BMCR 2004.12.13

The Development of the Greek Language. Second Edition

, The development of the Greek language. Studies in modern Greek. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2004. ix, 134 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 1853996750 £10.99.

1 Responses

The author, Wendy Moleas (ωμ presents this revised version of a book originally published in 1980, as a popular introduction to the development of the Greek language from Ancient Greek to Standard Modern Greek. The intended readers are primarily, but not exclusively, students of Classical Greek who need an introduction to the later stages of the language. It is the opinion of the reviewer that the book does not meet their needs.

The book consists of five chapters corresponding to five periods: Chapter 1: 20th – 4th cent. BC [pp. 1-14]; chapter 2: 3rd century BC – 11th cent. AD [pp. 15-38]; chapter 3: 11th – 18th cent. [pp. 39-71]; chapter 4: 19th – 20th cent. [pp. 73-93]; chapter 5: 20th cent. [pp. 95-116]. Each chapter combines an account of the historical, literary and linguistic development of the period in question, with generous excerpts from poetry and prose provided with translations and short commentaries. There are four appendices.

The title of the book gives the impression that it deals with the development of the Greek language from the beginning to the end, and this impression is supported by the fact that the book begins in the Mycenaean period. The emphasis is, however, on the post-classical development. The underlying assumption of the book is that Greek is essentially, mutatis mutandis, the same language today as it was two thousand years ago. It is this continuity that makes Modern Greek “readily accessible” [p. 1] to the student familiar with Ancient Greek, “once the basic adaptations are understood” [back cover].

Thus, on several occasions, WM stresses the continuity of the lexicon in Modern Greek [e.g. pp. 1, 78, 93], even though the ancient Greek origin of a word does not guarantee the identity of the two words semantically or structurally. The continuity is also said to be supported by the fact that “from the Hellenistic period onwards that AG spelling has been preserved without regard to changes in pronunciation” [p. 1, 90], but this conservatism, which is not unchallenged in the ancient inscriptions and papyri, does not alter the fact that the phonetic system has changed completely in the long time span covered by the book.

The author’s confidence in hereditary linguistic competence finds an even more radical expression: “the general rules of syntax in ancient Greek are familiar to speakers of Indo-European languages, and only a few special points need to be mentioned” [p. 12]. It is something of an exaggeration that the speakers of English, French, Persian, etc. share competence in Greek syntax on the basis of the distant relation of their languages to Greek alone!

It is in any case unfortunate that WM has included the millennium 300 BC – 1200 AD in one chapter [pp. 15-38]. It reduces the clarity of the exposition and the usefulness of the book as a handbook or as a textbook. However, this choice serves a rhetorical purpose: it enables the author to project modern features into antiquity and thereby substantiate her claim that Modern Standard Greek is closely related to Hellenistic Koine. This strategy finds an extreme expression when, on pp. 18-23, the author offers an outline of post-Classical changes in phonology, morphology and phraseology. In the narrative, we are still in Hellenistic times, but the list includes changes from the whole period, many of which were not completed until the Byzantine Age.

WM seems to infer that these innovations did exist in a more genuine layer of the language but were suppressed in cultivated prose, while the papyrus letters “give evidence of Greek as it was actually spoken, at least in Egypt” [p. 15]. She adheres, without doubt unconsciously, to a Romantic view of language. On the other hand, WM claims that her “emphasis is on the form of language which would be most naturally used in educated conversation” [p. 19]. Yet, WM admits that “[e]ven in the literature which approximated more closely to everyday speech there remained a certain formality, which kept many of the traditional forms of grammar” [p. 23]. To my mind, it is paradoxical that the language of educated conversation would show up in uneducated writings only. Of one of the text examples of the book, the Akathistos Hymn dated to the sixth century, it is said that it “would have been understood by a church congregation, and is not, therefore, written in one of the higher levels of the Koine” [p. 28]. WM implies that a higher level of Greek would not have been understood by the common man.

