reek and Chinese are the only languages still known to us after 3500 years that are still spoken today. They are not the only languages of culture that have been spoken and written for many centuries - some of which are still in use today, others dead, such as Sumerian, Egyptian - but they do have a longer history and have had a greater influence. There is not doubt that, if judged by the influence it has had on all of the European languages, and continues to have today on all languages, Greek can be regarded as the most important language in the world. The direct or indirect influence of its alphabet, lexicon, syntax and literature has been and is immense.The First Greek speakers
A hard task in history is to define who the first Greek speakers were and how they emerged. First of all, the term Greek/Hellenic is something that cannot be used as an ethnonym in the prehistory of the early speakers of this language. Neither can early written forms of Greek set a date to the formation of the ethnogenesis, the language and the culture of these people. In the last centuries many scholars have tried to bound language and archaeology into a date that would signify the so called 'coming of the Greeks'. There are still questions that remain unanswered and others that have more than one explanation.
A good starting point is the prehistory of the Helladic area and the places that the first Greek speaking people appear. As early as the 19th century, Paul Kretschmer drew scholarly attention to the fact that the suffixes -nth- and -ss-, are often attested in place-names in the Greek mainland, Crete and Asia Minor. Those could not be identified as Greek, and should be taken as pointing to the existence of a pre-Hellenic linguistic substratum. Later in 1928, J. Haley and C. W. Blegen, in their seminal article ‘The coming of the Greeks’, showed that the distribution on the map of Greece of the geographical names identified by Kretschmer and others as belonging to the pre-Hellenic substratum closely corresponds to the map of distribution of Early Bronze Age archaeological sites. This allowed the authors to associate the pre-Hellenic substratum with the people who inhabited Greece till the end of the Early Bronze Age and to move the date of the possible Greek arrival in Greece, formerly believed to have taken place ca. 1600 bc, to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2050–2000 bc). The linguistic identity of those pre-Hellenic people that gave those names to various places point east and specifically to the coast of Asia Minor. The suffixes -nth- and -ss- on the basis of which it was identified are closely paralleled by the suffixes -nd- and -ss- of the languages of Asia Minor attested in the Classical period, such as Lycian, Lydian and Carian. The discovery and decipherment of Hittite and other Bronze Age Anatolian languages has shown that they are closely related to the languages of Asia Minor and that the suffixes -nth- and –ss should be identified as typically Anatolian or, to be more precise, Luwian. For the Luwian hypothesis there're two groups of scholars representing the view:
- Those who believe that the Helladic area had a limited Luwian-speaking population that was enough though to affect the place names.
- Those who believe that the Greek mainland and even Crete, was predominantly Luwian-speaking and became even more dominant with the import of grey wares from Anatolia in the 20th century BC.
In the second half of the 20th
century, theories on the early Indo-European origins (including Greek) emerged. Two of them are dominant today and create mysterious scenarios about the first Greeks:
- The Kurgan Hypothesis proposed by Marija Gimbutas, who defined the 'Kurgan culture' as composed of four successive periods, with the earliest Kurgan I dating in the early 4th millennum BC.
- Reinfrews Anatolian hypothesis which suggests that the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived in Anatolia during the Neolithic era, and associates the distribution of historical Indo-European languages with the expansion during the Neolithic revolution during the seventh and sixth millennia BC.
The Kurgan Hypothesis took is name from the turkic word for tumulus/burial mound. Indeed a cultures like the Greek, that built tumulus graves from the time of Agamemnon to the time of Philip II of Macedon, could fit into this hypothesis. These newcommers entered the Balkans during the Secondary Urheimat period (2300 BC) and reached Greece, to give birth to the proto-Greek language. The Anatolian hypothesis was proposed by Colin Renfrew and suggests that Europe became IE-Speaking with the spread of farming, that passed from Anatolia - to the Balkans and to Europe. Indeed, around 6000 BC the Helladic area shows signs of an invation that brough farming into Thessaly, Epirus and Macedonia. The problem of the Reinfrew hypothesis is that it is dated way back in time and even though it works for material evidence, linguistically this 2000 years difference from the Kurgan hypothesis, would create much more IE languages that we currently know.
