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The various types of greek poetry developed from distinct oral traditions among different groups of greek speakers whose dialects varied from each other in non-trivial, but still intelligible ways. Which dialect a given type of poetry was composed and eventually written in varies for this reason, and remained a requirement for writing in those modes right through to the end of the hellenistic period, and probably for some time afterwards.1 The main types of greek poetry a less specialized reader encounters are epic and lyric.

Epic is the now well-known kuntsprache of homeric epic and the homeric hymns, a special language incorporating features of several greek dialects including mycenaean on a broad ionic base. It includes many formulae, including both name-title combinations and beautiful phrases almost undone by heedless repetition in translation such as "δ' ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς," (early-born shining rosy-fingered Dawn). The lyric poetry that has been preserved falls into three main dialects: ionic, doric, and aeolic.

Ionic and attic greek are very similar, a fact the athenians were well aware of and explained using myths that later linguistic and archaeological study have borne out in their basics. Attic greek is the dialect many students of ancient greek today first learn, since it is not too different from epic greek and a great deal of preserved greek literature is in this dialect or ionic. The hallmark features of both attic and ionic include aspiration (use of an initial "h" sound), the use of medial -ττ- where other dialects use -σσ-, and a shift in pronunciation affecting some first declension nouns and adjectives, shifting their original α to η. More experienced students of the language can also pick out tell-tale temporal conjunctions that separate ionic and attic from each other and from doric dialects.

From what I have learned, the literary doric dialects are not actually very doric. This may sound very strange, yet is borne out by the inscriptional evidence from greek cities and colonies where a doric dialect was the main day to day language. Those of us who have worked through Maurice Balm and Gilbert Lawall's introductory greek textbook Athenaze2 will have gotten a little taste of doric greek early in volume 2. Hard as it may be to believe, that little snippet does cover many of the features of literary doric that may give a reader whose main reading dialect has been attic pause. It illustrates the persistence of α where attic has shifted pronunciation and spelling to η, the different contraction patterns for -nt- in the verb, and a verb for "to go" favoured by doric but not attic. It also includes a couple of quirks I haven't seen in the literary doric I've read so far, such as σιῶν for θεῶν. Overall, the differences lead to literary doric sounding more open in terms of vowels, with more by way of α, ω, and ου sounds, and a bit more closed in its verbs due to the persistence of -ντ-, and vowel contractions that produce -οι-.

Aeolic Dialect

"The" aeolic dialect is perhaps most famously associated with Lesbos because of Sappho and Alkaios, two of the most famous poets of antiquity and both from that island. In many ways their poetry serves as the basis for what is understood to be "standard aeolic." Aeolic was also spoken in Thessaly, Boeotia, and the "aeolic colonies" of Anatolia (these were mainly in northwestern Anatolia and several islands including Lesbos and Tenedos).3 Practically speaking, the aeolian speakers actually had several slightly different dialects, varying to about the same degree among one another as attic and ionic did to each other. Originally aeolic was spoken more widely in Greece, but the aeolians were either pushed from or gradually outnumbered in many of their original settlements by the influx of dorian greek speakers later mythologized as the return of the Heraklids.

Descriptions of aeolic often sound contradictory, because it is described as both conservative and innovative. This is partly due to misconceptions about language many of us have picked up from when it was common to consider a language that had noticeably changed over time "debased." Of course such languages are simply different, and all languages maintain some older features and change others. When it comes to a family of dialects, the majority of dialects may maintain some features unchanged that change in others. Aeolic happens to be quite a good example of taking a less common route in its sound changes.

