The set of various languages indicated by the name of the Greek language (fig. 3) belongs to the Indo-European language family. The first direct documentation is epigraphic (linear B; ➔ linear) and dates back to the 16th and 15th centuries. BC The first literary documentation is found in the most ancient parts (perhaps 8th century) of the Iliad and the Odyssey ; but it is not a direct documentation, since we know the two poems in a form which is the result of various and often contrasting traditions and redactions. The Greek language was introduced in Greece by invasions from the N of the Balkan peninsula, a passageway for peoples speaking Indo-European languages, among which the Hittites and the Phrygians-Armenians can be remembered as predecessors of the Greeks. The Greek tribes, settling in their historical locations, came into contact with an alloglot, non-Indo-European layer of population, which had already reached a considerable level of civilization (Cretan or Aegean civilization) but which adopted the language of the Greek invaders. The oldest inscriptions of the Cretan world (linear A) have not yet been deciphered; therefore the language is not known. However, in the toponymy in Greek of Greece and of the Aegean islands and in the Greek lexicon a large number of forms have long been identified that must once belong to this pre-Hellenic layer (Aegean substratum), which has proved to be related to a wider substratum that is usually qualified as an indomediterraneo. A much discussed theory would like to bring a considerable part of these lexical elements back to a pre-Hellenic but Indo-European and satem-type layer, intermediate between the pre-Indo-European layer and the Greek layer, called Pelasgian, from the name of the mythical people of the Pelasgians.
At the beginning of history, the Greek-speaking area is very different, as each region, each city had its own language; this differentiation remained in written usage, especially since the different literary genres each had their own linguistic form which, although consecrated in general lines by tradition, each author treated differently. This extreme individualism was attenuated in religious life, which created the basis for the rise of a national, albeit non-political, consciousness; the slow but constant process of osmosis and the prestige acquired by some dialectal varieties led to an ever greater homogeneity which culminated in the affirmation of the koinè. Apart from these strictly historical innovations, the Greek linguistic community asserted itself in its physiognomy through a complex process of differentiation, which took place for the most part already in prehistoric times.
Particular transformations distinguish all Greek speech from other Indo-European languages (e.g. in the beginning of the word the semivowel j was reduced to an aspiration (´); preceded by an occlusive the semivowel j was treated in Greek otherwise than in all other languages; at the end of a word, Greek does not tolerate, in addition to vowels, other phonemes than n, r, s ; in the morphology, among other things, the reduction of cases from eight to five, the formation of the passive aorist with the suffix – ϑη -). Innovative on the one hand, Greek is instead conservative eg. in the vocalism, in the apophony, in the labiovelars, in the musical quality of the accent and in the verbal categories together with the aspect. Although it presents a considerably different structure from that which we are entitled to attribute to prehistoric Indo-European, due to the antiquity, precision and breadth of its documentation it is placed, together with English, among the languages that have the most facilitated the reconstruction of Indo-European.
The dialectal varieties
As elsewhere, so also in Greece it is not possible to establish a clear division between dialect and dialect. In addition to the prehistoric movements, overlapping populations occurred several times in historical times and the actual conditions are therefore very complex; to make them obscure it is added that, while we are well informed about some dialects, others are scarce or lacking in documents. The sources of information are epigraphic texts, literary texts and information handed down by ancient grammarians and lexicographers (➔ Hesychius of Alexandria).
A distribution that tries to reconcile linguistic facts with historical and geographical data distinguishes: 1 °) Doric; 2 °) dialect of Achaia and its colonies in Italy (Crotone, Metaponto, Sibari, Posidonia), similar to Doric; 3 °) dialect of Elis, intermediate between the 1st and 4th group; 4 °) North-West dialects (Locride, Phocis etc.), similar to Doric; 5 °) Aeolian (lesbian, Thessalian and Boeotic); 6 °) Arcadian-Cypriot; 7 °) panfilic, similar to the previous group; 8 °) Ionic-Attic. These eight varieties could be reduced to four in the classification: Ionic, Aeolian, Arcadian-Cypriot and Doric; but opinions on this matter are divergent.
Except in Attica, Lesbos and Syracuse and sporadically elsewhere, literature did not make use of the local language. The most ancient form of literary language, the Homeric language, is the product of a long stylistic tradition and therefore presents a coexistence of linguistic elements various for chronology (Ionic of the 8th century with abundant traces of a more archaic stage) and for geographical origin (Ionic with traces of Aeolian, the language of the oldest epic). This language was later used for all hexametric poetry (ἔπος) from Hesiod to later times and exerted an influence on Greek poetry in general. Not even the lesbian lyric, considered as the most adherent, among the poetic forms, to the maternal idiom of its followers, is completely immune from infiltrations of the epic dialect. The mixture stands out in the language used by the choral lyric, which is a generic Doric with epic and aeolian elements at the same time.
In Ionia, which preceded the other regions in the development of civilization and which was also the first to give itself a literary language distinct from the local language, Greek narrative and scientific prose was born; and for a long time even native writers from other regions made use of the Ionian language. The oldest form of the Attic literary language takes place under its influence: the dialect of tragedy.
Only towards the end of the 5th century. the language of the Attic writers becomes more adherent to the local dialect and soon becomes the literary language of all Greece, favored, in this spread, by the spiritual prestige of Athens and its political situation. With the expansion the attic changes: the Ionian population that adopts it retains some grammatical peculiarities, especially phonetic and lexical ones, of their own dialects; thus modified the attic spreads to other Greek lands and following the victorious path of Alexander it becomes the language of the classical East. This common language of Hellenism coexisted in the last centuries BC with a Koine Western acheodorica and more properly Doric Doric Aegean islands but, in the end, the ancient dialects disappeared. From the splitting of the koinè are derived from the current dialects.
The neo-Greek language
The neo-Greek language develops from the Alexandrian koinè through a series of phonetic changes, the main ones of which all take place between 300 BC and 500 AD (loss of the sense of quantity and musical accent; monophthongization; itacism; change of sound stops and deaf ones aspirated into voiced and respectively deaf spirants). Simultaneously with the phonetic evolution, and partly determined by it, a process of simplification and equalization of the forms takes place, similar to that which leads from Latin to the Romance languages, but less radical in its conclusions.
The lexicon of modern Greek consists in the absolute majority of words of Greek origin, with numerous semantic shifts. The influence of Western languages (Italian, French) made itself felt especially after the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders and the dismemberment of the Empire. The Turkish conquest overall exercised a protective action of isolation, even if the neo-Greek lexicon was enriched with not a few words of Turkish origin. With the end of the Ottoman rule, the latter were progressively expelled, also by virtue of measures taken from above, while the influence of Western languages increased, especially French and English.
Although there is no marked discrepancy between the various regional dialects of Greece, it is possible to make a distinction between the dialects of the north and the dialects of the south; the Zaconic (spoken in a mountainous area of the Peloponnese, has elements that go back directly to the Laconic) and the Greek of southern Italy have a separate place. The atticistic reaction which took place already in Roman times against the evolution of the koinè and continued in the Byzantine age, created a de facto situation that was perpetuated for centuries in the so-called diglossia: alongside the vulgar (or demotic) Greek, it was used, as the official language of the State, of scholarship and science, but also as instrument of literary expression, a pure language, which claimed to preserve, not without glaring inconsistencies, the forms and constructs of ancient Greek.