Koine Greek

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History of the
Greek language

(see also: Greek alphabet)
Proto-Greek (c3000BC)
Mycenaean (c1600BC-1100αBC)
Ancient Greek
Aeolic, Arcadocypriot,
Attic, Doric, Ionic

Koine Greek (from c323 BC)
Medieval Greek (c330-1453)
Modern Greek (from 1453)
Cappadocian, Cypriot,
Demotic, Griko, Katharevousa,
Pontic, Tsakonic, Yevanic

Koine Greek (Greek Ελληνιστική Κοινή, "common Greek", or κοινή διάλεκτος "the common dialect") is the popular form of Greek which emerged in post-Classical antiquity (c.300 BC – AD 300). Other names are Alexandrian, Hellenistic, Patristic, Common, Biblical or New Testament Greek. Original names were koine, Hellenic, Alexandrian and Macedonian (Macedonic);[1][2] all on the contrast to Attic dialect. Koine was the first common supra-regional dialect in Greece and came to serve as a lingua franca for the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near East throughout the Roman period. It was also the original language of the New Testament of the Christian Bible and of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).[3] Koine is the main ancestor of modern Greek.


Koine Greek arose as a common dialect within the armies of Alexander the Great.[3] Under the leadership of Macedon who colonized the known world, their newly formed common dialect was spoken from Egypt to the fringes of India.[3] Though elements of Koine Greek took shape during the late Classical Era, the post-Classical period of Greek dates from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, when cultures under Hellenistic sway in turn began to influence the language. The passage into the next period, known as Medieval Greek, dates from the foundation of Constantinople by Constantine I in 330. The post-Classical period of Greek thus refers to the creation and evolution of Koine Greek throughout the entire Hellenistic and Roman eras of history until the start of the Middle Ages.[3]


Koine (Κοινή), Greek for "common", is a term which had been previously applied by ancient scholars to several forms of Greek speech. A school of scholars such as Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus maintained the term Koine to refer to the Proto-Greek language, while others would use it to refer to any vernacular form of Greek speech which differed from the literary language.[3] When Koine gradually became a language of literature, some people distinguished it in two forms: Hellenic (Greek) as the literary post-classical form, and Koine (common) as the spoken popular form.[3] Others chose to refer to Koine as the Alexandrian dialect or the dialect of Alexandria, a term often used by modern classicists.


The linguistic roots of the Common Greek dialect had been unclear since ancient times. During the Hellenistic age, most scholars thought of Koine as the result of the mixture of the four main Ancient Greek dialects, "Η εκ των τεττάρων συνεστώσα" (the composition of the Four). This view was supported in the early 20th century by Austrian linguist P. Kretschmer in his book "Die Entstehung der Koine" (1901), while the German scholar Wilamowitz and the French linguist Antoine Meillet, based on the intense Ionic elements of the Koine — such as σσ instead of ττ and ρσ instead of ρρ (θάλασσα — θάλαττα, αρσενικός — αρρενικός) — considered Koine to be a simplified form of Ionic.[3] The final answer which is academically accepted today was given by the Greek linguist G. N. Hatzidakis, who proved that, despite the "composition of the Four", the "stable nucleus" of Koine Greek is Attic. In other words, Koine Greek can be regarded as Attic with the admixture of elements especially from Ionic, but also from other dialects. The degree of importance of the non-Attic linguistic elements on Koine can vary depending on the region of the Hellenistic World.[3] In that respect, the varieties of Koine spoken in the Ionian colonies of Asia Minor and Cyprus would have more intense Ionic characteristics than others. The literary Koine of the Hellenistic age resembles Attic in such a degree that it is often mentioned as Common Attic.[3]


The first scholars who studied Koine, both in Alexandrian and contemporary times, were classicists whose prototype had been the literary Attic language of the Classical period, and would frown upon any other kind of Hellenic speech. Koine Greek was therefore considered a decayed form of Greek which was not worthy of attention.[3] The reconsideration on the historical and linguistic importance of Koine Greek began only in the early nineteenth century, where renowned scholars conducted a series of studies on the evolution of Koine throughout the entire Hellenistic and Roman period which it covered. The sources used on the studies of Koine have been numerous and of unequal reliability. The most significant ones are the inscriptions of the post-Classical periods and the papyri, for being two kinds of texts which have authentic content and can be studied directly[3]. Other significant sources are the Septuagint, the somewhat literal Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the New Testament, parts of which may have been translated from the Hebrew Gospel by Jerome (or others) using similar rules to the Septuagint translators. The teaching of the Testaments was aimed at the most common people, and for that reason they use the most popular language of the era. Information can also be derived from some Atticist scholars of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, who, in order to fight the evolution of the language, published works which compared the supposedly "correct" Attic against the "wrong" Koine by citing examples.