From those two theories it is evident that we cannot identify the first Greek speakers nor date their first presence easily. It is like asking where were the English when Julius Caesar invaded Britain? There's no answer to that. To talk about the 'coming of the Greeks' means that we suppose the pre-existence of the Greek language outside Greece, a hypothesis for which there is no evidence. The motherland of the Greek language has always been, the area of the present state of Greece. Just like modern English was formed in England out of Anglo-Saxon heavily contaminated with Norman French and other foreign bodies. The traditional view of waves of Greek-speaking warriors marching down the Balkans to subjugate Greece is an old one.
Besides, the Greek people have very old memories of their history. For example they knew specifically that Cecrops became King of Athens in 1582 BC. The end of the 3rd millennium BC is not that far away from that date and logically they would remember their comming, but they don't. In many cases some of the Greek tribes like e.g the Ionic ones were described as indigenous by ancient historians. Ionians spoke undoubtedly Greek and their dialect is responsible for the modern Greek language. Other Greeks appear later but they move from places that are inside Greece and not outside. The Greeks also knew that some of their countrymen spoke other languages (e.g Eteo-Cretans - meaning true Cretans) or that people they lived with side by side were not originally Greek (e.g the Carians, Leleges).
In 1963, Chadwick was the first to propose that the Greek language did not exist as we know it before the 20th
century BC, but was formed by the mixture of an indigenous populations with invaders who spoke another PIE language. When these newcomers (mello-Greeks) reached Greece, they mixed with the previous inhabitants, whom they succeeded in subjugating, and borrowed from them many words for unfamiliar objects. The mispronunciation of the PIE words by those aboriginals led to permanent changes in the phonetics. Both the indigenous inhabitants and the newcomers started to form a group that in the future would become the Greeks. Future discoveries might throw some light into the Greek language prehistory. What is certain right now, is that the first Greek speakers had a multi-ethnic/lingual prehistory. In other words the fusion of cultures and languages of the Greek mainland and the Aegean starting from the neolithic period until the Trojan war has been the mother of the Hellenic tongue.The Proto-Indoeuropean dialect before Greek
The only major post-Anatolian branch that is difficult to derive from the steppes is Greek. One reason for this is chronological: the PIE Pre-Greek dialect probably split away from a later set of developing Indo-European dialects and languages, not from Proto-Indo-European itself. Greek shared traits with Armenian and Phrygian
, both of which probably descended from languages spoken in south-eastern Europe before 1200 BCE. Greek shared a common background with some south-eastern European languages that might have evolved from the speech of the Yamnaya immigrants in Bulgaria. The PIE Pre-Greek dialect also shared many traits with pre-Indo-Iranian. This linguistic evidence suggests that the PIE Pre-Greek should have been spoken on the eastern border of south-eastern Europe, where it could have shared some traits with Pre-Armenian and Pre-Phrygian on the west and pre-Indo-Iranian on the east. A number of artefact types and customs connect the Mycenaean Shaft Grave princes, with steppe or south-eastern European cultures. These parallels included specific types of cheek pieces for chariot horses, specific types of socketed spearheads, and even the custom of making masks for the dead, which was common on the Ingul River during the late Catacomb culture, between about 2500 and 2000 BCE. It is very difficult, however, to define the specific source of the migration stream that brought the Shaft Grave princes into Greece. The people who imported the PIE Proto-Greek dialect to Greece might have moved several times, perhaps by sea, from the western Pontic steppes to south-eastern Europe to western Anatolia to Greece, making their trail hard to find. The EHII/III transition about 2400-2200 BCE has long been seen as a time of radical change in Greece when new people might have arrived.The pre-Greek world of the neolithic Balkans
As mentioned before the Proto-Indo-European speakers who entered Greece in late 3rd
millennium - early 2nd
millennium BC were not the only inhabitants of the Helladic area. Before them the neolithic inhabitants of the mainland and some IE speakers who used Anatolian (Luwian?) toponyms lived there. So, how did Neolithic culture spread through the Balkans? There are many shades of opinion between the two extreme views; one that there was a complete migration of peoples on a large scale into the Balkan Peninsula, and the other that the Neolithic culture of the Balkans was entirely autochthonous. One must bear in mind when dealing with this problem that the Balkan Peninsula had been inhabited in the Mesolithic and Pre-Neolithic periods and that the descendants of these inhabitants, no doubt, took part in the formation of Neolithic culture (e.g in Thessaly - Macedonia). On the other hand one has to stress that a large number of Neolithic phenomena in the Balkans such as the growing of corn and the domestication of animals are part of a wider cultural complex, within which there existed basic local differences and variants. It seems therefore that the most acceptable view is that the Neolithic revolution and the diffusion of Neolithic culture were the result of closer contacts between the inhabitants of a wide Balkan-Anatolian area, and in particular that new achievements of culture and economy originally made in the Near East were transferred to the Balkan Peninsula. The early developments of Greek language and culture
