Ancient Greek Language

Stephen Colvin

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Ancient Greek Language

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The Greek language is first attested written in an awkward syllabic script on clay tablets dating to the 14th–13th centuries bce. After a gap of around four centuries, it is found again written in the familiar Greek alphabet, and there is a continuous written record of the language from that period until the present. This gives Greek one of the longest written records of any language, and its linguistic history can therefore be traced much more easily than that of most other languages. The linguistic affiliations of Greek are clear: it belongs to a large family of languages attested across Europe, western and central Asia, Persia, and India. The languages in this group are known as Indo-European; they descend from a common ancestor that has been dubbed Proto-Indo-European. This ancestor language is not attested but can be crudely reconstructed by comparing the daughter languages, which include Hittite, Sanskrit, Iranian, Latin, Celtic, Germanic, Armenian, Slavic, and others. The history of Greek before the 14th century BCE can to a certain extent be pieced together by comparing the reconstructed parent language with the earliest attested forms of Greek. From the late 8th century bce, when the language reappeared in writing, until the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians toward the end of the 4th century bce, Greek was not a unitary language but consisted of several competing dialects; in this period “Greek” was, therefore, an abstract concept, and there was no notion of a standard language (though each city or region had a local standard for inscriptions). Nevertheless, it is clear that the Greeks did have a concept of a common linguistic Greekness, in spite of the diversity, and understood other dialects without difficulty. The Macedonians used a standardized form of Attic (the dialect of Athens) as the official administrative language of their empire, and this soon became a lingua franca across the territories they controlled. It was known as the koiné (“common language”) and rapidly replaced the local dialects in inscriptions. The dialects seem to have survived in a spoken form in Greece until well into the Roman period, and later in some cases, but the koiné prevailed as the written standard from the Hellenistic period until the end of Late Antiquity. This written standard became increasingly remote from the vernacular.

Article.  10061 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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