Παρασκευή, 28 Νοεμβρίου 2008

Ancient Macedonian Language

Australian Macedonian Advisory Council
November 28, 2008


The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems defines a writing system as "a set of visible or tactile signs used to represent units of language in a systematic way". This simple explanation encompasses a large spectrum of writing systems, with vastly different stylistic and structural characteristics spanning across the many regions of the globe. Therefore the inscription or the script was, is and will be the major definition source of a language. There is no defined line between a language and a dialect, but it is often said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, a statement credited to Max Weinreich.

To the question what kind of language did the ancient Macedonians use, the answer can only be given based on the existing references in ancient documents, and the excavated inscriptions. What we have concluded is that the Ancient Macedonians were Hellenophon; the original dialect of the Hellenic language they used (Macedonian dialect) was very much similar to the Doric dialect (that is in accordance to Herodotus' references on the common origin of the Dorians and the Macedonians). Later on (in the Hellenistic era) that dialect was gradually replaced by the ´Koini Attiki´ dialect, just like in all of the other Greek city-states. Every native Macedonian name, is Hellenic and is formed in the Hellenic way of producing words, for example the names: ´Adista, Philista, Sostrata, Philotas, Perdikkas, Mahatas´ and many more.

The strongest evidence of the Greekness of the Macedonian dialect are:

The excavated inscriptions, where you find only Greek characters and words

The coins from Macedonia, where again you find only Greek characters and words

The many quotations and comments of the ancient writers on the Macedonians' speech

The characteristics of the Macedonian dialect

Etymology of names in Macedonia

A few years ago, a German linguist by the name Otto Hoffman wrote a book with the title "Makedonians, their language and their Ethnicity". Hoffman analyzed the paradoxical or idiomatic words (calling them languages), which past grammatical, lexicographers and more in general everyone engaged around the Hellenic language had noted them as "worthy to be analyzed" in ´Makedonia´.

According to Hoffman, his conclusions after "supervising" others work are:

"And now after supervising the ancient ´Makedonian´ linguistic thesaurus we are posting the decisive question, if what is adding to the ´Makedonian´ language its character, are the Hellenic or the barbarian elements of it, the response cannot be of any doubts. From the 39 ´languages´ that according to Gustav Mayer their form was ´completely alien´ has been proven after this research of mine, that 10 of them are clearly Hellenic; with 4 more possibly dialectical forms of common Hellenic words, so from the entire collection are remaining only 15 words appearing to be justifiable or at least suspected of anti-Hellenic origins. Adding to those 15, few others which with regards their vocals could be Hellenic, without till now being confirmed as such, then their number (in comparison to the number of pure Hellenic ones in the Macedonian language), is so small that the GENERAL HELLENIC CHARACTER OF THE ´MAKEDONIAN´ LINGUISTIC TREASURE CAN NOT BE DOUBTED."

Major evidence worth noting also involved the ancient theaters. It is a well-known fact that only the Ancient Greeks had theaters in Classical period, namely: Dion, Vergina, Philippi, and Thassos (all in Macedonia). The theater of Dion hosted the first performance (before an audience of Greek-speaking Macedonians), of Euripides world-famous tragedy ´Bacchae´, which he wrote while in Pella, Macedonia. Euripides died and was also buried in Macedonia.

The official code name given recently from linguistics is:

Ancient Macedonian language : provisional ISO-DIS 639-3.5 XMK).

Subgrouping Code : Ancient Greek language or IEGreekB

Group code: Greek Language or IEGreek.


The 6000 inscriptions that are found in Macedonia are freely available for anyone to analyze; as are the texts through the Epigraphical database:


What do we notice? All are in the Ancient Greek language of course!

One must note when performing a throughout analysis, that linguistically there is no real distinction between a dialect and a language without a specific factor. People commonly use a political motivator to determine whether a certain ´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 thought at the time, that the people of all those states were speaking different languages, when they were all in fact speaking variations of the same language i.e. Hellenic (or Greek). The most advanced of all Hellenic dialects was the dialect of Attica (Athens) or Attic. When referring to the "Ancient Greek language", the Attic dialect of Ancient Greek is implied, 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 slightly. Multi-dialectal linguistic regime is also present in modern-day Italy. The official language of Italy is the Florentine dialect, yet people commonly still speak their own dialects. The same holds true in Modern Greece. The Cretans speak their own dialect, and for many Greeks it is difficult to understand this unique dialect.

