Archaic dialects, the Hellenistic Koine and the modern Greek language

October 6th, 2018


The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2003, during a period when the author's academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author's work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article was based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academics. Despite the author's best intentions to present his essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The article is primarily based on the work of I. Vourtsis (1999), who is the only source to be referenced for the entire essay. Unfortunately, no additional bibliography was added later on. Furthermore, the author wishes to apologise in advance for using capitals letters and not using any stress marks (polytonic or monotonic) when comparing examples of Greek words in the Archaic dialects and the Hellenistic Koine. This is a conscious choice based on the fact that prior to the Hellenistic period, Greek words did not have any stress or pronunciation marks, and were always written in capital letters.


This article is a brief introduction to the evolution of the Greek language from the Archaic period until modern times. It presents the main types of Greek dialects, which existed at the beginnings of Greek alphabetic scripts; it explains the reasons why the Ionian-Attic dialect was more prominent than other dialects; it discusses its contribution to the formation of the Hellenistic Koine; and finally, it discuses the impact of the Koine on the language of the Greek genus during the post-Byzantine era.

The article is divided in four sections. The first section discusses the basic ancient Greek dialects and their geographical distribution within the Helladic territory; it presents their differences and explains their relationships with specific types of ancient literature. The second section discusses the prevalence of the Attic dialect during the 4th century BC and the conditions that accelerated its spread throughout the Hellenistic world. The third section discusses the international character of the Hellenistic Koine and the results of this phenomenon; it explains why the Attic dialect was modified by the Macedonians; the reactions to such modifications by the scholars of the Alexandrian School; and the impact of the Koine on the Romans and the Christians. The fourth section discusses the impact of the Greek-speaking communities of the Eastern Roman Empire on the development of the Byzantine middle Greek and modern Greek forms; it considers the problem of bilingualism in the Greek cosmos; it presents the basic changes and simplifications of the Attic dialect, which led to the formation of the Hellenistic Koine, and it compares the structure of the Koine with the structures of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greek language forms.

The anthropogeography of ancient Greek dialects

After analysing the first Greek inscriptions of the 8th century BC, which were written in alphabetic scripts, it was found that the Greeks of the early Archaic period did neither write nor speak speak in the same manner. By contrast, their language displayed significant differences from one area to another. Different areas spoke different dialects and wrote in alphabets that exhibited variations compared to the alphabets from other areas. There were also differences in the ways each dialect was spoken, forming distinct patterns across different geographical regions.

Today, ancient Greek dialects are classified into three main geographical groups. The first one is the Eastern group. Its distinctive dialect was the Ionian, as well as the Attic, which was a variant of the former. It was spoken all across Ionia (the modern Turkish coastline of the Aegean sea), the Cyclades, Euboea and of course Attica. The second group is that of the Central Greek dialects, which consisted of two basic ones: the Arcadian/Cypriot and the Aeolian. The former was spoken in Cyprus and in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, while the latter was spoken in Thessaly, Boeotia, Lesbos and the neighbouring coasts of North Asia Minor (what was known by that time as Aeolia). The third group is that of the Western dialects. Its main dialect was the Doric, which had several variations. Doric dialects were spoken in Epirus, the West Greek mainland, the Peloponnese (with the exception of Arcadia), at the islands of Melos, Thera, Crete, the Dodecanese and the neighbouring coasts of South Asia Minor.

The Macedonian dialect was a particular case. Its study presents problems in relation to its interpretation and categorisation due to the absence of scripts during the broader Archaic period. Based on limited evidence and associations with other dialects, linguists define the Macedonian spoken before the 4th century BC as a mixture of Aeolian and North-Western Doric dialects.

The fragmentation of the Archaic Greek language in different dialects was mainly due to the geographical morphology of the Greek landscape. The division of the land in mountainous and islands favouritised the creation of enclosed settlements that were defined by natural boundaries. This fragmentation in the habitation patterns of the Greek landscape was combined with the sequential movement and dispersion of different ethnic groups (ΦΥΛΑ), which spoke different variations of the Greek language. The final factor that assisted in the continuation of different dialects during the Archaic period was the isolation of the first urban centres due to their political autonomy, which led to the birth of independent city-states.

