Koine Greek

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Koine Greek
Region Eastern Roman Empire
Era 300 BC – 300 AD
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list

Koine (from κοινή "common", also known as Alexandrian dialect, common Attic or Hellenistic Greek) was the common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during hellenistic and Roman antiquity. It developed through the spread of Greek following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, and served as the common lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East during the following centuries. It was based mainly on Attic and related Ionic speech forms, with various admixtures brought about through dialect levelling with other varieties.1

Koiné Greek displayed a wide spectrum of different styles, ranging from more conservative literary forms to the spoken vernaculars of the time.2 As the dominant language of the Byzantine Empire it developed further into Medieval Greek, the main ancestor of Modern Greek.3

Literary Koine was the medium of much of post-classical Greek literary and scholarly writing, such as the works of Plutarch and Polybius.1 Koiné is also the language of the Christian New Testament, of the Septuagint (the 3rd-century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), and of most early Christian theological writing by the Church Fathers. In this context, Koine Greek is also known as "Biblical", "New Testament" or "patristic Greek".4


The word koinē (κοινή) is the Greek word for "common", and is here understood as referring to "the common dialect" (κοινὴ διάλεκτος). The word is pronounced /ˈkɔɪn/ or /kɔɪˈn/ in English. Its ancient Greek pronunciation would have been [koiˈneː], Modern Greek [ciˈni]. The term was applied in several different sense by ancient scholars. A school of scholars such as Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus maintained the term Koine to refer to the Proto-Greek language, while others would use it to refer to any vernacular form of Greek speech which differed somewhat from the literary language.5

When Koine Greek became a language of literature by the 1st century BC, some people distinguished it into two forms: written (Greek) as the literary post-classical form (which should never be confused with Atticism), and vernacular as the day to day spoken form.5 Others chose to refer to Koine as the Alexandrian dialect (ἡ Ἀλεξανδρέων διάλεκτος) or the dialect of Alexandria, or even the universal dialect of its time. The former was often used by modern classicists.

Origins and history

Dark blue: areas where Greek speakers probably were majoritary. Light blue: areas intensely hellenizedwhen?citation needed

Koine Greek arose as a common dialect within the armies of Alexander the Great.5 Under the leadership of Macedon, their newly formed common dialect was spoken from Egypt to Mesopotamia.5 Though elements of Koine Greek took shape during the Classical Era, the post-Classical period of Greek is defined as beginning with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, when cultures under Hellenistic sway in turn began to influence the language. The passage into the next period, known as Medieval Greek, dates from the foundation of Constantinople by Constantine I in 330. The post-Classical period of Greek thus refers to the creation and evolution of Koine Greek throughout the entire Hellenistic and Roman eras of history until the start of the Middle Ages.5

The linguistic roots of the Common Greek dialect had been unclear since ancient times. During the Hellenistic age, most scholars thought of Koine as the result of the mixture of the four main Ancient Greek dialects, "ἡ ἐκ τῶν τεττάρων συνεστῶσα" (the composition of the Four). This view was supported in the early 20th century by Paul Kretschmer in his book "Die Entstehung der Koine" (1901), while Ulrich Wilamowitz and Antoine Meillet, based on the intense Ionic elements of the Koine — such as σσ instead of ττ and ρσ instead of ρρ (θάλασσα — θάλαττα, ἀρσενικός — ἀρρενικός) — considered Koine to be a simplified form of Ionic.5

The final answer which is academically accepted today was given by the Greek linguist G. N. Hatzidakis, who proved that, despite the "composition of the Four", the "stable nucleus" of Koine Greek is Attic. In other words, Koine Greek can be regarded as Attic with the admixture of elements especially from Ionic, but also from other dialects. The degree of importance of the non-Attic linguistic elements on Koine can vary depending on the region of the Hellenistic World.5

