Attic Greek

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Attic Greek
Region Attica, Lemnos
Era ca. 500–300 BC; evolved into Koine
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Distribution of Greek dialects in the classical period.[1]
Western group: Central group:
Eastern group:

Attic Greek is the prestige dialect of Ancient Greek that was spoken in Attica, which includes Athens. Of the ancient dialects, it is the most similar to later Greek, and is the standard form of the language studied in courses of "Ancient Greek". It is sometimes included in Ionic.

Origin and range[edit]

Greek is a branch of the Indo-European language family, which includes English. In historical times, it already existed in several dialects (see article on Greek dialects), one of which was Attic.

The earliest written records in Greek date from the 16th to 11th centuries BC and exist in an archaic writing system, Linear B, belonging to the Mycenaean Greeks. The distinction between Eastern and Western Greek is believed to have arisen by Mycenaean times or before. Mycenaean Greek represents an early form of Eastern Greek, a main branching to which Attic also belongs. Because of the gap in the written record between the disappearance around 1200 BC of Linear B and the earliest inscriptions in the later Greek alphabet around 750 BC,[2] the further development of dialects remains opaque. Later Greek literature wrote of three main dialect divisions: Aeolic, Doric and Ionic. Attic was part of the Ionic dialect group. "Old Attic" is a term used for the dialect of Thucydides (460-400 BC) and the dramatists of Athens' remarkable 5th century; "New Attic" is used for the language of later writers.[3]

Attic Greek persisted until the 3rd century BC, when it was replaced by its similar but more universal offspring, Koine Greek, or "the Common Dialect" (ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος). The cultural dominance of the Athenian Empire and the later adoption of Attic Greek by king Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BC), father of the conqueror Alexander the Great, were the two keys that ensured the eventual victory of Attic over other Greek dialects and the spread of its descendant, Koine, throughout Alexander's Hellenic empire. The rise of Koine is conventionally marked by the accession in 285 BC of (Greek-speaking) Ptolemy II, who ruled from Alexandria, Egypt and launched the "Alexandrian period", when the city of Alexandria and its expatriate Greek-medium scholars flourished.[4]

In its day, the original range of the spoken Attic dialect included Attica, Euboea, some of the central Cyclades islands, and northern Aegean coastal areas of Thrace (i.e. Chalcidice). The closely related dialect called "Ionian" was spoken along the western and northwestern coasts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) on the east side of the Aegean Sea. Eventually, literary Attic (and the classic texts written in it) came to be widely studied far beyond its original homeland, first in the Classical civilizations of the Mediterranean (Ancient Rome and the Hellenistic world), and later in the Muslim world, Europe, and wherever European civilization spread to other parts of the world.


The earliest recorded Greek literature, that attributed to Homer and dated to the 8th or 7th centuries BC, was not written in the Attic dialect, but in "Old Ionic". Athens and its dialect remained relatively obscure until its constitutional changes led to democracy in 594 BC, the start of the classical period and the rise of Athenian influence.

The first extensive works of literature in Attica are the plays of the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes in the 5th century BC. The military exploits of the Athenians led to some universally read and admired history, the works of Thucydides and Xenophon. Slightly less known because they are more technical and legal are the orations by Antiphon, Demosthenes, Lysias, Isocrates and many others. The Attic Greek of the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), whose mentor was Plato, dates from the period of transition from Classical Attic to koine.

Students learning Ancient Greek today usually start with the Attic dialect, proceeding, depending on their interest, to the koine of the New Testament and other early Christian writings, or Homeric Greek to read the works of Homer and Hesiod, or Ionic Greek to read the histories of Herodotus and the medical texts of Hippocrates.


A ballot voting against Themistocles son of Neocles under the Athenian Democracy (see ostracism). Note the last two letters of Themistocles are written boustrophedon and E is used for both long and short e; that is, this is the epichoric alphabet.

Attic Greek, like other dialects, was originally written in its own local variant of the Greek alphabet. According to the classification of archaic Greek alphabets introduced by Adolf Kirchhoff,[5] the old Attic system belongs to the "eastern" or "blue" type, insofar as it uses the letters Φ and Χ with their classical values (/pʰ/ and /kʰ/ respectively), unlike "western" or "red" alphabets, which used Χ for /ks/ and expressed /pʰ/ with Ψ. In other respects, old Attic shares many features with the neighbouring Euboean alphabet (which is "western" in Kirchhoff's classification).[6] Like the latter, it used an L-shaped variant form of the letter lambda (Greek Lambda Athenian.svg) and an S-shaped variant form of sigma (Greek Sigma Z-shaped.svg). It lacked the consonant symbols xi (Χ) for /ks/ and psi (Ψ) for /ps/, expressing these sound combinations with "ΧΣ" and "ΦΣ" respectively. Moreover, like most other mainland Greek dialects, Attic did not yet have the vowel letters omega (Ω) and eta (Η) for the long vowels /ɔ:/ and /ɛ:/. Instead, it expressed all three vowel phonemes /e, eː, ɛː/ with the letter Ε (corresponding to the distinct spellings Ε, ΕΙ, and Η in later classical orthography), and all of /o, oː, ɔː/ with the letter Ο (corresponding to classical Ο, ΟΥ, Ω). The letter Η was used as heta, with the consonantal value of /h/ rather than as a vowel letter.

