Koine Greek (Κοινὴ Ἑλληνική, , "common Greek", or ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος, , "the common dialect") is the popular form of Greek which emerged in post-Classical antiquity (c.300 BC – AD 300). Other names are Alexandrian, Hellenistic, Common, or New Testament Greek. Koine was the first common supra-regional dialect in Greece and came to serve as a lingua franca for the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near East throughout the Roman period. It was also the original language of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Koine is the main ancestor of modern Greek.
Koine Greek arose as a common dialect within the armies of Alexander the Great
. As the allied Greek states under the leadership of Macedon
conquered and colonised the known world, their newly formed common dialect was spoken from Egypt
to the fringes of India
. Though elements of Koine Greek took shape during the late Classical Era
, the post-Classical period of Greek dates from the death of Alexander the Great
in 323 BC, when cultures under Hellenistic
sway in turn began to influence the language. The passage into the next period, known as Medieval Greek
, dates from the foundation of Constantinople
by Constantine I
in 330. The post-Classical period of Greek thus refers to the creation and evolution of Koine Greek throughout the entire Hellenistic and Roman eras of history until the start of the Middle Ages.
The term Koine
(Κοινή), Greek for "common", is a term which had been previously applied by ancient scholars to several forms of Greek speech. A school of scholars such as Apollonius Dyscolus
and Aelius Herodianus
maintained the term Koine
to refer to the Proto-Greek language
, while others would use it to refer to any vernacular form of Greek speech which differed from the literary language. When Koine
gradually became a language of literature, some people distinguished it in two forms: Hellenic
(Greek) as the literary post-classical form, and Koine
(common) as the spoken popular form. Others chose to refer to Koine
as the Alexandrian dialect
(Περὶ τῆς Ἀλεξανδρέων διαλέκτου) or the dialect of Alexandria
, a term often used by modern classicists.
The linguistic roots of the Common Greek dialect had been unclear since ancient times. During the Hellenistic
age, most scholars thought of Koine as the result of the mixture of the four main Ancient Greek
dialects, "ἡ ἐκ τῶν τεττάρων συνεστῶσα" (the composition of the Four). This view was supported in the early 20th century by Austrian
linguist P. Kretschmer in his book "Die Entstehung der Koine" (1901), while the German
and the French
linguist Antoine Meillet
, based on the intense Attic
elements of Koine — such as σσ instead of ττ and ρσ instead of ρρ (θάλασσα — θάλαττα, ἀρσενικός — ἀρρενικός) — considered Koine to be a simplified form of Ionic
. The final answer which is academically accepted today was given by the Greek
linguist G. N. Hatzidakis, who proved that, despite the "composition of the Four", the "stable nucleus" of Koine Greek is Attic. In other words, Koine Greek can be regarded as Attic with the admixture of elements especially from Ionic, but also from other dialects. The degree of importance of the non-Attic linguistic elements on Koine can vary depending on the region of the Hellenistic World. In that respect, the idioms of Koine spoken in the Ionian
colonies of Asia Minor
would have more intense Ionic
characteristics than others. The literary Koine of the Hellenistic age resembles Attic in such a degree that it is often mentioned as Common Attic
Sources of Koine
The first scholars who studied Koine, both in Alexandrian and contemporary times, were classicists whose prototype had been the literary Attic
language of the Classical period, and would frown upon any other kind of Hellenic
speech. Koine Greek was therefore considered a decayed form of Greek which was not worthy of attention. The reconsideration on the historical and linguistic importance of Koine Greek began only in the early nineteenth century
, where renowned scholars conducted series of studies on the evolution of Koine throughout the entire Hellenistic
and Roman period which it covered. The sources used on the studies of Koine have been numerous and of unequal reliability. The most significant ones are the inscriptions of the post-Classical periods and the papyri
, for being two kinds of texts which have authentic content and can be studied directly. Other significant sources are the Septuagint
, the Greek translation of the Old Testament
, and the New Testament
. The teaching of the Testaments was aimed at the most common people, and for that reason they use the most popular language of the era. Information can also be derived from some Atticist
scholars of the Hellenistic
and Roman periods, who, in order to fight the evolution of the language, published works which compared the supposedly "correct" Attic
against the "wrong" Koine by citing examples. For example, Phrynichus Arabius during the second century AD wrote:
- Βασίλισσα οὐδείς τῶν Ἀρχαίων εἶπεν, ἀλλὰ βασίλεια ἢ βασιλίς.