The consonant differences between attic and aeolic are probably the easiest part to take in, because they don't lead to sound contractions:4

  • 1.
  • Initial π for τ. Derived from alteration to an original labiovelar (consonant or consonant pair + w).5
  • Internal νν for σν. This is a bit trickier to pick out, but does often mean that a word is spelled with two ν's where in other dialects it would have one, or that it has a short vowel where another dialect has a long vowel or dipthong.
  • Initial ϝ persists, but is written as β before ρ. A ϝ sandwiched between vowels is spelled υ. This is one of aeolic's conservative features, as evidence of ϝ's "w" sound were identified by metrical analysis in the homeric epics, and then in Linear B when it was deciphered.
  • No initial "h" sound, aka rough breathing. Most classicists separate this item from the other consonants, perhaps because the rough breathing replaces initial s and semivowel y sounds, so it is not purely a consonant change in origin.
That was the relatively simple part. Things get a bit more complicated when we turn to the vowels. These often relate to shifts in pronunciation on a more recent time scale than the consonant changes.
  • 2.
  • Maintenance of long α in the first declension. Conversely, short α in other declensions and verbs may be ε in aeolic instead.
  • Often α in attic is ο in aeolic most frequently after ρ or in the first syllable of a word.
  • Before μ, π, and β, o often becomes short υ. It may also become short υ in the first syllable of other words.
  • The diphthong and long vowel system is somewhat different from attic, with: οι for ου, αι for η , ο and ω for ου.
Aeolic also dealt with the original -ανς and -ονς sound combinations in greek in a different way than attic. The resulting forms, especially in the aorist participle, were sometimes favoured by poets writing in other dialects, such as Pindar writing in literary doric. These are a bit nasty to deal with at times, because they can look like dative plurals or even second person singular verbs to an unwary eye.
  • 3.
  • -ανς became -αις. This changes the overall shape of the first declension accusative plural, which ends in -αις, while the first declension dative plural ends in -αισι.
  • -ονς became -οις. This changes the overall shape of the second declension accusative plural, which ends in -oις, while the first declension dative plural ends in -oισι.
  • The dative plural of the article is still ταίς or τοίς.
  • But, the dative plural of the relative or demonstrative pronoun is ταίσι or τοίσι.
After these, the differences relate to accent, preposition spellings, the declension of nouns, and the conjugation of certain verbs. This does sound like the whole language, but thankfully it isn't actually as bad as all that.
  • 4.
  • Accents in aeolic are always recessive except for prepositions.
  • Many prepositions have different spellings (Pindar likes these too): ὐπα for ὑπό, ὄν(ν) for ἀνά, ὀννέλην for ἀνελεῖν, ἀπύ for ἀπό, κάτ for κατά, πάρ for παρά, δία or ζά, πεδά for μετά. Περί, πέρ, and πέρρ are all used, and at least in the aeolic works preserved ὑπέρ does not occur and is replaced by περί.
  • There are a few other small words with different spellings to keep in mind: αἰ for εἰ, ἄγι for ἄγε, πώνω for πίνω, and τυίδε replaces ἐνταυθοῖ.
  • The plural first person pronoun is spelt with smooth α rather than rough η and often has a doubled μ, i.e. ἄμμι for ἡμῖν. If you have read a great deal of Homer, this will already be familiar.
Now it is time to get acquainted with the various quirks of verb conjugation in aeolic. This mostly affects sigmatic aorists and contract verbs. In fact, considering the differences in the vowel summarized in list 2, these are inevitable features.
  • 5.
  • Aeolic loves -μι verbs, in fact it loves them so much contract verbs in α, ε, and ο in attic are all -(μ)μι verbs in aeolic. So for those of you who like me, first studied ancient greek using Athenaze, that makes the exemplar verbs φιλέω, τιμάω, and δηλόω φίλημι, τίμαμι, and δήλωμι. Their infinitives then are φίλην, τίμαν, and δήλων. Their participles, except for the genitive singular which keeps the endings in -εντος, -αντος, and -οντος are in -εισ-, -αισ-, and -οισ-.
There a few other verb conjugation details, at least one of which may be a pleasant surprise.
  • 6.
  • Sappho consistently includes the syllabic augment (addition of initial ε to an aorist, imperfect, or pluperfect verb beginning with a consonant) and the temporal augment (combination of ε with the initial vowel of an aorist, imperfect, or pluperfect verb).
  • Perfect infinitives in -κα end in -ην instead of -εναι. Therefore attic τεθνηκέναι corresponds to aeolic τεθνάκην, λελυκέναι to λελύκην.6
  • Perfect participles can look alarmingly like present participles. So to expand Bowie's example based on the verbs ἐκγίγνομαι and παρίστημι:
    ἐκγεγονυῖα, ἐκγεγονώς, ἐκγεγονός in attic versus ἐκγεγονοισα, ἐκγεγονών, ἐκγεγονόν
    παρεστηκυῖα, παρεστηκώς, παρεστηκός in attic versus παρεστάκοισα, παρεστακών, παρεστάκον
  • First plural sigmatic aorists have a short thematic vowel in the subjunctive.
  • Third person imperatives also have a shortened o in that they end in -ντον.
There is one more item to watch out for, the aeolic particle used in place of attic ἄν, which is κε(ν).



