A short History of the Greek Language


Greek is a living, growing, language. Pronunciation has changed through the centuries, and also varied between different dialects at the same period

Cycladic statue
The Cycladic culture

One of the earliest cultures centered on the Aegean was the Cycladic - a group of people who lived during the Ealry Bronze Age, mainly on the circle of islands known as the Cyclades. They had a very distinctive style of stone carving, but left no written records

The Minoans
Linear A

The Minoans, centered on Crete, flourished from ca. 2200 BC until about 1400 BC, when their culture was destroyed, probably by a volcanic eruption and earthquakes. Evidence for the severity of the eruption can be seen in the island of Santorini, which shows clearly that it is the remains of a volcano of enormous size
The Minoans apparently spoke a language other than Greek; the only spoken trace of their language which remains to the present is a number of places with names ending in -ossos
The Minoans developed a script which was written in a line and which is called Linear A
Linear A and the language of the Minoans have not yet been deciphered. They appear not to have been related to Greek

Phaistos Disk Another artefact from the same period, found at Phaistos on Crete, is the "Phaistos Disk": a baked clay disk about 4 inches in diameter, stamped with symbols on both sides. The Phaistos Disk and its language have not yet been deciphered satisfactorily
Linear A, Linear B (see below), and the script of the Phaistos Disk are not true alphabets, but syllabaries - each symbol stands for a consonant plus vowel combination. A syllabary needs about 50-100 symbols to represent all the sounds of a language. An alphabet, in which each consonant and vowel has its own symbol, only needs 20-30 symbols
For those who would like to try "cracking the Phaistos Disk", here is a copy of both sides of the disk :
There is coding, and a font for the Phaistos symbols, at Wazu Japan's gallery

Phaistos Disk

Linear B tablet
The Mycenaeans

The earliest Greek "alphabet" (strictly, a syllabary) of which we know is that called Linear B, used by the Mycenaeans, ca. 1400 BC
Linear B was an adaptation of Linear A
The Mycenaean culture developed on the Greek mainland, with large fortified citadels at Mycenae, Tiryns, and other sites. The Myceneans came into contact with the Minoans, took the ideas of Linear A, and developed a script for their own language. After the decline of the Minoam civilization, the Myceneans became the dominant culture in the Aegean. Their adventures were the basis for the legends of Troy and the Trojans
Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris, a solicitor who was also an amateur archaeologist, who showed that it represented a very early form of the Greek language
However, during the time of disturbances generally called the Dorian Invasion, and the Greek Dark Ages, ca. 1200-1000 BC, it appears that civilisation was so disrupted that the people forgot how to write
Check out the font for Linear B, and give thanks that the Western alphabet did not develop from that

Archaic Greek

The alphabet which eventually spread throughout the Western world was developed by Semitic peoples in the Middle East, probably around 1700 - 1500 BC. This Semitic alphabet only had consonants, but no letters to represent vowels
The Phoenicians used a form of this alphabet, and had trading contact with the early Greeks, who took the Phoenician alphabet, ca. 950-750 BC, and adapted it to the Greek language. To do this, they invented the letters Upsilon, Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega, and added them to the end of the alphabet, and assigned vowel sounds to some of the letters, thus giving us a true alphabet with a means of representing every sound of the language
The Semitic origin of the Alphabet is shown by the names of the original letters - they were initially pictographs, and their names were the names of actual objects. Alef was an ox (head), Beit a house (or tent), Gamal a camel, Daleth a (tent-)door
The Greeks kept the names for the letters, even though they meant nothing in Greek. They have come into English with very little modification

bust of Homer

Archaic Greek used several letters which had dropped out of use by about the time of Homer (ca. 800 BC), and which are usually omitted from the alphabet

Classical Greek

In 403 BC Athens made Attic the official dialect, and adopted the Greek alphabet as we now have it. Attic was the dialect spoken at Athens, the center of Greek culture, and the home of Aristotle the philosopher

head of Alexander

At that time the mountainous region to the north of mainland Greece was ruled by Philip of Macedon, who brought Aristotle to his court to teach his young son, the future Alexander the Great

On the death of his father in 333 BC, Alexander gained control of the kingdom, and set out on his campaign to conquer the world
Alexander made the Attic dialect the official language of his Empire
The language continued to develop and change through the years, becoming simpler grammatically (the "dual", used when speaking of a pair of things, dropped out of use), and incorporating vocabulary from other dialects and languages of the Empire. This version of the language was referred to as "koinh" - the koine or "common" Greek

Hellenistic Greek

The Books of the New Testament were written in koinh, though as they were written mainly by and for people with a Jewish background they contain Hebrew words transliterated into Greek (eg. Amen, Rabbi, Hallelujah), and some of the writers do not keep strictly to conventional grammar (eg. Matthew and John sometimes use a triple augment to make a past tense - the equivalent of saying "he wented").

The koinh was predominant during the period 330 BC (Alexander) to AD 330 (Constantine)
During the Byzantine period, from AD 330 until the fall of Constantinople (Byzantium) to the Turks in 1453, koinh was used by the leaders of the Eastern Churches, with centers of scholarship at Alexandria and Constantinople
The system of accents commonly used for modern printed versions of the New Testament was introduced in the 9th century AD
The cursive forms of the letters came into use in the 10th century AD

After the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Greek continued to be used in the Orthodox Church, but the language of the people became corrupted by the incorporation of Turkish words

With the War of Independence, 1821-1832, Greece (though not Ionia) managed to throw off Turkish rule, and began to reconstruct her classical heritage. Attempts were made to "purify" the language, and an official "correct" version, called the katharevousa was imposed in the schools. Katharevousa is now used for government documents and literary work

Demotic is the normal spoken and written everyday Greek. Demotic tends to have simpler grammar, and fewer case endings. The Dative case has almost dropped out of use - it is now more common to use the Genitive case with a preposition. Also, rough breathings are no longer aspirated. (the equivalent of "I hit him" becoming "I 'it 'im")

Recently the Greek government decreed that, instead of a variety of accents, only the acute accent should be used in printed material, and the rough and smooth breathing signs were abolished. This means that most modern Greek fonts, including Unicode fonts, do not include the range of letters and accents required for work with ancient versions of the language

To see the Greek text correctly, you will need the Greek font SPIonic
Note on printing Web Pages containing SPIonic : although SPIonic displays Greek words correctly on screen, there is a problem with some printers putting a space between a rough or a smooth breathing and the rest of the word. Please check any printed copies you make, and correct them to what is shown on the screen

Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved

Dr. Rollinson

Station 19
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated: June 14, 2010

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional   Valid CSS!