We will now move forward to a possible reconstruction of what happened between the 20th
century BC and the 12th
. The period starts with the possible incursion of warlike people possessing the horse that establish themselves in the north and central Greece. Their mixing with the various indigenous people gives birth to the Greek language which becomes dominant in the Greek mainland. The islands according to ancient historians are dominated by Cretans and in some cases by the Carians, who we know to live later in south-western Anatolia. We don't know when the Greek-speaking people of the mainland entered the Aegean world. We know for sure that with the presence of Linear B in Crete, the proto-Greeks were already there. If the particular form of script evolved from its predecessor Linear A then there must have been a period where Linear A was reconstructed to be used with the early Greek language. Also, the Minoan society of Crete cannot have immediately adopted the political system and structure that was brought by the newcomers and that is revealed in the Linear B tablets. That leads us to the conclusion that the early Greeks reached Crete much earlier than the earliest Linear B tablets. Since data is absent some scholars cannot avoid to think of the possibility that Linear B was spread to the mainland, by immigrants that survived the Thera eruption.
In the 16th
century BC, the mainland is dominated by this new society whose people can rightfully be called Greeks. Unlike the peaceful Minoan society, those people are warlike and posses a well organised political system. The economy is mainly based on trade and specifically on the trade of an aromatic ointment that is the ancestor of todays soap. A trading economy required a lot of bureaucracy and logistics - a reality that resulted written language. The dominant language is the Greek as depicted in the Linear B tablets.
During same period the ancient Greek traditions mention that people who were formerly known as Graikoi (Greeks) were renamed to Hellenes. Meanwhile, a tribe known as Selloi, who inhabited Epirus in northwestern Greece, adopted the name as well. Graikoi and Hellenes became the first ethnonyms that later united the Greek speaking people until today.
The same socio-political system continues to be the dominant one in southern and central Greece until the 12th
century BC, while the northern areas seems to follow primitive ways of life, with few exceptions in southern Thessaly and Macedonia. At this point the Trojan war begins and the first migrations of Greeks to the Anatolian coast occur. In Homers Iliad, however the united Greeks/Hellenes belong still in tribal divisions like e.g the Acheans and the Danaoi. The Hittite records mention their Greek-speaking neighbours as Ahhiyawas (Acheans). This leads us in the conclusion that panhellenic ethnic unity under one name does not exist until the first Olympics in the 8th
century BC became the downfall of the Mycenaean era and the start of the Greek Dark ages. This is often connected with a problematic invation of Greek-speaking tribes from the north, that take over the Mycenaean incumbent. Writing of Greek at any form ceases to exist, which makes it impossible to follow the development of the language until the appearance of the alphabet. During these centuries, the homogeneous Mycenaean Greek, was divided into dialects that were distributed geographically.The Greek dialects and their distribution
As mentioned above, the Greek dark ages leave us no trace on how the Greek language developed. With the appearance of the alphabet in the late 9th
or early 8th
century BC, our first encounter with the meta-Mycenaean Greek is the Homeric, named after Homer - the author of the Iliad and Odyssey. This kind of Greek however, is a mixture of dialects that developed in the dark ages, such as Ionic and Aeolic. The migrations and the geographic isolations of the Greeks between the 12th
century BC, differentiated the Mycenaean Greek and formed a group of dialects - so called Hellenic languages. Those are the following:
Samples in Greek and translation:
- Attic - Ionic - spoken in various locations depending on the period, but mainly in Athens, the cycladic islands, Chalkidike, the coasts of Thrace and Asia Minor. It is conspicuously lacking in early innovations peculiar to itself. It shares a number of mainstream developments with West Greek and the modified preposition ενς (εις, ες) with Doric. Its emergence as a distinct dialect can hardly significantly antedate the West Greek transgression and may well be a result of it. Attic had the closest contact with West Greek.
- Aeolic - spoken in Thessaly, Boiotia, the island of Lesbos, the central and northern coast of Asia Minor. It was a bridge dialect between east and west Greek, having Thessaly as the area of its origin. Some weak isoglosses join it to Arcado-Cypriot.
