Ancient Greek Language, Writing and Alphabets

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Greek dialects
The ancient Greek spoken language is thought to have been similar to modern Greek, but like other ancient languages, although we can read it, we don’t known exactly what it sounded like. Based on written texts that have been handed down to us today ancient Greek was a colorful language that could express a wide range of emotions and thoughts.

Even though many words in the modern English are derived from Greek, the Greeks didn’t have a word for “word” until Hellenistic times. Some original Greeks words like “mathematics,” “physics” and “music” have come down to us virtually unchanged. Charisma is a Greek word that literally means “the gift of grace.” It was used in the early Christian era to describe the extraordinary powers given someone by the Holy Ghost. Many modern words like “helicopter” and “telephone” were derived from Greek words.

Vowels in the ancient Greek language had both pitch-accent and quantity (time value) unlike the stressed syllables of modern Greek. These determinations were made based on the fact that syllables of a line of ancient Greek poetry created prosodic rhythms with the long vowels receiving twice the time value as short vowels.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ancient Greek Written Language

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “According to the ancient Greeks they adapted their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Both were great seafaring peoples and eager to trade not only goods but ideas. One of the most important ideas was the alphabet. It enabled a system of writing by which they could record their transactions- 100 jars of olive oil, 20 blocks of white marble, 30 packages of purple dye, etc. As with other ideas they borrowed the Greeks made improvements, increasing the number of letters by adding vowels. This happened sometime around the beginning of the eighth century B.C. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Linear A tablet

“This was not the first time that Greek speaking peoples had used a written language. The Mycenaeans, who were the subjects of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, had developed a system of writing that today's scholars call “Linear B”. Several thousand sun-dried clay tablets covered with the Linear B script have been found on the island of Crete. They represent the earliest form of written Greek known. Deciphered by a young English architect (Michael Ventris), the tablets recorded details about the storage and distribution of household goods. The information was probably written around 1400 B.C. . Then, during the Dark Age, the knowledge of writing died out. The Greeks became an illiterate society. |

“With the adoption and modification of the Phoenician alphabet the Greeks were on their way to becoming literate again. In fact the achievements for which they became renowned in fields as varied as philosophy, science, government, literature and medicine would not have happened if it weren't for writing. Socrates wrote nothing but we know so much about what he thought and said because of the writings of Plato. Access to a simple writing system meant that everyone willing to learn could, in theory, do so –women, slaves, peasants as well as members of the aristocracy. In fact, however, most didn't and illiteracy was widespread during the golden age of Greece- the Classical Era. |

“The Mycenaean Greeks used sharp instruments to engrave their language into wet clay tablets. (A major fire at an ancient palace baked thousands of these tablets and preserved them for scholars today.) Later Greeks used a variety of writing implements- papyrus (which they got from Phoenician traders), parchment (which was made from the scraped hides of cattle, ship or goats), wooden tablets whitened with gypsum, wooden tablets coated with wax and, of course, more durable materials such as stone monuments and bronze plaques. These more permanent materials were often used for official inscriptions- laws of the city, treaties with other states, temple dedications, war memorials and such. |

“Early Greek writing runs from right to left- for the first line. The second line then runs from left to right and the direction of the lines alternate for the complete text. This kind of writing is called boustrophedon (as the ox turns- when he plows a field.) Later the left to right system, which we use today, became the standard.”

Minoan Language and the Phaistos Disk

Minoans were the first Europeans to use writing. Their written language was only deciphered in the late 1990s. Known as Linear A, it contains 45 "letters" and is categorized as an ancient form of Greek. The few scraps of Minoan text that have been translated are mainly records of trade, inventories of military equipment, and lists of harvests of wheat and olives. Linear A clay tablets, dated between 1900 and 1700 B.C., were found at Knossos. They were found along with tablets with Minoan hieroglyphics, Linear B, and a still undeciphered Cretan script dated to 2000-1700 B.C.