During the 5th century, Athenian writing gradually switched over from this local system to the more widely used Ionic alphabet native to the eastern Aegean islands and Asia Minor. By the late 5th century, use of elements of the Ionic system side by side with the traditional local alphabet had become commonplace in private writing, and in 403 BC, a formal decree was passed that public writing would switch to the new Ionic orthography consistently, as part of the reform after the Thirty Tyrants. This new system – also called the "Eucleidian" alphabet, after the name of the archon Eucleides who oversaw the decision[7] – was to become the common classical Greek alphabet adopted throughout the Greek-speaking world. The classical works of Attic literature were subsequently handed down to posterity in the new Ionic spelling, and it is this classical orthography in which they are read today.



Long a[edit]

Proto-Greek long ā → Attic long ē, but ā after e, i, r. ~ Ionic ē in all positions. ~ Doric and Aeolic ā in all positions.

  • Proto-Greek and Doric mātēr → Attic mētēr "mother"
  • Attic chōrā ~ Ionic chōrē "place", "country"

But Proto-Greek long ā → Attic ē after w (digamma), deleted by Classical Period.[8]

  • Proto-Greek kor[9] → early Attic-Ionic *korwē → Attic korē (Ionic kourē)

Short a[edit]

Proto-Greek short ă → Attic short ě. ~ Doric: short ă remains.

Sonorant clusters[edit]

Compensatory lengthening of vowel before cluster of sonorant (r, l, n, m, w, sometimes y) and s, after deletion of s. ~ Aeolic: compensatory lengthening of sonorant.[10]

PIE VsR or VRs → Attic-Ionic-Doric VVR.
VsR or VRs → Aeolic VRR.[11]
  • Proto-Indo-European *es-mi (athematic verb) → Attic-Ionic ēmi (= εἰμί) ~ Aeolic emmi "I am"


Proto-Greek and other dialects' /u/ (English food) became Attic /y/ (pronounced as German ü, French u), represented by y in Latin transliteration of Greek names.

  • Boeotian kourios ~ Attic kyrios "lord"

In the diphthongs eu and au, upsilon continued to be pronounced [u].

Long diphthongs[edit]

In the original long diphthongs with i, the i stopped being pronounced: āi, ēi, ōiā, ē, ō. The mediaeval iota subscript indicates this fact.


Attic contracts more than Ionic. a + e → long ā.

  • nika-enikā "conquer (thou)!"

e + e → ē (written ει: spurious diphthong)

  • PIE *trey-es → Proto-Greek trehes → Attic trēs = τρεῖς "three"

e + oō (written ου: spurious diphthong)

  • early *genes-os → Ionic geneos → Attic genous "of a kind" (genitive singular; Latin generis with r from rhotacism)

Vowel shortening[edit]

Attic ē (from long e-grade of ablaut or Proto-Greek ā) is sometimes shortened to e:

  1. when followed by a short vowel, with lengthening of the short vowel (quantitative metathesis): ēo → eō
  2. when followed by a long vowel: ēō → eō
  3. when followed by u and s: ēus → eus
  • basilēosbasils "of a king" (genitive singular)
  • basilēōnbasiln (genitive plural)
  • basilēusibasileusi (dative plural)


Attic deletes of one of two vowels in a row. This sound change is called hyphaeresis (ὑφαίρεσις).

  • Homeric boē-tho-os → Attic boēthos "running to a cry", "helper in battle"



PIE *ky or *chy → Proto-Greek ts (palatalization) → Attic tt. — Ionic and Koine ss.

  • Proto-Greek *glōkh-ya → Attic glōtta — Ionic glōssa "tongue"

Sometimes Proto-Greek *ty and *tw → Attic tt. — Ionic and Koine ss.

  • PIE *kwetwores → Attic tettares — Ionic tesseres "four" (Latin quattuor)

Proto-Greek and Doric t before i or y → Attic-Ionic s (palatalization).

Shortening of ss[edit]

Early Attic-Ionic ss → Classical Attic s.

  • PIE *medh-yos → Homeric messos (palatalization) → Attic mesos "middle"

Loss of w[edit]

Proto-Greek w (digamma) was lost in Attic before historical times.

  • Proto-Greek korwā[12] → Attic korē "girl"

Retention of h[edit]

Attic retained Proto-Greek h- (from Proto-Indo-European initial s- or y-), but certain other dialects lost it (psilosis "stripping", "de-aspiration").

  • Proto-Indo-European *si-sta-mes → Attic histamen — Cretan istamen "we stand"

Movable n[edit]

Attic-Ionic places an n (movable nu) at the end of some words that would ordinarily end in a vowel, when the next word starts with a vowel, to prevent hiatus (two vowels in a row).

