For someone who is generally interested in languages, the study of the ancient languages of Greece and Rome (Latin) is rewarding in itself. Greek is in the almost unique position of providing a written linguistic tradition which has been unbroken for about 2500 years. Ancient Greek was the vehicle for the writing of some of the world's most important works of literature, and for those who enjoy reading good literature for its own sake much enjoyment will be gained by being able to read Homer, Sophocles, Sappho and Plato in the original.

Greek is the main language spoken in Greece. The present-day language has changed radically since Antiquity in its pronunciation (although many Greeks, apparently, find it hard to accept this, perhaps from a kind of misplaced national pride). In vocabulary and grammar, especially morphology, the changes are not so great. For instance, the so-called second-declension nouns are inflected almost identically to the way they were 2500 years ago (the modern language has lost the old dative case and the dual number).

The recorded history of Greek goes back to the texts written in the so-called Linear B script used on thousands of clay tablets which were found in various locations in the Peloponnese on the Greek mainland, and on the island of Crete. These texts, and their script, were a great mystery until a young Englishman, Michael Ventris (an architect by profession), with assistance and encouragement from the Classical scholar John Chadwick, managed to decipher them from 1952 onwards. It came as a surprise to scholars (and to Ventris) that the language turned out to be a form of Greek, a very archaic variety, confirming the existence of forms and sound classes that the scholars had already hypothesized must have existed in the past.

The oldest texts written in the Greek alphabet show great dialectal variation; the literary texts fall mainly into three large dialect groups, the Ionic (including Attic), Doric and Aeolic. Towards the end of the first millennium B.C. the dialectal variation was reduced and a common dialect, koiné, based largely on the Attic variety of the Ionic dialect, emerged. This is the form of Greek used in the New Testament and forms the basis of practically all of the dialects spoken in Greece today.

The Classical language
In the Classical period, say, up to the end of the first millennium B.C., the Greek language was characterized by a very rich inflectional system, where most verbs could appear in many hundred different forms with different functions; the noun had five grammatical cases; nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs were inflected in the singular, dual (though little used after the fifth or fourth century B.C.) and plural; verbs were inflected (conjugated) in the active, the passive and the 'middle' voice, and had the following tenses: present, imperfect, aorist, perfect, pluperfect, future, future perfect; also it had four so-called moods: indicative, subjunctive, optative and imperative. These are the 'personal', or finite verb forms - in most of these categories the verbs were inflected for 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural, and in the older forms of the language, dual as well. Not all combinations of these verbal categories were possible - but a good many were! A feature called aspect was interweaved with the system of tenses - this has to do with things like whether an action is conceived of or viewed as completed (perfective (or aoristic) aspect) or as still in the process of taking place (at some point in time) (imperfective (or paratatic) aspect) (these were not the only aspects ...). In addition, the verb had a number of non-personal (non-finite) forms, notably present, aorist, future and perfect infinitive, and present, aorist, future and perfect participles; the participles were inflected like adjectives, so that each participle could, in principle, be further inflected in a multitude of case and gender forms (adjectives were inflected for the three genders masculine, feminine and neuter). Although radical restructurings have taken place, a great deal of the old inflectional stock is still in use today.

Byzantine Greek
In late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the focal point of Greek culture was Constantinople (Byzantium - the present-day Istanbul) (until the fall of Constantinople to the Turcs in AD 1453). Most of the literature is religious in nature and inspiration. There is also an important Byzantine tradition of historical writing. Although Byzantine Greek represents a transitional form on the way to Modern Greek, it is largely identical to the Ancient language in the formal aspects.

Modern Greek
Greek continued to be written in an archaic manner until Greece regained its independence in 1829. Since then two different linguistic norms were developed, one puristic form, katharévousa, based to a great extent on the old Classical language, and very different from contemporary spoken Greek, and a 'popular' form, dhimotikí, based on the contemporary spoken language. Today, dhimotikí is the form used almost universally, except in some formal and official circumstances.

The phonology of Modern Greek is radically different from, and significantly simpler than, that of Ancient Greek (for instance: five vowel phonemes compared to about 12 (7 long and 5 short) vowel phonemes of Classical Attic (and, in addition, several diphthongs, long and short)). The syntax is of a 'modern', 'Western-European' type compared to the archaic type of Classical Greek. In the morphology, Modern Greek has retained four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, vocative) and quite a rich verbal inflectional system.

Some Ancient Greek literary masters
The two Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, can be considered the starting point of European literature. Traditionally, they are attributed to Homer (Hómeros), a blind singer of epic poetry living in the Greek colonies on the western coast of present-day Turkey, around the middle of the eighth century B.C., but it is still a hotly debated issue whether Homer was in fact a real person. What is certain is that the poems represent the end of a several centuries long tradition of oral poetry. The language is basically Ionic, but there are plenty of elements of various other dialects, and forms representing many chronological layers, and many forms that owe their existence to the constraints posed by the poetic conventions and the metre of the poems, the Classical hexameter. Some of the forms even seem to point to a form of meter more archaic than the hexameter. In any case, it seems likely that the Iliad was first written down around the middle or end of the eighth century (c. 700 B.C.), the Odyssey probably slightly later.

The tender love poems of Sappho were written in the Aeolic dialect of Lesbos. The mighty tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripes were all written in the Attic dialect, although there are many elements taken from other dialects, especially in the more 'poetic' parts sung by the chorus. All three lived and wrote in Athens in the fifth century B.C. Of prose writers that have been influential the historian Thycidides and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle deserve to be mentioned.

For a list of links to sites dealing with Classics (mainly Latin), go here.


Last updated May 14, 2009.

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