The Phaistos Disk, found in the ruins of the 3700-year-old B.C. palace of Phaistis, is the earliest know example of printing. The six-inch, baked-clay disk contains 241 pictorial designs comprised of 45 different letters arranged in a spiral formation. The symbols were placed on the disk with a set of punches, one for each symbol, using the same concept as movable type.

The ancient Mycenaeans had a written language in 1200 B.C., called Linear B, that was discovered on clay tablets at Mycenaean and Minoan sites. Tablets found in 1939 at Pylos by American archaeologist Carl Blegen and deciphered in 1940 by an eighteen-year-old young Englishman named Michael Ventris, who revealed his discovery in a 1952 BBC interview and also revealed that the language was a precursor of Greek and the was oldest written Indo-European language known. See Below

Expressions and Names in Ancient Greece

The expression "big fish eat little fish" has been traced by to the Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote it in the 8th century B.C. It probably originated much earlier, possible in Mesopotamia.

The expression "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched" is attributed to Aesop in 570 B.C. In the story “ The Milkmaid and her Pail” , Patty the farmer's daughter says, "The milk in this pail will provide me with cream, which I will make into butter, which I will sell at the market, and buy a dozen eggs, and soon I shall have a large poultry yard. I'll sell some of the fowls and buy myself a handsome new gown."

The expression "he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day" was attributed to the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenese who fled a battle between Athens and Macedonia, in which 3,000 Athenians died, and was later censured for desertion. He reportedly used the expression whenever someone accused him of being a coward.

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Dodona curse inscription

Among the expressions collected by the poet-philosopher Heraclitus are: 1) “You can’t step twice into the same river;” 2) “Souls smell in Hades;” 3) “The eye, the ear, the mid in action, these I value;” 4) “goat cheese melts and warm wine congeals if not well stirred.”

Book: “ Fragments: the Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus” (Viking, 2001)

In ancient times people generally only had one name, which was given at birth. People with the same name were often differentiated from one another by identifying them as the son of someone (i.e. James, the son of Zeledee in the Bible) or linking them to their birthplace (i.e. Paul of Tarsus, also from the Bible).

Ancient Greek Writing, Reading and Dictionaries

Ancient Greece was one of the first civilizations to widely use writing as a form of literary and personal expression. For the Mesopotamians and Egyptians writing was used mainly to make records and write down incantations for the dead. The Greeks, by contrast wrote dramas, histories and philosophical and scientific pieces. Even so most people were illiterate and writing was seen mainly as something that helped the memory and aided the spoken word. From what can be ascertained people read aloud rather than silently to themselves.

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Magic Pella leaded tablet_ katadesmos) 4th Century

Aristotle described writing as a means of expressing "affections of the soul." Plato wrote "trust to the external characters and not remember of themselves...They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing."

Expressions and idioms in ancient Greek went out of date just as quickly as the "cat's pajamas" and the "bees knees" in modern times. The first dictionary was a book of difficult words and expressions from Homer's texts written by Philitas. His student Zenodotus wrote a similar work called “Difficult Words” which made the great innovation of putting the words in alphabetical order. Similar dictionaries included “ Words” by Aristophanes of Byzantium and “ Words of Tragedy” and “ Art of Grammar” by Didymus, a diligent scholar who earned his nickname "Bronze-Guts" for his compilation of at least 3,500 works.

Book: “The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms” by Andrew Robinson

Ancient Greek Alphabet and the Phoenician Alphabet

The word alphabet comes from the first two Greek letters “alpha” and “ beta” . The Phoenician alphabet was being used in Greece around 800 B.C. or earlier. The Greeks attributed the introduction of the alphabet to Cadmus, the son of Tyrian king and the sister of the goddess Europe.

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Phoenician alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet provided the basis for the Greek alphabet which gave birth to the Latin alphabet which beget the modern alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters, each for sound rather than a word or phrase. It provided the basis for the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet as well as the Greek alphabet which gave birth to the Latin alphabet which beget the modern alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of all European and Middle Eastern alphabets as well as ones in India, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia and Korea. The English alphabet evolved from the Latin, Roman, Greek and ultimately the Phoenician alphabets. The letter "O" has not changed since it was adopted into the Phoenician alphabet in 1300 B.C.