- "Basilissa (Queen) none of the Ancients said, but Basileia or Basilis".
- Διωρία ἑσχάτως ἀδόκιμον, ἀντ' αυτοῦ δὲ προθεσμίαν ἐρεῖς.
- "Dioria (deadline) is badly illiteral, instead use Prothesmia".
- Πάντοτε μὴ λέγε, ἀλλὰ ἑκάστοτε καὶ διὰ παντός.
- "Do not say Pantote (always), but Hekastote and Dia pantos".
Other sources can be based on random findings such as inscriptions on vases written by popular painters, mistakes made by Atticists due to their imperfect knowledge of pure Attic, or even some surviving Greco-Latin glossaries of the Roman period, e.g:
- "Καλήμερον, ἦλθες; — Bono die, venisti?" (Good day, you came?).
- "Ἐὰν θέλεις, ἐλθὲ μεθ' ἡμῶν. — Si vis, veni mecum." (If you want, come with us (The Latin actually says with me, not us) ).
- "Ποῦ; — Ubi?" (Where?).
- "Πρὸς φίλον ἡμέτερον Λεύκιον. — Ad amicum nostrum Lucium." (To our friend Lucius).
- "Τί γὰρ ἔχει; — Quid enim habet?" (Indeed, what does he have?—What is it with him?).
- "Ἀρρωστεῖ. — Aegrotat." (He's sick).
Finally, a very important source of information on the ancient Koine is the modern Greek language with all its dialects and its own Koine form and idioms, which have preserved most of the ancient language's oral linguistic details which the written tradition has lost. For example the Pontic and Cappadocian dialects preserved the ancient pronunciation of η as ε (νύφε, συνέλικος, τίμεσον, πεγάδι etc), while the Tsakonic preserved the long α instead of η (ἁμέρα, ἀστραπά, λίμνα, χοά etc) and the other local characteristics of Laconic. Idioms from the Southern part of the Greek-speaking regions (Dodecanese, Cyprus etc), preserve the pronunciation of the double similar consonants (ἄλ-λος, Ἑλ-λάδα, θάλασ-σα), while others pronounce in many words υ as ου or preserve ancient double forms (κρόμμυον — κρεμ-μυον, ράξ — ρώξ etc). Linguistic phenomena like the above imply that those characteristics survived within Koine, which in turn had countless idiomatic variations in the Greek-speaking world.
Evolution from ancient Greek
The study of all sources from the six centuries which are symbolically covered by Koine reveals linguistic changes from ancient Greek
, morphology, syntax, vocabulary and other elements of the spoken language. Most new forms start off as rare and gradually become more frequent until they are established. From the linguistic changes which took place in Koine, Greek gained such a resemblance to its medieval
successors that almost all characteristics of modern Greek can be traced in the surviving texts of Koine. As most of the changes between modern and ancient Greek were introduced via Koine, Koine is largely intelligible to speakers of the modern language.
During the period generally designated as "Koine" Greek, a great deal of phonological change occurred: at the start of the period, the pronunciation was virtually identical to classical ancient Greek, whereas in the end it had much more in common with modern Greek.
The three most significant changes during this period were the loss of vowel length distinction, the substitution of the pitch accent system with a stress accent system, and the monophthongization of several diphthongs.
Evolution in phonology is summarised below:
- The ancient distinction between long and short vowels was gradually lost, and from the 2nd century BC all vowels were isochronic.
