People just starting to think about studying Greek on their own often come to the Textkit forum to ask about which books they should use. The first question from the regulars will be, "which dialect?" This question sometimes comes a surprise to beginners, and raises even more questions, so I thought I'd put together a quick overview of the dialects, focusing on how they relate to literature, and how you might study them to match your reading goals.
When reading the comments below keep in mind that to the Greeks genre implied a dialect. If you wrote an epic, you used the Epic dialect, no matter your native dialect. When Nonnos, an Egyptian, wrote his terribly odd Dionysiaca — 1200 years after Homer! — he used the Epic dialect and meter. When a Greek wrote choral poetry, he laid upon it a Doric patina. When he wrote a bucolic poem, he laid upon that a somewhat different Doric patina. If you plan to read widely in Greek literature, expect to encounter all of these literary dialects.
Greece and the colonies were full of different dialects. We know this because each city kept public records — recorded on stone — in their own dialect. However, these city dialects are not represented in the literary classical Greek that we'll be reading.
All of Greek literature — poetry, philosophy, drama, rhetoric, history — occurs in but six dialects:
- Epic - the language of Homer, Hesiod, and to a greater or lesser extent influences the language of all Greek poets
- Ionic - the first Greeks to produce prose, the main Ionic dialect work you're likely to want to read is Herodotus
- Aeolic, sometimes also Lesbian or Lesbian Aeolic - the language of the poets Sappho and Alcaeus
- Doric - the dialect family of Sparta, Doric has only meager representation, and that only in certain kinds of poetry
- Attic - the language of Athens and it's cultural flowering: Plato, Aristotle, and Greek drama
- Koine - this is the language of the empire of Alexander, and his Roman successors. Spoken from Rome, through Greece and the levant, into Egypt.
Now, of these, three — the closely related Epic, Attic and Koine — cover by far the majority of extant classical Greek. As a result, all beginning textbooks teach by means of one of these three dialects. There are no beginning texts using, say, Aeolic. There simply isn't enough literature in Aeolic to justify that.
Let's look at these three dialects first.
The Epic Greek dialect represents the oldest literary Greek we possess: the Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days. One interesting thing about this is that this earliest Greek literature is already in a purely literary dialect, combining vocabulary and even grammatical froms from several Greek dialects. No one ever spoke Epic as their native tongue.
All later Greek poetry relied on Epic practice to a greater or lesser degree. This included vocabulary, a choice of alternates for noun declension and verb conjugation, turns of phrase and even particular quirks of syntax.
The main ingredient of Epic Greek is Ionic (sometimes called "Old Ionic" to distinguish it from the "New Ionic" of Herodotus). But it also contains a strong mix of Aeolic forms, and a few persistent Atticisms.
Starting with Epic, pros: the literature is plentiful and interesting; much morphology is easier than in Attic or Koine; reading Homer prepares you for much later Greek literature, which quotes him constantly; though Homer is poetic, in general his syntax is straightforward and his meaning clear. Starting with Epic, cons: the base vocabulary is shared among the dialects, but Homer has much specialized vocabulary, and a good dose of words whose meaning is lost; despite superficial similarities, the Epic verbal system is quite different from later Greek; the artificial and mixed nature of the dialect means that some grammatical forms may have several alternates to memorize.
Attic is the dialect most widely used for teaching beginners, in part due to romanticism surrounding the cultural flowering of Athens at the height of its power, but also the substantial number of works in it. Among the authors using this dialect are: Thucydides, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle. The great playwrights — Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles — all used Attic with varying amounts of Epic in some speeches and a literary Doric for the choral parts, which I'll cover in a moment. During the Roman Empire there was a literary movement to try to recover the refined Attic style. Lucian is one atticizing author, and much of his work survives.
Starting with Attic, pros: there's a lot of good instructional material; the literature is wide and interesting. Starting with Attic, cons: much polished Attic prose is quite refined, and thus difficult for beginners; some of the starting reading material is notoriously dull at a usual beginner's reading pace.
The Koine (the "common (dialect)") is a language of empire. The base is Attic, with a touch of Ionic, but the biggest difference is the much simplified grammar, which happened as more and more non-native speakers of Greek learned the language. One entire section of the verbal system (the optative mood) disappeared except for a handfull of set phrases, and irregular verbs and nouns had their irregularities smoothed out. It also imported a lot of vocabulary, from Latin and from the Semitic languages.
While there is some literature in the Koine, in particular novels such as Chariton's Callirhoe and Achilles Tatius' Clitophon and Leucippe, by far the most important work in this dialect is the New Testament. Historians will also find this dialect useful. Not only are some histories written in it (Polybius, though atticizing, comes to mind), but the many, many non-literary papyri found in Egypt are in the Koine, and are an invaluable window into the daily life of Empire Egypt.
The Septuagint, the Old Testament translated into Greek by Alexandrian Jews, is also in the Koine, but might best be considered less a translation than a gloss. The syntax and idiom owe more to Hebrew and Aramaic than to Greek. It is also the Old Testament that many of the NT authors knew, so this influences their style, and of course sets the phrasing when they quote the OT.
Starting with the Koine, pros: you get to read the New Testament in the original; it is the language of the Church Fathers, as well as the base of the literary language of the Byzantine empire. Starting with the Koine, cons: because of the Koine's simplifications of morphology and syntax, going back to read Attic or Epic Greek is much harder than moving in the other direction.
