Classics The Literary Languages of Greek
Antonietta Porro, Elena Langella
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0401


The early Greek literary texts date back to the eighth century BCE. In the age of literary oral tradition (eighth–fifth century BCE), the language of literary texts does not coincide with any vernacular dialects, but every literary genre is characterized by a conventional language, in which elements of a specific dialect or of various dialects are present. The origin, evolution, and history of the different literary genres determine the characteristics of the so-called literary languages, which are used by poets and writers according to the literary genre of their compositions, regardless of the place of birth or the geographical context of the authors. So archaic epic diction contains Ionic and Aeolic elements; the language of the Theban Pindar has a Doric color, like all choral melic poems; and early scientific prose adopts many elements of the Ionian dialect, but it is different from spoken Ionian language. With the age of Koiné (“common language,” used from the end of the fourth century BCE in the Macedonian Empire) and with the achievement of the book as a medium for literary communication, every poet and writer uses his own style and language: this language draws on tradition, but often cum variatione. Therefore, from the Hellenistic age onward, it is impossible to talk of literary languages in general, but one must investigate the language and style of each individual author.

General Overviews

Many textbooks on the history of the Greek language and companions to ancient Greek (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Ancient Greek Language) contain chapters on literary languages or discuss problems concerning the diction of writers and poets: sections on literary languages are included in Bakker 2010, Colvin 2007, Meillet 1930, and Palmer 1980. Chapters dedicated to the language of specific authors or literary genres can be found in the Companions to every author or genre; the only textbook devoted exclusively to literary languages is Cassio 2016, in Italian. Lexicographic tools for literary languages are indicated in the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Greek Lexicography.” In addition, see Montanari 2015.

  • Bakker, Egbert J., ed. 2010. A companion to the ancient Greek language. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    On literary languages, see Part V (pp. 355–482). For a brief and useful introduction to dialects in the various genres of literature (epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry, prose), see in particular O. Tribulato’s chapter, “Literary Dialects” (pp. 388–400). Available online.

  • Cassio, Albio Cesare, ed. 2016. Storia delle lingue letterarie greche. 2d ed. Milan: Mondadori.

    Very useful textbook. After a clear historical, phonological, and morphological introduction by A. C. Cassio, the following chapters examine the development of the Greek language in the different literary genres. Each chapter is accompanied, exempli gratia, by the linguistic analysis of some literary (and sometimes epigraphical) texts.

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

    On literary languages, see pp. 49–71; 192–273 (examples of linguistic analysis of literary texts).

  • Meillet, Antoine. 1930. Aperçu d’une histoire de la langue grecque. 3d ed. Paris: Hachette.

    Well-known history of the Greek language, still useful even if somewhat outdated. Originally published in 1913; third edition was reprinted in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. On literary languages, see pp. 113–237.

  • Montanari, Franco. 2015. The Brill dictionary of ancient Greek. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    English translation of Montanari’s Greek-Italian Vocabolario della lingua greca (3d ed., 2013). The dictionary entries and their interpretations are updated on the basis of the most recent papyrological acquisitions and of linguistic and philological studies. Available online.

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

    On literary languages, see pp. 83–173 (poetry and prose).

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