minor and little preserved in inscriptions, may be either a fifth major dialect group, or Mycenaean Greek overlaid by Doric, with a non-Greek native influence.
Ancient Macedonian was an Indo-European language closely related to Greek, but its exact relationship is unclear: possibly a dialect of Greek; a sibling language to Greek; or a close cousin to Greek, and perhaps related to some extent, to Thracian and Phrygian languages.
Most of the dialect sub-groups listed above had further subdivisions, generally equivalent to a city-state and its surrounding territory, or an island. Doric notably had several intermediate divisions as well, into Island Doric (including Cretan Doric), Southern Peloponnesus Doric (including Laconian, the dialect of Sparta), and Northern Peloponnesus Doric (including Corinthian). The Lesbian dialect was a member of the Aegean/Asiatic Aeolic sub-group. 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 poetess from the island of Lesbos, Sappho, and the poems of the Spartan poet, Pindar.
After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, a new international dialect known as Koine or Common Greek developed, largely based on Attic Greek, but with influence from other dialects. This dialect slowly replaced most of the older dialects, although Doric dialect has survived to the present in the form of the Tsakonian dialect of Modern Greek. Doric has also passed down its aorist terminations into most verbs of Demotic Greek. By about the 6th century AD, the Koine had slowly metamorphosized into Medieval Greek.
Note that /w/ and /j/, when following a vowel and not preceding a vowel, combined early on with the vowel to form a diphthong and were thus not lost.
The loss of /h/ and /w/ after a consonant were often accompanied by compensatory lengthening of a preceding vowel. The loss of /j/ after a consonant was accompanied by a large number of complex changes, including diphthongization of a preceding vowel or palatalization or other change to a directly preceding consonant. Some examples:
The results of vowel contraction were complex with dialect to dialect. Such contractions occur in the inflection of a number of different noun and verb classes and are among the most difficult aspects of Ancient Greek grammar. They were particularly important in the large class of contracted verbs, denominative verbs formed from nouns and adjectives ending in a vowel. (In fact, the reflex of contracted verbs in Modern Greek—i.e., the set of verbs derived from Ancient Greek contracted verbs—represents one of the two main classes of verbs in that language.)
The pronunciation of Post-Classic Greek changed considerably from Ancient Greek, although the orthography still reflects features of the older language (see W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca a guide to the pronunciation of Classical Greek). For a detailed description on the phonology changes from Ancient to Hellenistic periods of the Greek language, see the article on Koine Greek.
The examples below are intended to represent Attic Greek in the 5th century BC. Although ancient pronunciation can never be reconstructed with certainty, Greek in particular is very well documented from this period, and there is little disagreement among linguists as to the general nature of the sounds that the letters represented.
/oː/ probably raised to [uː] by the fourth century BC.
There are different schemes for compensatory lengthening, depending on where it happens. The differences are in whether /a/ becomes [aː] or [ɛː], and whether /e/ and /o/ become the closed values [eː] and [oː] or the open ones [ɛː] and [ɔː].
|Trill||/r/ ~ [r̥]|
[z] was an allophone of /s/, used before voiced consonants; [ŋ] occurred as an allophone of /n/ used before velars and as an allophone of /ɡ/ before nasals, while [r̥], written (ῥ), was probably a voiceless allophone of /r/ used word initially.
There are three main classes of consonants:
In verb conjugation, one consonant often comes up against the other. Various sandhi rules apply.
Greek, 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 (including proper nouns) have five cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative), three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), and three numbers (singular, dual and plural). Verbs have four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and optative), three voices (active, middle and passive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and various other forms. Verbs are conjugated through seven tenses: the present, future and imperfect tenses are imperfective in aspect; the aorist tense (perfective aspect); a present-perfect, pluperfect and future perfect (all with perfect aspect). Most tenses display all four moods and three voices, although there is no future subjunctive or imperative. There are infinitives and participles corresponding to the finite combinations of tense, aspect and voice.
The indicative of past tenses adds (conceptually, at least) a prefix /e-/. 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 (no other forms of the imperfect and pluperfect exist).
There are two kinds of augment in Greek, syllabic and quantitative. The syllabic augment is added to stems beginning with consonants, and simply prefixes e (stems beginning with r, however, add er). The quantitative augment is added to stems beginning with vowels, and involves lengthening the vowel:
Some verbs augment irregularly; the most common variation is e → ei. The irregularity can be explained diachronically by the loss of s between vowels.
The augment sometimes substitutes for reduplication; see below.
Almost all forms of the perfect, pluperfect and future perfect reduplicate the initial syllable of the verb stem. (Note that a few irregular forms of perfect do not reduplicate, whereas a handful of irregular aorists reduplicate.) There are three types of reduplication:
Irregular duplication can be understood diachronically. For example, lambanō (root lab) has the perfect stem eilēpha (not *lelēpha) because it was originally slambanō, with perfect seslēpha, becoming eilēpha through (semi-)regular change.
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 consonant appears after the reduplication in some verbs.
Ancient Greek was written in the Greek alphabet, with some variation among dialects. Early texts are written in boustrephedon 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.
Transliterated into the Latin alphabet using a modern version of the Erasmian scheme:
Translated into English:
In most Western education systems, the study of Ancient Greek in addition to Latin occupied an important place in the syllabus until the beginning of the 20th century. Until now, Ancient Greek is taught as a compulsory or optional subject especially at traditional or élite schools throughout Europe, such as Public schools and Grammar schools in the United Kingdom, the Liceo classico in Italy, the Humanistisches Gymnasium in Germany (usually as a 3rd language after Latin and English, from age 14 till 18). In 2006/07, 15,000 pupils studied Greek in Germany according to Statistisches Bundesamt. Ancient Greek is also taught at most major universities worldwide, often combined with Latin as part of Classics.
Ancient Greek is often used in the coinage of modern technical terms in the European languages: see English words of Greek origin.
Modern authors rarely write in Ancient Greek, though Jan Křesadlo wrote some poetry and prose in Ancient Greek, some volumes of Asterix have been written in Attic Greek and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has been translated into Ancient Greek too.
Ancient Greek is also used by, mainly Greek, organizations and individuals who wish to denote their respect, admiration or preference to the use of this language. This use is sometimes considered graphical, nationalistic or funny. 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 modern Greek language to its ancestral predecessor.