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the official language of Greece, constituting the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European family of languages



the language of the Greeks; together with Old Macedonian, forms the Greek branch of the Indo-European languages. The number of speakers of Greek is more than 9 million. In the history of the language, a distinction is usually made between Ancient and Modern Greek.

Four periods are distinguished in the development of Ancient Greek: (1) the most ancient period, beginning with the first written monuments, the Cretan-Mycenaean Linear B from the 14th to 12th centuries B.C., and lasting until the spread of the Ancient Greek alphabet at the turn of the eighth century B.C.; (2) the classical period, from the origin of literature in Ancient Greek dialects in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. until the spread of the Attic dialect in the fourth century B.C. over almost the entire territory inhabited by the Greeks; (3) the Hellenistic-Romaic period, which was the period of the Koine, the language common to all Greeks, which formed from the Attic dialect and spread after the campaigns of Alexander of Macedonia (fourth century B.C.) over the entire eastern Mediterranean region, where it also became the dominant language during the subordination of Greece to Rome (second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.); (4) the late Ancient Greek, or early Byzantine, period, from the transfer of the capital of the empire to Constantinople and the separation of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. to the time of the complete displacement of Latin by Greek in the fifth to seventh centuries.

Based on the analysis of the Ancient Greek of much later times, from which written texts have been preserved, the following oldest dialects of Greek may be distinguished: (1) the Ionic-Attic dialect group (the Attic dialect and Ionic speech, which spread from the continent to Euboea, the Cy-clades, and the coast of Asia Minor); (2) the Arcadian-Cyprian-Pamphylian group, which appears to have spread initially over a considerable part of southern Greece and the surrounding islands but was displaced in the 12th to 11th centuries B.C. by other dialects and preserved only in isolated expressions; (3) the Aeolian group (the speech of the north-western coast of Asia Minor, the island of Lesbos, and the Thessalian and Boeotian dialects); (4) the Doric group, distinct from the three preceding groups and divided in turn into the following subgroups: the Doric itself, or Southern Doric (the Laconic, Messenian, Argolic-Aeginetan, Corinthian, and Megarian dialects and the speech of the islands of Thera, Milos, Rhodes, and Crete), and Western Doric (the dialects of Aetolia, Locris, Phocis, Achaea, and Elis).

The Dorians moved from northwestern Greece to the Peloponnesus toward the end of the first period. The creation of the heroic Greek epic—the poems of Homer, which have come down to us in a much later recorded form (sixth century B.C.)—came in this period.

During the classical period, Ancient Greek literature developed in four literary dialects: Ionic (Herodotus and others), Attic (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes), Doric (Simonides), and Aeolian (Alcaeus and Sappho).

The third (Hellenistic-Romaic) period of the history of Greek literature is characterized by the spreading of the Koine (Attic, basically urban popular speech, but also incorporating many elements of the Ionic and other dialects) both throughout Greece and far beyond her borders and by the formation of a literary language with strict rules, based on the classical Attic dialect. The literary language also preserved this character during the early Byzantine period.

The phonetics of the classical Ancient Greek (Attic) literary language is characterized by the contrasting of short and long vowels and diphthongs and by its musical (tonic) stress; its morphology is characterized by four cases, a variety of declension types, and a rich system of tenses and moods. As early as the Hellenistic-Romaic period, the spoken language exhibited certain changes that grew stronger in the fourth period (late Ancient Greek).

The grammar of the spoken Greek underwent the greatest change after the early Byzantine period, when several features that are characteristic of other Balkan languages appeared, especially in syntax and in the system of conjugation. From that time it became possible to speak of the existence of spoken Modern Greek, although the written literary language continued to adhere to the old Attic rules. In the Byzantine period the differentiation among the Modern Greek dialects increased, mainly because of territorial variations of the Hellenistic-Romaic Koine. After the fall of Byzantium and the conquest by the Turks of all the territory settled by Greeks, the Modern Greek dialects were subjected to strong influences from other languages.

In modern times a common Greek spoken language—the demotic, which is contrasted with the local rural dialects (the northern and southern Greek) and to the written language, which is based on the traditional Attic rules (the so-called Katharevusa, “purified”)—developed on the basis of the urban speech of central Greece. The convergence of the demotic and the Katharevusa is characteristic of 20th-century Greek. The sphere of usage of the written demotic is widening, acquiring various elements of the Katharevusa; whereas that of the Katharevusa is shrinking—losing some archaic forms, it is becoming a so-called mixed dialect.

The phonetic system of Modern Greek has five vowels (i, e, a, o, and u); sibilant affricates (τσ = ts, and τζ= dz), interdental fricatives (θ and δ), and medial consonants are notable in the consonant system. The morphology is characterized by three genders, three cases (nominative, accusative, and genitive), and a unique system of conjugation.

In addition to Modern Greek another language, Tsakonian (on the southern Peloponnesus), originated from Ancient Greek. Several peripheral Modern Greek dialects that have not been influenced by the demotic have in fact become independent nonwritten languages: Urum (the language of Greek colonists in central Transcaucasia, since the 17th century), Tauro-Romaic (the language of Greek colonists in the Azov region, since the end of the 18th century), and Trebizond-Romaic (the language of Greeks living in southern Italy and Corsica).


Sobolevskii, S. I. Drevnegrecheskii iazyk. Moscow, 1948.
Beletskii, A. A. Printsipy etimologicheskikh issledovanii (na matériale grecheskogo iazyka). Kiev, 1950.
Chantraine, P. Istoricheskaia morfologiia grecheskogo iazyka. Moscow, 1953. (Translated from French.)
Ioannidis, A. A. Novogrechesko-russkii slovar’ pod redaktsii A. A. Beletskogo, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1961.
Thumb, A. Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte, vols. 1–2. Heidelberg, 1932–59.
Meillet, A. Aperçu d’une histoire de la langue grecque. Paris, 1937.
Buck, C. D. The Greek Dialects. Chicago, 1955.
Thumb, A. Handbuch der neugriechischen Volkssprache, 2nd ed. Strassburg, 1910.



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