From Latin there descend half a dozen (or more) modern languages. Greek, by contrast, has simply changed over time but without branching into separate languages.

Why the difference? Both were spoken over pretty wide areas, after all, and I'd have expected that the various koines would eventually have diverged.

  • There are still a lot of dialect differences in what is called "Greek"; there always has been. Note for instance that Modern Greek is diglossic, and comes in two varieties: Demotic and Katharevousa. The Wikipedia article covers the history of Koine and other ancient dialects.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:58
  • @jlawler: I would not really call the existence of Katharevousa a sign of diglossia. It was an artificial, forced language that no one wanted to speak and was only used in literature, administrative documents and by people who were trying to show off. More or less it was a "language" with life support. One might disagree with my statement in theory, but in practice there was no natural diglossia.
    – Midas
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 10:15
  • 1
    @Midas. What you say about Katharevousa is basically true of so-called “Modern Standard Arabic”, which is a language which nobody speaks, which uses the morphology of Classical Arabic but a non-classical vocabulary and syntax. The term “diglossia” was actually coined to describe the situation in modern Arabic-speaking countries. So maybe the real problem is the concept “diglossia” itself.
    – fdb
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 10:49
  • @fdb >> Correct! The concept as you say is the problem. There is no practical diglossia in any of the cases.
    – Midas
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 7:56

3 Answers 3


Tsakonian is considered a separate Hellenic language, deriving mostly from Doric Greek and not mutually intelligible by standard Greek speakers. Cappadocian and certain Pontic dialects are considered different languages sometimes, but this is debatable. Greek did change mainly in terms of phonology and (partially) grammar, but not that much in terms of core vocabulary. I think Blazec V. demonstrated this few years ago with a glottochronological example (I can get back to you with the title).

Greek was indeed spoken in a great area, but was replaced (unlike Latin) by other languages such as Arabic, which was closer to the native tongue of the former Greek speakers in those areas.


It's true that Greek was spoken in a large area at some time in human history and indeed it's now spoken mainly in Greece in a mostly uniform way. The main reason that there are not many Greek-deriving languages is political.

Greek was spoken mostly in the eastern part of Mediterranean sea, Balkans, Anatolia (now Turkey), now Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt etc even in some parts of Italy where there is still a small bilingual community in south Italy. The speakers of these areas often understood, spoke or even (in a less degree of course) wrote in Greek but the degree Greek was their mother tongue is debatable. Greek was undoubtedly the "lingua franca" of the entire region and this gave it some extra bonus for people to acquire it and use it. But on the other half this also meant that since it was only lingua franca for a large proportion of the population, when the condition changed then other lingua francas took its place. This means that the transaction from lingua franca to mother tongue (even for bilinguals) is a process that apparently did not occur soon enough. The reason for the latter are political.

Let's check the regions where Greek speaker existed at some time:

  1. The main political power of most of these areas before the Arabian expansions was Byzantium that was mainly Greek-speaking in a large degree. Of course not all provinces shared the same degree of Greek native speakers.
  2. South Balkans and Anatolia were probably at a larger degree native speakers than Egypt for example. This can be explained partially also by the fact that they remains under the political power of a Greek-speaking state (Byzantium).
  3. The Anatolia region were not conquered by Arabs (although at some part it did) but by Turkish-speaking people in a process long enough that ended in the 15th century. This can be seen today that the Turkish-Arabic language limit is the Anatolia border. During this era a gradual Greek abandoning began that ended in the 20th century forcibly with the departure of the last remnants of native Greek speakers from Anatolia.
  4. Many areas that are now Arabic speaking regions like Syria, Jordan, Egypt etc had a quite large spread of a religion diversion from the official Byzantine faith (they are called heresies by the official Orthodox state of Constantinople -now Instanbul-) like Arianism. From this variation came the Coptic Christian of Egypt. The main issue here is that people became estranged by the official authorities of Byzantium and so when the Arab conquered the area they more easily abandoned the old political power (Byzantium) and the language it used (Greek).
  5. The Balkans have a lot of invasions of Slavic people which where not Greek-speaking. These make a difference since they permanently settled in the (often deserted by wars etc) areas and assimilate with the locals. So the people used a mixture of languages with some being mother tongues and other just lingua francas.
  6. Regions besides the (unstable) borders of the Byzantium, present day Iraq, partially Iran, Pakistan and a small part of India, can be considered cases where the native Greek speakers were not the majority at any time and so with the political loss of power they eventually assimilated with other speakers. For example the Indo-Greek Kingdom which was a Hellenistic kingdom felt even at its political peak the need to make its coins bilingual. That signified the idea that people in charge felt the Greek language is not illegible by a large proportion of their citizens.

This explains the spread of Greek language in the area where at some times where spoken. As for the part about the variation, I guess this also has to do with political issues: consider the language the Italian speak now and the language they spoke 1 1/2 century ago: there were various and more widespread dialects while now many exist but fewer in number and spread.

  • Thanks. I'm a little torn between accepting your answer (which is a lot more complete) vs. Midas', mainly because his explanation for the replacement of Greek by Arabic seems to ring more true to me (it explains why other Levantine languages, such as Aramaic, were replaced too).
    – user438
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 6:08
  • Of course you can accept any answer but @Midas answer is not in any contradiction with mine. I think both answers complement each other.
    – Eypros
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 8:01

I think your distinction between having "descendants" and "changing" has no real basis. The relationship between (let's say) Spanish and Latin is very much like that between Attic Greek and modern Demotic Greek. And the difference between (for example) Tsakonian (mentioned by Midas) and "standard" Demotic is probably not less than that between Spanish and Portuguese.

  • Sure, but it's not just Spanish: there's also French, Italian, etc. Each of them on its own has an equal claim to being as related to Latin as demotic is to Attic, but in the latter case there are really no other potential claimants (except maybe Midas' Tsakonian, which actually I didn't know about).
    – user438
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 16:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.