Distribution of Greek dialects in Greece in the classical period.[1]
Distribution of Greek dialects in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy and Sicily) in the classical period.

Ancient Greek in classical antiquity, before the development of the common Koine Greek of the Hellenistic period, was divided into several varieties.

Most of these varieties are known only from inscriptions, but a few of them, principally Aeolic, 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 derived from Koine Greek.



See also: Category:Ancient Greek writers by dialect

Ancient Greek literature is written in literary dialects that developed from particular regional or archaic dialects. Ancient Greek authors did not necessarily write in their native dialect, but rather chose a dialect that was suitable or traditional for the type of literature they were writing (see belles-lettres).[10][11] All dialects have poetry written in them, but only Attic and Ionic have full works of prose attested.

Homeric Greek is used in the first epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer and written in dactylic hexameter. Homeric is a literary dialect with elements of Ionic, Aeolic and Arcadocypriot. Hesiod uses a similar dialect, and later writers imitate Homer in their epics, such as Apollonius Rhodius in Argonautica and Nonnus in Dionysiaca.[12] Homer influenced other types of poetry as well.

Ionic proper is first used in Archilochus of Paros. 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.[13][14]

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 Lesbian (Aeolic) and Corinna of Tanagra for Boeotian.

Thessalic (Aeolic), Northwest Doric, Arcadocypriot, and Pamphylian never became literary dialects and are only known from inscriptions, and to some extent by the comical parodies of Aristophanes and lexicographers.

Attic proper was used by the Attic orators, Lysias, Isocrates, Aeschines and Demosthenes, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle and the historian Xenophon. Thucydides wrote in Old Attic. The tragic playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote in an artificial poetic language,[15] and the comic playwright Aristophanes wrote in a language with vernacular elements.


Ancient classification

The ancients classified the language into three gene or four dialects: Ionic proper, Ionic (Attic), Aeolic, Doric and later a fifth one, Koine.[16][17] 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".[18] However, for most ancients, Aeolic was synonymous with literary Lesbic.[19] Stephanus of Byzantium characterized Boeotian as Aeolic and Aetolian as Doric.[20] Remarkable is the ignorance of sources, except lexicographers, on Arcadian, Cypriot and Pamphylian.

Finally, unlike Modern Greek[21] and English, Ancient Greek common terms for human speech ( 'glôssa',[22] 'dialektos',[23] 'phônê'[24] and the suffix '-isti' ) may be attributed interchangeably to both a dialect and a language. However, the plural 'dialektoi' is used when dialects and peculiar words are compared and listed by the grammarians under the terms 'lexeis'[25] or 'glôssai'.[26]

Modern classification

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. Mycenaean was deciphered only in 1952 and so is 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):
East Greek
West Greek
C.D. Buck, The Greek Dialects (1955):[note 2]
  • East Greek
  • West Greek
    • The North-West Greek Group
      • Phocian (including Delphian)
      • Locrian
      • Elean
      • The Northwest Greek koine
    • The Doric Group
      • Laconian and Heraclean
      • Messenian
      • Megarian
      • Corinthian
      • Argolic
      • Rhodian
      • Coan
      • Theran and Cyrenaean
      • Cretan
      • Sicilian Doric

A historical overview of how the dialects were classified in different points in time can be found in Van Rooy (2020).[27]


The Ancient Greek dialects differed mainly in vowels.


Loss of intervocalic s and consonantal i and w from Proto-Greek brought two vowels together in hiatus, a circumstance often called a "collision of vowels".[note 3] Over time, Greek speakers would change pronunciation to avoid such a collision, and the way that 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 seen in both Mycenaean and Homeric dialects. Ionic Greek changed the *a to an e (poseideōn), while Attic Greek contracted it to poseidōn. It changed differently in other dialects:[citation needed]

The changes appear designed to place one vowel phoneme instead of 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, sometimes modified, as in the Ionic poseideōn.


A vowel shift differentiating the Ionic and Attic dialects from the rest was the shift of ā () to ē (η). In Ionic, the change occurred in all positions, but in Attic, it occurred almost everywhere except after e, i, and r (ε, ι, ρ). 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 ā ().[28]


Another principle of vocalic dialectization follows the Indo-European ablaut series or vowel grades. The Proto-Indo-European language could interchange e (e-grade) with o (o-grade) or use neither (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 – present leípō (λείπω) "I leave", perfect léloipa (λέλοιπα) "I have left", aorist élipon (ἔλιπον) "I left" – or be used as the basis of dialectization: Attic deíknȳmi (δείκνῡμι) "I point out" but Cretan díknūmi (δίκνῡμι).


Main article: Varieties of Modern Greek

The ancient Greek dialects were a result of isolation and poor communication between communities living in broken terrain. All general Greek historians point out the influence of terrain on the development of the city-states. Often, the development of languages dialectization results in the dissimilation of daughter languages. That 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:[31]

"… long after Attic had become the norm of literary prose, each state employed its own dialect, both in private and public monuments of internal concern, and in those of a more… interstate character, such as… treaties…."

