Scholars' Association News
Issue 38
May 2016


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Greek dialects, ancient and modern: A group of timeless heteronyms
by Aristotelis Spyrou

Historically speaking, the concept of ancient Greek dialects covers a long historical period starting from the emergence of Greeks in the present-day Helladic area, up to the 6th century AD. The development phases the Greek language went through, from proto-Greek (2000-1600 BC), to Mycenaean Greek (15th - 11th century BC) and then Classical Greek (from the Homeric texts to the emergence of the Attic dialect as the official language of the Greeks) are in effect the history of the development of dialects within a geographical, social, political and cultural framework. However with the establishment of the Hellenistic (Alexandrine) koine Greek (circa 300 BC-300 AD), as one might have expected, the function of dialects did not stop even though Greek became the lingua franca for the entire Mediterranean and was also the language of the New Testament and a means for spreading Christianity, and was also used as a first or second language in the Roman Empire.

From proto-Greek to the Hellenistic period, and even today in koine modern Greece, various dialects and historical forms of Greek have been used, many versions have existed, but all have retained heteronymy with the coding system we call the Greek language. This heteronymy (Chambers and Trudgill 1998: 9), namely the sense that despite any differences between dialects, and despite any unavoidable changes which occurred over time, Greek remains a single language, is one of the dominant features of Greek. Of course, if one takes into account strictly linguistic criteria derived from structural linguistics, one would conclude that we have different systems, different codes, and therefore different languages. That is why quite a few linguists claim that ancient and modern Greek are two different systems, two different languages.

However, when they refer to the heteronymy of past and present forms of Greek, they do talk about a single language, which has been in use for 4,000 years and has been written down without interruption for around 3,000 years in alphabetic form. This cultural artefact, the same alphabet, is a marker which has rallied ancient and modern Greeks around a single sense of belonging, their very own sense of Greekness. The various ancient dialects were all written using almost the same alphabet, as were all subsequent forms of Greek. Generally speaking, it is this direct connection that all modern Greeks feel with ancient Greeks, whom they consider to be their ancestors, which is a heteronymy which secures for them the same ethnological identity and identifies them as the same people despite any changes which have occurred.

Due to the special role played by their speakers, certain ancient dialects were cultivated more than others and developed more. The Attic dialect acquired prestige from the 1st and 2nd Athenian League (Karali 2001:285). The Attic and Ionian dialect held an important position among the other dialects. The eastern dialects were Aeolic and Arcadocypriot. Western dialects were Doric, North Western Greek, Phocian, Laconian, Messenian, Rhodian, Corinthian and Megarian. Some dialects (Macedonia, Pamphylian, Thessalic, and Boiotic) were somewhere in between because they combined features of the eastern and western dialects. However, all dialects were heteronyms with Greek, but were considered Greek since speakers could communicate with each other and had the sense of belonging to the same race.

Another well-known feature of ancient Greek dialects was that they were a means of producing literature, with specific literary forms developing within specific dialects. Thus, elegiac poetry was developed in the Ionic dialect (Archilochus, Tyrtaeus, Solon, Theognis, etc.) as was the epigram (Simonides, etc.) and iambic and trochaic poetry (Archilochus, Anacreon, etc.). Choral poetry was written in Doric (Pindar, Stisichorus, etc.). Lyric poetry flourished in Aeolic (Alcaeus, Sappho): a situation which justifies the term 'literary dialects' (Babiniotis 2002: 98; Karali 2001: 720-739, etc.).

The opposite holds true for the Homeric epics. They are a blend of different dialect features within a single text. It is thought that they were originally composed in the Aeolic dialect and then Ionic structures began to creep in, and then later Attic innovations found their way in (Babiniotis, 2002: 100).

And so the heteronymic character of ancient Greek dialects is clear not only on a communicative language level but also in literature. The linguistic diversity which resulted manifested in genre stratification within the same body of literature.

No matter what dialect the ancient Greeks wrote or spoke in, they had the sense that they were using the same language; Greek. Modern Greeks share in this sense that they speak a single Greek language; meaning we have the sense that we speak the same language as our ancestors, something we do not share with any other people on this planet. Any barriers to comprehensibility (which reduce ancient Greek, tsakonian Greek, Cypriot Greek, and the Greek of Magna Grecia, and so on, to the same level) are considered secondary.

This sense of a single language which allows us to see all forms of Greek, irrespective of place or time, as being within a single set is not a delusion, but is based on countless unchanged elements of the system which have ensured its cohesiveness (Babiniotis, 1994: XXVII) and give meaning to the notion of language as being intersystemic, i.e. that within a linguistic entity there can still be divergent linguistic forms that nonetheless retain quite a few basic shared elements: key words (such as father and mother have both ancient and modern forms in Greek, πατήρ/πατέρας, μήτηρ/μητέρα, while large numbers of other ancient words exist unchanged in the modern language such as λόγος, ιδέα, πέτρα, καρδία, νους, for example) and all words that become permanently fixed in a language (Mirambel 1988), key grammatical indicators (articles, conjunctions, prepositions) and cases (declensions and tenses etc.).

As one browses through a book by an ancient author, despite any difficulties in comprehension -some of which may be insuperable- there is nonetheless a sense that these texts come from the same language. That's why Elytis said, “I don't know anything more than a single, unbroken language, the Greek language, which evolved from ancient Greek".

However, we are losing the advantage of cultural exclusivity, since the heteronymy with ancient Greek culture can rightly be laid claim to by all Europeans and all those who identify themselves with Western culture, in much the same way that the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley put it at the start of the 19th century: "We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece". A phrase that speaks volumes of Greece's modern history.

(Aristotelis Spyrou is lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Athens, and Director of the Dialectological Research Programme "The Greek Dialects of Albania" which is supported by the Onassis Foundation).

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