In that respect, the varieties of Koine spoken in the Ionian colonies of Asia Minor (e.g. Pontus) would have more intense Ionic characteristics than others and those of Laconia and Cyprus would preserve some Doric and Arcado-Cypriot characteristics, respectively etc. The literary Koine of the Hellenistic age resembles Attic in such a degree that it is often mentioned as Common Attic.5


The first scholars who studied Koine, both in Alexandrian and contemporary times, were classicists whose prototype had been the literary Attic language of the Classical period, and would frown upon any other kind of Hellenic speech. Koine Greek was therefore considered a decayed form of Greek which was not worthy of attention.5

The reconsideration on the historical and linguistic importance of Koine Greek began only in the early 19th century, where renowned scholars conducted a series of studies on the evolution of Koine throughout the entire Hellenistic and Roman period which it covered. The sources used on the studies of Koine have been numerous and of unequal reliability. The most significant ones are the inscriptions of the post-Classical periods and the papyri, for being two kinds of texts which have authentic content and can be studied directly.5

Other significant sources are the Septuagint, the somewhat literal Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the New Testament. The teaching of the Testaments was aimed at the most common people, and for that reason they use the most popular language of the era.

Information can also be derived from some Atticist scholars of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, who, in order to fight the evolution of the language, published works which compared the supposedly "correct" Attic against the "wrong" Koine by citing examples. For example, Phrynichus Arabius during the 2nd century AD wrote:

Βασίλισσα οὐδείς τῶν Ἀρχαίων εἶπεν, ἀλλὰ βασίλεια ἢ βασιλίς.
Basilissa (Queen) none of the Ancients said, but Basileia or Basilis.

Διωρία ἐσχάτως ἀδόκιμον, ἀντ' αυτοῦ δὲ προθεσμίαν ἐρεῖς.
Dioria (deadline) is badly illiteral, instead say Prothesmia.

Πάντοτε μὴ λέγε, ἀλλὰ ἑκάστοτε καὶ διὰ παντός.
Do not say Pantote (always), but Hekastote and Dia pantos.

Other sources can be based on random findings such as inscriptions on vases written by popular painters, mistakes made by Atticists due to their imperfect knowledge of pure Attic, or even some surviving Greco-Latin glossaries of the Roman period,6 e.g.:

Καλήμερον, ἦλθες;
Bono die, venisti?
Good day, you came?

Ἐὰν θέλεις, ἐλθὲ μεθ' ἡμῶν.
Si vis, veni mecum.
If you want, come with us.7


Πρὸς φίλον ἡμέτερον Λεύκιον.
Ad amicum nostrum Lucium.
To our friend Lucius.

Τί γὰρ ἔχει;
Quid enim habet?
Indeed, what does he have?
What is it with him?

He's sick.

Finally, a very important source of information on the ancient Koine is the modern Greek language with all its dialects and its own Koine form, which have preserved some of the ancient language's oral linguistic details which the written tradition has lost. For example the Pontic and Cappadocian dialects preserved the ancient pronunciation of η as ε (νύφε, συνέλικος, τίμεσον, πεγάδι etc.), while the Tsakonic preserved the long α instead of η (ἁμέρα, ἀστραπά, λίμνα, χοά etc.) and the other local characteristics of Laconic.5

Dialects from the Southern part of the Greek-speaking regions (Dodecanese, Cyprus etc.), preserve the pronunciation of the double similar consonants (ἄλ-λος, Ἑλ-λάδα, θάλασ-σα), while others pronounce in many words υ as ου or preserve ancient double forms (κρόμμυον — κρεμ-μυον, ράξ — ρώξ etc.). Linguistic phenomena like the above imply that those characteristics survived within Koine, which in turn had countless variations in the Greek-speaking world.5


Papyrus 46 is one of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts in Greek, written on papyrus, with its 'most probable date' between 175-225.

