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Ancient Greek in classical antiquity, before the development of the Koiné (κοινή) as the lingua franca of Hellenism, was divided into several dialects. Most of these are known from inscriptions, but a few of them, principally Aeolic (Lesbic), Doric and Ionic, are also represented in the literary canon alongside the dominant Attic form of literary Greek. Likewise, Modern Greek is divided into several dialects, most of them deriving from the Koiné.
Several literary genres are conventionally written in a specific style and dialect, that in which the genre originated, regardless the origin of later authors. Homeric Greek, which is imitated in later Epic poems, such as Argonautica and Dionysiaca, is an artificial mixture of dialects close to Ionic, Aeolic and Arcadocypriot.
Archilochus of Paros is the oldest poet in Ionic proper. This dialect includes also the earliest Greek prose, that of Heraclitus and Ionic philosophers, Hecataeus and logographers, Herodotus, Democritus, and Hippocrates. Elegiac poetry originated in Ionia and always continued to be written in Ionic.
Attic Orators, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle wrote in Attic proper, Thucydides in Old Attic, the dramatists in an artificial poetic language while the Attic Comedy contains several vernacular elements.
Doric is the conventional dialect of choral lyric poetry, which includes the Laconian Alcman, the Theban Pindar and the choral songs of Attic tragedy (stasima). Several lyric and epigrammatic poets wrote in this dialect, such as Ibycus of Rhegium and Leonidas of Tarentum. The following authors wrote in Doric, preserved in fragments: Epicharmus comic poet and writers of South Italian Comedy (phlyax play), Mithaecus food writer and Archimedes.
Aeolic is an exclusively poetic lyric dialect, represented by Sappho and Alcaeus for Aeolic (Lesbian) and Corinna of Tanagra for Boiotic. Thessalic, Northwest Doric, Arcado-Cypriot and Pamphylian never became literary dialects and are only known from inscriptions, and to some extent by the comical parodies of Aristophanes and lexicographers.
The ancients classified the language into three gene or four dialects, Ionic proper, Ionic (Attic), Aeolic, Doric and later a fifth one, Koine. Grammarians focus mainly on the literary dialects and isolated words. Historians may classify dialects on mythological/historical reasons rather than linguistic knowledge. According to Strabo, "Ionic is the same as Attic and Aeolic the same as Doric - Outside the Isthmus, all Greeks were Aeolians except the Athenians, the Megarians and the Dorians who live about Parnassus - In the Peloponnese, Achaeans were also Aeolians but only Eleans and Arcadians continued to speak Aeolic". However for most ancients, Aeolic was synonymous with literary Lesbic. Stephanus of Byzantium characterized Boeotian as Aeolic and Aetolian as Doric. Remarkable is the ignorance of sources, except lexicographers, on Arcadian, Cypriot and Pamphylian.
Finally, unlike modern Greek and English, ancient Greek common terms for human speech, ( 'glôssa', 'dialektos', 'phônê' and the suffix '-isti' ) may be attributed interchangeably to both a dialect and a language. However, the plural 'dialektoi' is used, when comparing dialects and peculiar words are listed by the grammarians under the terms 'lexeis' or 'glôssai'.
The dialects of Classical Antiquity are grouped slightly differently by various authorities. Pamphylian is a marginal dialect of Asia Minor and is sometimes left uncategorized. Note that Mycenaean was only deciphered in 1952, and is therefore missing from the earlier schemes presented here.
|Northwestern, Southeastern||Ernst Risch, Museum Helveticum (1955):||Alfred Heubeck:|
|A. Thumb, E. Kieckers,|
Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte (1932):
|W. Porzig, Die Gliederung des indogermanischen Sprachgebiets (1954):|
|C.D. Buck, The Greek Dialects (1955):|
The Ancient Greek dialects differed mainly in vowels.
Loss of intervocalic s, as well as consonantal i and w from Proto-Greek brought two vowels together in hiatus, a circumstance often called "collision of vowels". Over time, Greek speakers would change pronunciation to avoid such collision and the way in which vowels changed determined the dialect.
For example, the word for the "god of the sea" (regardless of the culture and language from which it came) was in some prehistoric form *poseidāwōn (genitive *poseidāwonos). Loss of the intervocalic *w left poseidāōn, which is found in both Mycenaean and Homeric dialects. Ionic Greek changed the *a to an e (poseideōn), while Attic Greek contracted it to poseidōn. Additional dialectization:
These changes appear designed to place one vowel phoneme where there two, a process called "contraction" if a third phoneme is created, and "hyphaeresis" ("taking away") if one phoneme is dropped and the other kept. Sometimes the two phonemes are kept, or are kept and modified, as in the Ionic poseideōn.
A vowel shift differentiating the Ionic and Attic dialects from the rest was the shift of long ā to ē. In Ionic this change occurred in all positions, but in Attic, it occurred almost everywhere except after e, i, and r. Homeric Greek shows the Ionic rather than the Attic version of the vowel shift for the most part. Doric and Aeolic show the original forms with long ā.
Another principle of vocalic dialectization follows the Indo-European ablaut series or vowel grades. Indo-European could interchange e (e-grade) with o (o-grade) or not use either (zero-grade). Similarly Greek inherited the series (for example) ei, oi, i, which are e-, o- and zero-grades of the diphthong respectively. They could appear in different verb forms: leipo "I leave", leloipa "I have left", elipon "I left", or be used as the basis of dialectization: Attic deiknumi "I point out" but Cretan diknumi.
The ancient Greek dialects were a result of isolation and poor communication between communities living in broken terrain. No general Greek historian fails to point out the influence of terrain on the development of the city-states. Often in the development of languages dialectization results in the dissimilation of daughter languages. This phase did not occur in Greek; instead the dialects were replaced by standard Greek.
Increasing population and communication brought speakers more closely in touch and united them under the same authorities. Attic Greek became the literary language everywhere. Buck says:
In the first few centuries BCE regional dialects replaced local ones: North-west Greek koine, Doric koine and of course Attic koine. The latter came to replace the others in common speech in the first few centuries AD. After the division of the Roman Empire into east and west the earliest modern Greek prevailed. The dialect distribution was then as follows:
According to some scholars, Tsakonian is the only modern Greek dialect that descends from Doric rather than the Koine. Others believe it to be the descendant of the local Laconian, and thus Doric-influenced, variant of the Koine.