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dialects, Greek, prehistory

In the first half of the first millennium bce each Greek region and indeed each Greek city spoke and sometimes wrote its own dialect (see Greek language). The Greeks themselves mentioned four ethnic groups, Athenians, Ionians, Dorians, and Aeolians (see Aeolis), characterized by different dialects, though other classifications were also in use. On the basis of shared linguistic features modern scholars classify the dialects into five groups: Attic-Ionic (in Attica, the Ionic islands of the Aegean, and Asia Minor), Doric (in the Peloponnese, the Doric islands of the Aegean, and Asia Minor), North-West Greek (in the northern part of mainland Greece), Aeolic (in Boeotia, Thessaly, and part of Asia Minor including Lesbos) and Arcado-Cypriot (in Arcadia and Cyprus, with possible links to Pamphylia). It is disputed whether the Mycenaean language, attested in the second millennium bce, belongs to any of these groups, though it has close links with Arcado-Cypriot. Further spreading of the dialects into the west Mediterranean area was caused by later colonization. The geographic separation of closely related dialects requires historical explanation and attempts have been made to reconstruct the original distribution of the dialects and their speakers in the second millennium bce. It is normally accepted, for instance, that in the last part of the second millennium bce the ancestors of the Arcadians and the Cypriots lived in the Peloponnese until some of them took refuge in the central part of the Peloponnese and others migrated to Cyprus. Similarly an early colonization from mainland Greece brought the various dialects to Asia Minor. But we must also account for the differences between the original groups. Until relatively recently it was widely accepted that the future Greeks arrived in Greece in at least three waves: first the ancestors of the Ionians and the Athenians, then those of the Aeolians and perhaps of the Arcado-Cypriots. The last to arrive would have been the ancestors of the Dorians and north-west Greeks, who pushed their way into Peloponnese and Crete dispersing the previous populations; the classical tradition spoke of the return of the Heraclidae. However, the linguistic evidence by itself is not sufficient to support the three-wave theory and no other reliable evidence is available. More recently it has been argued that the dialect distinctions arose in Greece itself in the second millennium bce, though the details are not clear and we do not know, for instance, how many groups we must postulate for the Mycenaean period. The Mycenaean places of the second millennium like Pylos, Mycenae, and Cnossus were later inhabited by Dorians, but the language of the Mycenaean tablets shows no specifically Doric features and is linguistically more innovative than that of the Dorians. This supports the view that the Dorians moved into the Peloponnese and Crete (probably from northern Greece) after the end of the Mycenaean period. Yet it has also been suggested (by John Chadwick) that the Dorians represent the continuation of a class of Mycenaean servants who spoke a dialect that was different from, and more conservative than, that of their masters; this is not generally accepted.


J. Chadwick, Cambridge Ancient History 22/1 (1963), ch. 39.Find this resource:

    L. R. Palmer, The Greek Language (1980), 53 ff..Find this resource:

      E. Risch, Kleine Schriften (1981), 269–89.Find this resource:

        J. Chadwick, in D. Musti (ed.), Le origini dei Greci (1985), 3–12.Find this resource:

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