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A dialect, in the usual acceptance of the word, is a form of speech used by a limited number of people, or within a limited region, and differing from the language of the main branch of the race by reason of local usages due to separation and special conditions. The term also denotes any of the divisions of a linguistic family. It sometimes happens that those who use a particular dialect of a language come to be politically the most powerful branch, with greater wealth, refinement, and literary cultivation. Their dialect then ultimately becomes the standard form of the language, while the other variations of it sink to a subordinate position, and are then spoken of as dialects, and the first, which was originally of no more authority, is accepted as the normal form of speech. Thus, Latin became the great standard language of Italy, while its sister languages, Umbrian and Oscan, sank to the position of dialects. Thus, too, in England, the so-called Middle English, being spoken in that part of the country where the two great universities were situated, and being used by the early writers of the country, gradually became the tongue of the educated all over England and the literary form of speech, while the Northern English and the Southern English ceased to be heard except in the mouths of the uneducated. In Greek, the finest productions of literature were, on the whole, those of the Ionic Greeks, so that a form of the Ionic dialect (Attic) became the standard with which all others were compared, though the Doric and Aeolic, being used by many famous writers, never became, like Lowland Scotch or the Sussex speech in England, discredited and vulgar. Dialectic differences when perpetuated and intensified by continued separation and lack of intercourse between the peoples who use them at last develop into different languages. See Indo-European Languages.

I. Greek Dialects

The three main divisions of the dialects of Greece are usually said to be the Aeolic, Ionic, and Doric. The exact lines of division are, however, obscure, for one dialect often borrows from another when spoken by contiguous peoples. It must be remembered, also, that the racial divisions of the Greeks do not always coincide with the dialectic divisions; that there were hundreds of minor dialects of which no account can be taken here; and that these dialects shaded off one into the other by almost imperceptible gradations. Scholars differ most as to what dialects are to be called Aeolic, some restricting the name to the Lesbian and Asiatic. Brugmann classes Northwest Greek (of Phocis, Locris, Aetolia, Acarnania, Phthiotis, and Epirus), Elean, Arcadian-Cyprian, and Pamphylian as separate dialects (Comp. Gram. i. p. 6).


The Aeolic dialect was spoken in Macedonia, North Thessaly, Boeotia, Arcadia (?), Elis, Cyprus, and the northern part of Asiatic Hellas. Our knowledge of the Lesbio-Aeolic comes partly from inscriptions and partly from the fragments of Alcaeus and Sappho quoted by the grammarians and others, and from the statements of the grammarians themselves. Three of its inscriptions are of great importance—one found at Mitylené recording the return of certain exiles in the time of Alexander the Great (C. I. G. 2166), one found at Pordoselena (C. I. G. 2166 c.), and a third found at Eresus (edited by Conze and Sauppe). The chief peculiarities of the Aeolic dialect are Its general character was lightness and rapidity of utterance; the Aeolic poets abound in anapaests and dactyls. The Athenians regarded the Lesbian language as somewhat barbaric (Protag. 341 C.). The Thessalian-Aeolic, which is known to us by a few inscriptions only, is a sort of bridge between the Lesbian and the Boeotian (Collitz), doubling the liquids, changing a to o, and using an infinitive in -μεν. The Boeotian-Aeolic is known from inscriptions and from the fragments of Corinna, though in these it is mixed with Ionic forms, as is also true of the Boeotian passages in the Acharnians of Aristophanes. The Boeotian-Aeolic differed from the Lesbian chiefly in the following particulars: (See Beerman in Curtius's Studien, ix. p. 85.) The Elean-Aeolic is known from several inscriptions, such as the bronze plate found at Olympia by Gell (C. I. G. 11) and the inscription of Damocrates (Kirchhoff in the Archaeol. Zeit. 1876). The Arcadian-Aeolic is nearer to the Doric than to the Lesbian in its forms. It has -αυ for the gen. sing. masc. of a-nouns, -οι as a dative (or locative) sing. of o-nouns, ἰν for εἰς and ἐν, and -τοι as a third sing. middle ending (e. g. γένητοι). (See Schrader in Curtius's Studien, x. pp. 273-280.) The Cyprian dialect is probably at the bottom Arcadian-Aeolic (Herod.vii. 90; Pausan. viii. 5, 2)—a theory strengthened by the study of the Cypriote inscriptions by Birch, Deecke, Siegismund, Hall, Voigt, and others. See Cyprus.