In spite of the initial fragmentation of the Greek language, there were no favourable conditions to allow such dialects to evolve into autonomous languages. The continuous movement of culturally homogeneous populations across Greece and the Greek colonies, the presence of trade and business contacts among Greek city-sates, the formation of military coalitions for defending their territories against 'barbarian' invaders (in the ancient Greek world 'barbarians' were regarded those who could not speak Greek), and finally the sharing of common ancestry, cultural values and religion, favouritised the creation of a common linguistic identity among all Greeks, which was not affected by dialect variations.

The differences of the Greek dialects were noted either in the pronunciation of certain letters, or in the meaning of certain words, including their grammatical and editorial form. Our knowledge on the specific features of each dialect is limited and fragmented. Information comes mainly from inscriptions and testimonies of subsequent writers, and is not always adequate to draw definite conclusions on the subject. Linguists usually understand the phonological differences among dialects, while their knowledge on the grammatical, editorial and semantic particularities of each dialect is limited.

Only exception is the Attic dialect, for which there is a plethora of written evidence, including references to the actual dialect, such as historical and philosophical texts, poetry and theatrical plays. The abundant information on the use of the Attic dialect is nowadays used as a point of reference, a mean of comparison and a basis of interpretation for the rest of the Archaic Greek dialects. Thus, one can classify the most characteristic differences among these dialects and the Attic as follows:

In the Ionian dialect, the long vowel Α is converted to Η (e.g. ΙΣΤΟΡΙΗ=ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ). In various words where the starting letter Π precedes vowels Α or Ο, it is replaced by Κ (e.g. ΟΚΟΙΟΣ=ΟΠΟΙΟΣ, ΚΟΣΟΣ=ΠΟΣΟΣ). The rough breathing (῾) is abandoned quite early and the letter digamma (F) is not used prior to consonants Λ, Ν, Π, and Σ, converting Ε to ΕΙ and Ο to ΟΥ (ΞΕFΝΟΣ=ΞΕΙΝΟΣ, ΚΟFΡΗ=ΚΟΥΡΗ). For nouns ending in -ΗΣ in genitive singular (e.g. ΔΕΣΠΟΤΗΣ), the original ending in -ΟΥ in converted to an -Ε or -ΕΩ (e.g. ΔΕΣΠΟΤΕΩ=ΔΕΣΠΟΤΟΥ). In comparatives, there is often the use of Ε instead of ΕΙ (e.g. ΜΕΖΩΝ=ΜΕΙΖΩΝ, ΚΡΕΣΣΩΝ=ΚΡΕΙΣΣΩΝ). Finally, double ΡΡ is converted to ΡΣ (e.g. ΑΡΣΕΝ=ΑΡΡΕΝ, ΘΑΡΣΟΣ=ΘΑΡΡΟΣ).

In the Aeolian dialect, consonants Τ, Δ and Θ are respectively converted to Π, Β and Φ when preceding vowels Ε and Η (e.g. ΠΕΤΤΑΡΕΣ=ΤΕΣΣΑΡΕΣ, ΦΗΡ=ΘΗΡ, ΠΕΔΑ=ΜΕΤΑ). The stress on the ultimate syllable usually moves to the penultimate (ΒΏΜΟΣ=ΒΩΜΌΣ); vowel Ο replaces Α (e.g. ΣΤΡΌΤΟΣ-ΣΤΡΑΤΌΣ), Υ replaces Ο, and ΟΥ replaces Ω. The letter Σ is being absorbed in the combined consonants ΛΣ, ΣΜ, ΣΝ and ΡΣ (e.g. ΕΣΜΙ=ΕΜΜΙ, ΑΡΣΕΝ=ΑΡΡΕΝ). Common verbs ending in -Ω are converted to end in -ΜΙ (e.g. ΚΑΛΗΜΙ=ΚΑΛΕΩ). In some cases, diphthong ΑΙ replaces Α (e.g. ΠΑΙΣΑ=ΠΑΣΑ) and ΟΙ replaces ΟΥ (e.g. ΛΕΓΟΙΣΑ=ΛΕΓΟΥΣΑ). Finally, the linking word ΚΕ replaces the word ΑΝ (if).

