The Greek Language Through Time
Roderick Saxey II
Greek is one of the oldest written languages on the earth, one of the first Indo-European languages ever written, and the language with the longest history of alphabetic graphology on the planet. In the still-today heavily oral culture, there has been, except for one gap early on, some literacy for at least three and a half millennia (more than twice as long as our language has existed), wide-spread for about two and a half. And so, the Greeks have always had great access to the minds of their ancestors, and always been aware of the special beauty and power of their own tongue. Indeed, the word barbarian means, basically, one who does not speak Greek, and Greek men and women still debate with one another, what it is that makes the Greeks such a great and peculiar people. Without going too far into a discussion of the Greek psyche, I just wish to say from the beginning that the members of this independent branch of Indo-European, who have fought valorously for their independence from cultural invaders such as the Persians and the Turks, have, despite foreign influences on language and thought, always looked to themselves and their forefathers for inspiration. It is to a large degree, I believe, because of this proud spirit of theirs, and their ability and willingness to look, through written records as well as by treasuring their oral heritage, to their forefathers, that their language has changed so little in so great a span of time.
With a language sweeping such a long path of time as Greek has, I think it best to investigate it chronologically, noting the most important characteristics of each period. Greek became a separate branch of Indo-European probably in the third millennium and entered the traditional homeland around the beginning of the second (Costas 27). By the time the language became what we would call Greek, certain characteristically Greek sound-shifts had taken place, most notably that of IE /j/ to z, as in the cognate-set Skt. yugam, Gk. zugon, Lat. jugum, Engl. yoke; and especially word-initial /s/ to an aspiration, later lost: Skt. sapta, Gk. epta, Lat. septem, Engl. seven (Costas 28). Palmer (4-9) speaks of “the Greekness of Greek”. This comes partly from original sound-shifts such as these and from Greek’s being (like Armenian) somewhere in the middle-space between the kentum and satum languages (Greek leans more to the former, Armenian to the latter), and partly from its contact with the pre-Hellenic non-IE people(s) the Greeks met. The influence of Pre-Greek seems to be stronger on Greek than, say, Brithonic on English, but not so stark as, for example, Dravidian on Indo-Aryan. Nearly all, not only of core vocabulary, but also what we might call more peripheral vocabulary, remained most definitely Indo-European (I have an etymological dictionary of classical Greek at home, and nearly every single entry has at least one cognate in Sanskrit, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon). The greatest affect was, as in this country with American Indian languages, on place-names, with endings such as -nqoV and -ssoV, as in “Corinth” and “Parnassus” (Costas 28), and with technology: Costas (29-30) points out that the name of every metal in Homer except bronze, calkoV, is a borrowed term.
The form of early Greek recorded in writing is Mycenæan Greek, written in an ill-suited syllabary we call Linear B, learned from non-Greeks, which survived till about the twelfth century (Palmer 57; a related script was still in use in Cyprus through the time of Alexander!), when Dorian-speaking (a form of Greek) invaders from the north put Greece into a dark age which was to last, like the later dark age of the Turkocracy, some four centuries. Yet we are strangely indebted to these Dorian invaders for our knowledge of Mycenæan, for it was their burning of the palaces that baked the clay written tablets so that they would be preserved to the present day (I personally would rather have a few written records with religious significance, as we find among Linear B tablets, than a whole mansion of jewels). The summer before last I spent about two weeks doing nothing but Linear B, and I finished with three important impressions. The first is that a syllabary is very wrong for a European language. The second was how little the language had changed, even in well over three millennia. A huge amount of vocabulary and even grammar was as obviously connected to Modern Greek as that from Middle English to Modern English; some words were phoneme-to-phoneme the exact same as what falls today from the lips of every person in the country, from fishers to businessmen to prostitutes to little children at play. This is a very humbling and awe-invoking experience. And third, I learned that q,k,p, and t are really all the same.
Let me explain, and this will bring us to the next stage in the history of Greek. The first dark age was a sort of mysterious tunnel which transformed Greek, and which is mysterious because many of the same sound-connections and sound-shifts which happened there also happened in languages now quite distinct, specifically Latin and Germanic. The most noticeable and important change of this time is that of /kw/, under various phonological conditions and differently in various dialects, to the sounds /k/, /p/, and /t/ (and sometimes their voiced counterparts). For instance, the proto-IE word for “five” is /*penkwe/. In the Attic-Ionic dialect, this becamepente. Yet around the same time, the /p/ in Latin went backwards on analogy (either with the q-p connection or, more likely, with the later /kw/ in the word) and we have quinque. Even more interesting, in the Aeolic dialect, /kw/ here went to /p/ and we have pempe for five. Run that through Grimm’s Law and you get, very easily, German fünf (and then Engl. five and Nordic fimm). The same holds true for words such as “four” (tessareV), “wolf” (lukoV) and many others. There’s obviously some sort of pre-historic Germanic-Hellenic connection, but I don’t think anybody can say quite what it may have been.