Phoenician writing was read from right to left like Hebrew and Arab, but the opposite direction of English. The major difference between the 22-letter Phoenician alphabet and the one we use today is that the Phoenician alphabet had no vowels. Its genius was its simplicity.

Under the Phoenician system a two syllable word like drama written could have at least nine different pronunciations — 1) drama, 2) dramu, 3) drami, 4) drima, 5) drimu, 6) drimi, 7) druma, 8) drumu, 9) drumi — because the vowels sounds were not specified. Most people who could read could recognize which word was meant and which vowel sounds were present by the signs that were given. Even so there was lots of potential for confusion. The Greeks introduced vowels, which cleared up the confusion.

History of the Phoenician Alphabet

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Greco-Punic alphabet
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the earliest example of alphabetic writing was a clay tablet with 32 cuneiform letters found in Ugarit, Syria and dated to 1450 B.C. The Ugarits condensed Eblaite writing, with its hundreds of symbols, into a concise 30-letter alphabet that was the precursor of the Phoenician alphabet. The Ugarites reduced all symbols with multiple consonant sounds to signs with a single consonant sound. In the Ugarite system each sign consisted of one consonant plus any vowel. That meant the sign for “p” could be “pa,” “pi” or “pu.”

It is believed that the Phoenicians developed their alphabet to make their bookkeeping easier. Unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, in which a large number of pictures and symbols were used to represent sounds, the Phoenicians alphabet used a small number of symbols to represent sounds. The early Phoenicians symbols were themselves abstract representations of pictures. "Q", for example, was the sign for a monkey and "L" represented a whip.

The earliest examples of the Phoenician alphabet, dated to around 1000 B.C., were found on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos. An inscription in the Phoenician alphabet read: "Ahiram, King of Byblos His abode is eternity." The sarcophagus also contained carved stone images of supplicants approaching the kings with their hands raised and lions crouching in the corners.

The Phoenicians carried their alphabet with them as they traded. The system was picked up by other Semitic people, Arabs, Persians and Assyrians and then made its way east to India and west to Greece and Italy and south to Ethiopia.

There are few remains or real examples of the Phoenician alphabet. The fact that early Phoenician writings were written on papyrus, which degraded, explains why so few written records or history from Phoenicia exist. Papyrus was the main item from Egypt traded for Phoenician timber. From Byblos papyrus was distributed to other places

See Phoenicians

Linear B

Linear B

The ancient Mycenaeans had a written language in 1200 B.C., called Linear B, that was discovered on clay tablets at Mycenaean and Minoan sites. Tablets found in 1939 at Pylos by American archaeologist Carl Blegen and deciphered in 1940 by an eighteen-year-old young Englishman named Michael Ventris, who revealed his discovery in a 1952 BBC interview and also revealed that the language was a precursor of Greek and the was oldest written Indo-European language known.

These where startling revelations when one considers that no one had any idea what language the Mycenaeans spoke, that written Greek didn't reappear until 400 years later in the 5th century B.C. and that the Greek alphabet and the Mycenaean symbols looked as different from one another as Chinese and English.μ

Blegen found 1,200 clay tablets, which had been preserved in a palace fire in 1200 B.C. He determined that Linear B there was used primarily to record palace inventories and administrative records of thing like olives, wine, chariot wheels, tripods, sheep, oxen, wheat, barely, spices, plots of land, chariots, slaves, horses and taxes to be collected. So far no references to the Trojan War or anyone mentioned in the “ Iliad” have been found in Linear B.

Development of Written Greek

Written Greek first appeared around the 9th century B.C. The oldest example is an inscription on a vase, dated to the 8th century B.C., given out as a trophy. It reads: “Whoever of the dancers makes merry most gracefully, let him receive this.”