Other sources can be based on random findings such as inscriptions on vases written by popular painters, mistakes made by Atticists due to their imperfect knowledge of pure Attic, or even some surviving Greco-Latin glossaries of the Roman period[4], e.g:

Καλήμερον, ήλθες;
Bono die, venisti?
Good day, you came?

Εάν θέλεις, ελθέ μεθ' ημών.
Si vis, veni mecum.
If you want, come with us (The Latin actually says with me, not us).


Προς φίλον ημέτερον Λεύκιον.
Ad amicum nostrum Lucium.
To our friend Lucius.

Τί γαρ έχει;
Quid enim habet?
Indeed, what does he have?
What is it with him?.

He's sick.

Finally, a very important source of information on the ancient Koine is the modern Greek language with all its dialects and its own Koine form, which have preserved some of the ancient language's oral linguistic details which the written tradition has lost. For example the Pontic and Cappadocian dialects preserved the ancient pronunciation of η as ε (νύφε, συνέλικος, τίμεσον, πεγάδι}} etc), while the Tsakonic preserved the long α instead of η (λίμνα, χοά etc) and the other local characteristics of Laconic.[3] Dialects from the Southern part of the Greek-speaking regions (Dodecanese, Cyprus etc), preserve the pronunciation of the double similar consonants (άλ-λος, Ελ-λάδα, θάλασ-σα}}), while others pronounce in many words υ as ου or preserve ancient double forms (|κρόμμυον — κρεμ-μυον, ράξ — ρώξ etc). Linguistic phenomena like the above imply that those characteristics survived within Koine, which in turn had countless variations in the Greek-speaking world[3].

Evolution from ancient Greek

The study of all sources from the six centuries which are symbolically covered by Koine reveals linguistic changes from ancient Greek on phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary and other elements of the spoken language. Most new forms start off as rare and gradually become more frequent until they are established. From the linguistic changes which took place in Koine, Greek gained such a resemblance to its medieval and modern successors that almost all characteristics of modern Greek can be traced in the surviving texts of Koine.[3] As most of the changes between modern and ancient Greek were introduced via Koine, Koine is largely intelligible to speakers of the modern language.


During the period generally designated as "Koine" Greek, a great deal of phonological change occurred: at the start of the period, the pronunciation was virtually identical to classical ancient Greek, whereas in the end it had much more in common with modern Greek.

The three most significant changes during this period were the loss of vowel length distinction, the substitution of the pitch accent system with a stress accent system, and the monophthongization of several diphthongs.

Evolution in phonology is summarised below:

  • The ancient distinction between long and short vowels was gradually lost, and from the 2nd century BC all vowels were isochronic.[3]
  • Since the 2nd century BC, the means of accenting words changed from pitch to stress, meaning that the accented syllable is not pronounced in a musical tone but louder and/or stronger.[3]
  • The aspirate breathing aspiration), which was already lost in the Ionic varieties of Asia Minor and the Aeolic of Lesbos, stopped being pronounced and written in popular texts.[3]
  • Long diphthongs, which in older times were written with a subscript of ι after a long vowel, stopped being pronounced and written in popular texts.[3]
  • The diphthongs αι, ει, and οι became single vowels. In this manner 'αι', which had already been converted by the Boeotians into a long ε since the 4th century BC and written η (e.g. πῆς, χῆρε, μέμφομη), became in Koine, too, first a long ε and then short. The diphthong 'ει' had already merged with ι in the 5th century BC in regions such as Argos or in the 4th c. BC in Corinth (e.g. ΛΕΓΙΣ), and it acquired this pronunciation also in Koine. The diphthong 'οι' acquired the pronunciation of the modern French 'U' which lasted until the 10th century AD. The diphthong 'υι' came to be pronounced [ui], and remained pronounced as a diphthong. The diphthong 'ου' had already acquired the pronunciation of Latin 'U' since the 6th century BC and preserved it in modern times.[3]
  • The diphthongs αυ and ευ came to be pronounced [av] and [ev] (via [aβ], [eβ]), but are partly assimilated to [af], [ef] before the voiceless consonants θ, κ, ξ, π, σ, τ, φ, χ, and ψ.[3]
  • Simple vowels have preserved their ancient pronunciations, except η which is pronounced as ι, and υ, which retained the pronunciation of modern French 'U' only until the 10th c. AD, and was later also pronounced as ι. With those changes in phonology there were common spelling mistakes between υ and οι, while the sound of ι was multiplied (iotacism).[3]
  • The consonants also preserved their ancient pronunciations to a great extent, except β, γ, δ, φ, θ, χ and ζ. Β, Γ, Δ (Beta, Gamma, Delta), which were originally pronounced [b, g, d], acquired the sounds of v, gh, and dh, which they still have today, except when preceded by a nasal consonant (μ, ν); in that case, they retain their ancient sounds (e.g. γαμβρός — γαmbρός, άνδρας — άndρας, άγγελος — άŋgελος). The latter three (Φ, Θ, Χ), which were initially pronounced as aspirates developed into the fricatives [f [θ]and [x]. Finally the letter Ζ, which is still categorised as a double consonant with ξ and ψ, because it was initially pronounced as σδ (sd), later acquired the sound of Z as it appears in Modern English and Greek.[3]