This is a hunger-whetting mystery that I can’t get into now, but the important thing is that there is this change by the end of the first dark age and that it is one distinguishing feature between the three main dialects we see thereafter, which paint three broad bands across the Aegean into Asia Minor: the northern Aeolic, the central Attic-Ionic, and the southern Doric (there is one other, Arcado-Cyprian, of less importance). We first get writing again around the eighth century or so with the theretofore oral tradition of Homer (the controversial Barry Powell claims that the Greek script of the alphabet was developed to no other end than to record Homer), whose poetry is primarily Ionic, but with a large Aeolic and some other influence. Now, this separation of dialects lasted well through the Persian invasions and Athenian empire (Aristophanes, the best source for colloquialisms, often makes fun of other dialects; English translators often render his Spartan, for example, in an Appalachian or Scottish dialect), though they were, as English dialects, more or less mutually-intelligible (Socrates, for example, says in his trial that the jury should forgive his speaking in the way he was brought up, just as they would forgive a “foreigner” for speaking a different dialect). This is the language situation during classical Greece, with Attic excelling in prose (though Herodotus writes in a gorgeous Ionic prose), Ionic of course in epic, Doric for choral poetry, and Aeolic for lyric.
It is not until the time of Phillip II and Alexander of Macedon that we get any sort of standard dialect for all of Greece. Phillip, always eager to prove himself a Greek, hired Aristotle as his son’s tutor and, when he and his son united all of Greece in conquest (there was great opposition in Athens, most famously of course from Demosthenes, whose diatribes against the Macedonian king gave us the word phillipic) made Attic the official dialect of the empire. Of course, Alexander, as a god, went on to conquer the Persian empire. His influence is there still today; and from the Adriatic to north-western India, long after his (like his hero Achilles’) premature death, one could hear the new lingua franca of a version of Attic. This is perhaps the most important event in the history of Greek, not only for its spread as an international language, but because, with the exception of the small mountain-dialect of Tsakoniá in the Peloponnese (a descendant of Doric utterly incomprehensible to other Greeks), all the modern Greek dialects come from this universal koinh glwssa, or common tongue. Of course, other dialects contributed in some ways to this common dialect, both vocabulary-wise, as in survival of the (archaic in classical Attic but still used today) word laoV “folk,” and, to a lesser degree, in phonology, as in preferring the pan-Hellenic /-ss-/ over the distinctively Attic /-tt-/, in word such as qalassa “sea,” which is still the standard word today . There were some changes, though, most notably a regularisation of many grammatical forms. Horrocks (44-45), in his exciting book, gives as the changes “most worthy of comment” the following:
(a) the use of a prepositional phrase in place of a possessive adjective or the genitive of a personal pronoun, as in thn par’ emou epistolhn… (b) the use ofouqeiV “no one”…in place of classical oudeiV [by a different compounding]…(c) [new political and business jargon based, however, on Greek roots, and] (d) the occasional replacement of the classical accusative and participle construction after “factive” verbs of knowledge and perception…e.g. lit. I know him being in trouble = “I know that he is in trouble”…
He also mentions the increased frequency of the articular infinitive (46-47), the “analogical pressures on the strong aorist paradigm” (60), and most note-worthy, the shift towards VS word-order (59), still very common in today’s surprisingly flexible syntax.
At this point I would like to mention what I think is an important factor in language-change in literate societies. While oral societies have their stock phrases and epithets (see Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, and Milman Parry, Collected Papers, both passim) with a much stronger influence than in ours, literate societies have the idea of canonization of text, the idea that a particular text is holy or paradigmatic. I bring this up at this point because it is during the Hellenistic era that the most important set of books since Homer enter the Greek stage: the Old, and especially the New, Testaments. First let’s mention Homer, then the Bible. Even the puppet-Socrates of Plato, the literate mind archetypal who would have banned the oral Homer from his Republic (see Ong, throughout, for this interesting take on the subject) must admit his fascination with Homer. Because the oral Homer has been set down on paper, he takes on a new authority, and so does his special Ionic-Aeolic mix. Says Costas: “The composite character of the Homeric language did not escape the notice of the ancients. Dio Chrysost. [the great Christian theologian, no less] Or. 11,23 says that Homer not only mixed all dialects in his language but that he also spoke like Zeus (alla kai diasti dialegesqai)” (37, my emphasis; see also Horrocks 17-21). When all of Greece became Christianized, it was the large amount of semiticisms from the Septuagint and especially the New Testament which became canonized, just as such expressions as “to dream a dream” have so become in English because of the King James Translation, and, though foreign, can be seen as a kind of English poetic paradigm. The New Testament, except for Luke, was written in about as demotic a language as one could get, and broke rule after rule of the prescriptionist Atticizers, both in vocabulary and grammar (Browning esp. 44-50), but because they were canonized texts, they had to stand “as is.” Browning mentions in a footnote (47-48) the following:
“When bishop Triphyllios of Ledra, a learned man and author of a commentary on the Song of Solomon, during a service substituted skimpouV for krabbatoV in the Gospel passage ‘Take up they bed and walk’, his Cypriot colleague St. Spyridon of Trimithus, who had taken part in the Council of Nicæa, rebuked him with the words, ‘Are you so much better than Him who said krabbatoV that you are ashamed to use His words? (Sozomenos, Hist. Eccles. 1.11).”
