Ancient Macedonian Language by Marcus Templar

Linguistically, there is no real distinction between a dialect and a language without a specific factor. People usually consider the political factor to determine whether a certain kind of speech is a language or a dialect. Since the Pan-Hellenic area consisted of many small city- states (Attica, Lacedaemon, Corinth, etc.), and larger states (Molossia, Thesprotia, Macedonia, Acarnania, Aetolia, etc.), it was common knowledge at the time that the people of all those states were speaking different languages, when in fact they were all variations of the same language, Hellenic or Greek. The most advanced of all Hellenic dialects was the dialect of Attica (Athens) or Attic. When people state “ancient Greek language” they mean the Attic dialect and any comparison of the Macedonian dialect to ancient Greek is actually a comparison to the Attic dialect.

The difference between Macedonian and Attic was like the difference between Low and High German. Nobody doubts that both are Germanic languages, although they differ from one another. Another good example of a multi-dialectal linguistic regime is present-day Italy. The official language of Italy is the Florentine, but common people still speak their own dialects.

Two people from different areas of Italy cannot communicate if both speak their respective dialect, and yet they both speak Italian. Why should the Hellenic language be treated differently?

At that time, Greeks spoke more than 200 Hellenic dialects or languages, as the ancient Greeks used to call them. Some of the well-known dialects were Ionic, Attic, Doric, Aeolic, Cypriot, Arcadic, Aetolic, Acarnanic, Macedonian and Locric. Moreover, we know that the Romans onsidered the Macedonians as Hellenic speaking peoples. Livy wrote, ” The Aetolians, the Acarnanians, the Macedonians, men of the same speech, are united or disunited by trivial causes that arise from time to time …”
(Livy, History of Rome, b. XXXI par. XXIX).

The Aetolians and Acarnanians were definitely Hellenic tribes. On another occasion Livy writes “…[General Paulus] took his official seat surrounded by the whole crowd of Macedonians … his announcement was translated into Greek and repeated by Gnaeus Octavius the praetor…”. If the crowd of Macedonians were not Greek speaking, why then did the Romans need to translate Paulus’ speech into Greek?
(Livy, History of Rome, b. XLV, para XXIX).

The Macedonian dialect was an Aeolic dialect of the Western Greek language group (Hammond, The Macedonian State, p. 193). All those dialects differ from each other, but never in a way that one person could not understand the other.

The Military Yugoslavian Encyclopedia of the 1974 edition (Letter M, page 219), a very anti-Hellenic biased publication, states, “… u doba rimske invazije, njihov jezik bio grčki, ali se dva veka ranije dosta razlikovao od njega, mada ne toliko da se ta dva naroda nisu mogla sporazumevati.” (… at the time of the Roman invasion their language was Hellenic, but two centuries before it was different enough, but not as much as the two peoples could not understand one another).

After the death of Alexander the Great, the situation changed in the vast empire into a new reality. Ptolemy II, Philadelphos (308-246 BC) the Pharaoh (king) of Egypt realized that the physical unification of the Greeks and the almost limitless expansion of the Empire required the
standardization of the already widely used common language or Koinē. Greek was already the lingua franca of the vast Hellenistic world in all four kingdoms of the Diadochi (Alexander’s Successors). It was already spoken, but neither an official alphabet nor grammar had yet been devised.
Alexandria, Egypt was already the Cultural Center of the Empire in about 280 BC. Ptolemy II assigned Aristeas, an Athenian scholar, to create the grammar of the new language, one that not only all Greeks, but all inhabitants of the Empire would be able to speak. Thus, Aristeas used the Attic dialect as basis for the new language. Aristeas and the scholars who were assisting him trimmed the language a little, eliminated the Attic idiosyncrasies and added words as well as grammatical and syntactical rules mainly from the Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic dialects. The Spartan Doric, however, was excluded from it (see Tsakonian further down). So, they standardized THE Hellenic language, called Koine or Common.

The language was far from perfect. Non-Greeks encountered difficulties reading it since there was no way to separate words, sentences and paragraphs. In addition, they were unable to express their feelings and the right intonation. During that time, Greek was a melodic language, even more melodic than Italian is today.

The system of paragraphs, sentences, and some symbols like ~. ;`’! , were the result of continuous improvement and enhancement of the language with the contribution of many Greek scholars from all over the World.

There were a few alphabets employed by various Hellenic cities or states, and these alphabets included letters specific to the sounds of their particular dialect. There were two main categories, the Eastern and the Western alphabets. The first official alphabet omitted all letters not in use any longer ( sampi, qoppa, digamma also known as stigma in Greek
numbering) and it presented a 24-letter alphabet for the new Koinē language. However, the inclusion and use of small letters took place over a period of many centuries after the standardization of Koinē.