Biblical Koine

"Biblical Koine" refers to the varieties of Koine Greek used in the Christian Bible and related texts. Its main sources are:

  • the Septuagint, a 3rd century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which added the Biblical apocrypha. Most of the texts are translations, but there are some portions and texts composed in Greek. Sirach, for instance, has been found in Hebrew;
  • the New Testament, compiled originally in Greek (although some books may have had a Hebrew-Aramaic substrate and contain some Semitic influence on the language).

There has been some debate to what degree Biblical Greek represents the mainstream of contemporary spoken Koine and to what extent it contains specifically Semitic substratum features (cf. Aramaic primacy). These could have been induced either through the practice of translating closely from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, or through the influence of the regional non-standard Greek spoken by the originally Aramaic-speaking Jews. Some of the features discussed in this context are the Septuagint's normative absence of the particles μεν and δε, and the use of εγενετο to denote "it came to pass." Some features of Biblical Greek which are thought to have originally been non-standard elements eventually found their way into the main of the Greek language.

The term Patristic Greek is sometimes used for the Greek written by the Church Fathers, the early Christian theologians in late antiquity. Christian writers in the earliest time tended to use a simple register of Koiné, relatively close to the spoken language of their time, following the model of the Bible. After the 4th century, when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, more learned registers of Koiné influenced by Atticism came also to be used.[5]

New Testament Greek

The Koine Greek in the table represents a reconstruction of New Testament Koine Greek, deriving to some degree from the dialect spoken in Judaea and Galilaea during the 1st century and similar to the dialect spoken in Alexandria, Egypt. Note the realizations of certain phonemes differ from the more standard Attic dialect of Koine. Note the soft fricative "β" in intervocalic position, the preservation of the aspirated plosive value of "ph", "th" and "kh", the preservation of a distinction between the four front vowels "i", "ē", "e", and "y" (which is still rounded), and other features.

letter Greek Transliteration
Alpha α a
Beta β (-β-) b
Gamma γ g
Delta δ d
Epsilon ε e
Zeta ζ z
Eta η ē
Theta θ th
Iota ι i
Kappa κ k
Lambda λ l
Mu μ m
Nu ν n
Xi ξ x
Omicron ο o
Pi π p
Rho ρ r
Sigma σ (-σ-/-σσ-) s (-s-/-ss-)
Tau τ t
Upsilon υ y
Phi φ ph
Chi χ ch
Psi ψ ps
Omega ω ō
. αι ai
. ει ei
. οι oi
. αυ au
. ευ eu
. ηυ ēu
. ου ou

Further reading

  • Stevens, Gerald L. New Testament Greek Primer.
  • Stevens, Gerald L. New Testament Greek Intermediate. From Morphology to Translation.

External links


  1. Remarks on the synonyms of the New Testament by Johann August Heinrich Tittmann, Edward Craig, Edward Robinson, Moses Stuart pg 148-155
  2. A history of ancient Greek by Maria Chritē, Maria Arapopoulou, Centre for the Greek Language (Thessalonikē, Greece) pg 436 ISBN 0521833078
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 Andriotis, Nikolaos P. History of the Greek Language.
  4. Augsburg.
  5. Horrocks (1997: ch.5.11.)


  • Abel, F.-M. Grammaire du grec biblique.
  • Allen, W. Sidney, Vox Graeca: a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek – 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-521-33555-8
  • Andriotis, Nikolaos P. History of the Greek Language
  • Buth, Randall, Η κοινή προφορά: Koine Greek of Early Roman Period
  • Conybeare, F.C. and Stock, St. George. Grammar of Septuagint Greek: With Selected Readings, Vocabularies, and Updated Indexes.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956. ISBN 0-674-36250-0

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