History and Culture: Ancient Greek Dialects

The hero Achilles lies in wait on this 6th century BCE vase, now held in the Louvre.

In this course’s first two articles, you’ve learned all about where the Greek alphabet and the Greek language came from, from the sunny shores of Phoenicia to the wide open steppes by the Black Sea. True, those are the written and spoken building blocks that made Ancient Greek, Ancient Greek – but there’s a little something missing from that recipe, whether you realize it or not. Call it the spice, the secret sauce, the je ne sais quoi that gave the Greek-speaking world so much of its color. What are we talking about here? Why, διάλεκτοι, of course: dialects!

Remember how, in the last chapter, you learned all about prepositions that take the accusative? Think fast: what’s the preposition you use to say “why” or “because”? If you answered διά, you’d be correct, at least, in some parts of Greece. Ask an Aeolic Greek-speaker, and they’d in fact give you ζά instead of διά. Who’s the trident-wielding god who rules the waves? That’s Poseidon, or Ποσειδῶν in Greek, obviously… but what about Ποτειδάν, or Ποτειδάων? Was it Ποτειδᾶς, maybe? Those are all Doric forms of that god’s name: they’re not typos, promise, just different versions of the same word! 

So what’s the deal here, could the Greeks just not all remember how to spell the same words? The answer goes a lot deeper than that. All of the differences you just saw above are the result of spoken and written variation between Ancient Greek dialects. The text you’ll be reading throughout this course is written in Attic Greek. Although some of the most important and influential texts of classical antiquity were written in Attic, it was just one flavor, if you like, out of many choices. In this article, you’ll learn the answers to some of What kinds of dialects existed in Ancient Greek, and where were they spoken? Who spoke them, and under what circumstances? Most importantly, why should you care? 

What’s in a Dialect?

Before you go any further, hold up a second, and ask yourself this: what is it that we mean when we say “dialect”? Think carefully. Does everyone around the world speak English in the same way? Of course not. An English-speaker in New Delhi sure can sound pretty different from an English-speaker in New York. In the 21st century, dialects are usually described as varieties of a single language that are spoken by different groups of people, who in turn are distinguished by factors like region, social class, ethnicity, and so on. Different dialects may sound very different, but they’re usually mutually intelligible… at least, for the most part! Moreover, in some countries like Italy and Germany, or in parts of the Arab world, regional dialects are also often contrasted with a single, “standard” form of the language, like High German or Modern Standard Arabic. 

So what was the situation like in Ancient Greece? While the Greeks did use the word διἀλεκτος, the source of our modern “dialect,” it’s not exactly an easy concept to nail down. Ancient Greek has loads of different words that refer to speech and language, like γλῶσσα (“tongue, language”), λέξις (“speech”), and φωνή (“voice”), but διἀλεκτος was special. In the Souda, a gigantic medieval encyclopedia, διἀλεκτος is defined as a “φωνῆς χαρακτήρ ἐθνικός,” a phrase you might translate as a “tribal mark of speech.” 

Focus on that word χαρακτήρ: in Greek, it can refer to lots of distinguishing characteristics, like engraved symbols, stamps, or individual letters on a page. Now, if a friend of yours tells you to “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” it’s a pretty safe bet that she’s a Bostonian, right? Likewise, the Souda’s definition essentially claims that someone’s διἀλεκτος, the special way they spoke or wrote Greek, was a tell-tale giveaway of who they were and where they came from, and that’s the basic premise behind many other descriptions of διἀλεκτος from antiquity. To that effect, many Greek grammarians also referred to διἀλεκτος as an ἰδίωμα γλώσσης, that is, a peculiarity of speech. In case you were still confused about any of this, check out how Diogenes Laertius, writing in the 3rd century CE, describes διἀλεκτος:

“διάλεκτος δέ ἐστι λέξις κεχαραγμένη ἐθνικῶς τε καὶ Ἑλληνικῶς, ἢ λέξις ποταπή, τουτέστι ποιὰ κατὰ διάλεκτον, οἷον κατὰ μὲν τὴν Ἀτθίδα Θάλαττα, κατὰ δὲ τὴν Ἰάδα Ἡμέρη.”

“Dialect, then, is speech with an ethnic or Greek stamp on it, or speech from some particular place, that is, of some kind or another based on dialect, like how the word is θάλαττα in Attic and ἡμέρη in Ionic.”

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.56

Maybe it seems unimportant to you whether the word is θάλαττα (“sea”) or θάλασσα, ἡμέρη (“day”) or ἡμέρα. It’s only a letter or two, right? Don’t be so sure, because the gap between Greek dialects was more than a skin-deep question of who said tomayto and who said tomahto. In fact, the different dialects of Greek in the ancient world were distinct enough that they’ve traditionally been split into a bunch of unique categories, and some of the three largest and best-attested of these are Aeolic, Doric, and Ionic.

Aeolic, Doric, Ionic
Take a look at the dialect map: it may be in Greek, but don’t worry! Orange is Doric, purple is Attic/Ionic, and yellow is Aeolic.

So, where were each of these dialects spoken? Greece was then, and remains now, a patchwork of rocky cliffs and tiny, far-flung islands, so don’t expect the different dialects to only have been spoken in big, unbroken territories. Even in a much slower world, though, the Greeks were constantly on the move, and the spread of different dialects sometimes reflects the movement of settlers who founded new communities and colonies elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Aeolic, for one, was concentrated in a few places: in Boeotia in central Greece, up north in Thessaly, and then out east, especially in Greek cities in the islands near or along the coast of modern Turkey. Perhaps most importantly, it was spoken on the island of Lesbos, to the point that Aeolic in general is sometimes almost synonymous with Lesbian Aeolic  – more on that later, when you meet the island’s most famous poet extraordinaire! 

