10 Facts About Ancient Greek: Dialects, No Punctuation and Homer

Ancient Greek was the language spoken between 1500 and 300 BCE in Greece and Greek-occupied territories. It’s generally split into four periods; Mycenean Greek, Dark Ages Greek, Archaic Greek, and Classical Greek. When people say Ancient Greek, they generally mean the last; this was the language of the philosophers and the epic poets like Homer.

Many Greeks today struggle to read Ancient Greek at all, as Modern Greek and Ancient Greek don’t actually have all that much in common! Still, Ancient Greek is taught along with Latin as a Classical language, and these facts introduce it.

A Few Interesting Facts about Ancient Greek

1. Ancient Greek was spoken in several codified forms across different areas

Similar to how US English, UK English, and others are different, Ancient Greek was divided into several sub-language dialects. The main were:

DialectSpoken in
Attic (or “classic”, the language that dominated and evolved)Attica (including Athens)
IonicWest coast of Asia Minor including Smyrna and on Euboea (Evia); spread by Ionian colonization to areas in the northern Aegean, the Black Sea, and the western Mediterranean, including Magna Graecia in Sicily and Italy.
DoricNorthwestern Greece; Peloponnese, Crete, Rhodes, Sicily, Italy
Macedonian and Northwest Greek (sometimes considered sub-dialects of Doric.)Macedon, northwestern Greece
Arcadocypriot Greek (southern Achaen)Arcadia, Cyprus

There is also Homeric or Epic Greek, which combined Aeolic and Ionic Greek in a poetic form. This was the language of The Odyssey and The Iliad.

2. Ancient Greek pronunciation had very little in common with Modern Greek

Ancient Greek had both long and short vowels, several gliding vowels, many double consonants, stops which were voiced, voiceless, and aspirated, and accented pronunciation which depended on pitch.

Several letters which sound the same in modern Greek (ω / ο and η / ι / ε) would have been pronounced differently in Ancient Greek

3. Ancient Greek nouns declined based on number, gender, and case

Nouns could be masculine, feminine, or neuter, and refer to one thing (singular), two things (dual), or more than two (plural). The five case forms of Ancient Greek were nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, and dative.

  • The Ancient Greek nominative form was used for the subject of the sentence or describers of the subject like adjectives.
    • “A goddess is here” (θεά, theia)
    • “Goddesses are here” (θεαί, theae)
  • The vocative form was used to address people and things. The noun was usually the same as the singular nominative form and always the same as the plural nominative form.
    • “Excuse me, goddess” (θεά, theiá)
    • “Excuse me, goddesses” (θεαί, theaé)
  • The accusative form was for a verb’s object and for after prepositions
    • “I see a goddess” (θεάν, theán)
    • “I see goddesses” (θεάς, theás)
  • The genitive form was used for possessives, “the x of y” or “y’s x”.
    • “The company of a goddess” (θεᾶς, theãs)
    • “The company of goddesses” (θεῶν, theõn)
  • The Ancient Greek dative form was a combination of general Indo-European dative, instrumental, and locative forms. It usually represents with, to, in, at, or on a noun.
    • “I spoke with a goddess” (θεᾷ, theã)
    • “I spoke with goddesses” (θεαῖς, theais)

Additionally, gender of nouns does not always correspond to natural gender.

4. Ancient Greek used a definite article but no indefinite article

The definite article in English is the while the indefinite is a/an. While the latter would be left out entirely, the former would change depending on the number and gender of the noun to which it was referring.

5. Verbs had several different moods, voices, persons, and numbers

Grammatical Moods (4 total)

IndicativeStatements of fact (I am reading)
ImperativeImmediate demand(Read, now!)
SubjunctiveConditional, deliberative, or temporal statements(What should I read?)
OptitaveWishes, speculation, and hypotheses, as well as past tense indirect speech(I hope she reads this!)

Grammatical Voices (3 total)

ActiveSomething actively done(I read this)
MiddleBetween active and passive, often reciprocal(We read to each other)
PassiveSomething described passively(This is read by me)

Grammatical Persons (3 total)

FirstPersonal (I/we)
SecondDirect address (You)
ThirdIndirect address (He/she/it/they)

Grammatical Number (3 total)

SingularOne object
DualTwo objects, mostly used for pairs of things (like hands and feet)
PluralMore than two objects

6. Like many of its contemporary languages, Ancient Greek was originally written without any spaces or punctuation

After the third century BCE, a system of dots and dashes began to be used to separate breaths, clauses, and thoughts.

7. Ancient Greek (and later Modern Greek) ultimately stem from the Indo-European parent language

The following tree mentions sibling languages but does not follow any other branch. Stricken languages and their families are now extinct.

8. Koine Greek is known by several other names

This intermediate stage of Greek is also known as Alexandrian Greek (from Alexander the Great and his conquests), common Attic (from its Attic descendance), Biblical Greek (from its place in the New Testament of Christianity), and Hellenistic (from the occupations).

9. Several famous figures wrote and performed in different dialects

Some of the most famous Greek historical figures include:

  • Hippocrates of Kos, the “Father of Medicine” – Ionic Greek
  • Herodotus, the “Father of History” – Ionic Greek
  • Sappho, poet of Lesbos – Aeolic Greek
  • Aristotle, philosopher – Attic Greek
  • Plato, philosopher – Attic Greek
  • Archimedes of Syracuse, mathematician and inventor – Doric Greek

10. Homeric or Epic Greek became popular with other writers

For example, the works of Hesiod are written in the same style of Epic Greek as Homer’s work, structured in dactylic hexameter. It became the default literary language of Ancient Greek epic writers.

Final Thoughts

Ancient Greek may no longer be a living language, but it has a continuing influence and open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Ancient Greece’s impact on western languages, culture, and politics Is still strongly felt today, and knowing a little about this fascinating language can only mean good things!

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