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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.

The Proto-Greek language is the assumed last common ancestor of all known varieties of Greek, including Mycenaean, the classical Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, Aeolic, Doric and Northwest Greek), and ultimately Koine, Byzantine and modern Greek. Most scholars would include the fragmentary ancient Macedonian language, either as descended from an earlier "Proto-Hellenic" language, or by definition including it among the descendants of Proto-Greek as a Hellenic language and/or a Greek dialect.[1] Proto-Greek would have been spoken in the late 3rd millennium BC, most probably in the Balkans. The unity of Proto-Greek would have ended as Hellenic migrants, speaking the predecessor of the Mycenaean language, entered the Greek peninsula either around the 21st century BC, or in the 17th century BC at the latest.

The evolution of Proto-Greek should be considered with the background of an early Palaeo-Balkan sprachbund that makes it difficult to delineate exact boundaries between individual languages. The characteristically Greek representation of word-initial laryngeals by prothetic vowels is shared by the Armenian language, which also shares other phonological and morphological peculiarities of Greek. The close relatedness of Armenian and Greek sheds light on the paraphyletic nature of the Centum-Satem isogloss.

Close similarities between Ancient Greek and Vedic Sanskrit suggest that both Proto-Greek and Proto-Indo-Iranian were still quite similar to either late Proto-Indo-European, which would place the latter somewhere in the late 4th millennium BC, or a post-PIE Graeco-Aryan proto-language. Graeco-Aryan has little support among linguists, since both geographical and temporal distribution of Greek and Indo-Iranian fit well with the Kurgan hypothesis of Proto-Indo-European.



Greek is a Centum language, which would place a possible Graeco-Aryan protolanguage before Satemization, making it identical to late PIE. Proto-Greek does appear to have been affected by the general trend of palatalization characteristic of the Satem group, evidenced for example by the (post-Mycenaean) change of labiovelars into dentals before e (e.g. kʷe > te "and"), but the Satemizing influence appears to have reached Greek only after it had lost the palatovelars (i.e. after it had already become a Centum language).

The primary sound changes separating Proto-Greek from the Proto-Indo-European language included:

  • Aspiration of /s/ -> /h/ intervocalically
  • De-voicing of voiced aspirates.
  • Dissimilation of aspirates (Grassmann's law), possibly post-Mycenaean.
  • word-initial y- (not Hy-) is strengthened to dy- (later ζ-)

The loss of prevocalic *s was not completed entirely, famously evidenced by sus "sow", dasus "dense"; sun "with" is another example, contaminated with PIE *kom (Latin cum, Proto-Greek *kon) to Homeric / Old Attic ksun.

Sound changes between Proto-Greek and Mycenaean include:

  • Loss of final stop consonants; final /m/ -> /n/.
  • Syllabic /m/ and /n/ -> /am/, /an/ before resonants; otherwise /a/.
  • Vocalization of laryngeals between vowels and initially before consonants to /e/, /a/, /o/ from h₁, h₂, h₃ respectively.
  • The sequence CRHC (C = consonant, R = resonant, H = laryngeal) becomes CRēC, CRāC, CRōC from H = h₁, h₂, h₃ respectively.
  • The sequence CRHV (C = consonant, R = resonant, H = laryngeal, V = vowel) becomes CaRV.
  • loss of s in consonant clusters, with supplementary lengthening of the preceding vowel: esmi -> ēmi
  • creation of secondary s from clusters, ntia -> nsa. Assibilation ti -> si only in southern dialects.

These sound changes are already complete in Mycenaean. For changes affecting most or all later dialects see Ancient Greek.



The PIE dative, instrumental and locative cases are syncretized into a single dative case. Some desinences are innovated (dative plural -si from locative plural -su).

Nominative plural -oi, -ai replaces late PIE -ōs, -ās.

The superlative on -tatos becomes productive.

The peculiar oblique stem gunaik- "women", attested from the Thebes tablets is probably Proto-Greek; it appears, at least as gunai- also in Armenian.


The pronouns houtos, ekeinos and autos are created. Use of ho, hā, ton as articles is post-Mycenaean.


An isogloss between Greek and Phrygian is the absence of r-endings in the Middle Voice in Greek, apparently already lost in Proto-Greek.

Proto-Greek inherited the augment, a prefix é- to verbal forms expressing past tense. This feature it shares only with Indo-Iranian and Phrygian (and to some extent, Armenian), lending some support to an "Graeco-Aryan" or "Inner PIE" proto-dialect. However, the augment down to the time of Homer remained optional, and was probably little more than a free sentence particle meaning "previously" in the proto-language, that may easily have been lost by most other branches.