After the new language was completed with its symbols, the Jews of Egypt felt that it was an opportunity for them to translate their sacred books into Greek since it was the language that the Jews of Diaspora spoke. So on the island of Pharos, by Alexandria’s seaport, 72 Jewish rabbis were secluded and isolated as they translated their sacred books (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, etc.) from Aramaic and Hebrew to the Koinē Greek, the newly created language. This is known as the Septuagint translation. The Koinē evolved and in about two to three centuries it became the language that Biblical scholars call Biblical Greek. In fact, only those who have studied the Attic dialect can understand the difference between the Septuagint Greek and the Greek of the New Testament.
Although the Koinē was officially in use, common folk in general continued to speak their own dialect and here and there one can sense the insertion of elements of the Attic dialect in various documents such as the New Testament. The Gospel according to St. John and the Revelation are written in perfect Attic. The other three Synoptic Gospels were written in Koinē with the insertion of some Semitic grammatical concepts (i.e. the Hebrew genitive) and invented words (i.e. epiousios).

The outcome is that today in Greece there are many variations in speech; of course not to the point of people not understanding each other, but still there is divergence in the Greek spoken tongue. Today the Hellenic language accepts only one dialect, the Tsakonian, which is a direct development of the ancient Doric dialect of Sparta. The Demotic is a development of mostly the Doric sound system, whereas the Katharevousa is a made-up language based on the Classical Attic. Presently, the speech in various areas of Greece somehow differs from each other and sometimes an untrained ear might have difficulty understanding the local speech. Pontic and Cypriot Greek are very good examples to the unacquainted ear. Tsakonian dialect, the descendant of the Spartan Doric, is almost impossible to understand if one is not familiar with it.

Over the years, Macedonia had several names. At first the Macedonians gave the land the name, Emathia, after their leader Emathion. It derives from the word amathos, amathoeis meaning sand or sandy. From now on, all of its names are Greek. Later it was called Maketia or Makessa and finally Makedonia (Macedonia). The latter names are derived from the Doric/Aeolic word “makos,” (in Attic “mēkos) meaning length (see Homer, Odyssey, VII, 106), thus Makednos means long or tall, but also a highlander or mountaineer. (cf. Orestae, Hellenes).

In Opis, during the mutiny of the Macedonian Army, Alexander the Great spoke to the whole Macedonian Army addressing them in Greek (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, VII, 9,10). The Macedonian soldiers listened to him and they were dumbfounded by what they heard from their Commander-in-Chief. They were upset. Immediately after Alexander left for the Palace, they demanded that Alexander allow them to enter the palace so that they could talk to him. When this was reported to Alexander, he quickly came out and saw their restrained disposition; he heard the majority of his soldiers crying and lamenting, and was moved to tears. He came forward to speak, but they remained there imploring him. One of them, named Callines, whose age and command of the Companion cavalry made him preeminent spoke as follows: “Sire, what grieves the Macedonians is that you have already made some Persians your ‘kinsmen’, and the Persians are called ‘kinsmen’ of Alexander and are allowed to kiss you, while not one of the Macedonians has been granted this honor” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, VII, 8-11).

The previous story clearly reveals that the Macedonians were speaking Greek since they could understand their leader. There were thousands of them, not just some selected few who happened to speak Greek. It would be unrealistic for Alexander the Great to speak to them in a language they supposedly did not speak. It would be impossible to believe that the Macedonian soldiers were emotionally moved to the point that all of them were lamenting after listening to a language they did not understand. There is no way for the Macedonians to have taken a crash
course in Greek in 20 minutes so that they would be able to understand the speech simultaneously as Alexander was delivering it.

Furthermore, the Macedonians wore a distinctive hat, the “kausia” (καυσία) (Polybius IV 4,5; Eustathius 1398; Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, VII 22; cf. Sturz, Macedonian Dialect, 41) from the Greek word for heat that separated them from the rest of the Greeks. That is why the Persians called them “yauna takabara,” which meant “Greeks wearing the hat”. The Macedonian hat was very distinctive from the hats of the other Greeks, but the Persians did not distinguished the Macedonians, because the Macedonian speech was also Greek (Hammond, The Macedonian State p. 13 cf. J.M. Balcer, Historia, 37 [1988] 7).

Accusations of Macedonians being barbarians started in Athens and they were the result of political fabrications based on the Macedonian way of life and not on their ethnicity or language. (Casson, Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria, p158, Errington, A History of Macedonia, p 4).

Demosthenes traveled to Macedonia twice for a total of nine months. He knew very well what language the Macedonians were speaking. We encountered similar behavior with Thrasyboulos.

He states that the Acarnanians were barbarians only when the Athenians encountered a conflict of political interest from the Acarnanians. The Macedonian way of life differed in many ways from the southern Greek way of life, but that was very common among the Western Greeks such as Chaones, Molossians, Thesprotians, Acarnanians, Aetolians and Macedonians (Errington, A History of Macedonia, p 4.) Macedonian state institutions were similar to those of the Mycenean and Spartan (Wilcken, Alexander the Great, p 23).

Regarding Demosthenes addressing Philip as “barbarian” even Badian an opponent of the Greekness of Macedonians statesIt may have nothing to do with historical fact, any more than the orators’ tirades against their personal enemies usually have.” (E. Badian, Studies in the History of Art Vol 10: Macedonia And Greece in Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Times, Greeks and Macedonians).


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