It’s All Greek To Me: Byzantine Greek

In my previous posts on the history of the Greek language I talked about Mycenean Greek – the language that Greek speaking peoples spoke in the 2nd Millenium BCE – and three types of Ancient Greek, namely Homeric, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek. This post is about Byzantine or Medieval Greek (also called “Middle Greek”), which bridges the gap between Ancient and Modern Greek.

1148px-augustins_-_saint_jean_chrysostome_et_l'impératrice_eudoxie_-_jean_paul_laurens_2004_1_156

John “The Golden Tongued” Chrysostom (349-407), Archbishop of Constantinople, confronts the Empress Eudoxia (388-404). He thought she was a vain, power-hungry clothes-hound, no better than a pagan; she thought he was an unhinged fanatic with heretical tendencies (they were probably both right). They would have spoken an early type of Byzantine Greek. Painting (1893) by Jean-Paul Laurens.

The beginning and end points of Byzantine Greek are pretty arbitrary, as the language evolved slowly from Hellenistic Greek (what the New Testament was written in) into the form of Greek found in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Indeed, both those terms – “Late Antiquity” and “Early Middle Ages” – don’t make a whole lot of sense when applied to Greek peoples and their language. This is because, as English speaking people whose scholarship is mostly derived from western Europe, we think of late antiquity as ending with the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 CE and the Middle Ages beginning with its replacement by the rise of the rule of Franks, Lombards, and Anglo-Saxons. But in the Greek speaking east, the Roman Empire did not fall for almost another thousand years. Centered on the city of Constantinople, it continued to expand and contract in the Middle East, Anatolia, the Balkans, and North Africa. It battled the Persian Empire of the Sassanids, and then the Arab Empire of the Islamic Caliphate. While the Arabs were a mortal threat and conquered much of the late Roman Empire, they never actually conquered all of it. Damaged by Catholic Crusaders, the Empire carried on until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks, Muslims but decidedly not Arabs, finally overwhelmed Constantinople. The last bit of the Empire, Trebizond on the Black Sea, fell in 1461. The people in the Empire considered themselves Romans who happened to be Christian and Greek-speaking, and after their subjugation by the Turks they still considered themselves as such. Their identity as something called “Greeks” that hearkened back to Athens, Zeus, and Plato all developed later.

So, arbitrarily, we may say that Byzantine Greek began in 300 CE. Or how about 324 CE, when Constantine began to rebuild the already substantial city of Byzantium into the massive planned city of Nova Roma (but universally known as Κωνσταντινούπολις, the city of Constantine)? The end, also arbitrary because the language did not suddenly change, is the fall of the city in 1453.

Byzantine Greek grew out of Hellenistic Greek, which itself was mostly influenced by the Attic dialect of Classical Greek. Given the use of Hellenistic Greek in the New Testament and the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, Byzantine Greek remained rooted to a static written form even as the spoken language changed. The changes included:

  • the loss of the dative (noun forms indicating the indirect object), being mostly absorbed by the genitive;
  • some of the sounds for the vowels and diphthongs merged, so that ι, οι, η, and υ all began to sound like “ee”;
  • υ in some cases began to be pronounced with a “v” or an “ff” sound. Ζεύς, which we anglophones pronounce “zoos”, was probably pronounced more like “dze-oos” by the ancients, was now pronounced (and still is in Modern Greek) as “zefs” (really).
  • β moved from a “b” sound to a “v” sound; δ began to be pronounced more as “dh”;
  • verbs with their inflected endings became far more regular;
  • the distinctive form for the infinitive disappeared;
  • the optative mood, expressing wish, and which was already on the way out with Hellenistic Greek, disappeared;
  • the future in Hellenistic Greek was replaced by a far simpler form;
  • some words were replaced – so οἶνος (wine) became an old-fashioned word for the more common κρασίον; and
  • by the fourth century CE Greek ceased to use pitched accents and simply used accents to mark stress; ancient Greek would have sounded rather sing-songy to Byzantine and Modern Greek-speakers.

[Most of this I stole from the far more detailed article on Wikipedia]

divine_liturgy_02152010_divine_music_page_007_720xByzantine Greek still exists. It is used by the Greek Orthodox Church in its liturgies. Because of the many differences with Modern Greek it is difficult for ordinary Greeks, today to understand it, as Chaucer would to our English ears. The Church of Greece, then, is in the strange position of celebrating its liturgies in a form of the language that most of its peoples struggle to understand. When they attend Catholic or Protestant services in contemporary Greek they are struck at the ease with which they can follow the worship. However, despite this, the Orthodox Church is not likely to change, as they believe it to be important to preserve the New Testament and the ancient liturgies in the forms in which they received them.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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