Biblical Koine

"Biblical Koine" refers to the varieties of Koine Greek used in the Greek Bible and related texts. Its main sources are:

Septuagint Greek

There has been some debate to what degree biblical Greek represents the mainstream of contemporary spoken Koine and to what extent it contains specifically Semitic substratum features. These could have been induced either through the practice of translating closely from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, or through the influence of the regional non-standard Greek spoken by the originally Aramaic-speaking Jews.

Some of the features discussed in this context are the Septuagint's normative absence of the particles μέν and δέ, and the use of ἐγένετο to denote "it came to pass." Some features of biblical Greek which are thought to have originally been non-standard elements eventually found their way into the main of the Greek language.

New Testament Greek

The Greek of the New Testament is less distinctively Semitic than that of the Septuagint, partly because it appeared 300 years later and partly because it is largely a de novo composition in Greek, not primarily a translation from biblical Hebrew and biblical Aramaic.8

Patristic Greek

The term patristic Greek is sometimes used for the Greek written by the Greek Church Fathers, the Early Christian theologians in late antiquity. Christian writers in the earliest time tended to use a simple register of Koiné, relatively close to the spoken language of their time, following the model of the Bible. After the 4th century, when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, more learned registers of Koiné also came to be used.9

Differences between Attic and Koine Greek

The study of all sources from the six centuries which are symbolically covered by Koine reveals linguistic changes from ancient Greek on elements of the spoken language including, grammar, word formation, vocabulary and phonology (sound system).

Most new forms start off as rare and gradually become more frequent until they are established. As most of the changes between modern and ancient Greek were introduced via Koine, Koine is largely familiar though still unintelligible to most writers and speakers of Modern Greek.

Differences in grammar


During the period generally designated as "Koine" Greek, a great deal of phonological change occurred: at the start of the period, the pronunciation was virtually identical to Ancient Greek phonology, whereas in the end it had much more in common with Modern Greek phonology.

The three most significant changes were the loss of vowel length distinction, the replacement of the pitch accent system by a stress accent system, and the monophthongization of several diphthongs:

  • The ancient distinction between long and short vowels was gradually lost, and from the 2nd century BC all vowels were isochronic (all vowels having equal length).5
  • Since the 2nd century BC, the means of accenting words changed from pitch to stress, meaning that the accented syllable is not pronounced in a musical tone but louder and/or stronger.5
  • The ι in the diphthongs with initial long vowels (ᾱͅ, ῃ, ῳ) stopped being pronounced and written in popular texts.5
  • The diphthongs αι, ει, and οι became single vowels. In this manner 'αι', which had already been converted by the Boeotians into a long ε since the 4th century BC and written η (e.g. πῆς, χῆρε, μέμφομη), became in Koine, too, first a long ε and then short. The diphthong 'ει' had already merged with ι in the 5th century BC in regions such as Argos or in the 4th century BC in Corinth (e.g. ΛΕΓΙΣ), and it acquired this pronunciation also in Koine. The diphthong 'οι' acquired the pronunciation of the modern French 'U' (y), which lasted until the 10th century AD. The diphthong 'υι' came to be pronounced [yj], and remained pronounced as a diphthong. The diphthong 'ου' had already acquired the pronunciation of Latin 'U' since the 6th century BC and preserved it in modern times.5
  • The diphthongs αυ and ευ came to be pronounced [av] and [ev] (via [aβ], [eβ]), but are partly assimilated to [af], [ef] before the voiceless consonants θ, κ, ξ, π, σ, τ, φ, χ, and ψ.5
  • Simple vowels have preserved their ancient pronunciations, except η which is pronounced as ι, and υ, which retained the pronunciation [y] of modern French 'U' only until the 10th century AD, and was later also pronounced as ι. With those changes in phonology there were common spelling mistakes between υ and οι, while the sound of ι was multiplied (iotacism).5
  • The consonants also preserved their ancient pronunciations to a great extent, except β, γ, δ, φ, θ, χ and ζ. Β, Γ, Δ (Beta, Gamma, Delta), which were originally pronounced [b, ɡ, d], acquired the sounds of v, gh, and dh ([v] (via β), ɣ, ð), which they still have today, except when preceded by a nasal consonant (μ, ν); in that case, they retain their ancient sounds (e.g. γαμβρός [ɣambros], άνδρας [andras], άγγελος [aŋɡelos]). The latter three (Φ, Θ, Χ), which were initially pronounced as aspirates (/pʰ/, /tʰ/ and /kʰ/ respectively), developed into the fricatives [f] (via [ɸ]), [θ], and [x]. Finally the letter Ζ, which is still categorised as a double consonant with ξ and ψ, because it was initially pronounced as σδ (sd), later acquired the sound of Z as it appears in Modern English and Greek.5