In the Dorian dialect the long vowel Α and the digamma F are sustained (e.g. FΑΝΑΞ=ΑΝΑΞ, FΕΡΓΟΝ=ΕΡΓΟΝ) together with the verb endings in -ΤΙ (e.g. ΔΙΔΩΤΙ=ΔΙΔΩΣΙ) and –ΝΤΙ (e.g. ΛΕΓΟΝΤΙ=ΛΕΓΟΥΣΙ). The articles ΤΟΙ and ΤΑΙ are used instead of the articles ΟΙ and ΑΙ (e.g. ΤΑΙ ΓΥΝΑΙΚΕΣ=ΑΙ ΓΥΝΑΙΚΕΣ, ΤΟΙ ΑΝΔΡΕΣ=ΟΙ ΑΝΔΡΕΣ). In simple present the ending –ΜΕΣ replaces –ΜΕΝ (e.g. ΑΠΟΡΙΟΜΕΣ=ΑΠΟΡΟΥΜΕΝ); in the past tense the ending -ΞΑ replaces –ΣΑ (e.g. ΩΡΙΞΑ=ΩΡΙΣΑ), and in future tense the ending –ΣΩ replaces -ΞΩ (e.g. ΔΕΙΣΩ=ΔΕΙΞΩ). The ΟΥ becomes Ω (e.g. ΤΩ ΙΠΠΩ=ΤΟΥ ΙΠΠΟΥ), ΕΕ becomes Η (e.g. ΤΡΗΣ=ΤΡΕΕΣ) and Ε becomes Ι when preceding vowels Α, Ο and Ω (e.g. ΘΙΟΣ=ΘΕΟΣ). Finally, the stress in the ante-penultimate moves to the penultimate (e.g. ΕΜΆΘΟΝ, ΦΥΛΆΚΕΣ, ΕΛΆΒΟΝ, ΑΝΘΡΏΠΟΙ).

The manifestation of these three dialects in ancient Greek literature is noted in a rather peculiar manner. While one would have expected that each ethnic group would have produced their works in their own dialect, instead, the intended dialect was defined according to the literature genre that was meant to be produced. In other words, poetry and prose genres were preferred to be developed in the dialect that these were originally produced in, which was the dialect of the ethnic group that thought of a specific literature genre for the very first time. More specifically, genres such as epic and lyric poetry, and more specifically the elegy, the epigram and the iambus, first appeared during the 8th century BC in the Ionian dialect, and carried on being produced in that dialect until the 5th century BC. The same can be noted for historiography, which appeared for the very first time during the 6th century BC in the Ionian dialect. The Doric dialect featured in romance and choral poetry, which appeared during the 7th century BC, while melic poetry was developed in the Aeolian dialect around the same period. At the time of the Athenian cultural climax of the 5th and 4th century BC, the two genres of drama (comedy and tragedy), rhetoric and philosophy were developed for the very first time in the Attic-Ionian dialect.

To understand how this convention worked, Hesiod, who was from Boeotia and spoke the Aeolian dialect, composed his epics in the Ionian dialect. Tyrtaeus, who was from Sparta and spoke the Dorian dialect, composed his lyric poetry in the Ionian dialect. Herodotus, who came from the Dorian city of Halicarnassus, wrote his history in the Attic-Ionian dialect. The choral poetry of Pindar was composed in the Dorian dialect, despite the fact that he came from Thebes and spoke the Aeolian dialect. The Ionian poets Simonides and Bachylides also composed in the Dorian dialect. Anacreon, who came from the Ionian city of Teo, composed his lyrics in the Aeolian dialect. As for the Attic dialect, it was commonly used by Ionian writers, such as the historiographer Thucydides, the philosopher Plato and the rhetoricians Demosthenes, Isocrates and Lycias. Furthermore, is was also being used by non-Ionian writers, such as Aristotle from Stageira and Theophrastus from Lesbos.

