The language of Greek (Eλληνικά) belongs to its own separate category within the Indo-European language family and does not have any close living relatives. It is the language of a major civilization and one of the world’s greatest literatures. Among the living Indo-European languages, Greek is most closely similar to Armenian.
The Greek language has been spoken in the southern Balkans for over 3,500 years, making it the longest recorded history of an Indo-European language. The earliest written evidence of Greek is found in Mycenaean Greek documents discovered on Crete and later on the Greek mainland, which were written in the Linear B syllabary.
Modern Greek evolved from Proto-Greek, which was the precursor to ancient Greek dialects spoken in various regions of Greece until the 4th century BC. These dialects were eventually supplanted by Common Greek or Koine, a form of Greek based on the Attic dialect spoken in Athens.
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The Greek language’s history can be divided into different periods based on political and linguistic factors.
- Mycenaean Greek, Mycenaean civilization speak a particular language that was used from the 16th century BC onward
- Classical (or Ancient) Greek, the language used during the Classical period of Greek civilization, was well-known throughout the Roman empire. Although it fell out of use in western Europe during the Middle Ages, it continued to be known in the Byzantine Empire. It was reintroduced to the rest of Europe after the Fall of Constantinople and Greek migration to Italy.
- Koine ‘common’ Greek, one common Greek dialect that emerged was a fusion of various Greek dialects including the Athens dialect a lingua francas.
- Medieval (Byzantine) Greek Did the Byzantine Empire use the literary language that was in use until the 15th century AD?
- Modern Greek which is spoken today. You may try learning some words in Greek especially if you are planning to visit Greece.
It is interesting to learn how the modern Greek language evolved from Ancient Greek, considering that language is a crucial aspect of Greek culture and acts as its primary channel of transmission.
To better understand the changes and evolution of the Greek language, let’s look at its history. Modern Greek comes from the Ancient language and is part of the Greek or Hellenic branch of the Indo-European language family.
History and evolution of the language
Below, we provide information on the evolution and history of the Greek language, spanning from its earliest written form to its modern usage in the 20th century.
The First written language
The earliest Greek writing was discovered on clay tablets that had been baked, which were unearthed in the ruins of the Minoan Knossos Palace on the island of Crete. This writing system, known as Linear A, remains undeciphered. The Phaistos Disc is the most well-known example of Linear A script. Linear B was a language that emerged in the 12th century BC made up of consonant-vowel combinations. It originated during the Mycenaean civilization. Later on, in the late 9th and early 8th century BC, a new language developed based on the Phoenician syllabary. This language was written from left to right and back again and is the closest form of inscription to modern languages today.
The Classical Period
In the Classical period (6th-4th century BC), Greece was divided into many states, each with its own dialect. The two most significant were the Ionic and Attic dialects. Athens became the political, economic, and cultural hub of the Greek world at that time, so the Attic dialect became the common language used. Plato and Socrates argued in this language. Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sofoklis wrote their scripts in this language. And the athletes of the ancient Olympic Games were discussed in this language.
Attic dialect, spoken in ancient Greece, spread to the East after Alexander the Great’s expeditions and was adopted by millions of people. This mixing of dialects led to the creation of the Hellenistic Koine, a common dialect that became the official language of the Roman Empire and survived for centuries. The New Testament was originally written in this language, which served as a foundation for the development of Medieval and Modern Greek during Byzantine times.
Katharevousa and Dimotiki
When the modern Greek State was established in 1829, there was a need to decide on a language for administration and education. Greece had mostly an oral culture due to centuries of different dominations under Ottoman occupation for about four centuries. This decision was an important part of the nation-building process.
The suggestion of using the language of the Attic period was appealing since Ancient Greek culture had captivated Western Europe, and it would have been an excellent incentive for philhellenes. However, it was not feasible in practice.
In the past, Adamantios Korais, a Greek scholar who lived from 1748-1833, proposed enhancing the spoken language based on ancient principles. His proposal was approved, and thus the katharevoussa, which means “purified language,” was developed. Later, this became a political issue, causing a separation between the katharevoussa, which became the formal language used in official settings like government affairs, education, and religion, and the dimotiki, or “popular language,” used by regular people in their daily lives.
Modern Greek Language
In the 20th century, there was a political debate about using Greek language. Some academic professionals were fired for using Dimotiki. This caused riots as people thought Katharevoussa was preventing common people’s access to education. Governments promoting nationalism, such as Ioannis Papadopoulos’ Junta dictatorship, supported Katharevoussa. The debate reflected various social attitudes and political beliefs about Dimotiki and Katharevoussa.
In 1976, the post-dictatorship government solved the language issue by adopting the Dimotiki language for education and administration, which has been the formal language of modern Greece since. Additionally, each region in Greece has its own oral dialect, but these are not used in writing and everyone has their own accent.
The earliest known Greek script was the Linear B syllabary, which Michael Ventris deciphered in 1953. It was used to write Mycenaean, an early type of Greek. However, there is no evidence of writing after the Mycenaean civilization fell until the creation of the Greek alphabet, which is not related to Linear B. It is uncertain which Semitic script the alphabet was derived from, or if it possibly came from the Phoenician alphabet. Today, the modern Greek alphabet’s letters are commonly used in mathematics and science, among other purposes.