- Since the 2nd century BC, the means of accenting words changed from pitch to stress, meaning that the accented syllable is not pronounced in a musical tone but louder and/or stronger.
- The aspirate breathing (aspiration), which was already lost in the Ionic idioms of Asia Minor and the Aeolic of Lesbos, stopped being pronounced and written in popular texts.
- Long diphthongs, which in older times were written with a subscript of ι after a long vowel, stopped being pronounced and written in popular texts.
- The diphthongs αι, ει, and οι became single vowels. In this manner 'αι', which had already been converted by the Boeotians into a long ε since the 4th century BC and written η (e.g. πῆς, χῆρε, μέμφομη), became in Koine, too, first a long ε and then short. The diphthong 'ει' had already merged with ι in the 5th century BC in regions such as Argos or in the 4th c. BC in Corinth (e.g. ΛΕΓΙΣ), and it acquired this pronunciation also in Koine. The diphthong 'οι' acquired the pronunciation of the modern French 'U' (y), which lasted until the 10th century AD. The diphthong 'υι' came to be pronounced [yj], and subsequently became treated as two consecutive vowels (as if 'υϊ'). The diphthong 'ου' had already acquired the pronunciation of Latin 'U' since the 6th century BC and preserved it in modern times.
- The diphthongs αυ and ευ came to be pronounced [av] and [ev] (via [aβ], [eβ]), but are partly assimilated to [af], [ef] before the voiceless consonants θ, κ, ξ, π, σ, τ, φ, χ, and ψ.
- Simple vowels have preserved their ancient pronunciations, except η which is pronounced as ι, and υ, which retained the pronunciation [y] of modern French 'U' only until the 10th c. AD, and was later also pronounced as ι. With those changes in phonology there were common spelling mistakes between υ and οι, while the sound of ι was multiplied (iotacism).
- The consonants also preserved their ancient pronunciations to a great extent, except β, γ, δ, φ, θ, χ and ζ. Β, Γ, Δ (Beta, Gamma, Delta), which were originally pronounced as b, g, d, acquired the sound of v, gh, and dh ([v] (via β), in IPA), which they still have today, except when preceded by a nasal consonant (μ, ν); in that case, they retain their ancient sounds (e.g. γαμβρός — γαmbρός, άνδρας — άndρας, άγγελος — άŋgελος). The latter three (Φ, Θ, Χ), which were initially pronounced as aspirates (/pʰ/, /tʰ/ and /kʰ/ respectively), developed into the fricatives [f] (via [ɸ]), [θ], and [x]. Finally the letter Ζ, which is still categorised as a double consonant with ξ and ψ, because it was initially pronounced as σδ (sd), later acquired the sound of Z as it appears in Modern English and Greek.
"Biblical Koine" refers to the varieties of Koine Greek used in the Christian Bible and related texts. Its main sources are:
- the Septuagint, a 3rd century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which includes the Deuterocanonical books, a series of books not now in the Jewish canon, but whose earlier acceptance led to their inclusion in the non-Protestant Old Testament. Most of the texts are translations, but there are some portions and texts composed in Greek. Sirach, for instance, has been found in Hebrew;
- the New Testament, compiled originally in Greek (although some books may have had a Hebrew-Aramaic substrate and contain some Semitic influence on the language).
There has been some debate to what degree Biblical Greek represents the mainstream of contemporary spoken Koine and to what extent it contains specifically Semitic substratum features (cf. Aramaic primacy). These could have been induced either through the practice of translating closely from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, or through the influence of the regional non-standard Greek spoken by the originally Aramaic-speaking Jews. Some of the features discussed in this context are the Septuagint's normative absence of the particles μεν and δε, and the use of εγενετο to denote "it came to pass." Some features of Biblical Greek which are thought to have originally been non-standard elements eventually found their way into the main of the Greek language.
