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3,000 Years of Greek: the Language that Withstood Time
By Jerker Blomqvist

Svensk version

This was originally a public lecture, delivered at the Department of Classics of Lund University, one in a series on the theme of "Language and Time". The Swedish text was translated into English—and adapted for an international audience—by Carlos Parada with some contributions by the original author.

The Tripod, called 'tripod' 3000 years ago

Languages change over time; that aspect of the relation between time and language should be obvious to all of us. Our children and grandchildren speak and write differently from what we did when we were their age. If we listen today to radio and TV programs recorded 30 or 40 years ago, we notice differences in the choice of words, in their inflection, in sentence structure, and even in pronunciation.

If we try to read older Swedish texts, we rapidly become aware of the permanent and continuing process of change. Not even the 19th-century poets Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) and Erik Johan Stagnelius (1793-1823) are always easy to understand, their slightly older colleague Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) presents many really difficult problems, and if we turn to even more ancient texts, like the poems of Georg Stiernhielm (1598-1672) or letters written by Gustav Vasa (king of Sweden 1523-1560), we need specialists to assist us in order to grasp their content.

Thus, all languages change with time and the transformation progresses constantly. This applies to Greek as well, and the development of that language may be followed, with the help of preserved texts, during a very long time, although it is still a prospering, modern language, spoken and written by 12.5 million people. A very clear illustration of how precisely Greek has changed in the course of time is the fact that it is today considered necessary to translate ancient texts to modern Greek in order to make it possible for contemporary Hellenes to understand them. This is not always done without a certain feeling of discomfort, for many Greeks would like to see the knowledge of ancient Greek so widely spread that all Greeks could enjoy the classics without the intermediary of special studies or translations. A text in modern Greek language attire that has been highly controversial is the New Testament; however, since 1987 there exists an authorized translation from ancient to modern Greek, more specifically to that form of modern Greek which is called dimotiki and nowadays is the official language of the Hellenic Republic.

The Gospels, Saint Paul's letters, and the other books of the New Testament, were all written during the second half of the first century AD, and they were written in that form of Greek which at the time was used for this peculiar kind of literature. A contemporary Greek does not understand that ancient or classical Greek without special studies. For that reason a translation into Modern Greek is demanded by necessity. Nevertheless, the close relationship between contemporary and classical Greek is eagerly—and rightly—emphasized, so the official translation is presented in a bilingual edition. On the left page the original text appears, to the right the translation is printed. It is easy to compare the two texts and observe how the language has changed. A comparison of the original text with the translation reveals discrepancies in practically all levels of language: in phonetics, morphology, syntax, vocabulary. The only ingredient that has survived in an almost unaltered condition is the writing system and, curiously enough, the spelling rules, which were established by a resolution of the Athenian assembly in 403 BC. The orthographic rules still work fairly well, although it is not particularly easy for Greek schoolchildren to learn how to spell their own language. Greek might be said to be more difficult to spell than Swedish, but not as difficult as English or French. The spelling difficulties met by contemporary Greeks, when following the ancient spelling rules, illustrate the transformations their language has undergone.

Yet, strangely enough, it is possible to find evidence, in the same translation of the New Testament, of the survival, through more than two thousand years and in unchanged form, of at least one variety of Greek, that is still in practical use. At the beginning of the book, some documents authorizing the new Bible translation have been reprinted. Those documents were issued by the highest executive bodies of the Greek-speaking churches, viz., the Holy Synod of Bishops in Athens, which the highest authority of the autocephalic Greek Church, and by the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and his peers in Jerusalem and Alexandria.

When examining the language of those documents, you notice that most of them are written in classical Greek. Their model, with regard to grammar, is Greek prose literature of the fourth century BC, and those who wrote them have succeeded, in all essentials, to write just like the classical authors. The vocabulary is another matter; the ecclesiastical dignitaries use of course other concepts and express an ideology differing from that of the pagan authors of classical Athens; then they must also employ other words in order to represent those ideas; it is the grammar that has been preserved unchanged through the ages. That applies to a majority among them, anyway. The Patriarch of Alexandria has resolved to write in the dimotiki variety of modern Greek, so he is out the account; and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, although he might be said to write in classical Greek, constructs the future tense of the verb parechô "provide", "offer", using, not the classical one-word form parexei or paraschêsei, as he should have done, but instead a modern Greek periphrastic construction with a tense particle followed by the aorist subjunctive, tha paraschêi. Otherwise the classical grammar prevails in these documents issued during 1987 and 1988.

