The Koine: Greek in the Hellenistic period

The crucial step in the evolution of Great Attic into a “national” standard came with its formal adoption as an official and cultural language by the kingdom of Macedonia during the reign of Philip II (360/359-336 BCE). But the introduction of Greek civilization had begun during the 5th century, when famous Athenian artists had been invited to the court of king Archelaus, reflecting a desire on the part of an ambitious military power on the periphery of the Greek world to associate itself with the prestige of Hellenic culture. The subsequent Atticization of the Macedonian aristocracy, however, meant that (Great) Attic was soon imposed as the official language of the whole Greek-speaking world and even beyond, as Macedonia first gained control over mainland Greece, and then, through the conquests of Alexander III (“the Great”, 356-323 BCE), emerged as the unquestioned ruler of the eastern Mediterranean. Many new cities were founded, such as Alexandria in Egypt, Pergamum in Asia Minor, and Antioch in Syria, and these quickly became major centers of Greek language and culture in the Hellenistic Age that ensued (conventionally dated 323 BCE-331 CE).

After Alexander’s death, the empire broke up into a series of hereditary monarchies (most importantly the Antigonids of Macedonia and mainland Greece, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and the Seleucids of Syria), but the common study of “classical” Greek literature, much of it in Attic, together with the use of a common spoken and written language for diplomacy and business, namely the Koine, served to bind together the ruling classes of these diverse territories by cementing in place the idea of a common Greek culture based on a shared intellectual and linguistic heritage.

The impact of Macedonian rule was swift. The old local dialects became increasingly marginalized, as the population became diglossic through the partly imposed, partly voluntary adoption of the Koine in an era when control of the standard was a prerequisite for the upwardly mobile. We pass through a period in which local dialect inscriptions show increasing signs of Koine influence into a period in which the Koine becomes the norm for all written purposes and the local dialects as such disappear from the written record. The Koineization process was eventually almost total, with the result that the dialects of medieval and modern Greek all descend from varieties of the Koine.

In the new territories, Greek was dominant as the language of the ruling class, but it competed with the local languages, some of which, like Syriac and Egyptian, had long histories as written media with high levels of prestige. Out of self-interest, many inhabitants of the Hellenistic kingdoms became bilingual, and it was the Koine that they learned, whether in a local spoken form or as a written standard. But only in Asia Minor, and only after many centuries, did Greek finally supplant the traditional languages. Elsewhere the local languages remained the first languages of the indigenous populations, and Greek was seen throughout as the language of Greco-Macedonian invaders.

But alongside the native populations there were also native Greek speakers, not only members of the Koine-speaking elite but also large numbers of impoverished colonists sent out from old Greece to populate the newly founded cities. The resulting mix of old local dialects was short-lived, however, and within a generation the popular speech of the new Hellenistic metropolises had begun to converge on the norm of the Koine.

The form of Attic that provided the basis for the Koine had already evolved from the “fixed” Attic of classical literature, and this process continued, albeit slowly, as the spoken language changed and developed with time. Some markers of the Koine, mainly of Ionic origin, include the use of yivo^at, ywraoKra /ghnomai, gi:no:sko;/ ‘I become’, ‘I know/judge’, rather than traditional Attic yiyvo^at, yiyvraoKra /gignomai, gigno:sko:/, and a preference for /ss/ over Attic /tt/ in words like 0aXaooa ‘sea’. As noted, there was also much simplification of morphology as well as the development of many characteristic lexical and syntactic features, often originating in the language of the Hellenistic bureaucracies and then percolating down. Most notable in this connection was the expansion of the “articular infinitive” (i.e. the infinitive turned into a neuter noun by prefixation of to /to/ ‘the’), used mainly as a gerund after prepositions. Its capacity to turn even the most complex proposition into an inflectable nominal was invaluable in legal and philosophical discourse, though it quickly became a marker of written styles more generally.

But the inherent lack of vitality in this universal business language led to sharp reactions among literary writers. Many Hellenistic poets reconnected with the past through the revival of ancient literary dialects (as in Apollonius’ “Homeric” epic the Argonautica or Theocritus’ imitations of Lesbian lyric), while others invented new literary dialects, such as the artificial “Doric” of Theocritus’ Idylls, which inaugurated the genre of pastoral poetry through the literary stylization of a dialect characteristic of rural backwaters.

In prose composition too, the 3rd century BCE saw a reaction to “classical” rhetoric and the use of a mildly classicized Koine as a literary medium. Once again this manifested itself as a revival, this time involving a partial return to the precepts of Gorgias, a long-neglected 5th-century rhetorician. The impact of this movement, which began in Asia Minor and was known as Asianism, is apparent in a fashion for the emotive accumulation of synonyms, in the use of successions of antithetical clauses, and in the exploitation of metaphor, word-play and poetic vocabulary. But the principles of Gorgianic theory soon became mechanical conventions that encouraged the dominance of form over content, and a counter-revolution set in during the 1st century BCE, when a movement dedicated to the restoration of the best Attic practice, in language and rhetorical technique, came to the fore. The impact of this “Atticism” was profound and lasting.

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