  1. Historians and classicists typically define the end of the hellenistic period as 31 BCE when the last Ptolemaic ruler of egypt, Cleopatra VII committed suicide. This would not have led to an instant end to poetic forms that had been practised up to that time, so they must have persisted for at least a century in their original greek dialect modes.
  2. I honestly had no idea opinions were so polarized about Athenaze. It provides a lot of remedial grammar instruction for english as a first language students in the first volume, which I appreciate could be a huge ball of frustrating for people who are already familiar with latin grammar. The framing story has its own problems, though not in terms of what it is meant to help illustrate grammatically. In any case, if you prefer to read a segment, then learn grammar and vocabulary, then read again, many greek textbooks take such an approach (i.e. oldies but goodies like A First Greek Reader which is out of copyright and downloadable, or the more recent Ancient Greek Alive). Or if you just want grammar with heavy emphasis on the verb, Hansen and Quinn will be just the thing, though you may still struggle to actually read because their text does not have a vocabulary building component. On the flip side, I would not recommend the Teach Yourself series introduction to ancient greek for beginners. It's a great supplement and source of practice exercises once you have the basics of grammar and syntax down plus a basic vocabulary, though. (A great basic greek vocabulary list is maintained by Dickinson College.)
  3. Herodotus records in his Histories how at one point there were twelve major Aeolian cities that formed themselves into the Dodecapolian League: Kyme, Larissa, Neonteichos, Temnos, Cilla, Notion, Aegiroessa, Pitane, Aegae, Myrina, Gruneion, and Smyrna. Fascinatingly, the mythical founders of most of these cities were Amazons.
  4. Obviously there is no way I just pulled all of this out of my head or even from reading Sappho. Instead, like a all sensible students, I made use of several sources, including:
    • David A. Campbell's summaries in Greek Lyric Poetry, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1967.
    • Leonard R. Palmer, The Greek Language, Faber and Faber, London, 1980.
    • Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1920.
    • Angus M. Bowie's "Appendix on Meters" in The Poetic Dialect of Sappho and Alcaeus, Arno Press, New York, 1981.
    I have also picked up some information about the broader indo-european specifics from Martin Bernal's Black Athena volumes, where he provides a considerable discussion of them as related specifically to ancient greek. Classicists and linguists may not always agree with his characterizations of what these details mean, but to my knowledge and based on comparisons with the sources above, he wasn't inaccurate in his reporting. And like any good net denizen, I have also spent my share of time on Wikipedia.
  5. If you have a strong interest in linguistics and indo-european languages, try searching for information on the collapse of the labio-velars. This phenomenon is a major event in indo-european language development, and nobody is quite sure why it happened, although scholarly consensus appears to be that it is related to the loss of a pitch accent.
  6. Just to be clear, the exemplars given do not necessarily correspond to attested words in Sappho's poetic vocabulary.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, January 29, 2016 14:12:27