- Doric - spoken in western Greece, Epirus, Peloponisos and Crete. It is distinguished from East Greek by its broadly conservative character.
- Arcadocypriot - Spoken in the area of Arcadia in Peloponisos, Cyprus and maybe western Crete. It clearly continued a form of the Mycenaean dialect, but took its starting point from a more advanced stage than that attested on the Linear B tablets.
- Macedonian - If not a branch of archaic Doric, Macedonian is usually placed by the majority of modern scholars as a branch of its own within the Hellenic languages. Spoken in ancient Macedonia, Northern Greece.
- Pamphylian - An isolated cousin of Arcadocypriot spoken in Pamphylia (meaning 'land of all tribes') in the southern coast of Anatolia.
Geographic distribution of the Greek dialects
Mycenaean Greek, bronze age
pu-lo i-je-re-ja do-e-la e-ne-ka ku-ru-so-jo i-je-ro-jo
Πύλος: ιερείας δοέλαι ένεκα χρυσοίο ιεροίο
Pylos: the slaves of the priestess for the (sake of the) golden sanctuary
Homer, Iliad, 8th
Εἷος ὃ ταῦθ΄ ὥρμαινε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν͵ τόφρα οἱ ἐγγύθεν ἦλθεν ἀγαυοῦ Νέστορος υἱὸς δάκρυα θερμὰ χέων͵ φάτο δ΄ ἀγγελίην ἀλεγεινήν· ὤ μοι Πηλέος υἱὲ δαΐφρονος ἦ μάλα λυγρῆς πεύσεαι ἀγγελίης͵ ἣ μὴ ὤφελλε γενέσθαι. κεῖται Πάτροκλος͵ νέκυος δὲ δὴ ἀμφιμάχονται γυμνοῦ· ἀτὰρ τά γε τεύχε΄ ἔχει κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ.
As he was thus pondering, the son of Nestor came up to him and told his sad tale, weeping bitterly the while. 'Alas,' he cried, 'son of noble Peleus, I bring you bad tidings, would indeed that they were untrue. Patroclus lies, and a fight is raging about his naked body for Hector holds his armour'.
Attic/Ionic dialect, Plato, Timaeus -c.a 360 BC
Οὗτος δὴ πᾶς ὄντος ἀεὶ λογισμὸς θεοῦ περὶ τὸν ποτὲ ἐσόμενον θεὸν λογισθεὶς λεῖον καὶ ὁμαλὸν πανταχῇ τε ἐκ μέσου ἴσον καὶ ὅλον καὶ τέλεον ἐκ τελέων σωμάτων σῶμα ἐποίησεν· ψυχὴν δὲ εἰς τὸ μέσον αὐτοῦ θεὶς διὰ παντός τε ἔτεινεν καὶ ἔτι ἔξωθεν τὸ σῶμα αὐτῇ περιεκάλυψεν͵ καὶ κύκλῳ δὴ κύκλον στρεφόμενον οὐρανὸν ἕνα μόνον ἔρημον κατέστησεν͵ δι΄ ἀρετὴν δὲ αὐτὸν αὑτῷ δυνάμενον συγγίγνεσθαι καὶ οὐδενὸς ἑτέρου προσδεόμενον͵ γνώριμον δὲ καὶ φίλον ἱκανῶς αὐτὸν αὑτῷ. διὰ πάντα δὴ ταῦτα εὐδαίμονα θεὸν αὐτὸν ἐγεννήσατο.
Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies. And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.
Doric dialect, Herakleia (Magna Grecia), Italy, 4th
Ἐργαξόνται δὲ κὰτ τάδε· hο μὲν τὸν πρᾶτον χῶρον μισθωσάμενος ἀμπέλων μὲν φυτευσεῖ μὴ μεῖον ἢ δέκα σχοίνως, ἐλαιᾶν δὲ φυτὰ ἐμβαλεῖ ἐς τὰν σχοῖνον hεκάσταν μὴ μεῖον ἢ τέτορα ἐς τὰν δυνατὰν γᾶν ἐλαίας ἔχεν·
The renters of the fields will grow as follows: the one who rented the first field will plant at least ten units (land) of vineyard and will plant at least four olive trees on each unit of land that is suitable for olive trees.