In conclusion, the Archaic and Classical Greek writers saw that each dialect had specific characteristics and was associated with distinct genres of literature. The Aeolian dialect became a flexible linguistic tool for the expression of feelings; the Ionian dialect was appreciated for its precise forms and its linguistic prestige, particularly in narratives and in rational analyses of factual data; the Dorian dialect was used to stress the intensity and heroic acts noted in choral poetry; and finally, the Attic dialect was preferred for its delicacy and flexibility, which was required in rhetoric and philosophy. Despite the contribution of each Archaic Greek dialect in ancient Greek literature, one needs to bear in mind that such genres of creative composition did not reflect what used to be the live, everyday, popular language of the ancient Greeks. By contrast, such genres were built around constructed forms of linguistic expression, limited entirely in the production of literature.

The hegemony of the Attic dialect

Officially, the Athenians adopted the Ionian alphabet in 403/2 BC. This alphabet, which consisted of the same 24 characters as those used in modern Greek, is nowadays know as the Euclidean Alphabet, named after the Athenian Archon Euclid who ruled during that year (and who was not the same as the world-famous mathematician Euclid). By following the popularity of the Ionian dialect since the early 5th century BC, the Attic dialect became dominant among most Greek city-states. The spread of the Attic dialect also coincided with the Athenian military hegemony over the Greek world during the 4th century BC.

The recruitment of many Ionian city-states in the Delian League right after the end of the Persian Wars allowed the Athenians to promote the Attic dialect as the alliance's official language. Furthermore, the large-scale trade activities of the Athenians in the Mediterranean Sea made the Attic dialect a form of international commerce language. Finally, the development of rhetoric and philosophy, which were products of the Athenian democracy, played an equally important role in the spread of this dialect.

The leading role of the Attic dialect was strengthened further during the 4th century BC, when it was adopted by the Macedonian kings and became the official language of the Macedonian kingdom. After Alexander's conquests, the Attic dialect expanded to the furthest regions of his vast empire and became the official language of the Greek bureaucracy and administration. Within this vast empire, the Attic dialect evolved into the Hellenistic Koine, which became the international language of the Hellenistic period.

The Hellenistic Koine as an international language

The Hellenistic (or Alexandrian) Koine was the natural continuation of the Attic dialect during the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC), and was forged by internal and external influences that took place during a period of three centuries. One needs to bear in mind that the Attic dialect not only became the official language of the Macedonian Empire as it expanded towards the East, but at the same time, it was also spoken at almost every Greek colony of the Central and Western Mediterranean, although these territories were never occupied by the Macedonians. This meant that the Attic dialect was used by a large population over a vast geographical area, which expanded between modern Gibraltar and the North-West provinces of today's India.

As it was expected, the use of the Koine by various social groups that spoke different languages resulted to its transformation and alteration by the introduction of subsequent simplifications, and the introduction of new words and meanings. Such changes were regulated by the coexistence of the Greeks with various other ethnic groups, which spoke Persian, Semitic, Egyptian and even Latin in later years. The Koine was meant to express the natural every-day language at both oral and written forms. Its success in becoming the international language of its time was due to this reason: unlike the Attic dialect, the Koine succeeded in unifying oral and written speech in one mutual form.

The most important reaction against this unification of oral and written speech came by the Atticists during the 1st century BC. This period coincided with the collapse of the last Macedonian kingdom in the Aegean, which was Cleopatra's Egypt. During the reign of Augustus, the philologists and scholars of various large Greek-speaking urban centres, but more specifically those of Alexandria, began to imitate the old Attic dialect and re-introduced 'Archaic' grammatical forms in written speech. This way they expected to formulate the right conditions for the production of literature of equal value to that of the Classical antiquity. As expected, the Atticism movement was not addressed to the largest proportion of the population, who carried on speaking the commonly and naturally used Koine. By contrast, the movement affected the scholars and teachers of the rhetoric and philosophical schools of that time, who introduced a new and relatively artificial written language for the production of literature only.