This always looking back to texts as authorities had a huge influence on the next great stage of Greek’s development, the Byzantine era. It is during this time when one of the best examples ever of a diglossy develops. While the common language developed into a sweet, sensual, expressive, and delicious idiom, writers, who spoke this way at home to their wives and children, could not bring themselves to set such language to paper, except by mistake. They were almost as bad as American “classicists” in their arrogance towards the “vulgar” language of their immediate father and mother, looking always, despite their reluctant acceptance of biblical language, to fifth century B.C. Athens as their model of acceptable language. This is the continuation of the Atticist movement, in place for almost the whole Christian era, and only set aside in the late twentieth century.
So, normal Greeks went about their daily business and scholars kept producing beautiful handwriting and trying in vain to copy the Attic dialect, till the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent conquest of Greece by the Ottomans. Most all of Greece was in Turkish hands, except for some in Venetian control, left over from the Crusades (the influence of both languages is much stronger on the vocabulary of Cypriot than of Standard Greek). We get a fair amount of Italian words, mostly in Venetian dialect (such as cusina /kuzína/ for “kitchen” rather than cucina /kut_ína/), and the Greeks and Italians have long been close (hence the oft-quoted expression, una facia, una razza), even though Italian words, particularly those coming in during the early part of this century, tend to have connotations of dirtiness or incontinence. As for the Turks, though, their reign was brutal. They forcibly impregnated Greek women; they raised Greek babies up in Turkey to hate the Greeks, telling them, “You are Turkish and the Greeks killed your parents;” they sodomized boys (the Turkish word for one on the receiving end of this is still a term of abuse); they lived in luxury on the labor of the Greeks, and forbade the speaking of Greek. And this for four centuries till the Greek War of Independence (wherein our English poet Lord Byron gave his life). The Greeks and all the world owe great thanks to the Orthodox Church for preserving the language. They would hold school at night in secret, where they preserved the Christian religion and Greek language. There is a famous song about it, that every Greek child knows, which starts, «jeggari, jegge mou na perpataw th nucta,» that is, “Moon, shine for me so I can walk [to school] by night.” Under the tremendous pressure of the Turkocracy (Tourkokratia), the Greek people as a whole consciously preserved their language from extinction. Of course, they did gain a large number of Turkish vocabulary, such as mpountroumi “dungeon,” toufeki “rifle,” nargileV “hookah,” kajeV “coffee,” and other such things associated with the Ottomans. Those having to do with government administration they have largely replaced with Greek words, neologisms if need be, and the Turkish words are sometimes confined to historical discussions. (On Greek under the Ottomans, see Browning, ch. 5.)
The big issue of this century has been “the Language Question”: what sort of speech the Greek people today should use. There has been a spectrum of extreme Atticists (which, in only slightly more moderate form shows up as the once-official kaqareuousa, or “purifying” language) to extreme Demoticists (such as the classics-loving Kazantzákis, author of Zorba the Greek and such, whose Odyssey: A Modern Sequel is an “epic” written in a style so brain-strainingly demotic that some editions have been printed with a sizable glossary, so that ordinary Greek city-dwellers could read it). Eventually, people settled on kaqomiloumenh as a standard of speech. It is basically demotic, with whatever archaisms the years of kaqareuousa have made general and re-naturalised. It is also (to my great joy) overwhelmingly Hellenic in derivation, there being neologisms for most all facets of modern society.
Greek today is basically as it was in the ancient world. The main differences include a minor simplifying of the noun-system (the dative case was absorbed into the genitive in Standard Greek, into the accusative in Macedonia and Thrace) and of the verb-system (infinitives being replaced with a subjunctive construction), loss of optative mood regularisation of verbs ending in -mi, generally a blur between the subjunctive and indicative, and perfectives being formed, with a construction of “have” plus a vestige of the infinitive). The vocabulary is essentially that of Hellenistic times.
The language has been most influenced by the occupation of foreign invaders and by the Greeks’ looking to themselves, yet what is noteworthy is how little it has changed. I remember my exultation while standing on the Mediterranean shore at learning from my pocket dictionary that the modern word for “wave” is to kuma,the same as in Homer; my delight in seeing little children able to make puns on the ancient inscription at the Oracle at Delphi; and the awe and wonder at studying Linear B and finding the same words I had heard so often on the bus or at the vegetable market. There’s a special feeling to learning Greek— a feeling of communing with something familiar and yet far greater than oneself; of knowing a special people unlike any other in the world; of feeling, hearing, and even tasting a magnificent dance, played out by a hundred million people through the centuries. When I think of Greece, her people, and her language, I have the rare and wonderful feeling of being, at once, both satisfied and motivated.
Browning, Robert. Medieval & Modern Greek. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.
Costas, Procope S., Ph.D. An Outline of the History of the Greek Language: With
Particular Emphasis on the Koine and the Subsequent Periods. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1936.
Horrocks, Geoffrey. Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers. London: Longman, 1997.
Palmer, Leonard R. The Greek Language. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, Inc., 1980.