The last speaker of Ancient Greek

I have spent a few holidays in Crete. Last time we went there we were staying at a small hotly on the South coast. While waiting one evening for my wife in the hotel lobby, I picked up a modern Greek magazine lying around and was trying to read it when the manager of the hotel noticed me and asked if I spoke Greek. I replied that I didn’t but I was trying to use my Ancient Greek to read the magazine. When he heard this, the manager made the astonishing claim that he spoke Ancient Greek and that he had learnt it from his grandmother who had not learnt it but spoke it as her everyday language. I asked him if he still spoke it. He replied no, because nobody could understand him.

The most likely answer to his claim is that in the South West of Crete, in an area called Sphakia, there was a distinctive dialect which it is claimed has descended from the Dorian Greek once spoken in Crete. In fact this claim is probably unfounded and the dialect just arose naturally because the area was isolated from the rest of Crete. There are other Greek dialects that claim to be descended from Doric Greek such as the Maniot dialect in the Peloponese.

Whether his claim to speak Ancient Greek was well founded or not, it is till regrettable to see the disappearance of dialects. We mourn the dying of a language and yet the death of a dialect is almost as sad especially when it has claims to be connected to Ancient Greek.

Philostratus notes how the Attic dialect was being corrupted in Athens circa 150 AD but survived in the countryside. Who knows how long pockets of Ancient Greek survived in remote areas.

καὶ ὁ Ἀγαθίων ‘ἡ μεσογεία’ ἔφη ‘τῆς Ἀττικῆς ἀγαθὸν διδασκαλεῖον ἀνδρὶ βουλομένῳ διαλέγεσθαι, οἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐν τῷ ἄστει Ἀθηναῖοι μισθοῦ δεχόμενοι Θρᾴκια καὶ Ποντικὰ μειράκια καὶ ἐξ ἄλλων ἐθνῶν βαρβάρων ξυνερρυηκότα παραφθείρονται παρ᾽ αὐτῶν τὴν φωνὴν μᾶλλον ἢ ξυμβάλλονταί τι αὐτοῖς ἐς εὐγλωττίαν, ἡ μεσογεία δὲ ἄμικτος βαρβάροις οὖσα ὑγιαίνει αὐτοῖς ἡ φωνὴ καὶ ἡ γλῶττα τὴν ἄκραν Ἀτθίδα ἀποψάλλει.’

Agathion said “The interior of Attica is the best school to a man who wants to lecture, for those in the city of Athens who for a fee accept as students young men from Thrace and Pontus and those who pour in from other barbarian races are more likely to have their language corrupted by them then to help them into the proper way to speak but the interior because it is untainted by barbarians, the language there is healthy and and the dialect sounds the purest Attic.

Philostratus Lives of the philosophers Book 2 553

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2 Responses to The last speaker of Ancient Greek

  1. palaiophron says:

    There are also wide variations in people’s notions of antiquity! Even a 4th century Athenian may have considered Homer “ancient” Greek, while no doubt Aeschylus would have seemed rather ancient to the authors of the New Testament. The rapidity with which a language degenerates may contribute in no small measure to this impression. A sad and thoroughly regrettable parallel can be found among our contemporaries: I have several times heard people carelessly refer to Shakespeare as a writer of ‘Old English.’ (Worse still, one sometimes hears this description applied to Victorian novelists!)

    It would be interesting, though, to see what aspects of ancient Greek were retained in transmission to him. Would he speak ancient Greek with Demotic pronunciation, or would the difference lie less in grammar and morphology and more in the antiquity of the sound?


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