Medieval Greek

Medieval Greek

Medieval Greek (Μεσαιωνική Ελληνική) is a linguistic term that describes the fourth period in the history of the Greek language. Its symbolic boundaries start with the transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople) in 330 AD, and end with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 AD, therefore spanning more than a millennium. As medieval Greek co-exists with the history of the Byzantine Empire, another term often used to describe the language of the period is Byzantine Greek.


When the capital of the Roman Empire was transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century AD, the official language of the state continued to be Latin, yet the literary and spoken language of the entire eastern part of the empire continued to be Greek. Greek was also the language of the church and education, while the university preserved a diglossia between the two. Even though this new Greco-Latin diglossia lasted more than two centuries, the Byzantine emperors had been favouring the official use of Greek over Latin since the beginning. Latin was preserved on inscriptions and coinage until the 11th century AD. The separation of the mixed or non Greek-speaking populations of the Western part of the Empire, accelerated the Hellenisation of the Eastern one. Later, when Greek dynasties of emperors established themselves on the Byzantine throne and changed the official language of the public services, Greek displaced Latin completely. The Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire retained the Roman name, and the medieval Greek state of Byzantium continued to refer to itself as "Ρωμανία" (Romania, or land of the Romans), long after the city of Rome and the western half of the Roman Empire were overrun by barbarians. Eventually, "Romans" (Ρωμαῖοι) became a synonym for "Greeks" (Ἕλληνes). The name "Ρωμαῖοι" (Romans) was used as a broad title of political prestige whereas the term "Ρωμιοί" ("Romioi") was developed in order to describe both the ethno-cultural identity of the Greeks and their Roman citizenship. The name "Ρωμαῖοι" symbolised the awe of the old Roman Empire, and typically declared the land claims of the Byzantine state.

Evolution from Hellenistic to Medieval Koine

The cultural and linguistic center of the Greek World during the Byzantine era, as it had once been Athens, was Constantinople. The capital acted as a linguistic center on Byzantine Hellenism, for both literary (Atticist) and popular-vulgar (spoken) forms of speech. The diglossia in Byzantium was defined by the medieval literary Koine, which had elements of archaism (equivalent to the Hellenistic Atticism), and the spoken or popular Koine which was the authentic successor of Koine Greek. In the way that Western scholars used Classical Latin for their literary work, the Byzantines tended to use archaisms with elements of Atticism, and usually tried to imitate in their works, in speech and manner, the great attic writers-models of the classical period. Paul the Silentiary wrote at the time of Justinian I his "Description of Hagia Sophia" (Ἔκφρασις τοῦ Ναοῦ τῆς Ἁγίας Σοφίας) with iambs and Homeric hexameters that were characterised as a dark and poetic language. The historians Procopius and Critobulus imitated Thucydides while Anna Komnene had a general Atticist literary style. The members of the Church up until the 4th century AD followed the example of the Apostles and used the Medieval Koine. However from the 4th century onward, the language of the church became Atticistic due to the intervention of the Cappadocian Fathers who had been educated in Greek schools of rhetoric. In that respect, the Church was using the older language of the Greeks in order to fight off their older pagan religion. By that time most of the popular masses had already been converted to Christianity, however the introduction of the Atticistic language attracted also rich Greek pagans of higher social status. Thus the Atticist rhetoric helped the Byzantine state to fight off the heresies, and the vernacular Koine enhanced the literary speech with elements from the spoken language. While there was a constant interaction and mutual influence between the written (namely the widely diffused text of the Gospels) and the spoken language, both vary significantly depending on the time or place that they were spoken, written or recorded. Thus, while the spoken language of the early centuries is still similar to the Hellenistic Koine , from the eighth century onwards it takes up a form much nearer to Modern Greek, even though in vernacular texts, in their most part written down by educated monks and literati, the language is distorted so as to match the rules of classical Greek grammar.


Due to the long-term diglossia between Latin and Greek, Medieval Greek borrowed various linguistic elements from the Latin language, many of which survive in Modern Greek most having to do with administration, politics, public life, as well as everyday objects. A number of Latin words and popular phrases can be traced in Medieval Greek include the following (bold marking signifies assimilation to the language and survival into Modern Greek):

Common phrases

  • άνω φηλικίσιμε!, ano filikisime < annos felicissimos!
  • βαίνε, vene < bene (venisti!)
  • τούμβικας!, tumvikas < tu vincas!
  • ιμούλτος άννος! imultos annos < in multos annos!

Court titles

Αύγουστος (Avgustos, Augustus), Καίσαρ (Kesar, Caesar), πρίγκιψ (Prinkips, princeps, Prince), κόμης (Komis, comes, 'Count' (certain type of officer)), μάγιστρος (magistros, magister), κοιαίστωρ (kyestor, quaestor), σιλεντιάριος, (silentiarios, silentiarius, a certain type of court officer), παλάτιον (palation, palatium, palace), κουροπαλάτης (kuropalatis, from curator + palatium), ακτουάριος (aktuarios, actuarius, a court physician), καγκελλάριος (kankellarios, cancellarius, chancellor), σακελλάριος (sakellarios, saccellarius, treasurer), τιτουλάριος (titularios, titularius, title-bearer), οφφικιάλος (offikialos, officialis, an official).


Μαγναύρα (from Latin magna aula, "great hall"), Γερμανός, etc.


