In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Greek Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Databases
  • Journals
  • Indo-European and Greek
  • Historical and Comparative Grammars
  • Etymological Dictionaries
  • The Greek Alphabet
  • Classical Greek, Social Variation and Interaction
  • The Koiné
  • Late Antiquity and Beyond

Classics Ancient Greek Language
Stephen Colvin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0044


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.

General Overviews

Overviews and histories of Greek began to be written in the 19th century. These were superseded by the classic treatment of Meillet 1929, which is still an indispensable starting point for advanced students (it contains an annotated bibliography of earlier work). It was written, of course, before the decipherment of Mycenaean Greek. Palmer 1980 is a clear and useful overview for beginners, marred by occasional dogmatic treatment of issues that are uncertain or controversial (Palmer often follows Meillet and is therefore out of date in some important respects). The tendency from around the turn of the 21st century has been for multi author works. These are useful in providing a wider range of perspectives than a monograph, including occasional contradictory views. Christidis 2007, at around 1,600 pages, contains the broadest range of essays, including interesting sections on Greek in contact with other languages, and the later fortunes of the language (cultural impact, reception, etc.). Essays on the core linguistic issues vary wildly in quality, however, since not all contributors are equally reliable authorities. Bakker 2010 is far more consistent and reliable in this regard and is suitable both for graduate students and general readers looking for an up-to-date introduction to a particular topic. Most overviews concentrate on the language in the Bronze Age and the Classical period, and multiauthor works can fail to give a sense of the organic development of the language; the excellent Horrocks 2010 is to be recommended as an exception. This is a nuanced account of the history of the language that concentrates on the post-Classical, Byzantine, and modern language, and that ties the linguistic development to the sociohistorical and cultural context. Colvin 2007 is intended as an introduction to the history of the language for university-level students.

  • Bakker, Egbert J., ed. 2010. A companion to the Ancient Greek language. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317398

    NNNThirty-seven essays in seven sections, which provide an up-to-date and reliable account of core linguistic areas and a range of related literary, cultural, and sociolinguistic topics.

  • Christidis, Anastasios-Phoivos, ed. 2007. A history of Ancient Greek: From the beginnings to Late Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    NNNA massive volume of around 130 essays on every conceivable subject. Some of the essays are very short, however, and quality is uneven: some are by international experts and give an excellent overview, while others contain errors and absurdities.

  • Colvin, Stephen C. 2007. A historical Greek reader: Mycenaean to the koiné. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    NNNA selection of epigraphic and literary texts with translation and linguistic commentary.

  • Horrocks, Geoffrey. 2010. Greek: A history of the language and its speakers. 2d ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444318913

    NNNAn excellent account of the language in three sections: Ancient (Mycenae to the Roman Empire), Byzantium (Constantine I to 1453), and Modern. Linguistic developments are illustrated by copious numbers of texts with translation and discussion.

  • Meillet, Antoine. 1929. Aperçu d’une histoire de la langue grecque. 3d ed. Paris: Hachette.

    NNNOne of the most influential works in the field, and indispensable for the history of the discipline; for advanced students, since a shift in thinking about language and dialect in the later 20th century has rendered its sociolinguistic framework (and some linguistic detail) obsolete. Originally published in 1913.

  • Palmer, Leonard R. 1980. The Greek language. London: Faber & Faber.

    NNNA clear and vigorous treatment of Greek from Mycenaean to the koiné. Useful for beginners, in spite of occasional one-sided presentations of disputed issues (e.g., arguments for a Luwian substrate in Greece, and the history of the Aeolic dialects).

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