Most written prose of the Hellenistic and Roman Ages is in fact perfectly “regular”. The syntax and morphology is fundamentally intact, even if one can observe different distributions of certain phenomena. Even the most humble letter uses the dative or the infinitive. The dual, optative and perfect were without doubt considered erudite, but they were probably understood by all native speakers. I would be reluctant to accept a real diglossy, i.e. the existence of two structurally independent variants of Greek, until the Byzantine Age, even though I recognise that scholarly opinions differ.

It is true that some of the tendencies of Modern Greek pronunciation and morphology were already present, at least in some varieties, in Classical and Hellenistic Greek.1 Still, many of the examples listed in chapter 2 [pp. 18-23] would be gross anachronisms in Hellenistic Greek. Third declension accusatives in – αν are frequent from the Classical Age on, but a genitive like τοῦ πατέρα is unknown in antiquity. ἐσᾶς instead of ὑμᾶς does not show up until the Byzantine period. Even if there is an extended use of ἵνα in Koine, the infinitive does not become extinct in favour of νά + subjunctive until the late Middle Ages.2

As a matter of fact, the text examples of WM’s chapter 2 (two Egyptian private letters, two New Testament excerpts, a Byzantine hymn and a piece of Byzantine historiography) all resemble Ancient Greek in their morphology and syntax. There are of course syntactic preferences peculiar to Hellenistic Greek, but the text examples do not illustrate the more radical innovations listed in the beginning of the chapter (except for the changes in pronunciation reflected in the orthographical irregularities of the private letters). The chapter is called “The Beginnings of Modern Greek”, but the text examples suggest that Modern Greek does not begin until chapter three, “Greece under Frankish, Venetian and Turkish domination”.

The author is no linguist, and one must admire the courage of a non-specialist in treating these often fairly technical matters. Yet, she runs a risk of erroneous or oversimplifying presentations. To judge from the bibliography, she relies exclusively on handbooks written in English. This choice, if it is a choice, is particularly unfortunate in an introduction to the development of the Greek language, since traditionally comparative and historical linguistics have gotten more attention in continental Europe than in the English-speaking world. Her selection of linguistic literature in English is, however, not impressive either (a handful of handbooks). The author’s shortage of linguistic training emerges from the fact that linguistic matters are treated in a somewhat fuzzy way. At the end of the review, I have collected some of the examples of distortions or misrepresentations of the linguistic arguments, even though it must be emphasised that the list is not complete.

The development of the Greek language has been the subject of another recent book, written by Geoffrey Horrocks,3 which shows the same priority of the post-classical language and also gives text-examples from all the periods in question (in Greek and, audaciously, in phonetic transcription). Yet, Horrocks is an expert in Greek linguistics. One might therefore say that his intelligent and clear monograph has rendered WM’s book superfluous. WM admits that she relies heavily on Horrocks in the revised edition [p. vii], and one might therefore ask why the author and the publisher have considered it worth the effort to revise the book at all. However, the virtue of WM’s book lies in its brevity, 143 pages, whereas Horrocks presents us with 414 pages. What is more, Horrocks book is often extremely technical. It is suitable for the student specialised in general linguistics, who is interested in Greek, or the student specialised in Ancient or Modern Greek, who is interested in general linguistics. For the general public, it would be something of an overkill to read Horrock’s monograph. So there is still room for a monograph for the general public.

However, brevity is not necessarily the same as clarity. To satisfy the needs of its intended public, a handbook has to be transparent. I am sure you cannot blame the author for the fact that the typography is rather muddy and the Greek font annoys the eye. What I have in mind is the distribution of the matter. It would have been useful to divide the five chapters into several typographically independent subchapters. There should have been special individual chapters dealing with the development of the phonology, morphology and syntax instead of the interspersed digressions. It is true that WM remedies this deficiency with a short appendix on Standard Modern Greek grammar, which has references to the different excursuses in the text, but it would have been more straightforward to keep the linguistic description together. The lack of an index makes orientation even more difficult. The author invites the reader not to feel obliged to read the book from one end to the other, but to browse through it at random [p. ix]. With the current distribution of the material, this invitation remains empty.