New Testament Greek phonology

The Koine Greek in the table represents a reconstruction of New Testament Koine Greek, deriving to some degree from the dialect spoken in Judaea and Galilaea during the 1st century and similar to the dialect spoken in Alexandria, Egypt. Note the realizations of certain phonemes differ from the more standard Attic dialect of Koine.

Note the soft fricative "β" in intervocalic position, the preservation of the aspirated plosive value of "ph", "th" and "kh", the preservation of a distinction between the four front vowels "i", "ē", "e", and "y" (which is still rounded), and other features.

letter Greek Transliteration IPA
Alpha α a a
Beta β (-β-) b b (-β-)
Gamma γ g ɣ
Delta δ d d
Epsilon ε e ɛ
Zeta ζ z
Eta η ē e
Theta θ th
Iota ι i i
Kappa κ k k
Lambda λ l l
Mu μ m m
Nu ν n n
Xi ξ x ks
Omicron ο o o
Pi π p p
Rho ρ r ɾ
Sigma σ (-σ-/-σσ-) s (-s-/-ss-) s (-z-/-sː-)
Tau τ t t
Upsilon υ y y
Phi φ ph
Chi χ ch
Psi ψ ps ps
Omega ω ō o
. αι ai ɛ
. ει ei i
. οι oi y
. υι yi yj
. αυ au aw
. ευ eu ɛw
. ηυ ēu ew
. ου ou u

Sample Koine texts

The following texts show differences from Attic Greek in all aspects - grammar, morphology, vocabulary and can be inferred to show differences in phonology.

The following comments illustrate the phonological development within the period of Koine. The phonetic transcriptions are tentative, and are intended to illustrate two different stages in the reconstructed development, an early conservative variety still relatively close to Classical Attic, and a somewhat later, more progressive variety approaching Modern Greek in some respects.

Sample 1 – A Roman decree

The following excerpt, from a decree of the Roman Senate to the town of Thisbae in Boeotia in 170 BC, is rendered in a reconstructed pronunciation representing a hypothetical conservative variety of mainland Greek Koiné in the early Hellenistic era.10 The transcription shows partial, but not yet completed raising of η and ει to /i/, retention of pitch accent, fricativization of γ to /j/clarification needed but no fricativisation of the other stops as yet, and retention of word-initial /h/ (the rough breathing).

