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The Greek Language

Greek has a documented 3400-year history spanning six defined periods. It is the longest living European language. Greek is spoken by 15 million people and is the official language of Greece and Cyprus. It is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Proto-Greek

Proto-Greek was likely spoken in 3,000 BC in the Balkans. It is the earliest form of Greek and is believed to be the common ancestor for all Greek dialects. Before Proto-Greek, which gave unity to the language, several Greek dialects were spoken that were mutually intelligible.

Mycenaean (c1600 BC - c1100 BC)

The Mycenaean language, named after the palace of Mycenae, was spoken in Crete and the Greek Mainland from 1600 BC to 1100 BC. Ancient clay tablets with Mycenaean inscriptions were discovered in Crete and Pylos. The tablets are the oldest surviving Greek texts.

The inscriptions are written in Linear B, an archaic script with 87 syllabic signs and symbols representing spoken words without pronunciation directions. Linear B existed several centuries before the Greek alphabet.

Although the tablets were discovered in 1900, the script of Linear B was not deciphered until 1953. The tablets were inscribed with materials and goods inventories and lists.

Linear B is believed to be related to Linear A, a script used to write the Minoan language. Linear A has not been deciphered.

When the Mycenaean civilization fell, Linear B script disappeared. There is a 500 year gap between Linear B and the next extant writings.

Ancient Greek (c800 BC – c330 BC)

During the Ancient Greek period, the language evolved through three separate phases: Archaic (c800 BC – c500 BC); Classical (c400 BC – c300 BC) and Hellenistic (c200 BC - c500 AD). The Hellenistic era is known individually as Koine Greek.

Archaic and Classical Greek had several regional dialects. Three of the major dialects were Aeolic, Doric and Ionic. The Iliad and Odyssey were written mainly in literary Ionic, interspersed with loanwords from other dialects. Attic Greek, a sub-dialect of Ionic, was used to write classical literature, including that of Plato and Aristotle. Attic Greek was spoken by Athenians for hundreds of years.

The Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician alphabet at the commencement of the Classical stage of Greek. Early Ancient Greek was written right to left.

Koine Greek (c330 BC – c330 AD)

Koine Greek is also known as common Greek. The New Testament and Greek translation of the Old Testament are written in Koine Greek.

Koine Greek was formed as a common dialect among Alexander the Great's armies. As Alexander the Great conquered lands and colonization advanced under Macedon, Koine Greek was spread throughout the known world and became the lingua franca for vast regions.

Medieval Greek (c330 AD – c1453 AD)

The Medieval Greek period began when Byzantium became the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD. It ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD to the Ottoman Empire.

During this time, the Greek language began to separate into separate spoken and written languages (known as "disglossia"). The vernacular language developed based on Koine Greek, while written Greek remained archaic. The degree of archaism depended on the nature of the text. Koine was the choice for common everyday writing, while literary writing resembled classical Attic.

Modern Greek (c1435 AD to present)

Modern Greek evolved from Koine Greek in the Medieval period. There are several dialects of Modern Greek.

Disglossia continued until 1976 when Demotic, a vernacular form of Modern Greek, was combined with Katharevousa, a written likeness to classical Greek, and declared the official language as Standard Greek.

Although the Greek language has a long history, the language itself went through minimal changes with the result that educated Greeks today are still able to understand ancient Greek writing.