Aeolic dialect, Pelasgiotis, Thessaly, 214 BC
τοῖνεος γὰρ συντελεσθέντος καὶ συνμεννάντουν πάντουν διὲ τὰ φιλάνθρουπα πεπεῖστειν ἄλλα τε πολλὰ τοῦν χρεισίμουν ἔσσεσθειν καὶ εὑτοῦ καὶ τᾶ πόλι καὶ τὰν χούραν μᾶλλον ἐξεργασθείσεσθειν.
When this has been done and everybody stays together thanks to the priveleges granted, he (Philip V of Macedon) is convinced that there are many other benefits for himself and the city (of Larissa) and that there will be a better use of the land.
Arcadocypriot dialect, Koureion, Cyprus, 6th century BC
o-na-si-ME-se la-MA-KO I-po-sa
Ὀνασιμῆς Λαμάχω ἴφωσα.
Onasimes, son of Lamachos fired (this pot).
Macedonian, Pella, 4th century BC
The text below is proposed to be a binding spell written in Macedonian. If that's the case, then Macedonian should be considered a dinstict northern dialect akin to Doric.
Θετίμας καὶ Διονυσοφῶντος τὸ τέλος καὶ τὸν γάμον καταγράφω καὶ τᾶν ἀλλᾶν πασᾶν γυναικῶν καὶ χηρᾶν καὶ παρθένων, μάλιστα δὲ Θετίμας, καὶ παρκαττίθεμαι Μάκρωνι καὶ τοῖς δαίμοσι· καὶ ὁπόκα ἐγὼ ταῦτα διελέξαιμι καὶ ἀναγνοίην πάλε̣ιν ἀνορόξασα τόκα γᾶμαι Διονυσοφῶντα, πρότερον δὲ μή· μὴ γὰρ λάβοι ἄλλαν γυναῖκα ἀλλ’ ἢ ἐμέ, ἐμὲ δὲ συνκαταγηρᾶσαι Διονυσοφῶντι καὶ μηδεμίαν ἄλλαν· ἱκέτις ὑμῶν γίνομαι· ․․․]αν οἰκτίρετε δαίμονες φίλοι, ΔΑΓΙΝΑΓΑΡΙΜΕ δαπ̣(ε)ινὰ γάρ ἰμε φίλων πάντων καὶ ἐρήμα· ἀλλὰ ταῦτα φυλάσσετε ἐμὶν ὅπως μὴ γίνηται ταῦ̣τα καὶ κακὰ κακῶς Θετίμα ἀπόληται· [․․․․]․ΑΛ[— — —]․ΥΝΜ․․ΕΣΠΛΗΝ ἐμός, ἐμὲ δὲ ε̣ὐδαίμονα καὶ μακαρίαν γενέσται·
Of Thetima and Dionysophon the ritual wedding and the marriage I bind by a written spell, and of all other women, widows and maidens, but of Thetima in particular, and I entrust upon Makron and the daimones. And that only whenever I dig out and unroll and re-read this, then may they wed Dionysophon, but not before; and may he never wed any woman but me; and may I grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. I am your supplicant: Have pity for [Phil?]a, dear daimones, for I am bereft of all my dear ones and abandoned. But please keep this for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably but let me become happy and blessed.
Pamphylian dialect, Aspendos (Belkis), 3rd century BC
Κουρασιὼ Λιμνάου Κουρασίωνυς δαμιοργίσωσα περτέδωκε ἰς πύργο ἀργύρυ μνᾶς φίκατι.
Greek language, Greek, Greeks, History of Greek language, Hellas, Hellenic, Hellenic languages, Hellenic dialects, Ancient Macedonian language, Doric, Attic, Pamphylian, Ionic, Aeolic, proto-Greek, Balkans, Anatolia, Proto-Indoeuropean, Linear B, pre-Greeks, Luwians, Anatolians, Minoans, Yamna culture
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, 'A history of the Greek language: from its origins to the present', 1999
- R.J Hopper - The early Greeks, 1976
- The Mycenaean world - John Chadwick, 1976
- David W. Anthony - The horse, the wheel and language, 2007 Princeton University Press
- John Boardman, I.E.S Edwards, N.G.L Hammond, E. Sollberger - Cambridge Ancient History Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, 2008
- Margalit Finkelberg - Greeks and pre-Greeks, Cambridge University press, 2005