περὶ ὧν Θισ[β]εῖς λόγους ἐποιήσαντο· περὶ τῶν καθ᾿αὑ[τ]οὺς πραγμάτων, οἵτινες ἐν τῇ φιλίᾳ τῇ ἡμετέρᾳ ἐνέμειναν, ὅπως αὐτοῖς δοθῶσιν [ο]ἷς τὰ καθ᾿ αὑτοὺς πράγματα ἐξηγήσωνται, περὶ τούτου τοῦ πράγματος οὕτως ἔδοξεν· ὅπως Κόιντος Μαίνιος στρατηγὸς τῶν ἐκ τῆς συνκλήτου [π]έντε ἀποτάξῃ οἳ ἂν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν δημοσίων πρα[γμ]άτων καὶ τῆς ἰδίας πίστεως φαίνωνται.
[ˈperì hôːn tʰizbîːs lóɡuːs epojéːsanto; perì tôːn katʰ hautùːs praɡmátoːn, hoítines en tîː pʰilíaːi tîː heːmetéraːi enémiːnan, hópoːs autoîs dotʰôːsin hoîs tà katʰ hautùːs práɡmata ekseːɡéːsoːntai, perì túːtuː tûː práɡmatos húːtoːs édoksen; hópoːs ˈkʷintos ˈmainios strateːɡòs tôːn ek têːs syŋkléːtuː pénte apotáksiː, hoì àn autôːi ek tôːn deːmosíoːn praɡmátoːn kaì têːs idíaːs písteoːs pʰaínoːntai]
Concerning those matters about which the citizens of Thisbae made representations. Concerning their own affairs: the following decision was taken concerning the proposal that those who remained true to our friendship should be given the facilities to conduct their own affairs; that our governor Quintus Maenius should delegate five members of the senate who seemed to him suitable in the light of their public actions and individual good faith.

Sample 2 – Greek New Testament

The following excerpt, the beginning of the Gospel of John, is rendered in a reconstructed pronunciation representing a progressive popular variety of Koiné in the early Christian era, with vowels approaching those of Modern Greek.11

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν. ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων. καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
[ˈen arˈkʰi in o ˈloɣos, ke o ˈloɣos im bros to(n) tʰeˈo(n), ke tʰeˈos in o ˈloɣos. ˈutos in en arˈkʰi pros to(n) tʰeˈo(n). ˈpanda di aɸˈtu eˈjeneto, ke kʰoˈris aɸˈtu eˈjeneto ude ˈen o ˈjeɣonen. en aɸˈto zoˈi in, ke i zoˈi in to pʰos ton anˈtʰropon; ke to pʰos en di skoˈtia ˈpʰeni, ke i skoˈti(a) a(ɸ)ˈto u kaˈtelaβen]
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.


  1. ^ a b Bubenik, V. (2007). "The rise of Koiné". In A. F. Christidis. A history of Ancient Greek: from the beginnings to late antiquity. Cambridge: University Press. pp. 342–345. 
  2. ^ Horrocks, Geoffrey (1997). "4–6". Greek: a history of the language and its speakers. London: Longman. 
  3. ^ Horrocks, Geoffrey C. (2010). Greek: a history of the language and its speakers (2nd ed.). London: Longman. p. xiii. ISBN 978-1-4051-3415-6. Retrieved 14 September 2011. 
  4. ^ A history of ancient Greek by Maria Chritē, Maria Arapopoulou, Centre for the Greek Language (Thessalonikē, Greece) pg 436 ISBN 0-521-83307-8
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Andriotis, Nikolaos P. History of the Greek Language.
  6. ^ Augsburg.
  7. ^ The Latin gloss in the source erroneously has "with me", while the Greek means "with us".
  8. ^ Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare(1856-1924) Grammar of Septuagint Greek
  9. ^ Horrocks (1997: ch.5.11.)
  10. ^ G. Horrocks (1997), Greek: A history of the language and its speakers, p. 87), cf. also pp. 105-109.
  11. ^ Horrocks (1997: 94).


  • Abel, F.-M. Grammaire du grec biblique.
  • Allen, W. Sidney, Vox Graeca: a guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek – 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-521-33555-8
  • Andriotis, Nikolaos P. History of the Greek Language
  • Buth, Randall, Ἡ κοινὴ προφορά: Koine Greek of Early Roman Perioddead link
  • Bruce, Frederick F. The Books and the Parchments: Some Chapters on the Transmission of the Bible. 3rd edition. Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1963. Chapters 2 and 5.
  • Conybeare, F.C. and Stock, St. George. Grammar of Septuagint Greek: With Selected Readings, Vocabularies, and Updated Indexes.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1956. ISBN 0-674-36250-0

Further reading

External links

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