History of Koine Greek


Man is, according to Aristotle, a political animal –meaning that, within the city, in a society organized by consensus, he can exploit his innate abilities to the fullest and acquire new ones as well. In the city, language, the communication instrument par excellence, is enriched, refined and normalized. In the Archaic period, the formation of the city-state, along with the institution of panhellenic athletic and religious centers, the contracting of alliances and other political unions (amphictyonies), and the development of commercial activities contributed to the smoothing out of differences between dialects. In the pioneering region of Ionia, a type of hypertopical koine language appears next to the equally hypertopical literary dialects of the epics and of choral poetry. Until the beginning of the Persian Wars, this Ionic Koine, which almost completely monopolized artistic prose, was the language of distinction.

After the end of the Persian Wars, Athens assumed the political and cultural hegemony of Greece. Fear of the Persians rallied the Greeks and this rallying favored the Attic dialect. The Athenian League (478/7 B.C.), with the Temple of Apollo on Delos as its base, enforced its will that Athens be regarded as the center of reference for the majority of mainland cities and islands. With this new gravitas, Athens also attracted theoroi, litigants, metics, actors, misfits, sophists and prostitutes. In order to fit into the rather exclusive and demanding Athenian society, newcomers were forced to espouse the Athenian way of life and, more importantly, to learn how to wield the Attic dialect with fluency. The cosmopolitan city of Athens became the “prytaneum of wisdom”, the «Ελλάδος παίδευσις».

Neither the sad outcome of the Peloponnesian War nor ongoing civil convulsions -not even the rise of the Macedonian dynasty- impeded the development of the Attic dialect into the Panhellenic linguistic medium. On the contrary, Philip II, a magnanimous and discerning ruler, established the Attic language as the official language for education and administration in his state. Alexander and the offspring of other aristocratic Macedonian families all received an Attic education. The celebrated panhellenic campaign to the East promoted Hellenic culture all the way to Baktria. The multi-ethnic states of Alexander’s successors furnished the proof of Isocrates’ statement that anyone receiving a Greek education was a Greek. The Koine dialect, which at the time of the successors became an international instrument of communication, was an idiom based on the Attic dialect. This idiom was consciously promoted by the Macedonian administration and the army, as well as by merchants, fortune-hunters and scholars in Asia Minor, the Near Easy and Egypt.

While the term koine is ancient, grammarians have tended to disagree on the origin of the koine dialect. Some argued that it originated in the commingling of the four basic dialects (η εκ των τεσσάρων συνεστώσα); others believed that it was the “mother” of the four dialects; yet others considered it to be a fifth dialect, or a transformation of Attic. The latter view, which was also supported by G. Hadjidakis and other reputable scholars in recent years, turns out to be the right one. Nevertheless, today the term Koine is used to indicate the various levels used throughout the Hellenic world in the oral and, in part, the written language from the Hellenistic to the Early Byzantine period. This is a syncretistic and “encyclopedic” language, which has a central core and several radiating spurs. Needless to say, Athenians and Peloponnesians, Ionians and Macedonians, the Hellenized Jews and the rulers from Eastern Libya did not all speak the same language. In contrast to the spoken language, which presented a pronounced lack of uniformity, the written language tended toward homogeneity. Nevertheless, here, too, differences were important. The historian Polybios writes in a refined and rich Koine, whereas the author of a spell would use a spicy argot.

Our immediate sources for the koine are the texts that were preserved in inscriptions, papyri and shreds (fragments of vases). A wealth of material is also provided by the lexica/dictionaries of the Atticists; the Greco-Latin glossaries -namely the elementary methods of learning Greek meant for the native speakers of Latin- as well as literature. Among the most important samples of the koine are the translation of the Old Testament by the Septuagint, the New Testament, the Apocrypha and the Writings. Indirect sources are also found in the dialects and idioms of the modern Greek language, that go back to the Byzantine koine. An exception is found in the Tsakonic dialect, which originated in the new Doric dialect of Laconia.