In the last few centuries BC, regional dialects replaced local ones: Northwest Greek koine, Doric koine and Attic koine. The last came to replace the others in common speech in the first few centuries AD. After the division of the Roman Empire the earliest Modern Greek prevailed, although a version of Attic Greek was still exclusively taught in schools and served as the official language of the state until the early 20th century.[32] The dialect distribution was then as follows:

According to some scholars, Tsakonian is the only modern Greek dialect that descends from Doric, albeit with some influence from the Koine.[33] Others include the Southern Italian dialects in this group, though perhaps they should rather be regarded as descended from the local Doric-influenced variant of the Koine.[34]


  1. ^ Sometimes called the Greek Dark Ages because writing disappeared from Greece until the adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet.
  2. ^ First published in 1928, it was revised and expanded by Buck and republished in 1955, the year of his death. Of the new edition Buck said (Preface): this is virtually a new book." There have been other impressions, but no further changes to the text. The 1955 edition was at the time and to some degree still is the standard text on the subject in the United States. This part of the table is based on the Introduction to the 1955 edition. An example of a modern use of this classification can be found at columbia.edu as Richard C. Carrier's The Major Greek Dialects Archived October 6, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Two vowels together are not to be confused with a diphthong, which is two vowel sounds within the same syllable, often spelled with two letters. Greek diphthongs were typically inherited from Proto-Indo-European.


  1. ^ Roger D. Woodard (2008), "Greek dialects", in: The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. R. D. Woodard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 51.
  2. ^ Masson, Olivier (2003) [1996]. "[Ancient] Macedonian language". In Hornblower, S.; Spawforth A. (eds.). The Oxford Classical Dictionary (revised 3rd ed.). USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 905–906. ISBN 0-19-860641-9.
  3. ^ Hammond, N.G.L (1993) [1989]. The Macedonian State. Origins, Institutions and History (reprint ed.). USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814927-1.
  4. ^ Meier-Brügger, Michael; Fritz, Matthias; Mayrhofer, Manfred (2003). Indo-European Linguistics. Walter de Gruyter. p. 28. ISBN 978-3-11-017433-5.
  5. ^ Roisman, Worthington, 2010, "A Companion to Ancient Macedonia", Chapter 5: Johannes Engels, "Macedonians and Greeks", p. 95: "This (i.e. Pella curse tablet) has been judged to be the most important ancient testimony to substantiate that Macedonian was a north-western Greek and mainly a Doric dialect".
  6. ^ "[W]e may tentatively conclude that Macedonian is a dialect related to North-West Greek.", Olivier Masson, French linguist, “Oxford Classical Dictionary: Macedonian Language”, 1996.
  7. ^ Masson & Dubois 2000, p. 292: "..."Macedonian Language" de l'Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996, p. 906: "Macedonian may be seen as a Greek dialect, characterized by its marginal position and by local pronunciation (like Βερενίκα for Φερενίκα etc.)."
  8. ^ Hatzopoulos, Miltiades B. (2017). "Recent Research in the Ancient Macedonian Dialect: Consolidation and New Perspectives". In Giannakis, Georgios K.; Crespo, Emilio; Filos, Panagiotis (eds.). Studies in Ancient Greek Dialects: From Central Greece to the Black Sea. Walter de Gruyter. p. 299. ISBN 978-3-11-053081-0.
  9. ^ Crespo, Emilio (2017). "The Softening of Obstruent Consonants in the Macedonian Dialect". In Giannakis, Georgios K.; Crespo, Emilio; Filos, Panagiotis (eds.). Studies in Ancient Greek Dialects: From Central Greece to the Black Sea. Walter de Gruyter. p. 329. ISBN 978-3-11-053081-0.
  10. ^ Greek mythology and poetics By Gregory Nagy. Page 51] ISBN 978-0-8014-8048-5 (1992)
  11. ^ Sihler, Andrew Littleton (1995). New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 10–12. ISBN 0-19-508345-8.
  12. ^ Homer and the epic: a shortened version of The songs of Homer By Geoffrey Stephen Kirk Page 76 (1965)
  13. ^ A History of Greek Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Demosthenes by Frank Byron Jevons (1894) Page 112
  14. ^ A History of Classical Greek Literature: Volume 2. The Prose Writers (Paperback) by John Pentland Mahaffy Page 194 ISBN 1-4021-7041-6
  15. ^ Euripides (2008). Allan, William (ed.). Helen. Cambridge University Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-521-54541-9.
  16. ^ New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: Volume 5, Linguistic Essays With Cumulative Indexes to Vols. 1–5 Page 30 ISBN 0-8028-4517-7 (2001)
  17. ^ History Of The Language Sciences By Sylvain Auroux Page 440 ISBN 3-11-016736-0 (2000)
  18. ^ Strabo 8.1.2 14.5.26
  19. ^ Mendez Dosuna, The Aeolic dialects[full citation needed]
  20. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnika s.v. Ionia
  21. ^ glossa: language, dialektos: dialect, foní : voice
  22. ^ LSJ glôssa Archived December 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ LSJ:dialektos Archived December 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ LSJ phônê Archived December 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ LSJ lexis Archived December 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Ataktoi Glôssai (Disorderly Words) by Philitas of Cos
  27. ^ Van Rooy R (2020). Greece's labyrinth of language (pdf). Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.3478142. ISBN 978-3-96110-211-2.
  28. ^ Smyth, Greek Grammar, paragraph 30 on CCEL: vowel change involving ē, ā
  29. ^ μήτηρ
  30. ^ νεᾱνίας
  31. ^ Greek Dialects[page needed]
  32. ^ Mackridge, Peter. (2009). Language and national identity in Greece, 1766–1976. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-921442-6. OCLC 244417437.
  33. ^ Medieval and modern Greek By Robert Browning Page 124 ISBN 0-521-29978-0 (1983)
  34. ^ Browning, ibid.


Further reading