This is of course a strange thing. Languages change continuously, and their transformations normally occur so quickly that they are noticeable during the lifetime of a single person, but here we are confronted with a language variety that has been preserved unchanged through more than 2,350 years, from the fourth century BC to our time. It should be pointed out that using classical Greek in contemporary Greece is not common, but the ancient language is widely known and it may still be used for practical purposes in certain special circumstances. We have reason to ask: Why has classical Greek been able to resist the effects of time in a way that other languages, e.g., Swedish and English, have not?

If a language is to be preserved unaltered for a long period of time, one primary prerequisite is that the users of the language know what is to be preserved. There must exist a norm to follow, a set of rules that define what is the "correct" use of the language, and that norm must be accepted as an authoritative model by a significant majority of those who speak the given language. In the case of Greek, such a norm was established in the fourth century BC, and that happened in Athens. During antiquity Greece was politically divided into a great number of small independent states. For the purpose of everyday intercourse and for administration each state made use of its own local dialect. The dialect of Athens, Attic, was at the beginning just a local dialect among many others. Literature written in Attic was relatively rare; literature was written in a number of other dialects, but not in Attic to a great extent. That situation began to change at the end of the fifth century BC, and in the course of the fourth century Attic became the common dialect of almost all prose literature. This occurred at the moment when Athens also became the culturally dominating state in the Greek-speaking area.

During the fourth century there came into existence in Athens a number of institutions for higher education, which were attended by people coming from the whole of the Greek world. The most important and best known of them are probably the four philosophical schools of Athens: the Academy, founded by Plato, Aristotle's Lyceum, and the Stoic and Epicurean schools. The language used for instruction, as well as that employed in the works written in these schools by the philosophers and their disciples was the Attic dialect. Plato was the only native Athenian among the founders of the schools. Epicurus was also an Athenian citizen, but he was born in Samos and came to Athens only in his late teens; Aristotle was born at Stageira in what is today northern Greece, and the mother tongue of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, native from Kition in Cyprus, was perhaps not even Greek. In any case all of them chose to express themselves in Attic for the purpose of both oral and written instruction. The disciples followed their example and, on returning to their several hometowns or in settling down elsewhere to exercise their activities, they carried with them the Attic dialect.

Yet it was perhaps not the philosophers who played the largest part in establishing the Attic dialect as the normative form of language, but rather the orators and teachers of rhetoric. For not only philosophy was imparted by Athenian education, but also the art of eloquence or rhetoric. The instruction in this discipline had existed in Athens since the closing decades of the fifth century, and about 390 BC Isocrates opened a school of rhetoric which surpassed all others because of its systematic educational program. Isocrates claimed to educate his students in philosophy; but he used this term differently from Plato and his colleagues. Isocrates' system of education in rhetoric purposed to impart practical knowledge and skill to students who would need such competence in order to succeed, in the Greek states of those days, as politicians or creators of public opinion. An important ingredient in his educational program was the art of speaking well: to express oneself, both orally and in writing, in such a way, as to be able to influence the listener or the reader to embrace the speaker's views and act accordingly. An important part was assigned to the cultivation and development of the language; and the variety of Greek, which Isocrates and other Athenian rhetoricians taught, became normative, both for ordinary and literary purposes. That is the same norm that the Greek-speaking bishops and patriarchs of the 1980's followed in the documents appended to the translation of the Bible into Modern Greek.

This form of Greek received its definitive canonization during the first centuries of the Christian era, when the so-called Atticistic movement (or, short, Atticism) dominated, both in written literature and in rhetoric. The representatives of this movement aimed at re-creating the form of Greek that had been current in Athens in the classical period, i.e., in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Originally they were concerned only or mainly with style. When they first appeared just before the birth of Christ, the Atticists condemned the prose style of their own time as degenerated, affected and nerveless, striving to return to the allegedly simple and vigorous style of Demosthenes and Lysias. Gradually they became more radical, directing their attention also towards morphology, syntax, and above all towards vocabulary. It is manifest that, as linguistic purists often do, they exaggerated the differences between the Greek of their own day and that of the classical times; the rules that had been established in the fourth century were still adhered to in most cases, whereas the innovations that actually had been introduced concerned less important details. The enthusiastically flaw-finding Atticists exhibit features of ridiculous pedantry. During the second century AD it was possible to earn everlasting fame by composing what is known as an Atticist dictionary, i.e., a manual recording words that the ancient classical authors had employed and that were supposed to come into usage again; at times a list of words was appended, which, although existing, were not to be used by any writer cherishing self-respect. Such narrow-minded schoolmaster manuals have enjoyed an almost superstitious reverence long after their time.