The second largest achievement of the Koine was to become the sole expresser of the new and most popular religion of its time, which was Christianity. The newly religion adopted the Koine to record all of its oral and written traditions, starting with the translation of the Old Testament in Greek and moving on to the composition of the New Testament from the beginning in Greek. Even the first Apostles of Christianity preached the word of God in the Koine, which was the international language of their era.

It must be noted that within the literate circles of early Christianity, there were scholars who promoted Atticism in the same way this was promoted in other forms of popular literature. The acceptance of Atticism as the official language of the Three Hierarchs of the Christian faith resulted to the extreme Atticism that was later noted in Byzantine ecclesiastic literature.

Finally, it must be noted that the Hellenistic Koine was not a phenomenon that was restricted chronologically and geographically across Alexander's Empire. Even after his death and the dissolution of his Empire, the Koine remained the official administrative language of the Hellenistic kingdoms that sprang right after. And even after the fall of these kingdoms to the Romans, the Koine retained its prominent position among the leaders and the social elites of the Roman Empire. This prominent position carried on during the Byzantine period, when the Koine remained the most popular spoken language of the Easter Roman Empire for almost eleven centuries, and formed the basis of the middle and modern Greek language forms.

The Hellenistic Koine as the predecessor of modern Greek

The Hellenistic Koine can be viewed as the the connective link between the Attic dialect of the Classical period and today's modern Greek language, although the direct predecessor of modern Greek is the Byzantine middle Greek. This sections argues that after subsequent steps of linguistic evolution, the Koine became the basis of both middle and modern Greek.

The spread of the Koine and its evolution towards modern Greek was advanced by two factors. Firstly, its geographical expansion and establishment in different areas of the Greek-speaking world assisted in the elimination of all differences noted in the four Archaic dialects, and to the creation of a strong and mutual linguistic consciousness among all Greeks. This consciousness remained unchanged in the oral traditions of the Greek people for many centuries. It formed the linguistic basis of the Byzantine and Christian civilisation, and it remained alive even during the Frankish, Venetian and Ottoman occupation.

Secondly, by removing the distinction between written and oral speech successfully, the Koine was taught more effectively and was spread to a larger number of people compared the Attic dialect, particularly to those of non-Greek social and cultural background. The written form of the Greek language ceased to be the exclusivity of the educated social elites and became accessible to every-day people; therefore, the scripts in the Koine initially expressed what consisted of the common everyday and naturally-spoken language of that time.

Unfortunately, the educated minority, who included the early philologists of the Roman period, reacted to this phenomenon of simplification and populism of the written discourse with the use of extreme Atticism. Atticism resulted in the creation of an artificial 'Attic' idiom, which became the linguistic mean for the production of every type of literature. This trend was further strengthened by the early Christian scholars, who established the use of 'archaism' in Byzantine literature. The impact of Atticism carried on throughout the post-Byzantine period and the 19th century, when the scholars of the newly founded Greek state became divided in relation the nation's choice of official language. During that time, the scholars supporting the Atticising tradition imposed the use of a new 'formal' Greek language, the so-called kathareuousa, which translated as the clearly-spoken language. This form became the official language of the Greek state and was primarily supported by a minority of the middle and upper classes; scholars who supported the 'informal' spoken language of that time, the demotic, were completely disregarded. Furthermore, the demotic, which was jokingly called malliari (hairy) in the 19th century, was regarded as the language of the uneducated. The kathareuousa, which was an artificial and almost alien language imposed on the education system during the same period, fell out of use during the 20th century as the majority of the population still used the demotic in their every-day communications. The kathareuousa was officially abolished by law in 1976, although during a short transitional period, the written form of the 'demotic' still employed Atticising stress and pronunciation marks (polytonic). The polytonic system was finally abandoned by law in 1982.