Early Greek writing resembled Phoenician. Anyone who could read ancient Phoenician could also read Greek. But over time the Greek alphabet changed considerably. One of the first major changes was switching the direction of writing from right to left to the oposite direction, left to right,. Phoenician writing was read from right to left like modern Arabic, but the opposite direction of English. In the early years of Greek culture, writing appeared in all different directions — right to left, left to right, up and down — with left to right finally prevailing.

Greek was written only in capital letters and had no punctuation. There were no paragraphs, There wasn’t even spaces between words. These things were introduced in age of Charlemagne. Even so ancient Greek writing is similar enough to modern Greek that modern Greek school children can read the original texts of Aristotle. The ancient Greeks could also create massive compound words like German (see Aristophanes)

Development of Greek Alphabet

The Greeks borrowed 19 letters from the Phoenician alphabet, dropped three letters and changed two. The Phoenician A for “aeleph” became the Greek alpha. The Phoenicians B for “beth” became beta and D for “daleth” became delta.

The most radical and innovative change made by the Greeks was the addition of vowels. Phoenician writing consisted syllabic sounds beginning with a consonant and ending with a vowel. The Greeks added five vowels similar to our "A," "E," "I," "O," and "U."

Under the Phoenician system a two syllable word like drama written could have at least nine different pronunciations — 1) drama, 2) dramu, 3) drami, 4) drima, 5) drimu, 6) drimi, 7) druma, 8) drumu, 9) drumi — because the vowels sounds were not specified. Most people who could read could recognize which word was meant and which vowel sounds were present by the signs that were given. Even so there was lots of potential confusion. With the addition of vowels these confusions were cleared up.

Pylos Linear B tablet

Greek writing was eventually passed on to 1) the Etruscans who passed their writing on to the Romans and to the 3) Copts in Egypt, who replaced hieroglyphics

Differences Between Classical and Hellenistic Greek

On the difference between Koiné (or Hellenistic) Greek and Classical Greek, Jay C. Treat, of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: A.T. “Robertson characterizes Koiné Greek as a later development of Classical Greek, that is, the dialect spoken in Attica (the region around Athens) during the classical period. For all intents and purposes the vernacular Greek is the later vernacular Attic with normal development under historical environment created by Alexander's conquests. On this base then were deposited varied influences from the other dialects, but not enough to change the essential Attic character of the language (Robertson, 71). If the Koiné is an outgrowth of Classical Greek, what are the differences between the two? Robertson states the basic differences succinctly. Koiné was more practical than academic, putting the stress on clarity rather than eloquence. Its grammar was simplified, exceptions were decreased and generalized, inflections were dropped or harmonized, and sentence-construction made easier. Koiné was the language of life and not of books. [Source: Jay C. Treat, University of Pennsylvania,, Last modified: August 03, 2015 ]

“Orthographic changes are relatively minor. Attic tt usually becomes ss. There is a tendency to change rough breathing to smooth breathing, except in words that once contained a digamma (or words used in analogy with them). Elision is not as common in the Koiné but there is even more assimilation than in Classical usage. There is less concern for rhythm. The -μ forms are beginning to drop out. The movable consonants in “t” and “st” are added regardless of whether the next word begins with a vowel, as Classical usages required. Accent by pitch gives way to accent by stress. Changes in vocabulary are of course too numerous to list here. Generally, it may be said that there are many shifts in the meaning of words and in the frequency of their usage.

“There are many differences between Classical Greek and Koiné in syntax. Koiné has shorter sentences, more parataxis and less hypotaxis, a sparing use of participles, and a growth in the use of prepositions (although some old ones have died out). Variations of nouns, adjectives, and verbs are often according to sense, and a neuter plural substantive may be used with either a singular or a plural verb. Koiné used personal pronouns in oblique cases much more often, whereas writers in Attic used them only when they were necessary for clarity.


