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Ancient Greek dialects

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Ancient Greek dialects

Distribution of Greek dialects in the classical period.[1]
Western group: Central group:
Eastern group:

Ancient Greek in classical antiquity, before the development of the κοινή (koiné) "common" language of Hellenism, was divided into several dialects. Most of these are known from inscriptions, but a few of them, principally Aeolic (Lesbic), Doric, and Ionic, are also represented in the literary canon alongside the dominant Attic form of literary Greek. Likewise, Modern Greek is divided into several dialects, most of them having been derived from the koiné.


  • Aeolic was spoken in three subdialects: one, Lesbian, on the island of Lesbos and the west coast of Asia Minor north of Smyrna. The other two, Boeotian and Thessalian, were spoken in the northeast of the Greek mainland (in Boeotia and Thessalia).
  • The Dorian invasion spread Doric Greek from a probable location in northwestern Greece to the coast of the Peloponnesus; for example, to Sparta, to Crete and to the southernmost parts of the west coast of Asia Minor. North Western Greek is sometimes classified as a separate dialect, and is sometimes subsumed under Doric. Macedonian is regarded by some scholars as another Greek dialect, possibly related to Doric or NW Greek.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9]
  • Ionic was mostly spoken along the west coast of Asia Minor, including Smyrna and the area to the south of it. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were written in Homeric Greek (or Epic Greek), an early East Greek blending Ionic and Aeolic features. Attic Greek, a sub- or sister-dialect of Ionic, was for centuries the language of Athens. Because Attic was adopted in Macedon before the conquests of Alexander the Great and the subsequent rise of Hellenism, it became the "standard" dialect that evolved into the Koiné.


Several literary genres are conventionally written in a specific style and dialect, that in which the genre originated, regardless the origin of later authors.[10] Homeric Greek, which is imitated in later Epic poems, such as Argonautica and Dionysiaca, is an artificial mixture of dialects close to Ionic, Aeolic and Arcadocypriot.[11]

Archilochus of Paros is the oldest poet in Ionic proper. This dialect includes also the earliest Greek prose, that of Heraclitus and Ionic philosophers, Hecataeus and logographers, Herodotus, Democritus, and Hippocrates. Elegiac poetry originated in Ionia and always continued to be written in Ionic.[12][13]

Attic Orators, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle wrote in Attic proper, Thucydides in Old Attic, the dramatists in an artificial poetic language[14] while the Attic Comedy contains several vernacular elements.

Doric is the conventional dialect of choral lyric poetry, which includes the Laconian Alcman, the Theban Pindar and the choral songs of Attic tragedy (stasima). Several lyric and epigrammatic poets wrote in this dialect, such as Ibycus of Rhegium and Leonidas of Tarentum. The following authors wrote in Doric, preserved in fragments: Epicharmus comic poet and writers of South Italian Comedy (phlyax play), Mithaecus food writer and Archimedes.

Aeolic is an exclusively poetic lyric dialect, represented by Sappho and Alcaeus for Aeolic (Lesbian) and Corinna of Tanagra for Boiotic. Thessalic, Northwest Doric, Arcado-Cypriot and Pamphylian never became literary dialects and are only known from inscriptions, and to some extent by the comical parodies of Aristophanes and lexicographers.


Ancient classification

The ancients classified the language into three gene or four dialects, Ionic proper, Ionic (Attic), Aeolic, Doric and later a fifth one, Koine.[15][16] Grammarians focus mainly on the literary dialects and isolated words. Historians may classify dialects on mythological/historical reasons rather than linguistic knowledge. According to Strabo, "Ionic is the same as Attic and Aeolic the same as Doric - Outside the Isthmus, all Greeks were Aeolians except the Athenians, the Megarians and the Dorians who live about Parnassus - In the Peloponnese, Achaeans were also Aeolians but only Eleans and Arcadians continued to speak Aeolic".[17] However for most ancients, Aeolic was synonymous with literary Lesbic.[18] Stephanus of Byzantium characterized Boeotian as Aeolic and Aetolian as Doric.[19] Remarkable is the ignorance of sources, except lexicographers, on Arcadian, Cypriot and Pamphylian.

