The History of Classical Greek

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In the diasporic ancient Greek world, in contrast to the more centralised Roman republic and empire, the notion of ‘Greek’ was far looser than how we might conceive it today. Yet, despite the fact Greek had so much internal variation, the boundaries drawn between Greek and non-Greek language was vitally important. In the view of the Greek-speaking city-states, language was the major factor which categorised a people as Greek or barbaric – indeed, the etymological origins of the word ‘barbaric’ is an imitation of the foreign sounds of the non-Greeks speaking (‘bar bar’). Even the Macedonians, despite their proximity to the Greek city-states, were often held in suspicion of foreignness, given their very different dialect.

Language was therefore crucial to the Greek identity. Even within this, dialects were a manner of further grouping different Greek ethnicities – broadly the Achaeans, Aeolians, Dorians, and Ionians. As their names suggest, these tribes claim their heritage from various mythical ‘founding fathers’: Achaeus, Aeolus, Ion, and Dorus. These themselves have sub-groups, and are not an exhaustive account of the dialects, but will suffice for the purpose of an overview.

Doric Greek most likely swept in from the north, sometimes theorised to have happened under a great Dorian invasion, which brought the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial civilisation and ushered in a new era of Greek tradition, language, and tribes all the way to the southernmost parts (including parts of Asia Minor) of classical Greece during the so-called Dark Ages (c.1200 – 900 BC). This invasion is thought to have given rise to a further Greek dialect: Arcadocypriot, the dialect of the diaspora of Bronze Age Mycenaean speakers (of which there is very little extant writing), who, as the name suggests, mainly relocated to Cyprus and Arcadia.

The various Dorian city states retained strong political ties with each other and could often rely on their fellow Doric-speaking people to provide military assistance (Thucydides described the Peloponnesian War as “Ionians against Dorians”).

The Doric dialect is possibly the oldest of the classical Greek dialects, as it resisted some of the phonetic changes which occurred to the east, such as with Attic. For example, while Attic pronounced the ‘t’ sound as an ‘s’ when before iota, Doric did not, hence τίθητι (titheti) and not τίθησι (tithesi) or ἐντί (enti) and not εἰσί (eisi). The Achaeans also spoke a further subdialect of Doric.

Theorised to have evolved in the 11th Century BC, Ionic is the dialect that most strongly influenced the so-called ‘Homeric’ dialect found in the Iliad and Odyssey. It was spoken in many Aegean islands, parts of Asia Minor, and, later, by colonial expansion, to areas in the Black Sea. Aeolic, a neighbouring dialect, is the other major contributor to the form of Greek used in Homer’s writing. The combination of dialects is particularly useful for poetry, since alternative forms of words and phrases can be used to more easily fit the metre.

One of the most interesting differences between different dialects was in the use of the digamma – a ‘w’ sound represented usually by a symbol resembling the letter ‘f’. It was slowly phased out of most major dialects: Ionic mostly likely dropped it before the 7th Century in which Homer’s works were completed, while Aeolic held onto the digamma the longest. Nonetheless, the digamma’s lingering hidden presence can often be inferred where its sound is required to fill gaps in metre. This fickle letter also renders etymological roots between Greek and Latin rather more explicit: the Greek ‘οἶνος’ (wine) would originally have been written as ‘ϝοῖνος’, pronounced ‘woinos’, which bears great similarity to the Latin ‘vinum’, and even to our word ‘wine’.

Attic Greek is the best-known and most widely taught dialect of Greek. This modern popularity is partly due to the abundance of important literature written in this dialect – Attic was the primary dialect of Attica, which encompasses Athens, the source of Ancient Greece’s most famous and lasting philosophy and drama – but also because of its uptake in Macedon before Alexander’s campaigns.

Attic is divided into Old and New Attic, the former being primarily used primarily in the 5th Century by Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle and the writers of tragic plays. This developed into New Attic around the 3rd Century BC. From this, Koine (common) Greek emerged, which is nowadays learned primarily due to its use in the New Testament.

Though this hardly scratches the surface of the history of the Greek ethnicities and dialects, nor the mounds of scholarly debate regarding various theorisations as to the origins and ends of some of them, it might of some use and interest as a brief overview of the complexities underlying the term we use so nonchalantly — ‘Greek’.

Herodotus. The Histories.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Hall, J.M., 2000. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge University Press.