The Atticists succeeded fairly well in turning the prose of classical times into the pattern and model not only of Greek prose literature but also of common prose. This is one of the few known examples of a conscious intervention in the development of a language that has achieved the intended effect. Atticist Greek became the variety taught at the school. Even those authors, who criticize the Atticists' puristic excesses, write their criticism in Atticistic Greek, for they never learnt to write in another way. The Attic norm had become, not only something that was automatically absorbed along with the ordinary instruction in rhetoric; it was also codified in grammars and dictionaries, and at least the authors of these works would have loved to see their efforts be invested with the same authority as the codes of laws, with binding rules of language usage. In this context we meet another decisive factor in the preservation of the Greek language: the educational system. The establishment of a certain linguistic norm is not enough; it must also be protected, and the knowledge of it must be spread, if it is to keep its validity throughout the centuries. The education of children and youths in ancient Greece and also later created the prerequisites for this.

The schools of philosophy and rhetoric have already been mentioned. They were comparable to our university education, and they had, just as our universities, admission rules. Mêdeis ageômetrêtos eisitô is said to have been the inscription above the entrance of Plato's Academy, "no one may enter without knowledge of geometry". In order to be admitted one had to acquire the basic qualifications previously through some kind of preparatory school education.

The measure of the propagation of literacy in classical Greece is an old matter of dispute among scholars. Conclusive answers in terms of accurate numbers cannot be provided. What can nevertheless be established is that proficiency in reading and writing was a requirement in classical Athens for a citizen who was actively to exercise his rights within the democratic state. The art of writing was not the privilege of a certain social class or of a certain professional group; it was within the reach of all citizens. Basic education was provided by private schools, which charged a fee to be paid to the teachers by the students' parents. The scope of those activities is not known, but the scene of boys being accompanied to or from the school by a slave or a servant was not unusual in the streets of Athens. These elementary schools were intended for pupils between the ages of seven and fourteen; besides reading, writing and arithmetic, they were also instructed, by special teachers, in music and gymnastics.

During the fourth century BC many Greek states established an institution of education for students between fourteen and eighteen years of age, which was not private but was organized by the state or at least supervised by it. This is what was called in Greek the gymnasion; it has its name in common with the gymnasium, the secondary school that exists today in Scandinavia and on the European continent, and was intended for youths of approximately the same age; yet it was oriented, in a significantly higher degree, towards physical exercises and military training. However, the curriculum also included what was called enkyklios paideia, general education, which comprehended geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. Enkyklios paideia also comprised further education, as classical literature was read, in the use of language in different contexts. Mainly Homer was read, but gradually also prose writers, who in time achieved a more or less canonical status, were added.

Students of classical culture have suggested that the intervention of the state in the educational system expressed a particular Greek approach to education and instruction. This approach and its practical implementation is summarized in the Greek word paideia, whose richness of meaning and wide content cannot be fully conveyed through the standard translations 'upbringing' or 'education'. The concept of paideia has been investigated in a famous work by the Berlin—later on, Harvard—professor Werner Jaeger. Paideia reflects the notion that it is possible, through systematic instruction and training, to mould the character of a human being together with his intellectual and practical aptitude in compliance with a previously delineated moral ideal, and the belief that, if the citizens underwent such a forming process, that would be beneficial for the individual as well as for the community. This thought does not impress us as being particularly radical, but that impression may be due the fact that this Greek idea, like many other Greek ideas, is integrated into the Western tradition to such an extent that it is perceived of as more or less a truism. If we compare the ancient Greek society to other, both contemporary and earlier civilizations, the differences stand out clearly. Schools and education of children and youths had existed since a long time ago in other places around the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East; but their aim was generally to train people for specific functions. States needed military officers and civil servants, temples needed people able to carry on the religious traditions, the trading business needed economists and managers, etc. The exceptional feature of the Greek approach is that it gives priority, not to the needs of different institutions, but to those of the individual. First of all, it is the individual that must be moulded, receiving thereby the possibility to develop his capacity according to a generally accepted ideal of the human being. Society certainly benefits from having access to citizens formed in such a way, but society itself and its institutions are not the primary aim; the main objective is the individual human being and his moral and intellectual development. Therein lay the novelty; an idea that was novel then but now belongs to the common heritage of Western civilization.