B. Doric

The Doric dialect was used in Doris, Argos, Laconia, Messenia, Crete, Sicily, Lower Italy (Magna Graecia), and the southern part of Asiatic Hellas. Ahrens recognizes two types—the severer Doric (spoken in Laconia, Crete, Cyrené, and Magna Graecia); and the milder Doric, influenced by Aeolic or Ionic usage (spoken in Argolis, Messenia, Megara, northern Greece, Asia Minor, and Sicily). It was used by the bucolic poets (Theocritus, Bion , Moschus), and by Pindar, Alcman, and others. Its principal features are There are many important inscriptions in Doric Greek. Chief among them are the famous Tables of Heraclea, found in the bed of the river Cavone in 1732 and 1735, and now partly in the Museo Nazionale at Naples and partly in the British Museum. Another (in the Messenian-Doric) was found at Andania, and though of late date (B.C. 95?) is valuable for its fulness and for some of the forms it exhibits. The Megarian-Doric is known from inscriptions at Byzantium; the Corinthian from inscriptions of Corcyra and Syracuse, both colonies of Corinth; the Locrian from the bronze tablet found at Oeanthia, and dating from the fourth century b.c.; the Cretan from treaty-tablets and others found in Crete (see Gortyn) and among the ruins of the Temple of Dionysus on the island of Teos. The general character of the Doric speech was slowness, deliberation, and fulness of sound, with the πλατειασμός which the Dorians shared with the Boeotians.

C. Ionic

The character of the Ionic dialect, in its several subdivisions, gives striking evidence of its long-continued employment in literature. Its smoothness and harmony, its rich and full vowelsystem, its variety and plasticity, all mark it out as eminently fitted for noble and expressive utterance in both prose and verse. It was used by the Greeks of Attica and Ionia and in most of the islands of the Aegean Sea. Under this head we may consider
  • 1. the Old Ionic (Epic),
  • 2. the New Ionic,
  • 3. the Attic, and
  • 4. the Common Dialect (New Attic).

Old Ionic (Epic)

The Old Ionic or Epic dialect is the Ionic of the poems of Homer. Strictly speaking it was not a genuine, popular form of speech in common use, but a mixed dialect, developed by the poets for artistic purposes. Its base is doubtless the spoken language of the district in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed; but interwoven with this are forms and usages partly borrowed from other dialectic sources and partly modified by poetic license. Thus there is a strong Aeolic element in Homer, due perhaps in part to the Aeolic affinities of the Ionians of Smyrna, but cherished also because of the exigencies of the dactylic hexameter. Every page of the Homeric poetry shows a peculiar multiplicity of forms of the same word. Thus we find ἵππου and ἵπποιο, μάχῃς and μάχῃσι, ἔπεσσι and ἔπεσι, ἥρωοι and ἡρώεσσι: in the pronouns ἐμοῦ, ἐμεῦ, ἔμεθεν, and ἐμεῖο, ἄμμες, and ἡμεῖς. The augment is used or disused at pleasure, forms are contracted or not, diphthongs are shortened before succeeding vowels, the metrical value of vowels varies, both hiatus and elision are freely used—in a word, the widest license prevails and stamps the dialect as one established for the convenience of poets and not for the common use of men. “The polish of the style, the artistic perfection of the composition, and the elaborate nature of the syntax point back to a long series of years of development, during which poets and schools of poets composed and passed on by oral tradition many lays . . . which in course of time grew into more complete epic poems. Forms of speech had not then been fixed by the general use of writing; the poet willingly adopted any of the floating forms in common use around him, or caught and preserved for his purpose those older forms bequeathed by past generations: so that in this way we have an explanation of the remarkable fact that in Homeric Greek there are forms in use of such different ages—archaisms, as we might say, by the side of modernisms” (Merry). Some of the peculiarities of the Epic language, however, which were at one time ascribed to the license of the poet, are now properly recognized as the usage of the oldest Greek. The most interesting of these is the effect produced by the earlier existence of a spirant, no longer written, upon the quantity of a preceding syllable. This lost letter is sometimes j and sometimes ς—e. g. θεὸς (jως, εἰς ἅλα (ςαλτο, ἔτι γὰρ (ςεχον. The same is true of the digamma, to which, indeed, as late as the time of I. Bekker all such cases were ascribed. Real examples of the influence of the digamma in making position or in preventing elision are φίλα ϝείματα δύσω, οὕτω δὴ ϝοἶκονδε, ἔπειτα ϝάναξ. See Digamma.