Ok, So where do I start?
What you intend to read is usually going to be the most important consideration in how you start Greek. Having said that, I have to admit that I'm a strong advocate of starting with Epic if your interest in Greek literature is general. I make one exception, and that is for Koine.
If you're a seminarian, or desire only to be able to read the NT in Greek, then by all means start with the Koine. Now, some teachers advise that the Koine be studied after learning earlier Greek. The idea is that if you are comfortable with the earlier stage of the language, you'll not be surprised or confused when you run across the few vestiges of, say, the optative that do pop up in the N.T. Of course, students short on time will want to start with the Koine straight away.
Available on Textkit as a PDF, Samual Green's, A Brief Introduction to New Testament Greek moves very quickly. If you've not studied a highly inflecting language before you might find it hard going. It is excellent, however, if you've studied some Attic or Epic already, and Latinists will probably find it quite usable. Of books currently available in print, William D. Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar has a good reputation. Sometimes you can find J. Gresham Machen's New Testament Greek for Beginners (MacMillan, 1937) in used bookstores, and I recommend it highly. Each lesson covers a few related points of grammar, then gives 15-20 practice sentences each of English to Greek and Greek to English for exercises. For people new to teaching themselves a language on their own, it's a great book.
If your goals for learning Greek include reading Homer or any Greek poetry, or if you want to study an earlier Greek before moving on to the Koine, then starting your study with Epic Greek is best. I would also recommend starting with Epic if you plan to read mostly Attic authors. First, due to the nature of the Old Ionic base, many curiosities of conjugation and declension that seem quite irregular in later Greek (Attic and Koine both) are simple and regular in Epic. Second, most Attic authors quote Homer and the poets regularly, so you might as well get in some Homer in the original first.
For Homeric Greek the best textbook still in print is Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners (you can download a PDF of an earlier edition of the same text from Textkit's collection of primers). For people studying on their own Pharr is going to be rough going at first, but the Textkit Homeric Greek forum has several regulars who will compete to be first to answer any questions you might have about grammar, and to give translation help.
If you'd rather start with Attic, you're in good company. This is the dialect most colleges start students with, and many countries' university entrance exams for the classics use this dialect.
There are several Attic textbooks available on Textkit. John Williams Whites' First Greek Book was a standard for quite a while, and shouldn't be too hard for people learning on their own. An intensive study can be found in Sir William Smith's A First Greek Course. Among Attic textbooks currently in print, some like Athenaze and some hate it. The (in)famous Hanson and Quinn's Greek: An Intensive Course (known widely as simply H&Q) moves quickly and has many readings with good notes. As the title says, it is an intensive book, but excellent if you have some experience with inflected languages.
Now, it seems that people who do things like study ancient Greek on their own have a tendency to acquire large classical libraries fairly quickly. I myself own probably every major English-language Greek textbook put out in the last century. While you do want to avoid a bad textbook, it is much more important for you to stick with your studies than it is to find the perfect textbook. Switching textkbooks constantly will only slow or stop your progress. Slow and steady wins the game: do a little work every day rather than massive work once a week, and you'll progress in your studies. It'll seem slow sometimes, and there will be work that is boring, but the foundation will be solid.
Now that that's out of the way, let's look at the other main dialects you're likely to run into.
The Other Dialects
Aeolic. The Lesbian poets Sappho and Alcaeus are the main representatives of the Aeolic dialect. While both Lesbian poets try their hand at the Epic dialect and use Homeric phrasing and epithets, their Aeolic works appear to reflect to the colloquial language of Lesbos. Theocritus borrows aeolisms for three of his mimes, but that is the main example of Aeolic being used as a learned language.
Of all the literary dialects, Aeolic is most remote from the three dialects taught to beginners. This difficulty might account for why so little of Sappho and Alcaeus is preserved. The copyists — and any readers — would have found the language difficult.
Doric. Except for the local stone inscriptions, there is little pure Doric preserved. There are some fragments of sayings attributed to pythagoreans. That's about it. The Spartan poet Alcman is supposed to have written in the local Spartan Doric, but his language is mixed with Epic elements, and it may be that his Doric is the invention of Alexandrian editors, not his own words.
There are two forms of literary Doric. The first is Choral Doric. Like Epic, this is an articial literary language used only for poetry. Choral poets such as Pindar, Stesichorus, and Bachylides all used this literary Doric. The Doric coloring is fairly superficial, especially in the Athenian playwrights, who used it in the choral sections of their plays.
The other literary Doric — different in a number of ways from the choral dialect — was evidently the creation of Theocritus, who used it for several of his bucolic mimes, and was followed in this by Bion, Moschus and the authors of a few anonymous works.
Since these literary Dorics are used in poetry, they both have a strong dose of Epic. Each choral poet appeared to concoct his own dialect mix, so the Epic presence may be stronger in one poet, weaker in another, with an occasional Aeolic element to round out the mix. Pindar, for example, is fond of Aeolic participles.
Ionic. New Ionic is the language of Herodotus, Hippocrates, the pre-socratics, and forms the base for a number of poets, such as Archilochus and Anacreon.
Ionic and Attic are very closely related, so much that linguists often speak of Attic-Ionic as a single thing. New Ionic is very easy to pick up if you started with either Epic or Attic.