Doric, meanwhile, was spoken mostly in the Peloponnese, in southern Italy, and on several major islands in the Mediterranean, like Sicily in the west and Crete and Rhodes in the east. The Spartans, in particular, spoke a sub-variety of Doric called Laconian. Last of all, Ionic was predominantly spoken in – surprise! – Ionia, a region along the coast of central western Turkey, as well as on most of the islands in the Aegean. Attic, the dialect of Athens in which the Greek of this course is written, is a closely-related dialect to Ionic. There were other dialects, to be sure, like Arcadocypriot, spoken (unsurprisingly) both in Arcadia and on the island of Cyprus, but the big three already mentioned are the ones we know the most about, since they have the best-preserved evidence in inscriptions and literature. 

So what makes all these dialects different from each other? How are they special? It’s way too early in your Greek journey to go into all the technical details, but there’s a lot you can still appreciate about Aeolic, Doric, and Ionic even if you don’t know all that much Greek yet. Take a stab at Aeolic. Oftentimes, Aeolic has an ο where Attic has an α. Especially on Lesbos and in Thessaly, Aeolic prefers to double up sonorant consonants (like λ, μ, ν, or ρ) where Attic Greek might have a long vowel or a diphthong instead. Maybe that sounds complicated, but the gist of it is this: εἰμί (“I am”) in Attic can be ἔμμι in Aeolic, ἡμᾶς (“us” in the accusative) in Attic is ἄμμε in Aeolic, and θφείρω (“destroy, corrupt, seduce”) in Attic is φθέρρω in Aeolic… double μ, double ρ, you get the picture. What’s more, Aeolic infinitives like to end, not in -ειν the way they do in Attic, but with -εμεν: kiss Attic πράττειν goodbye, and say hello to Aeolic πρασσέμεν

There are loads of other Aeolicizing quirks besides these: instead of μία (the feminine numeral “one”), you’ll see ἴα, and instead of ἀπό, you’ll see ἀπύ. You’ll not be catching iota subscript cropping up in an Aeolic dialect, either. Also, Aeolic preserved a really old-fashioned way of showing family connections. Ancient Greek, in general, makes healthy use of patronymics, that is, a name or a part of a name that shows connection to someone’s father. In Attic, you’d often do this by saying a person’s name in the nominative, then followed up quickly with their father’s name in the genitive, like this: Μέλαγχρος τοῦ Πίθωνος, or “Melanchrus, son of Peithon.” In Aeolic, though, you’d be much more likely to see this written as Μέλαγχρος Πιθώενιος. Basically, the father’s name has been transformed into an adjective; it’s a weird little trick that Aeolic preserves from poetry of an older age!

How about Doric? Doric, meanwhile, has its own thing going on: in comparison with Attic, it has differences that are mostly cosmetic, and some that are a lot more structural. A lot of the time, for instance, Doric uses σ where Attic has θ; compare θεῶν (“of the gods”) in Attic to σιῶν in Doric. Forget the Attic definite articles οἱ, αἱ, and say hello to the dynamic Doric duo of τοί, ταί! For the 1st person plural forms of verbs (that is, the “we” form), Doric often ends with -μες, instead of the -μεν like you might expect. 

There’s more to Doric besides that. A lot of -αω contract verbs in Attic actually become -εω contract verbs in Doric, and even stuff you haven’t even learned in Attic yet is different too: Doric forms the future tense differently, has different spellings and pronunciations for most numbers, and has a whole slew of different adverbs for showing place and time. One of the most important things about Doric, though, is the small but mighty . Long alpha, it turns out, pops up in lots of places where Attic has other sounds, like ω, ου, or η; Attic πρῶτος (“first”) is Doric πρᾶτος, πολίτου (“of a citizen) is πολίτα, and ἥλιος (“sun”) is ἄλιος. Lastly, since Ionic shares a lot of characteristics with Attic, you’ll learn a good deal about it just by going through the grammar taught in this course!

Writing in Dialect

Don’t think, though, that these dialects had hard and fast borders between them, or that they were only ever spoken in one place at one time. Dialect-mixing, in fact, was a pretty common thing. The Roman author Quintilian calls this phenomenon σαρδισμός, a name taken from the city of Sardis in modern Turkey. Since Sardis was a cosmopolitan place, where Greeks of all stripes rubbed shoulders and traded words in their own unique dialects, there was plenty of overlap in the way people spoke, to the point that their dialects mixed. Choosing words and forms from dialects might have been a matter of personal choice as much as any other fashion! 

To close, take a look at this passage from Sappho, one of the most famous writers in Aeolic. Even though the dialect is specific to one time and to one place, the island of Lesbos in the 6th century BCE, you might find that the sentiment is a pretty universal one:

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει
καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽, ὤς με φώναι-
σ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει,
ἀλλ᾽ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι,
έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλίγω ᾽πιδεύης
φαίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔται·

He seems to me equal to the gods, the man who, facing you, is seated and, up close, listens to your sweet voice
and lovely laughter. That indeed makes my heart tremble within my breast. For when I look at you even briefly, I can no longer speak,
but my tongue freezes up, a delicate flame runs beneath my skin, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum,
a cold sweat covers me, trembling seizes me all over, I am paler than grass, and I seem barely alive.

Sappho 31

Discussion Questions

  • Pick an Ancient Greek dialect to research. What sorts of authors wrote texts in it, and when? What kinds of works, like plays, histories, or epic poems, survive in it?

Further Reading:

  • van Rooy, Raf. 2016. “What is a dialect?” Some new perspectives on the history of the term διἀλεκτος and its interpretations in ancient Greece and Byzantium. Glotta. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Miller, Gary D. 2014. Ancient Greek Dialects and Early Authors. Walter de Gruyter Inc., Göttingen.