Ancient Greek language

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Ancient Greek language

Postby Quintus Marius Primus on Thu Aug 05, 2004 2:02 pm

We know that (Classical) Latin of Cicero et al was a written ideal and not spoken as such as anyone's fist language (everyone spoke vulgar Latin, from which the modern Romance languages developed), but what of Ancient Greek? What was the status of Ancient Greek that we would learn today? Is that how the Ancients would have spoken (and written of course) all those centuries ago, or is it like Latin in that it was more of an idealised written form? And what relation does modern Greek have with the Ancient variety? Are they mutually intelligible at all?

Many thanks
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Postby Quintus Pomponius Atticus on Thu Aug 05, 2004 5:24 pm

Salve Prime,

We know that (Classical) Latin of Cicero et al was a written ideal and not spoken as such as anyone's fist language (everyone spoke vulgar Latin, from which the modern Romance languages developed), but what of Ancient Greek? What was the status of Ancient Greek that we would learn today? Is that how the Ancients would have spoken (and written of course) all those centuries ago, or is it like Latin in that it was more of an idealised written form?


The Greek we learn as "classical" is the written language of Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries, of which Xenophon and Lysias are regarded by classical philologists as two of the most "pure" examples.

It achieved this "classical" status in antiquity already, and in the second century AD, we can discern certain "atticist" authors, who tried to revive the classical Athenian language, as against the koinè-Greek that was commonly spoken since the time of Alexander in the Greek world and that was regarded by them as a bastardized, ignoble, simplified (simplified at least it really was) form of Greek. Among other things, they published "atticist" dictionaries, supplying the "correct classical" form for almost every word that had since changed.

Even in 5th century Athens, naturally, people did not speak in the way Lysias wrote, just like the Romans did not use elaborate Ciceronian 'tricola' (rhetorical argumentations in three parts) to explain to their neighbour why they could not meet at the baths that afternoon at three. Even the well educated elite, I infer, could not have spoken all day as if they were delivering an oration. Far less the common man, who, I presume, must've spoken Greek like the Pompeian commoner spoke Latin : we have inscriptions from Pompeii with what philologically schooled readers cannot but regard as "horrible Latin". In my opinion, there must be Greek equivalents; any scholars of Greek epigraphy here who can supply us with examples ?

On top of what I've said before, especially before the 5th century, we must reckon with the fact that there were numerous Greek dialects (Ionian, Aeolic, Dorian, Arcadian etc.) with even more sub-dialects etc. Moreover, even within a dialect, one often has different possible ways of expressing or writing something etc. Briefly said : no easy stuff. Needless to say the Alexandrinian 'poetae docti' (e.g. Callimachus) of the Hellenistic period (when the different dialects where no longer spoken but substituted by the koinè mentioned above) delighted in the ancient dialects and often used obsolete dialectical forms in their poetry to baffle their scholarly collegues.

And what relation does modern Greek have with the Ancient variety? Are they mutually intelligible at all?


Until the seventies or so, "modern Greek" consisted of two variants, katharevousa and dimotiki. The first was inspired on classical Attic Greek and was the language of the administration, the press, the scholars etc. Dimotiki, as its etymological root "demos" says, was the language of the people. Nowadays, katharevousa is no longer used. I have been told that one who knew classical Greek could more or less understand katharevousa but hardly anything of dimotiki. Even the mutual intelligibility between dimotiki and katharevousa was, I believe, slight.

Vale !

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