Often the author enters into an unmotivated excursus (e.g. on the inflected character of the Greek language [pp. 11-12]) or an untimely apropos (e.g. the remarks on the Greek words for ‘computer’ [p. 62] or ‘railway’ [p. 70] in the chapter on “Greece under Frankish, Venetian and Turkish domination”). However, it is at the same time a clear indication of a strong devotion to the subject, which must be acknowledged. It is without doubt a book written with the heart, a fact which may compensate for the technical inaccuracies.

It is true that the book does not intend to be an authoritative and exhaustive handbook on the whole development of the Greek language. However, my main criticism against it is not its priority of breadth over depth, but its lack of transparency and reliability, two indispensable virtues of a short introduction. The problem is not that WM omits the sophisticated linguistic explanations but that she gives in fact too much for those of the readers who know little or no Greek, and that what she gives is not sufficiently accurate for those who have some proficiency in Greek. It must be emphasised that the book has many interesting pages and points, and it gives a fine glimpse into Medieval and Modern Greek literature. Yet, if one seeks a more accessible introduction to the development of post-classical Greek language than Horrocks’ heavy contribution, I would not recommend Wendy Moleas, but rather Robert Browning’s well-written and stimulating monograph,4 even if it is not entirely up-to-date and lacks the extensive text examples, which are the major advantage of Wendy Moleas’ book.


P. 6: WM speaks about “a division of the Greeks into three principal ethnic and linguistic groups, Ionians, Dorians and Aeolians”, leaving out Arcado-Cypriot, even though she mentions this branch some pages later and speaks about four dialects [pp. 8-9]. Since 1950, Greek linguists have preferred either a bifurcation5 or a more fluid model. Furthermore, the simple juxtaposition of ethnos and dialect is not unproblematic.6

P. 7: The author confuses alphabet and dialect: “In the Ionic dialect psi and omega were also added”. On the same page, the author claims that “in the Attic dialect, epsilon was used for both short e and long e, and omicron for short o, long o and the diphthong ou“. This ou is in most cases not really a diphthong, but a long close monophthong (e.g. in the genitive singular and the accusative plural of the second declension). Furthermore, WM ignores that Attic ε also represents such a “spurious diphthong” ει (e.g. in the infinitive).

Pp. 9-10: WM mentions Ionic ξεῖνος and κοῦρος instead of ξένος and κόρος and “some instances of π for τ” in Aeolic like πέτταρες. In both cases we are told nothing about the circumstances of these peculiarities (third compensatory lengthening before * nw, * rw and different representations of the old labiovelar, respectively). Furthermore, πέτταρες is not simply Aeolic, but Boeotian (Lesbian and Asian Aeolic seem to have had πέσυρες). Of course, one shall not insist on all such details being discussed in an introductory handbook, but the resulting compromise is worse than omitting the discussion altogether since the information will be useless to the intended readers anyway.

P. 12-13: The author speaks about ‘tense groupings’, when she means the opposition between imperfective, aorist and perfective. Apparently, she feels that the word ‘aspect’ would be too technical and perhaps rightly so; accordingly, she puts it in inverted commas later on in the discussion. What is worse, she claims that the aspect opposition did not exist in the indicative but was limited to the subjunctive, imperative, optative and infinitive. The difference between imperfect indicative (preterit) and aorist indicative (preterit) cannot, however, be described as temporal, but was exclusively aspectual.

P. 12: WM collects phenomena like contraction, ephelkystic ν and omission of n before s under one heading, “to avoid discordant sounds”. It is a remnant of pre-scientific grammatical studies to explain regular linguistic change as a matter of euphony.

P. 18: The Classical Greek pronunciation of ζ is described as dz. I happen to agree with the author’s conclusion, but it should be added that the handbooks7 normally prescribe [zd] as the pronunciation of Classical Attic Greek.

P. 25: As an innovation of post-classical Greek, WM mentions “the use of the accusative case after the preposition εἰς, as in ἰς Ἀλεξάνδρειαν to mean ‘ in Alexandria'”. The preposition εἰς is always followed by the accusative (or an elliptic genitive) in all stages of Greek. It would have been more simple to say that ἐν was yielding to εἰς.