To understand the direct origins of modern Greek from the Hellenistic Koine, one needs to note a series of changes and simplifications in the Attic dialect, which led to the formation of the Koine. The same changes passed on the the middle Greek are nowadays used in the structure of the modern Greek language:

At a phonological level, the division between long and short syllables ceased to exist. Gradually, all long vowels were pronounced as short vowels, which is still the case in modern Greek. The stressing of such syllables changed from melodic (prosody) to dynamic. The pronunciation of vowels Η, Υ, ΕΙ and ΥΙ became the same as the pronunciation of vowel Ι; this phenomenon was also known as Iotakism. All bi-sound vowels reverted to mono-sound vowels/syllables, or in other words they were pronounced as a single syllable (ΑΙ=Ε, ΕΙ=Ι, ΟΙ=Ι, ΥΙ=Ι, ΑΥ=ΑΒ or ΑΦ, ΕΥ=ΕΒ or ΕΦ, ΗΥ=ΥΒ or ΥΦ). The extended pronunciation of double consonants ceased (e.g. the world ΙΠΠΟΣ was read as ΙΠΟΣ). In the Koine the pronunciation of the letters Β, Γ, Δ, Ζ, Θ, Φ and Χ changed to the same sounds as these are pronounced in modern Greek; by contrast, in the Archaic dialects the phonetic value of these letters was the same as the Latin B, G, D, ZD, TH, PH and KH respectively.

At a morphological level, the dual number (as in singular, dual and plural) was abandoned (e.g. ΔΥΟ ΟΦΘΑΛΜΟΙ instead of ΤΩ ΟΦΘΑΛΜΩ). The ending of many nouns was reduced in a way that part of the third declension became the same as the first declension (e.g. ΛΑΟΣ instead of ΛΕΩΣ). Irregular forms, such as comparative adjectives, were dropped and simplified in new forms (e.g. instead of having ΤΑΧΥΣ- ΤΑΧΙΩΝ- ΤΑΧΙΣΤΟΣ, there was ΤΑΧΥΣ- ΤΑΧΥΤΕΡΟΣ- ΤΑΧΥΤΑΤΟΣ). The middle voice stopped being used and the verbs were presented in active and passive voice only. Verb inclinations were simplified and the subjunctive form became the same as the definitive form. In other words, the subjunctive was formed by the explanatory ΙΝΑ/ΝΑ plus the definitive form (e.g. ΙΝΑ ΤΟ ΣΩΜΑ ΓΥΜΝΑΖΟΜΕΝ instead of ΤΟ ΣΩΜΑ ΓΥΜΝΑΖΩΜΕΝ). In a similar manner, the imperative was replaced by the explanatory ΙΝΑ/ΝΑ or ΑΦΕΣ/ΑΣ, plus the subjunctive (e.g. ΑΣ ΕΙΣΕΛΘΩΣΙ instead of ΕΙΣΕΛΘΩΣΑΝ). The elegant inclination was abandoned and instead, it was formed by the article ΝΑ plus the subjunctive (e.g. ΝΑ ΓΙΓΝΗΣ instead of ΓΕΝΟΙΟ). Infinitives were expressed in a figurative form by the use of ΟΤΙ plus the definitive form, or with the use of ΙΝΑ plus the subjunctive form (e.g. ΒΟΥΛΟΜΑΙ ΙΝΑ ΕΛΘΩ instead of ΒΟΥΛΟΜΑΙ ΕΛΘΕΙΝ). The present perfect tense became the same as the past tense (e.g. ΛΕΛΥΚΑ=ΕΛΥΣΑ); this was often given in a figurative form (ΓΕΓΡΑΦΑ=ΕΧΩ ΓΡΑΨΑΙ), and the final duplications were abandoned (ΑΠΕΓΡΑΦΑ=ΑΠΟΓΕΓΡΑΦΑ). In past continuous, the prolonged first syllable was dropped (e.g. ΕΥΧΟΜΗΝ instead of ΗΥΧΟΜΗΝ and ΑΓΟΡΑΖΟΝ instead of ΗΓΟΡΑΖΟΝ).

At a syntax level, subjunctive forms replaced prolonged forms. There was a preference in the use of short main sentences, in which connective articles were dropped. There was a conscious reduction in the use of dative declensions, which were replaced by genitive or accusative forms proceeded by an article (e.g. ΤΗΣ ΠΟΛΕΩΣ/ ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΟΛΙΝ instead of ΤΗ ΠΟΛΕΙ).