The first person middle verbal desinences -mai, -mān replace -ai, -a. The third singular pherei is an innovation by analogy, replacing the expected Doric *phereti, Ionic *pheresi (from PIE *bʱéreti).

The future tense is created, including a future passive, as well as an aorist passive.

The suffix -ka- is attached to some perfects and aorists.

Infinitives in -ehen, -enai and -men are created.


  • "one": nominative *hens, genitive *hemos; feminine *mʰiā (> Myc. e-me /hemei/(dative); Att./Ion. εἷς (ἑνός), μία, heis (henos), mia).
  • "two": *duwō (> Myc. du-wo /duwō/; Hom. δύω, dyō; Att.-Ion. δύο, dyo)
  • "three": nominative *trees, accusative trins (> Myc. ti-ri /trins/; Att./Ion. τρεῖς, treis; Lesb. τρής, trēs; Cret. τρέες, trees)
  • "four": nominative *kʷetwores, genitive *kʷeturōn (> Myc. qe-to-ro-we /kʷetrōwes/ "four-eared"; Att. τέτταρες, tettares; Ion. τέσσερες, tesseres; Boeot. πέτταρες, pettares; Thess. πίτταρες, pittares; Lesb. πίσυρες, pisyres; Dor. τέτορες, tetores)
  • "five": *penkʷe (> Att.-Ion. πέντε, pente; Lesb., Thess. πέμπε, pempe)

Example text

Eduard Schwyzer in his Griechische Grammatik (1939, I.74-75) has translated famous lines of Classical Greek into Proto-Greek. His reconstruction was ignorant of Mycenaean and assumes Proto-Greek loss of labiovelars and syllabic resonants, among other things. Thus, Schwyzer's reconstruction corresponds to an archaic but post-Mycenaean dialect rather than actual Proto-Greek.

  Classical Greek Proto-Greek
Schwyzer Modern
Plato, Apology ὅτι μὲν ὑμεῖς, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πεπόνθατε ὑπὸ τῶν ἐμῶν κατηγόρων, οὐκ οἶδα· ἐγὼ δ’ οὖν καὶ αὐτὸς ὓπ’ αὺτῶν ὀλίγου ἐμαυτοῦ ἐπελαθόμην, οὕτω πιθανῶς ἔλεγον. καίτοι ἀληθές γε ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν οὐδὲν εἰρήκασιν ‘ϝοττι μᾱν (?) υμμε, ω ανερες Αθᾱναιοι, πεπᾱσθε υπο κατᾱγορων μεο, ου ϝοιδα· εγω δε εον (?) κ. α. υ. α. ολιγοιο εμεο αυτοιο επελαθομᾱν, τως (oder *τω) πιθανως (oder -ω) ελεγοντ. κ. αλᾱθες γε ὡς (oder ὡ) ϝεπος ϝειπεεν (oder ϝευπ.) ουδε ἑν ϝεϝρηκᾰτι *çokʷid mān umʰe. ō aneres Atʰānaïoi, pepãstʰe upo katāgorōn meho. oju woida; egō de ōn kai autos up’ autōn oligoço emeho autoço epi latʰomān, tō pitʰanō elegont. kai toi ãlātʰes ge çō wekʷos weikʷehen oude hen wewrēkãti
Matthew 6:9 πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου πατερ αμμεων ὁ (τοισι) ορϝανοισι (bzw. Sing.) (ἁγιον oder αγνον εστωδ) ενυμα τϝεο *pater ãmʰōn ho worʱanoihi, çagion estōd enumã tweho
Homer, Odyssey 1.1 Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον ανερα μοι ενσεπε (oder -τε) μοντja (μωντjα?) π. *anerã moi enʰekʷet, montsa, polutrokʷon

Notes: The reconstruction assumes that the old combinations of sonorants + s in either sequence (*ns, *ms, *rs, *ls, *u̯s, *i̯s, *sn, *sm, *sr, *sl, *su̯, *si̯ ) were pronounced as unvoiced sonorants ([n̥, m̥, r̥, l̥, ʍ, ç]) before they were simplified as short voiced sonorants with compensatory lengthening ν, μ, ρ, λ, (ϝ), (ι) in most dialects or as long voiced sonorants νν, μμ, ρρ, λλ, υ(ϝ), ι in Aeolic. It is also assumed that the PIE syllabic nasals (*n̥, *m̥) was pronounced as nasal [ã], before it split into α in most dialects and ο as a variant in some dialects (Mycenaean, Arcadian, Aeolic).

See also


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