“In Classical Greek there were five types of conditional sentences (using Blass's classification): 1) real conditions (e? with the indicative), 2) contrary-to-fact conditions (e with an augmented tense of the indicative), 3) conditions of more vivid expectation, 4) conditions of less vivid expectation, and 5) repetition in past time. In Koiné, type 1 (real conditions) has lost ground, type 2 (contrary-to-fact conditions) persists, type 3 (more vivid conditions) prevails, type 4 (less vivid conditions) is barely represented, and type 5 (repetition in past time) has disappeared. One Classical feature that Koiné does not have is the conditional relative clause."

Papyrus and Vellum

Unlike the Mesopotamians who wrote on clay tablets, the Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a brittle paper-like material made from reeds of Nile sedge (a grass-like plant), which were moistened, pounded, smoothed, dried, and pressed woven together like a mat. The word paper is derived from papyrus. Strong enough to endure for millennia and be discovered by archaeologists, papyrus is thicker and heavier than modern paper but good quality and good for writing. Ostraca was a kind of papyrus made of left over stone chips.

During Egyptian times most everything was written on papyrus. When dried out papyrus naturally curled up which is why most literary works were in the form of scrolls The Egyptian learned to make papyrus by 3000 B.C. or earlier. A blank role of papyrus was found sealed in a tomb, perhaps as old as 3200 B.C. First papyrus with writing dates to 2500 B.C. Papyrus was widely used until the A.D. 8th century. Thanks to the dry climate some of ancient Egyptian documents written on papyrus survive today.

Papyrus is light and strong and ideal for writing on. The ancient Egyptians wrote with reed styluses that were not all that different from quill pens used until the 19th century. Scribes used a palate with a slit for storing styli and separate wells for red and black ink. Black ink was made from lampblack and water. The Egyptians built papyrus libraries in 3200 B.C. Some papyrus rolls were 133 feet long.

During Hellenistic times, papyrus was displaced by parchment and vellum, materials made from bleached, stretched animals hide. King Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.) of Pergamum invented parchment from the cleaned, stretched and smooth skins of sheep or goats after the Egyptians cut off the supply of papyrus. He also invented vellum which is especially fine parchment from the skin of a calf. Both "veal" and "vellum" come “ veel” , the Old French word for calf.

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mosaic with Greek writing

Vellum was very durable. It could be rolled up or creased and made into a book. Vellum was very expensive and finer in quality than normal parchment. Paper was invented in Korea and China before the forth century A.D. but wasn't widely used in Europe until the 14th century, after it was carried westward on the Silk Road.

A book made of vellum was called a codex. Vellum was an important innovation in the making of manuscripts. Picture painted on scroll eventually cracked pealed and flaked off from the process of being rolled up. The flat pages of vellum didn't have this problem.

The Greeks used stylus pens made from pointed reeds or stalks. They were not all that much different from quill pens used through the 19th century. Ink was made from a mix of lampblack, gum and water.

Papyrus, See Egyptians

Herculaneum Scrolls

Jana Louise Smit wrote in Listverse,: “When Mount Vesuvius famously wiped out Pompeii in A.D. 79, it also destroyed the neighboring city of Herculaneum. Excavations in 1752 uncovered the latter’s library. Most of the 1,800 scrolls were so badly burned by the eruption they were no more than unreadable carbonized lumps. More than two centuries later, archaeologists used X-rays to read the parchments too fragile to unroll. They managed to pick up Greek letters and phrases, but reading the more damaged scrolls remains an ongoing effort. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, May 15, 2016]

“While the Herculaneum papyri...remain the only complete library ever recovered from ancient times. Some could be opened manually, and they revealed a philosophical treasure—lost prose and poems by the famous Greek philosopher Epicurus. There are even texts that were completely unknown to philosophical scholars.

“Not only does this allow researchers to gain a deeper understanding of ancient Greek and Latin works, but it also adjusts what we know about the history of ink. When scientists analyzed the scroll fragments, they found that the ink contained a high amount of lead. Metallic inks were thought to have been introduced around A.D. 420 for Greek and Roman manuscripts, but the Herculaneum scrolls predate that notion by a couple of centuries.”

See Romans

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Derveni_Papyrus with Greek writing

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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