In relation to vocabulary and meaning, there was an introduction of new words and the replacement of Archaic words by different and more recent ones. Through the spread of Christianity, many words were given a different meanings compared to their original (e.g. the word ΠΛΗΣΙΟΝ), while there was an introduction of worlds from Egyptian, Semitic or Latin (e.g. Pascha).

Finally, there was the introduction of the polytonic system for stressing syllables and for marking their correct pronunciation. Three basic tones (acute, grave and circumflex) and two breathing marks (smooth and rough) were invented by the Alexandrian philologists and were used to mark the correct stressing of words in musical accent, at a time when prosody had already been abandoned. By doing this, the Alexandrian scholars believed that the foreign non-Greek-speaking populations of the Hellenistic cities would have found such marks useful in retaining the pronouncing ancient Greek words.

Despite the origins of modern demotic Greek from the Hellenistic Koine, the Atticising movement of the 1st century BC managed to divide the Greek society in relation to its language for almost two millennia. It introduced a dual-language system, which consisted of an official and an unofficial language, the uses of which were defined by specific social and educational boundaries. Bilingualism was only resolved in 1976 by the introduction of a law that restored the demotic Greek as the nation's one and only official language.

Summary and conclusions

This article discussed the evolution of the Greek language from its earliest ancient dialects to the widely-spoken Hellenistic Koine and modern demotic Greek. As it was discussed above, the basic dialects that were spoken among the Greeks during the 8th century BC were four: the Ionian, the Doric, the Aeolian and the Arcadian-Cypriot. Despite the peculiarities noted in each dialect, their common origin was an element that actively determined a common linguistic consciousness among all Greeks. Nowadays, our knowledge in relation to the daily oral forms of ancient Greek dialects is limited. At a written level, however, we know that each dialect was chosen by writers for the composition of specific genres of literature. Thus, the Ionian dialect was used in lyric poetry, epic poetry and historiography; the Doric dialect was used in choral poetry and romance; while the Aeolian dialect was used in melic poetry.

Particular mention was made to the Attic dialect, which consisted of a neighbouring variant of the Ionian dialect. The genres composed in the Attic dialect were drama, rhetoric and philosophy. Along with the rhetorical and philosophical schools that flourished in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the Attic dialect established itself as an international intellectual language. At the same time, the extensive commercial and military operations of the Athenians in the Mediterranean determined the intellectual dominion of the Attic dialect throughout the Greek world.

During the 4th century BC, the Attic dialect became the official language of the Macedonian Kingdom. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, it was spread throughout its vast Empire and became the international language of a territory that expanded between Gibraltar and modern West India. The adoption and use of the Attic dialect by culturally heterogeneous groups that lived in Alexander's Empire led to its alteration and ultimate simplification. This resulted in the transformation of the Attic dialect to what is nowadays known as the Hellenistic or Alexandrian Koine.

The Hellenistic Koine became the state's official language and main administrative apparatus, and carried on playing the same role for the Hellenistic kingdoms that emerged after the dissolution of Alexander's Empire. This language successfully lifted the separation between written and oral speech that existed before, and generated a stronger linguistic identity among all Greeks. From the 1st century BC onwards, however, the Atticising movement introduced by Alexandrian philologists demanded the restoration of the Archaic Attic dialect, at least in its written form. This movement resulted to the emergence of bilingualism, which divided the Greek-speaking populations until recent years.

The oral form of the Hellenistic Koine evolved differently and freely compared to its Atticising written form. It remained the most popular language of the Byzantine period through its transformation to middle Greek, and it became the predecessor of today's modern demotic Greek. By contrast, the artificial Atticising language of the 1st century BC produced a stagnation in the evolution of written speech, which is evident in the texts of the Christian tradition. Atticism briefly received formal recognition after the formation of the new Greek nation-state during the 19th century AD. Finally, the problem of bilingualism was resolved through the restoration of oral demotic Greek in 1976.


Vourtsis, I., 1999, 'Evolution and dialects of the Greek language', in Vasilou-Papageorgiou, V. (ed.) Introduction to the Greek Civilisation, Vol.1, The Concept of Civilisation, Views of the Greek Civilisation, Patra: Greek Open University, 247-54.