P. 33: The author speaks about a middle suffix – ναι in Modern Greek εἶναι instead of ἔνι. There is no such suffix in the middle conjugation. If anything, eni has become ine to fit into the phonological (not the morphological, as implied by the author) structure of ime, ise (it has been adapted orthographically to the Ancient Greek infinitive).

P. 58: Words like ἡ ὁδός are “feminine, based on the gender in AG”. Since all nouns derive their gender from Ancient Greek, “like” would have been more precise (and more simple) than “based on the gender in”.

From p. 58 onwards, WM writes isolated words and, from p. 73 onwards, text excerpts according to the 1982 “monotonic” system of accentuation with one accent only and no spiritus. One may ask if it is fair to impose this system on pre-1982 authors, especially in the case of those who practise a rigorous Katharevousa style. Moreover, there are several lapses into “polytonic” accentuation (e.g. p. 58 ἐργατών, which is neither Ancient nor Modern Greek) and some false accentuations as well: ίχθυς [p. 76]. On the other hand, we find “monotonic” Κοινή Ειρήνη already in chapter one [p. 13], even though the context makes it clear that we are dealing with a Hellenistic and not a Modern Greek concept.

P. 62: “Some other features of dialectal variation include the rearrangement of sounds within a word and simple changes to, or omissions of, vowels or consonants.” This label can include anything, and the examples are a ragbag. One of the variants, εὐκή is an example of a regular Modern Greek development, according to which both two fricatives and two stops become one fricative + one stop ( εφκί < εφχί). Such information is simply ignored in the book, even though it would have been valuable to the intended readers. They would better understand and memorise common Modern Greek variants like εφτά, λευτεριά = ἑπτά, ἐλευθερία.

P. 68: WM says that the particle θά“is also used with the imperfective indicative in a conditional sense.” I suppose that the right word in this context is ‘potential’. It is less equivocal than ‘conditional’, which gives the immediate impression that θά means ‘if’.

P. 70: The French, Russian and German equivalents of σιδηροδρόμος are cited, but even though the author takes pains to write the Russian word in Cyrillic letters, she both spells and transcribes it wrong.

P. 78: When speaking about words like αλατοπίπερο (“salt and pepper “), WM uses a home-made and obscure term ‘compounds by juxtaposition’ instead of the regular English ‘copulative compound’ (or ‘dvandva’). On pp. 70-71 she mentions the phenomenon without giving it a name, which is all right in an introductory handbook and certainly better than giving it a wrong name.

P. 88: According to WM, the suffixes – μα and – ωδης“owe their origin to the Hellenistic period”. These suffixes were well-established already in Archaic Greek.

P. 89: The author derives το μέταλλον from μετ’ ἄλλα. This etymology, going back to Philipp Buttmann (1818), is rejected by our etymological lexica,8 and it is probably a loanword.

[[For a response to this review by Wendy Moleas, please see BMCR 2005.08.27.]]


1. The author could have substantiated her claim with references to S.-T. Teodorsson, The Phonemic System of the Attic Dialect (Lund 1974) and The Phonology of Ptolemaic Koine (Göteborg 1977) or to J. Niehoff-Panagiotidis, Koine und Diglossie (Wiesbaden 1994).

2. Cf. E. Banfi, ‘Forme dell’infinito nelle grecità linguistica e loro destini’, in: G. Rocca, Dialetti, dialettismis, generi letterari e funzioni sociali (Alessandria 2004), 73-95.

3. G. Horrocks Greek. A History of the Language and its Speakers (London and New York 1997).

4. R. Browning, Medieval and Modern Greek (Cambridge 1969, 2nd ed. 1983).

5. E.g. Ernst Risch’s classic division in North Greek vs. South Greek.

6. Cf. J.M. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge 1997) and Hellenicity. Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago / London 2002).

7. Cf. W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca (Cambridge, 3rd ed. 1987), pp. 56-59, which is included in the bibliography.

8. H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg 1960-72); P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Paris 1968-80).