It is this Greek view on upbringing and education that triggers the involvement of the Greek states in the instruction of youths. During the following centuries the institution of the gymnasion became even more significant in the task of establishing the Greek identity. At the end of the fourth century BC Alexander the Great created an empire under the dominance of Greeks and Macedonians. His conquests caused the Greek culture and the Greek language to spread across an enormous territory, bordering with India's western limits; and wherever the Greeks settled, they introduced their cultural institutions, elementary schools, schools of rhetoric, schools of philosophy, theatres, athletic grounds, libraries, and also gymnasia. To have undergone education in a gymnasium was, in many places, the criterion that defined a person's affiliation to the Greek cultural élite. These institutions were, in some measure, also open to others than ethnic Greeks, and that circumstance contributed to transforming the Greek language and its standard form into the most important international language in the whole territory.

When the Romans became masters of the eastern Mediterranean area, they inherited much from Greek culture, including the ideas on education. During Roman times the state also became involved in higher education. It is usually stated that the first professorships were created in Rome during the rule of Emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79). They were at first concerned with Roman and Greek eloquence, but soon professorships in philosophy and rhetoric were created in Athens, later on in Constantinople. Other significant centers of education developed in Alexandria and Antioch. Students came from the whole of the Roman Empire.

This is not the place to follow the history of Greek education through the successive centuries. A short summary must suffice: During antiquity a tradition of education was established within the Greek cultural realm, which was strong enough to penetrate the new spiritual great power, the Christian Church, and strong enough to survive both the political dissolution of the Eastern Roman empire and hundreds of years of subjection to Turkish, Venetian, and other foreign lords.

There is yet an element that has contributed to the preservation of classical Greek throughout the centuries, viz., the socio-linguistic situation in the Greek-speaking areas, which has been characterized since ancient times by what is nowadays called diglossia. This term denotes, according contemporary linguistics, "a stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language, there exists a divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, which is learned largely by formal education and used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used for ordinary conversation" to quote, somewhat abbreviated, Ferguson's classic definition of the concept.

A diglossia situation involves a rigorous functional distinction between two (or more) varieties of the same language; each variety is allotted its own functional domain, and one of the varieties is normally more esteemed socially than the other(s). As a modern example of diglossia it is common to cite the relationship between katharevousa and dimotiki in Greece, or the relationship between classic Arabic and the different regional varieties of spoken Arabic. To illustrate what is meant by 'functional distinction', some features of the situation in 19th- and 20th-century Greece may serve: during a long period the archaizing variety katharevousa was the official language of the government, in which laws and ordinances were published, whereas literature (from c. 1900 onwards) was mostly written in dimotiki; dimotiki was the language used for teaching in elementary schools, whereas katharevousa was used in secondary education.

Diglossia also existed in ancient Greece. When the Attic dialect had established itself as the language of prose literature, it remained essentially unchanged for centuries to come. On the other hand, the spoken, everyday Greek developed, as languages tend to, in the usual way; and we may suppose that noticeable differences arose relatively soon between the vernacular and the literary language. In fact, there were not two diglossic variants involved but more than that; since each literary genre (epic, tragedy, bucolic) used its own linguistic variety, we should speak of polyglossia rather than diglossia.

If we widen the perspective somewhat, geographically and chronologically, we notice that various forms of diglossia situations are far from uncommon in the languages over the world. When such situations are studied, it can be observed that they generally are very stable; if a diglossia situation is once established, it normally exists for centuries, and the variety which has the highest reputation—literary language, administration language, prestige language—is preserved exceedingly well in the same form that it had at the beginning. There is also an interaction between the involved varieties, for the literary language normally retards the development of the everyday variety, so that it undergoes less changes than it normally would. This is what happened to the dialect of classical Athens. Both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages it was the norm for correct, written Greek, and it is still used, e.g., by the ecclesiastical dignitaries in contemporary Greece when they wish to endow their declarations with special authority. It also influenced common speech so that the latter changed significantly less than what happened in other languages, such as Swedish and English, during the same period of time.