This complex and conventional dialect founded upon an Ionic base was disseminated throughout all Greece by the rhapsodes, or public reciters, who chanted the epics at the great public assemblies and festivals. Its forms and expressions colour the compositions of authors of very different ages and various styles. It forms the basis of the lyric language of Stesichorus and Pindar; it pervades the prose of Herodotus; and it tinges the style of the early Attic dramatists with a distinctly epic hue. See Epos.

The New Ionic.

The New Ionic dialect is found in the writings of the iambic elegiac poets Archilochus, Callinus, and Mimnermus, and in the prose of Herodotus and Hippocrates. This dialect has the following distinctive peculiarities:

The Attic dialect

The Attic dialect is probably a modification of the Ionic spoken before the founding of the Ionic colonies. It is to the student of literature the most important of all the forms of Greek, since it was used by Thucydides, Aeschylus, Xenophon, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Lysias, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, and many others of genius scarcely inferior to them. Attic occupies a middle ground between the harsher Doric and the softer Ionic, and was thus fitted to be the common speech of all cultivated Greeks, and is now used as the standard of comparison in the study of the Hellenic tongue. Literary Attic is divided into Old and New, the point of division being approximately the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (B.C. 431). The differences between the Old and the New are slight, and seem to point to a gradual adoption in literature of popular forms. The Old Ionic is seen in Thucydides and the tragedians; both the Old and the New are noticeable in Plato; while the comic writers and the orators show the usages of the New. It is in the New Attic that the Greek language reached the zenith of its grace, expressiveness, and symmetry, combining at once the σεμνότης of the Doric with the χάρις of the Ionic speech.

The general use of the Attic gradually led to its corruption, so that we find a modified form of it developed by the time of Alexander, which is known as the Common dialect ( κοινὴ διάλεκτος). It was used by the Greek writers of later times, such as Aristotle, Polybius, Plutarch, Pausanias, Babrius, and Lucian—writers, however, who exhibit very different degrees of divergence from the Attic standard of purity.

The rise of the Alexandrian School (q.v.) of critics and grammarians did much to check the tendency to linguistic corruption in literature; but the popular speech, continually receiving additions from foreign sources and especially from the East, ultimately developed into a distinct idiom which is known as Hellenistic Greek, and which is the basis of the diction of the New Testament and also of the Septuagint. The variations from earlier standards exhibited in this form of speech are rather to be seen in the vocabulary than in the syntax; but the following come under the latter head:

  • 1. a confusion in the use of moods (e. g. ἵνα with the present indicative, ὅταν with the past indicative);
  • 2. a construction of cases unknown in Attic (e. g. γεύεσθαι with the accusative, προσφωνεῖν with the dative);
  • 3. a gradual disuse of the optative mood, for which the subjunctive is substituted.