Finally, unlike modern Greek[20] and English, ancient Greek common terms for human speech, ( 'glôssa',[21] 'dialektos',[22] 'phônê'[23] and the suffix '-isti' ) may be attributed interchangeably to both a dialect and a language. However, the plural 'dialektoi' is used, when comparing dialects and peculiar words are listed by the grammarians under the terms 'lexeis'[24] or 'glôssai'.[25]

Modern classification

The dialects of Classical Antiquity are grouped slightly differently by various authorities. Pamphylian is a marginal dialect of Asia Minor and is sometimes left uncategorized. Note that Mycenaean was only deciphered in 1952, and is therefore missing from the earlier schemes presented here.

Northwestern, Southeastern Ernst Risch, Museum Helveticum (1955): Alfred Heubeck:
A. Thumb, E. Kieckers,
Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte (1932):
W. Porzig, Die Gliederung des indogermanischen Sprachgebiets (1954):
East Greek
West Greek
C.D. Buck, The Greek Dialects (1955):[26]
  • East Greek
  • West Greek
    • The North-West Greek Group
      • Phocian (including Delphian)
      • Locrian
      • Elean
      • The Northwest Greek koine
    • The Doric Group
      • Laconian and Heraclean
      • Messenian
      • Megarian
      • Corinthian
      • Argolic
      • Rhodian
      • Coan
      • Theran and Cyrenaean
      • Cretan
      • Sicilian Doric


The Ancient Greek dialects differed mainly in vowels.


Loss of intervocalic s, as well as consonantal i and w from Proto-Greek brought two vowels together in hiatus, a circumstance often called "collision of vowels".[27] Over time, Greek speakers would change pronunciation to avoid such collision and the way in which vowels changed determined the dialect.

For example, the word for the "god of the sea" (regardless of the culture and language from which it came) was in some prehistoric form *poseidāwōn (genitive *poseidāwonos). Loss of the intervocalic *w left poseidāōn, which is found in both Mycenaean and Homeric dialects. Ionic Greek changed the *a to an e (poseideōn), while Attic Greek contracted it to poseidōn. Additional dialectization:

  • Corinthian: potedāwoni > potedāni and potedān
  • Boeotian: poteidāoni
  • Cretan, Rhodian and Delphian: poteidān
  • Lesbian: poseidān
  • Arcadian: posoidānos
  • Laconian: pohoidān

These changes appear designed to place one vowel phoneme where there are two, a process called "contraction" if a third phoneme is created, and "hyphaeresis" ("taking away") if one phoneme is dropped and the other kept. Sometimes the two phonemes are kept, or are kept and modified, as in the Ionic poseideōn.

Long a

A vowel shift differentiating the Ionic and Attic dialects from the rest was the shift of long ā to ē. In Ionic this change occurred in all positions, but in Attic, it occurred almost everywhere except after e, i, and r. Homeric Greek shows the Ionic rather than the Attic version of the vowel shift for the most part. Doric and Aeolic show the original forms with long ā.[28]

  • Attic and Ionic mētēr; Doric mātēr "mother"[29] (compare Latin māter)
  • Attic neāniās; Ionic neēniēs[30]


Another principle of vocalic dialectization follows the Indo-European ablaut series or vowel grades. Indo-European could interchange e (e-grade) with o (o-grade) or not use either (zero-grade). Similarly Greek inherited the series (for example) ei, oi, i, which are e-, o- and zero-grades of the diphthong respectively. They could appear in different verb forms: leipo "I leave", leloipa "I have left", elipon "I left", or be used as the basis of dialectization: Attic deiknumi "I point out" but Cretan diknumi.


The ancient Greek dialects were a result of isolation and poor communication between communities living in broken terrain. No general Greek historian fails to point out the influence of terrain on the development of the city-states. Often in the development of languages dialectization results in the dissimilation of daughter languages. This phase did not occur in Greek; instead the dialects were replaced by standard Greek.

Increasing population and communication brought speakers more closely in touch and united them under the same authorities. Attic Greek became the literary language everywhere. Buck says:[31]

"… long after Attic had become the norm of literary prose, each state employed its own dialect, both in private and public monuments of internal concern, and in those of a more … interstate character, such as … treaties…."

In the first few centuries BCE regional dialects replaced local ones: North-west Greek koine, Doric koine and of course Attic koine. The latter came to replace the others in common speech in the first few centuries AD. After the division of the Roman Empire into east and west the earliest modern Greek prevailed. The dialect distribution was then as follows:

According to some scholars, Tsakonian is the only modern Greek dialect that descends from Doric rather than the Koine.[32] Others believe it to be the descendant of the local Laconian, and thus Doric-influenced, variant of the Koine.