  • pāsin élegon "they spoke to everyone" vs. pāsi legousi
  • pāsi(n) dative plural of "all"
  • legousi(n) "they speak" (3rd person plural, present indicative active)
  • elege(n) "he was speaking" (3rd person singular, imperfect indicative active)
  • titheisi(n) "he places", "makes" (3rd person singular, present indicative active: athematic verb)


Morphology as used here means "word formation." It can also include inflection, the formation of the forms of declension or conjugation by suffixing endings, but that topic is presented under Ancient Greek grammar.

  • Attic tends to replace the -ter "doer of" suffix with -tes: dikastes for dikaster "judge".
  • The Attic adjectival ending -eios and corresponding noun ending, both two-syllable with the diphthong ei, stand in place of ēios, with three syllables, in other dialects: politeia, Cretan politēia, "constitution", both from politewia, where the w drops out.


Attic Greek grammar is to a large extent ancient Greek grammar, or at least when the latter topic is presented it is with the peculiarities of the Attic dialect. This section only mentions some of the Attic peculiarities.


In addition to singular and plural numbers, Attic Greek had the dual number. This was used to refer to two of something, and was present as an inflection in nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs (ie any categories inflected for number). Attic Greek was the last dialect to retain this from older forms of Greek, and the dual number had died out by the end of the 5th century BC.


With regard to declension, the stem is the part of the declined word to which case endings are suffixed. In the α- or first declension feminines, the stem ends in long α, parallel to the Latin first declension. In Attic-Ionic the stem vowel has changed to η in the singular, except (in Attic only) after ε, ι, ρ: for example the respective nominative, genitive, dative and accusative singular forms are gnome, gnomes, gnome(i), gnomen, "opinion", but thea, theas, thea(i), thean, "goddess".

The plural is the same in both cases: gnomai and theai, but other sound changes were more important in its formation. For example, original -as in the nominative plural was replaced by the diphthong, -ai, which did not undergo the change of a to e. In the few a-stem masculines, the genitive singular follows the o-declension: stratiotēs, stratiotou, stratiotēi, etc.

In the o-, omicron- or second declension, mainly masculines (but some feminines), the stem ends in o or e, which is composed in turn of a root plus the thematic vowel, an o or e in Indo-European ablaut series parallel to similar formations of the verb. It is the equivalent of the Latin second declension. The alternation of Greek -os and Latin -us in the nominative singular is familiar to readers of Greek and Latin.

In Attic Greek an original genitive singular ending *-osyo after losing the s (as happens in all the dialects) lengthens the stem o to the spurious diphthong -ou (see above under Phonology, Vowels): logos "the word", logou from *logosyo, "of the word". The dative plural of Attic-Ionic had -oisi, which appears in early Attic but later simplifies to -ois: anthropois "to or for the men".

Classical Attic[edit]

See also Classical Athens

Classical Attic may refer either to the varieties of Attic Greek spoken, and written in Greek majuscule[13] during the 5th and 4th centuries BC (Classical-era Attic) or to the Hellenistic and Roman[14] era standardized Attic Greek, mainly on the language of Attic orators, and written in Greek uncial (good Attic and vehement rival of vulgar or Koine Greek).


The varieties of Classical-era Attic are:

  • The vernacular and poetic dialect of Aristophanes
  • The dialect of Thucydides (mixed Old Attic with neologisms)
  • The dialect and orthography of Old Attic inscriptions in Attic alphabet before 403 BC (Ionic alphabet-reform by archon Eucleides). Thucydidean orthography, albeit transmitted, is close to them.
  • The conventionalized and poetic dialect of the Attic tragic poets, mixed with Epic and Ionic Greek and used in the episodes. (In the choral odes conventional Doric is used).
  • Formal Attic of Attic orators, Plato,[15] Xenophon and Aristotle, imitated by the Atticists or Neo-Attic writers. It is considered good or standard Attic.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Roger D. Woodard (2008), "Greek dialects", in: The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. R. D. Woodard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 51.
  2. ^ See the summary by Susan Shelmerdine, Greek Alphabet, the section in the Indo-European Database on the Greek Alphabet and the site
  3. ^ From Goodwin and Gulick's classic text "Greek Grammar" (1930)
  4. ^ Goodwin and Gulick in "Greek Grammar"
  5. ^ Kirchhoff, Adolf (1867), Studien zur Geschichte des Griechischen Alphabets.
  6. ^ Jeffery, Lilian H. (1961). The local scripts of archaic Greece. Oxford: Clarendon. 67, 81
  7. ^ Threatte 1980, pp. 26ff.
  8. ^ Smyth, par. 30 and note, 31: long a in Attic and dialects
  9. ^ Liddell and Scott, κόρη.
  10. ^ Paul Kiparsky, "Sonorant Clusters in Greek" (Language, Vol. 43, No. 3, Part 1, pp. 619-635: Sep. 1967) on JSTOR.
  11. ^ V = vowel, R = sonorant, s is itself. VV = long vowel, RR = doubled or long sonorant.
  12. ^ Liddell and Scott, κόρη.
  13. ^ Only the excavated inscriptions of the era. The Classical Attic works are transmitted in uncial manuscripts
  14. ^ Including the Byzantine Atticists
  15. ^ Platonic style is poetic


External links[edit]