The corruption of the spoken language went on continuously, much as in the case of the Latin. For centuries literature still struggled to preserve the usages of Attic or at least of the κοινὴ διάλεκτος, but at last this attempt ended, and the popular speech became also the language of literature, being first so used by Theodorus Ptochoprodromus, a monk of Constantinople, about A.D. 1160. From this date begins the history of modern Greek.


The first scientific treatment of the Greek dialects is found in the work of Ahrens, De Graecae Linguae Dialectis, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1839- 1843). Many of his views require modification, however, owing to more recent investigations. Much valuable material will be found in Curtius's Studien zur griechischen und lateinischen Grammatik, 10 vols. (Leipzig, 1868-78); and Merzdorf's Sprachwissensch. Abhandl. (Leipzig, 1874). For the Homeric dialect see La Roche's edition of the Iliad (Berlin, 1870); D. B. Monro's Grammar of the Homeric Dialect (Oxford, 1882); and Seymour's Introduction to the Homeric Language (Boston, 1885). Examples are given by Cauer in his Delectus (Leipzig, 1883); Meister, Die griechischen Dialekte (Gött. 1882-89); and by Hoffmann, Die griechischen Dialekte (Gött. 1891). See also Boisacq, Les Dialectes Doriens (Paris, 1891); and Smyth, Greek Dialects, part i. Ionic (Oxford, 1894). For Hellenistic and vulgar Greek see Winer's Grammar, part ii. pp. 69-128, ed. Moulton; Mullach, Grammatik der griechischen Vulgarsprache (Berlin, 1856); and Sophocles, Glossary of Later and Byzantine Greek (Boston, 1870).

II. Italian Dialects

The dialects spoken in Italy in ancient times and surely traceable to an Aryan stock may be roughly divided into two main groups—the Umbro-Sabellian and the LatinFaliscan. Their general relations and divisions are indicated in the diagram given under Italia, p. 892. Of the Umbro-Sabellian group, the principal dialects are the Umbrian and the Oscan. See Osci; Umbria.

The Latin and the Faliscan are so closely allied that the Faliscan may be roughly regarded as only a rustic variation of the Latin. It was used by the people of Falerii, a city situated within Etrurian territory, and probably one of the twelve confederated cities of the Etruscan League. That the language of the Falisci was not Etruscan or cognate with Etruscan was noticed by the ancients (e. g. Strabo, v. p. 266; Dionys. Hal. i. 21; Cato ap. Pliny , Pliny H. N. iii. 5.1), and inscriptions found in the present century have confirmed its close affinity with Old Latin. Thus the Falisci used the Latin R instead of the Etruscan and Umbro-Sabellian character , and possessed also the Old Latin Z. The principal phonetic peculiarity distinguishing the Faliscan from the Latin is the representation of an original bh medial by f, as in lofertas for libertas. See Deecke, Die Falisker (Strassburg, 1885); and Conway's Italic Dialects (announced in 1896).

Latin was originally spoken only in the plain of Latium (q.v.), and seems not to have developed any subordinate dialects. For its colloquial and rustic forms and usages, see Sermo Plebeius. The best grammars of the language are those of Roby (2 vols., Oxford, 1881); Kühner, Ausführliche Grammatik (2 vols. Hanover, 1877-78); Stolz and Schmalz in Iwan Müller's Handbuch der klassischen Alterthumswissenschaft, vol. ii. (Nördlingen, 1885); and Gildersleeve, revised by Lodge (N. Y. 1894).

Besides the Latin-Faliscan and the Umbro-Sabellian, Greek was spoken in the Greek cities of southern Italy (Magna Graecia), Keltic by the Gaulish peoples in the north, Etruscan by the inhabitants of Etruria, and at one time in Campania and the plain of the Eridanus (Po); while at an early period, in the extreme southeast, inscriptions show the existence of a language whose affinities have not yet been wholly determined, but which is usually styled Messapian or Iapygian, and regarded as cognate with the language of the Veneti in the northeast of Italy. For these dialects, see the articles Celtae; Etruria; Messapia; Veneti.

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  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.90
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.5
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