The Greek language is classified as a member of the Greek subfamily of the Indo-European group of languages. Most scholars classify the Greek language into four historical phases: Ancient Greek, Koine, Byzantine Greek, and Modern Greek.
Early History of the Greek Language: Ancient Greek
The Greek language was in use long before the time of recorded history. Most scholars agree that prehistoric peoples from central and northern Asia migrated to various parts of modern-day Greece, where they found more fertile land.
Among these newly settled peoples, four dialects arose: Doric, Aeolic, Arcado-Cyprian, and Ionic. The standard form of classical Greek, known as the Attic, arose from the Ionic dialect. This was the language used in the areas surrounding Athens and Attica. Due to the immense political and cultural power exerted by Athens from the 5th century BC onward, the Attic dialect came to dominate all others, and it also was adopted as the primary literary language.
Influential scholars and writers, such as the playwright Euripides, the orator Plato, and the historian Thucydides, made use of the written Attic, helping to assert its dominance among dialects.
Expansion During the Hellenistic Period and the Development of Koine
In the 4th century BC, the Ancient Greek language gained influence with the expansion of Macedonian rule and the conquests of Alexander the Great. During the Hellenistic period, as this time was known, hordes of people moved from the areas of modern-day Greece to settlements in the Middle East, bringing the Attic with them. As a result, Attic came to be the common language of the Middle East.
During the migrations of the Hellenistic period, the Greeks came into contact with a variety of other peoples. This affected the Attic language, which became the basis for a new form of Greek language known as Koine. The spread of Koine throughout the Hellenistic empires was solidified as it became the language of Hellenistic commerce, literature, and judicial systems.
Attic vs. Koine: Controversy in the Greek Language
Koine eventually was separated into two groups: literary Koine and popular Koine.
While literary Koine was used in both spoken and written form by the educated upper classes and intellectuals, popular Koine served as the vernacular among the common people. Popular Koine was primarily spoken, and found in the literary works only of lower-class writers. Popular Koine was set apart by its breaking down of the traditional Koine grammar and its adoption of vocabulary from other Middle Eastern languages.
Around the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some scholars pushed for a return to the old, pure Attic dialect. This movement proved largely unsuccessful at that time, however, and Koine is roughly dated to have prevailed from the time of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 4th century BC to the reign of Justinian in the 6th century AD.
When the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I took the throne in 527, he led numerous campaigns to recover former territories throughout the Middle East. During the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Attic-based literary Koine served as the basis for the language of administration and literature. This style is often referred to as “Byzantine Greek.”
While the written tradition remained largely static, the primarily spoken language of popular Koine continued to change and develop further. The majority of the grammatical and phonological differences found between Koine and modern Greek were developed during this time. In the later years of the Byzantine Empire, which dates to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the popular Koine also became the basis for a number of dialects influenced by other Middle Eastern languages.
A Static Greek Literary Language
The Greek literary language continued without significant change throughout the Byzantine Empire and the years of Ottoman domination that followed. While the spoken language underwent development, the literary Greek language remained largely unchanged and was used primarily in theological works.
Although the desire to develop a uniform language developed among the upper classes in the late 19th century, the majority of Greeks were preoccupied with the fight for independence from Ottoman rule and, later, the work of establishing post-independence order.
Katharevousa vs. Demotic Greek: Development of a Modern Greek Language
In the late 19th century, a nationalist-fueled movement led by a bourgeoisie class of scholars and writers, turned to an idealized Athenian heritage as a basis for linguistic standardization.
This group advocated a purist style of Greek known as Katharevousa. Steeped in national identity, the aim of Katharevousa supporters was to reawaken Greek consciousness of and pride in ancient Greek culture. Ignoring the widespread spoken vernacular of the time, Katharevousa developed as a scholarly artificial language based on the Ancient Greek, which proved difficult to adapt to everyday life.
Contrasting Katharevousa proponents were the Demotikists, a group that succeeded in creating a standardized vernacular grammar and produced a large body of literary works in the style.
Due to an aggressive campaign by Katharevousa proponents, the Greek government adopted Katharevousa. In 1976, however, the Greek parliament proclaimed the simpler Demotic Greek as the national language. With this act, the more practical Demotic form of the Greek language was put into common practice, used in newspapers, academic articles, and for government purposes.
Contemporary Greek Language
The modern Greek language serves as the mother tongue of inhabitants of Greek and the island of Cyprus. An estimated 15 million people speak the Greek language today, primarily in Greece, where it is the official language and is spoken by approximately 99 percent of the population. A large number of Greek language speakers also live in Cyprus, where Greek is a national language along with Turkish.
Due to the Greek diaspora, which led to Greek migration to a number of countries including Albania, the Ukraine and Turkey, Greek is recognized as an official minority language in these countries. The Greek language also serves as the one of the 23 official languages of the European Union.
Greek Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Ellinika, Grec, Greco, Graecae, Romaic, Neo-Hellenic
Language Family: Indo-European, Attic
Spoken by Approximately 25,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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