Αξούγγιον (axungion, xigi, animal fat (from axis, axis, + unguen (grease)), βερίκοκον (verikokon, apricot, from praecoquium), βίγλα (vigla, sentry, vigilia), βούκα/μπούκα (bouka, point of entry, mouth, from bucca), γούλα, from gula, εξέμπλιον, from exemplum, καλαμάριον (kalamarion, squid, from calamarium, "pen case" (in its turn from Greek kalamos, reed)), καλλίγιον, κάγκελον (kankellon, railing), κάρβουνον (karvounon, coal), κουβούκλιον (kouvouklion, cubiculum, cubicle), στέρνα (sterna, cistern), λουκάνικον (loukanikon, sausage), λωρίον (> λουρί) (lorion, strap), μάγκιψ, μάγουλον (magoulon, cheek), μακελλάρης (makellaris, butcher), μανίκιον (manikion, sleeve), μαρούλιον (maroulion, lettuce), μενσάλιον, μίλλιον (million, mile), μουλλάριον (moularion, mule), οσπίτιον (ospition, hospitium, house), παλούκιον (paloukion, stake or pike), πανάριον (panarion, breadbasket), πέδικλον, πουγγίον (poungion, purse), σέλλα (sella, saddle), σέρβουλον, σκαμνίον (skamnion, sitting stool), σκουτέλλιον, στάβλος (stavlos, stabula, stable), ταβέρνα (taverna, tavern), τάβλα (tavla, table), φλάσκα (flaska, flask), φόρος (foros, forum, later: tax), φούρκα (fourka, pitchfork), φούρνος (fournos, furnace), λάβαρον (lavaron, banner), βούλλα (voula, bulla, seal), τίτλος (titlos, title), αντιμήνσιον, κανδήλιον (kandilion, candle), μανουάλιον (manoualion, manual), φαιλόνιον (felonion, a priestly vestment), καλένδαι (kalendai, kalends), βίσεκτος/δίσεκτος (visektos, disektos, a leap year), etc.


Βαρβάτος (varvatos, bearded), βένετος, μπλάβος (blavos, blue) etc.


Ακκομβίζω, βουλλώνω (voulono, to seal), καβαλικεύω (kavalikevo, to mount a horse), κανακεύω (kanakevo, to dote), μισσεύω (missevo, to emigrate), πλουμίζω (ploumizo, to embellish), φουρνίζω (fournizo, to bake) etc.


  • -aton: Μαγιστράτον, μανδάτον, δουκάτον etc.
  • -atos: Αμυγδαλάτος, καρυδάτος, κυδωνάτος, πιπεράτος etc.
  • -arios: Νοτάριος, σχολάριος etc.
  • -poullos/poullon: Κομητόπουλλος, Τουρκόπουλλος, Αρχοντόπουλλον, Φραγκόπουλλον etc. (from Latin pullus, 'young animal', 'chick')
  • -isios: Καστρήσιος, κολονήσιος, βουνήσιος etc. (also spelled -ίσιος; from Latin -ensis, a suffix denoting a place of origin)
  • -anos: Δέκανος, Πάγανος etc.
  • -alion: Μανουάλλιον, Μενσάλλιον, τριβουνάλιον etc.


In phonology, both rare and common innovations described in Koine Greek become more generalised.

  • The vowel η has already been merged with ι, except in Pontus and Cappadocia, where it preserved its ancient value (νύφε, κεπίν, τίμεσον, Ελλένικος, θελυκό, πεγάιδι).
  • The vowel υ and the diphthong οι, which during Hellenistic Koine had taken the sound of the French 'u', also merge with ι in the 10th century, except some local dialects such as the ones of Aegina, Athens, Cyme, Mani and Megara (κιούτομαι, χιούρος, τσιουλία, Κούμη). Tsakonian, technically a very different Doric-based language, still distinguishes υ.
  • The vowel ω is in restricted cases converted into ου (ζουμιν, κλουβίν, κουνούπιν (<κώνωψ), κουπίν, αλωπού, μαιμού, Γιλλού).
  • The vowel ε is occasionally converted to ι when it is succeeded by α and ο, and during the 13th century it loses its accent (μηλέα>μυλιά, λεοντάριν>λιοντάριν), everywhere except in Pontus, Cappadocia, the Ionian Islands and Southern Italy.
  • The vowel ο is gradually neglected from the termination -ιον, -ιος (καλαμάριν, κουβάριν, σακκίν, χαρτίν, κύρις).
  • The phonetic combination of ου-ε is occasionally pronounced as ο (μόδωκε, οπόχουν, πόναι, οπόκαμεν, πόλειπες).
  • Consonants κ and π are occasionally converted to χ and φ when succeeded by τ (νύχτα, προσεχτικά, σουδαχτικά, εκλεχτοί, εφτά, λεφτός, φτωχός, βαφτίζω).
  • Consonants θ is occasionally converted to τ when preceded by φ and χ (εγεύτη, φτοράν, φτόνος, παρευτύς, εταράχτησαν, να συναχτούν, να δεχτούμε, μάχεστε, επιάστη).
  • The vowel υ from diphthongs αυ and ευ, which from the time of Koine Greek had already acquired the sound of φ and β, now they're occasionally silenced when succeeded by μ (θάμα, ψέμα), and are converted to π when succeeded by σ (απεζέψασιν, επλέψασιν, ωδήγεψαν, να θεραπέψουν, ανάπαψη).
  • The vowel υ in the combination υν is converted to μ (εύνοστος>έμνοστος, χαύνος>χάμνος, ελαύνω>λάμνω).
  • The nasal consonants μ and ν stop being pronounced when succeeded by voiceless fricatives (νύφη, άθος, πεθερός).
  • The terminating -ν continues to be pronounced (καλαμάριν, κουβάριν, σακκίν, χαρτίν) and in several occasions appears equivalently (γάλαν, οξύγαλαν, πράμαν, εγίνοτον, επνίγην, εκτίστην).


See also


  • Andriotis, N. History of the Greek language.
  • Tonnet, Henri. Histoire du grec moderne.

External links

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