Right from the start, the Koine laid siege to that bulwark of linguistic conservatism: literature. Of course, all the poetic genres that survived (epic, elegy, iambic, epigram) retained their old artificial idiom, with some compromises. New genres were composed in new, also artificial, dialects. For instance, Theocritos’ Bucolics were a hypertopical Doric dialect based on the dialect of Syracuse. A refined version of the Koine was used by the minor composers of the Anacreontia, the early Christian Hymns as well as work songs and erotic verses. Nevertheless, the first samples of poetry using stress accents, which later dominated, first appeared in the early post-Christian centuries. The traditional prosodic poetry would soon be demoted into a museum piece.

The conquests of the koine in the realm of prose are even more significant. Aristotle, who was much admired by Cicero, used an early form of literary koine. Koine was also the language used by philosophers, historians, scientists, mythographers, and fabulists. Nevertheless, the deviations are worth noting: the language of Polybios (201-120 B.C.) is highly artificial (neologisms, poetic words, avoidance of hiatus), whereas the language of Epictetos (55-135 A.D.), who was a freedman, is very similar to the popular koine.

In other words, the cultural prestige of Athens, literary production (especially prose) and the browbeating suasion exerted by state authority (Athenian alliances and, later, Macedonian hegemony, reinforced Attic in the contest of dialects. Nevertheless, the koine that emerged was the result of multiple concessions and compromises. Thus, some uniquely Attic characteristics, such as the use of –ττ instead of –σσ and the second Attic declension (λεώς) were rejected, since the other dialects were able to offer a unified type. The tendency of Attic oral speech towards simplification found some unexpected allies. Native speakers of other languages, those speaking other dialects as well as ordinary people could not easily use the numerous eccentricities, the flamboyant particles, the complicated syntax and the finest semantic of the unforgiving Attic dialect. With time, major changes took place on all levels, leading to the creation of a plastic, rich and, at the same time, simple linguistic instrument or idiom.

While the Attic dialect comprised the core of the koine, other dialects, mostly the Ionian, also played a role in its creation. St. G. Kapsomenos (1907-1978) and Agapetos Tsopanakis proved that the contribution of the Doric language was more important than previously thought. The Doric language significantly enriched both military and legal terminology: λοχαγός, ξεναγός (originally the leader of mercenaries), ουραγός, άγημα, ανάδοχος. The widely used terms βουνός (NE βουνό instead of the Attic όρος), λαός, ναός, ορκομωσία were also Doric. Even the marginal NW endowed the Koine, especially the modern Greek one, with the extension of the ending –ες from the nominative of the third declension to the accusative: οι πατέρες – τους πατέρες (and, by analogy, οι, τους ταμίες). The language of administration and the military was strengthened by the Macedonians: δεκανός (>NE δεκανέας, δεκανίκι), ταξίαρχος,σωματοφύλακες, υπασπισταί, while Macedonian was also the origin of the word κοράσιον and of the ending –ισσα (Μακεδόνισσα).

Thus, at the time of the Koine, major changes were introduced in the phonological system, in the morphology, syntax and vocabulary of the Greek language. Nevertheless, the most significant changes, those that primarily led to the shaping of the modern Greek language, took place in the realm of phonology. The stress of the ancient Greek language was musical, as is indicated by the terms αρμονία, προσωδία, οξεία, βαρεία and others. The transition from the musical to the dynamic stress (more specifically, the transition of the word stress from musical to dynamic) seems to have had, as its principal effect, the suppression of prosody. Thus, the turn of the diphthongs into single notes is accelerated (ει → i, αι → e) and consonants become isochronal. Thus, for instance, ι, ει, η, οι and υ ended up being pronounced as ι (the transformation of the pronunciation of the diphthong οι to ι was completed only in the 10th century A.D.). One of the results of iotacism was the creation of many homonyms. Changes were also sweeping in the realm of consonants. Nevertheless, even today in modern Hellenic dialects, double consonants (άλλος = άλ-λος) continue to be pronounced, while the ending –ν that has been hounded by both grammarians and popular usage, since the 4th century B.C. continues to resist. The script remained phonetic. The variance between the written word and the phoneme resulted in a plethora of spelling mistakes: ώντος instead of όντως, λυπόν instead of λοιπόν etc.


M. Z. Kopidakis

About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
This entry was posted in GLOSSOLOGY and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s