The Development & Impact of the Greek Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greek has been an influential language throughout Western history, so it's history is pretty important to all of us. In this lesson, we'll see where Greek came from and how it became so important.

The Greek Language

A,b,c,d,e,f,g….recognize this set of letters? This is the start of the alphabet, and it's a big deal. Written language has tremendous importance in human history, and for European-based cultures, we can largely thank the Greeks for that. In fact, the word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, and beta. Greek has been an extremely influential language throughout Western history and is one of the oldest. So, where did it come from? The history of the Greek language is basically synonymous with the history of Western civilization itself.

Origins of Greek

The exact origin of any language is shrouded in mystery, but we do know that Greek was one of the earliest independent branches to stem off of Indo-European, the language family from which nearly all European languages are descended. Researchers estimate that the ancestral language of the Greeks diverged from the ancient Indo-European language around the 3rd millennium BCE.

The oldest evidence we have of language in Greece itself comes from the region's oldest civilization, the Minoans of Crete. The Minoans are a mysterious people who developed monumental architecture, complex political systems, and yes, writing. The Minoan script, called Linear A, is the oldest written language in Europe, but we can't fully read it yet. It's still largely un-deciphered.

Linear A tablet

As the Minoan civilization faded, the Mycenaean civilization emerged along with their script, which we call Linear B. Linear B is the first written Greek language we can read, and it is shockingly similar to modern Greek. This ancient language, which likely appeared back in the 12th-century BCE, is clearly the ancestor of the modern Greek language.

Unfortunately, it isn't written very well. Linear B used a set of symbols that represented consonant-vowel combinations (a system probably introduced from West Asia), which didn't actually fit the ancient Greek language very well. Luckily, another option would present itself in the form of Phoenician traders. The Phoenicians established the first trading empire of the Mediterranean, with ports from North Africa to Southern Europe, and their unique writing system became the de facto language of trade. What made their writing system so interesting was the use of an alphabet, in which each sound of the language had its own symbol. The Greeks adopted this concept to their own language, developing the first Greek alphabet around the 8th-century BCE.

Ancient Greek

By the 8th-century BCE, Greeks were writing in their own alphabet, but what language were they actually writing? This was still an ancient language, not even yet what we colloquially call ''Ancient Greek.'' That would develop in the 6th to 4th-centuries, in the Classical period of Greek history and realistically, it was not a single language. It was a collection of regional dialects.

5th-century BCE inscribed ceramic from Athens

It's important to remember that there was no single entity known as ancient Greece. There were a whole bunch of Greek city-states, each with their own customs and dialects. In the Classical period, the Ionic dialect started gaining prominence, especially the branch of Ionic known as Attic. Why? Because the people who spoke it were becoming pretty powerful themselves. The speakers of Attic lived in the city of Athens.

Ionic was the language of Homer, Attic that of Plato. Together, these dialects spread across Greece along with Athenian philosophy, arts, and most importantly, trade. However, many Greek cities still maintained their own dialects. This would begin to change in the 4th-century BCE when all of Greece was unified for the first time under the empire of Alexander the Great. As a symbol of unity, Alexander standardized Attic into the koine dialect and made it the language of the empire. For the first time, all of ancient Greece was speaking the same dialect.

Koine would become one of the most influential languages in the history of Europe. This was the language in which many of the greatest works of ancient Greece were ultimately transcribed. It became the de facto language of scholars, merchants, and politicians across the Mediterranean. In fact, this is the language in which the Christian Bible was originally written, not Hebrew, because the early Church leaders needed a language that everyone understood.

One of the oldest surviving copies of the Christian New Testament, written in koine

With the foundational philosophical, economic, scientific, and religious texts of Western history written in koine, this became the language of politics and education for centuries. From the Roman Empire through the Italian Renaissance and even beyond, this was the Ancient Greek dialect that became the de facto language of the learned community, which is why so many scientific terms today are still rooted in Greek.

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