In this way the Greek language has shown a remarkable continuity. So far we have we have been speaking of a period starting in the fourth century BC. But we can go further back in time and still find even more striking examples of continuity. Among the ruins of the great palaces that were built at the end of the Bronze Age and destroyed c. 1200 BC, archaeologists have found a number of texts written in syllabic script on clay tablets. The most important findings are those from Cnossos in Crete and Pylos in western Peloponnese, but the script has been attested in other places, too, both on the mainland and on the islands. In the early 1950's the script was deciphered and—to the surprise of many—the texts proved to be written in Greek.

One of the first words that could be deciphered in the Bronze Age texts found at Pylos was tripodes. This is an inflected form, nominative plural, of the word tripous that means 'tripod'. A tripous was a kind of cooking stand, a three-legged device that could be placed over an open fire; upon it a stewpot or cauldron may be placed for preparing food or heating some other thing. Also in a contemporary Modern Greek dictionary the word tripous be found with the same meaning (mostly it is recorded under its modern form tripodas, but the nominative plural is still tripodes), and walking down that street in a Greek city where the smiths have their workshops—that street is typically called 'Hephaestus Street' after the ancient god of smiths—you will see contemporary Greek smiths sitting beside their anvils fashioning tripods. Those modern tripods are made of iron, and they differ in shape from the bronze tripods found at Pylos and Cnossos, but their function is the same, as is the word for denoting them.

If the black-smith of Hephaestus Street in Patras or Iraklion sends his children to the present-day gymnasion or to the university, where they may read the texts from Pylos, they will, despite all differences, recognize some details of the language: the scribes of the Bronze Age palaces wrote words that they have heard their father use in his workshop. Tripous/tripodas is by no means the only word that contemporary Greek and Bronze Age Greek have in common.

A language with a history that may be followed through 3,000 years offers invaluable material to any scholar interested in the historical development of languages: processes leading to language changes sometimes need a millennium to be completed; we may observe them in the Greek language. An alteration produced in the course of a couple of hundred years may trigger another one which may need as much time as the first, leading in turn, to a third; such a sequence of processes may be attested in Greek. Different kinds of influence coming from other languages are observable through a long period of time. We also notice several instances of the effects produced by intentional interventions in the development of the language.

However, when confronted with Bronze Age Greek, the smith's son or daughter experiences not only the effect of all these alterations observed by the historian of languages, but also the coincidences: that tripods were called tripodes 3,000 years ago, as they are called today. And such startling continuities may also constitute material to reflect upon for the historian of languages: Why does the Greek smith of today use the same word that his colleague once used in Bronze Age Pylos? Why have the orthographic rules been left substantially unchanged since 403 BC? Why does an official document issued by the Holy Synod of Athens respect the same grammatical rules that can be found in the writings of Plato and other ancient pagans? These are some of the questions that we ponder over at the Department of Classics at Lund University, where both Ancient and Modern Greek are taught and studied scientifically. Here I have sketched some answers that we might consider giving when addressing these questions.

 Short Bibliography

R. Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek. 2nd ed., Cambridge 1983.
C.A. Ferguson, 'Diglossia', Word 15, 1959, 325-340.
Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek. A History of the Language and its Speakers, London & New York 1997.
A.N. Jannaris, An Historical Greek Grammar Chiefly of the Attic Dia-lect, London 1897.
Kainê Diathêkê. To prôtotypo keimeno me metaphrasê stê dêmotikê, Athêna 1989.
Werner Jaeger, Paideia. Die Formung des griechischen Menschen. I-III, Berlin 1934-1947 (English translation: Paideia. The Ideals of Greek Culture, Oxford 1944-1946).
Peter Mackridge, The Modern Greek Language, Oxford 1985.
Wendy Moleas, The Development of the Greek Language, Bristol 1991 (1989).
Sproget i hellenismen. Redigeret af Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Per Bilde, Lise Hannestad og Jan Zahle, Aarhus Universitetsforlag 1995 (Hellenismestudier 10) [especially pp. 7-24 (Sten Ebbesen, 'Hellenistisk Græsk-Koiné') and 25-38 (Jerker Blomqvist, 'Diglossifenomen i den hellenistiska grekiskan')].
Georg Walser, The Greek of the Ancient Synagogue. An Investigation on the Greek of the Septua-gint, Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, Stock-holm 2001 (Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia 8).
Albert Wifstrand, 'Det grekiska prosaspråket. En historisk översikt', Eranos 50, 1952, 149-163.

Jerker Blomqvist, professor of Greek language and literature, Department of Classics, Lund University, Sweden.
©1998-2001, Jerker Blomqvist
Reproduced with the author's permission.