In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Language of the Greek Epic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Grammars
  • Metrics
  • Chronology
  • Homeric Scholarship in Antiquity

Classics The Language of the Greek Epic
Claire Le Feuvre
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0414


Greek epic is a genre that extended over centuries, from Homer down to the end of Antiquity. Its metrical form is the dactylic hexameter and its language is heterogeneous, using forms from different times and places, and tailored to the metrical constraints. The epic language was elaborated over centuries by singers composing orally, and relying on sets of type-scenes and formulaic lines and phrases that allowed the singer to compose the tale in performance. The epics were written down fairly late, between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE—scholars disagree about the date and place. This dialectally and chronologically heterogeneous language was in constant evolution, which made it both familiar and unfamiliar to speakers of all Greek dialects. It is full of archaic forms and constructions, coexisting with linguistically new ones and with archaizing creations. It is an artificial language that was never spoken. But the cultural importance of Homer resulted in this language being imitated by later poets. Lyric poetry borrowed many forms and words from it, and so did tragedy. The Hellenistic learned poets used the epic language in their poems, no longer composing orally but reproducing the structures and phraseology of the archaic epic.

General Overviews

Several chapters devoted to the Homeric language are found in the various companions and similar general books.

  • Bakker, Egbert. 2020. The language of Homer. In The Cambridge guide to Homer. Edited by Corinne Ondiné Pache, 70–79. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Bakker’s chapter on the language is focused on the Kunstsprache, through which he introduces the problems of the different dialectal forms, of archaisms (including deliberately archaizing forms) and recent features, of artificial forms used metri causa, and of the adaptation of formulas. The chapter ends on Bakker’s view that most of these features are characteristic of orality, and that the Homeric language is a “stylization of speech.”

  • Cassio, Albio Cesare. 2009. The language of Hesiod and the Corpus Hesiodeum. In Brill’s companion to Hesiod. Edited by Franco Montanari, Antonios Rengakos, and Christos Tsagalis, 179–201. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789047440758_008

    A synthesis on Hesiod’s language, its relationship with Homer, and the problem of the non-Ionic dialectal features not found in Homer. Cassio suggests they reflect an influence of lyric poetry.

  • Hackstein, Olav. 2010. The Greek of epic. In A companion to the ancient Greek language. Edited by Egbert Bakker, 401–422. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A short survey of all the aspects: dialects, archaisms and modernizations, metrics, formulaic composition.

  • Miller, Gary. 2014. Ancient Greek dialects and early authors: Introduction to the dialect mixture in Homer, with notes on Lyric and Herodotus. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

    This is a handbook for students in Classics, providing them with an introduction to historical linguistics and non-Attic texts, mainly Homer. It contains a long section on the dialectal components, taking into account the thirty years of scholarship on the topic since the publication of Miller 1982 (cited under Dialects: Homer).

  • Willi, Andreas. 2011. Language, Homeric. In The Homer encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Edited by Margalit Finkelberg, 458–464. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A concise survey of dialectal and chronological heterogeneity and artificial forms. It includes a short development on spelling and the changes it underwent between the archaic alphabet and the Ionic alphabet, with consequences on the identification of forms.

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