  1. ^ Roger D. Woodard (2008), "Greek dialects", in: The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. R. D. Woodard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 51.
  2. ^ Sometimes called the Greek Dark Ages because writing disappeared from Greece until the adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet.
  3. ^ Masson, Olivier (2003) [1996]. "[Ancient] Macedonian language". In Hornblower, S. and Spawforth A. (eds.).  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Michael Meier-Brügger, Indo-European linguistics, Walter de Gruyter, 2003, p.28,on Google books
  6. ^ Roisman, Worthington, 2010, "A Companion to Ancient Macedonia", Chapter 5: Johannes Engels, "Macedonians and Greeks", p. 95:"This (i.e. Pella curse tablet) has been judged to be the most important ancient testimony to substantiate that Macedonian was a north-western Greek and mainly a Doric dialect".
  7. ^ "...but we may tentatively conclude that Macedonian is a dialect related to North-West Greek.", Olivier Masson, French linguist, “Oxford Classical Dictionary: Macedonian Language”, 1996.
  8. ^ Masson & Dubois 2000, p. 292: "...<> de l'Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996, p. 906: <>."
  9. ^ It is as yet undetermined whether Macedonian was a separate yet sibling language which was most closely related to Greek, a dialect of Greek, or an independent Indo-European language not especially close to Greek.
  10. ^ Greek mythology and poetics By Gregory Nagy Page 51 ISBN 978-0-8014-8048-5 (1992)
  11. ^ Homer and the epic: a shortened version of The songs of Homer By Geoffrey Stephen Kirk Page 76 (1965)
  12. ^ A History of Greek Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Demosthenes by Frank Byron Jevons (1894) Page 112
  13. ^ A History of Classical Greek Literature: Volume 2. The Prose Writers (Paperback) by John Pentland Mahaffy Page 194 ISBN 1-4021-7041-6
  14. ^ Helen By Euripides, William Allan Page 43 ISBN 0-521-54541-2 (2008)
  15. ^ New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: Volume 5, Linguistic Essays With Cumulative Indexes to Vols. 1-5 Page 30 ISBN 0-8028-4517-7 (2001)
  16. ^ History Of The Language Sciences By Sylvain Auroux Page 440 ISBN 3-11-016736-0 (2000)
  17. ^ Strabo 8.1.2 14.5.26
  18. ^ Mendez Dosuna , The Aeolic dialects
  19. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnika s.v. Ionia
  20. ^ glossa: language, dialektos: dialect , foní : voice
  21. ^ LSJ glôssa
  22. ^ LSJ:dialektos
  23. ^ LSJ phônê
  24. ^ LSJ lexis
  25. ^ Ataktoi Glôssai (Disorderly Words) by Philitas of Cos
  26. ^ First published in 1928, it was revised and expanded by Buck and republished in 1955, the year of his death. Of the new edition Buck said (Preface): "…this is virtually a new book." There have been other impressions, but, of course, no further changes to the text. The 1955 edition was at the time and to some degree still is the standard text on the subject in the United States. This part of the table is based on the Introduction to the 1955 edition. An example of a modern use of this classification can be found at as Richard C. Carrier's The Major Greek Dialects
  27. ^ Two vowels together are not to be confused with a diphthong, which is two vowel sounds within the same syllable (often spelled with two letters). Greek diphthongs were typically inherited from Proto-Indo-European.
  28. ^ Smyth, Greek Grammar, paragraph 30 on CCEL: vowel change involving η, ᾱ
  29. ^ μήτηρ
  30. ^ νεᾱνίας
  31. ^ Greek Dialects
  32. ^ Medieval and modern Greek By Robert Browning Page 124 ISBN 0-521-29978-0 (1983)


  • Griechische Dialekte und ihre Verteilung, Titus site, in German. List, map, table of features.
  • Dialects of Greek, Kelley L. Ross. Map and brief description.
  • Excerpts from Margalit Finkelburg, Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition PDF (162 KiB). One of the topics is the origin of the dialects.


  • Searchable Greek Inscriptions. A considerable corpus of ancient Greek inscriptions in various dialects published by The Packard Humanities Institute.
  • Inscriptions Listed by Region, Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents site.
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