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Distribution of Greek dialects in the classical period.[1]
Western group:      Doric proper      Northwest Doric Greek Central group:      Aeolic      Arcado-Cypriot Eastern group:      Attic      Ionic
     Achaean Doric Greek

Ancient Greek, in classical antiquity before the development of the Koiné (κοινή) as the lingua franca of Hellenism, was divided into several dialects. Likewise, Modern Greek is divided into several dialects, most of them deriving from the Koiné.



History of the
Greek language

(see also: Greek alphabet)
Mycenaean (c. 1600–1100 BC)
Ancient Greek (c. 800–330 BC)
Aeolic, Arcadocypriot, Attic-Ionic,
Doric, Locrian, Pamphylian;
Homeric Greek.
Possibly Macedonian.

Koine Greek (c. 330 BC–330)*
Medieval Greek (330–1453)
Modern Greek (from 1453)
Cappadocian, Cheimarriotika, Cretan,
Cypriot,Demotic, Griko, Katharevousa,
Pontic, Tsakonian, Maniot, Yevanic

*Dates (beginning with Ancient Greek) from D.B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids 1997), 12.

  • 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 North-East of the Greek mainland (in Boeotia and Thessalia).
  • The Dorian invasion spread Doric Greek from a probable northwest Greece location 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 authors as another Greek dialect, possibly related to Doric or NW Greek.[3].
  • 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. 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.


See also: writers by dialect

Several literary genres are conventionally written in a specific style and dialect, that in which the genre originated, regardless the origin of later authors[4]. 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[5].

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[6][7].

Attic Orators,Plato,Xenophon and Aristoteles wrote in Attic proper, Thucydides in Old Attic, the dramatists in an artificial poetic language[8] 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 perception

The ancients classified the language into three gene or four dialects, Ionic (Attic), Aeolic, Doric and later a fifth one, Koine[9][10]. 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[11]. However for most ancients, Aeolic was synonymous with literary Lesbic[12]. Stephanus of Byzantium characterized Boeotian as Aeolic and Aetolian as Doric[13]. Remarkable is the ignorance of sources, except lexicographers, on Arcadian , Cypriot and Pamphylian.

Finally, unlike modern Greek[14] and English, ancient Greek common terms for human speech, ( 'glôssa'[15], 'dialektos'[16], 'phônê'[17] 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'[18] or 'glôssai'[19].

Modern Groups

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)[20]:
  • East Greek
  • West Greek
    • The NorthWest 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

Sound changes leading to dialectization

The ancient Greek dialects were primarily phonemic and vocalic; that is, the dialects were recognized mainly by differences in vowels. These differences occurred as a result of the loss of intervocalic s, consonantal i and w from Proto-Greek. Such a loss brought two vocalic phonemes into juxtaposition, a circumstance often called "collision of vowels".[21] For unknown reasons Greek speakers regarded two vowels together as some sort of impropriety and over time changed pronunciation to avoid it. The way in which they 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, dative Poseidāwoni, etc. Loss of the intervocalic w left Poseidāōn, which is found in both Mycenaean and epic. Ionic changes the a to an e: Poseideōn, while Attic contracts to Poseidōn. Additional dialectization: Corinthian Potedāwoni, becoming Potedāni and Potedān; Boeotian Poteidāoni; Cretan, Rhodian and Delphian Poteidān; Lesbian Poseidān; Arcadian Posoidānos; Laconian Pohoidān. From the dialects it can easily be seen that these isoglosses do not follow any node structure at all.

The unconscious object of these changes appears mainly to be the creation of one phoneme from two, a process called "contraction" if a third phoneme is created, or "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.

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[22]:

"… 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[23]. 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. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Greek mythology and poetics By Gregory Nagy Page 51 ISBN 9780801480485 (1992)
  5. ^ Homer and the epic: a shortened version of The songs of Homer By Geoffrey Stephen Kirk Page 76 (1965)
  6. ^ A History of Greek Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of by Frank Byron Jevons (1894) Page 112
  7. ^ A History of Classical Greek Literature: Volume 2. The Prose Writers (Paperback) by John Pentland Mahaffy Page 194 ISBN 1402170416
  8. ^ Helen By Euripides, William Allan Page 43 ISBN 0521545412 (2008)
  9. ^ New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: Volume 5, Linguistic Essays With Cumulative Indexes to Vols. 1-5 Page 30 ISBN 0802845177 (2001)
  10. ^ History Of The Language Sciences By Sylvain Auroux Page 440 ISBN 3110167360 (2000)
  11. ^ Strabo 8.1.2 14.5.26
  12. ^ Mendez Dosuna , The Aeolic dialects
  13. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnika s.v. Ionia
  14. ^ glossa: language, dialektos: dialect , foní : voice
  15. ^ LSJ glôssa
  16. ^ LSJ:dialektos
  17. ^ LSJ phônê
  18. ^ LSJ lexis
  19. ^ Ataktoi Glôssai (Disorderly Words) by Philitas of Cos
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ Two vocalic phonemes together are not to be confused with a diphthong, which is one more complex phoneme spelled with two letters. Diphthongs were typically inherited by Greek.
  22. ^ Greek Dialects
  23. ^ Medieval and modern Greek By Robert Browning Page 124 ISBN 0521299780 (1983)

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