The term Patristic Greek is sometimes used for the Greek written by the Church Fathers, the early Christian theologians in late antiquity. Christian writers in the earliest time tended to use a simple register of Koiné, relatively close to the spoken language of their time, following the model of the Bible. After the 4th century, when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, more learned registers of Koiné influenced by Atticism came also to be used.
New Testament Greek
The Koine Greek in the table represents the New Testament Koine Greek, deriving to some degree from the dialect spoken in Judaea and Galilaea during the 1st century and similar to the dialect spoken in Alexandria, Egypt. Note the realizations of certain phonemes differ from the more standard Attic dialect of Koine. Note the soft fricative "bh", the hard aspirated "th", the preservation of a distinction between the four front vowels "i", "ê", "e", and "y" (which is still rounded), and other features.
|| IPA |
|| ɑ |
|| β (-β-)
|| b (-bh-)
|| ɣ |
|| d |
|| ɛ |
|| zː |
|| e |
|| tʰ |
|| i |
|| k |
|| l |
|| m |
|| n |
|| ks |
|| o |
|| p |
|| ɾ |
|| σ (-σ-/-σσ-)
|| s (-s-/-ss-)
|| t |
|| y |
|| pʰ |
|| kʰ |
|| ps |
|| o |
|| ɛ |
|| i |
|| y |
|| ɑw |
|| ɛw |
|| ew |
|| u |
Sample Koine Texts
The following excerpts illustrate the phonological development within the period of Koine. The phonetic transcriptions are tentative, and are intended to illustrate two different stages in the reconstructed development, an early conservative variety still relatively close to Classical Attic, and a somewhat later, more progressive variety approaching Modern Greek in some respects.
The following excerpt, from a decree of the Roman Senate to the town of Thisbae in Boeotia in 170 BC, is rendered in a reconstructed pronunciation representing a hypothetical conservative variety of mainland Greek Koiné in the early Hellenistic era. The transcription shows partial, but not yet completed raising of η and ει to /i/, retention of pitch accent, fricativization of γ to /j/ but no fricativisation of the other stops as yet, and retention of word-initial /h/.
- περὶ ὧν Θισ[β]εῖς λόγους ἐποιήσαντο· περὶ τῶν καθ᾿αὑ[τ]οὺς πραγμάτων, οίτινες ἐν τῇ φιλίᾳ τῇ ἡμετέρᾳ ἐνέμειναν, ὅπως αὐτοῖς δοθῶσιν [ο]ἷς τὰ καθ᾿ αὑτοὺς πράγματα ἐξηγήσωνται, περὶ τούτου τοῦ πράγματος οὕτως ἔδοξεν· ὅπως Κόιντος Μαίνιος στρατηγὸς τῶν ἐκ τῆς συνκλήτου [π]έντε ἀποτάξῃ οἳ ἂν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν δημοσίων πρα[γμ]άτων καὶ τῆς ἰδίας πίστεων φαίνωνται.
- "Concerning those matters about which the citizens of Thisbae made representations. Concerning their own affairs: the following decision was taken concerning the proposal that those who remained true to our friendship should be given the facilities to conduct their own affairs; that our governor Quintus Maenius should delegate five members of the senate who seemed to him suitable in the light of their public actions and individual good faith."
The following excerpt, the beginning of the Gospel of St John, is rendered in a reconstructed pronunciation representing a progressive popular variety of Koiné in the early Christian era, with vowels approaching those of Modern Greek.
- ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἓν ὃ γέγονεν. ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων̣· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shone in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
- Randall Buth, Ἡ κοινὴ προφορά: Koine Greek of Early Roman Period
- Abel, F.-M. Grammaire du grec biblique.
- Andriotis, Nikolaos P. History of the Greek Language.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956. ISBN 0-674-36250-0
- Cornybeare, F.C, and Stock, St. George. Grammar of Septuagint Greek: With Selected Readings, Vocabularies, and Updated Indexes.
- Allen, W. Sidney, Vox Graeca: a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek – 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-521-33555-8