As mentioned initially, German linguistic Hoffman, analyzes 40 official Macedonian names found on an inscription from 423 B.C:

""In final analysis it is possible that the name VYRGINON KRASTWNOS is of Thracian origins, while independent remains the name DIRVE.....ALL the other names are BEAUTIFUL, CLEAR, HELLENIC CONSTRUCTIONS and only two of them NEOPTOLEMOS and MELEAGROS could have been loans from the HELLENIC MYTHOLOGY."

Hoffman considers the names of the populations of upper or Western ´Makedonia´ including the Orestians (Kastoria), Eordians (Ptolemais-Arnissa), Tymfaians (Pindos-Konitsa), Elimiotians (Kozani), and Lyngestians (Florina-Monastiri).

He considers and analyzes the names of the King's body-guards, the generals, the administrative employees, the leaders of the ´Makedonian´ cavalry, the leaders of the army, and those of many other common people of the 5th and 4th and even later centuries.

His conclusions?


And continues:

""The general Hellenic character of the Makedonians linguistic treasure cannot be disputed even in case some of them might be loans from the Hellenic Mythology or from non-Hellenic myths or for the better pre-Hellenic myths (Teytamos-Marsyas-Seilinos*).

One strong archaeological evidence that depicts which language was spoken by the Ancient Macedonians is the Pella ´katadesmos´ (see picture below). A ´katadesmos´ is a curse, or magic spell, which is inscribed on a lead scroll probably dating to 380 - 350 BC. It was discovered in Pella (at the time capital of Macedon) in 1986; and was published in the Hellenic Dialectology Journal in 1993.

The tab has been dated by the original publishers to the "Mid-4th century BC or slightly earlier (letter forms, spelling)". This dating has been contested by Prof. Edmonds of Bryn Mawr College, who proposes a 3rd century BC date.

The former opinion is concurred by the Oxford Classical Dictionary, in which Professor Olivier Masson writes:

"Yet in contrast with earlier views which made of it {i.e. Macedonian} an Aeolic dialect (O.Hoffmann compared Thessalian) we must by now think of a link with North-West Greek (Locrian, Aetolian, Phocidian, Epirote). This view is supported by the recent discovery at Pella of a curse tablet (4th cent. BC) which may well be the first 'Macedonian' text attested (provisional publication by E.Voutyras; cf. the Bulletin Epigraphique in Rev. Et. Grec. 1994, no.413); the text includes an adverb "opoka" which is not Thessalian." (OCD, 1996, pp 905, 906).

Of the same opinion is James L. O'Neil's (University of Sydney) presentation at the 2005 Conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies, entitled "Doric Forms in Macedonian Inscriptions" (abstract):

"A fourth century BC curse tablet from Pella shows word forms which are clearly Doric, but a different form of Doric from any of the west Greek dialects of areas adjoining Macedon. Three other, very brief, fourth century inscriptions are also indubitably Doric. These show that a Doric dialect was spoken in Macedon, as we would expect from the West Greek forms of Greek names found in Macedon. And yet later Macedonian inscriptions are in Koine avoiding both Doric forms and the Macedonian voicing of consonants. The native Macedonian dialect had become unsuitable for written documents."

In English the text of Pella katasemos translates:

On Thetima and Dionysophon the ritual wedding and the marriage I bind by a written spell, as well as (the marriage) of all other women (to him), both widows and maidens, but above all of Thetima; and I entrust (this spell) to Macron and to the daimones. And if I was to ever dig up this tablet and read these words again, only then should Dionysophon marry, not before; may he indeed not take another beside myself, but let me alone grow old by the side of Dionysophon and no one else. I implore you: have pity for [Phila (?)], dear daimones, [for I am indeed bereft (?)] of all my dear ones and abandoned. But please keep this (piece of writing) for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably [---] but let me become happy and blessed.


The 200 words are the words that recorded from the ancient writers and not those that found in the inscriptions (200 more). The majority are part of the Greek ´syntaxis´ sentences.

Relatively few words of the Macedonian dialect have been preserved, about 154 in fact, and are recorded by Athenaeus and in the Lexicon of Hesychios, who drew them mainly from the work of the Macedonian lexicographer Amerias. It should be noted that Ancient lexicographers did not record all the words of a language or dialect, but only those that presented a certain peculiarity or difficulty in comprehension. For this reason foreign words and idioms are recorded, and thus the proportion of foreign words is not representative of the total vocabulary of the Macedonian dialect. Many of the words which have been treasured as Macedonian occur in all Greek dialects, but in the Macedonian dialect they had a specific meaning and they were recorded by the Ancient lexicographers; for example the word ´υπασπιστής´ (adjutant).

These words that were handed down as Macedonian do not bear any resemblance to the Thracian-Illyrian language. The Macedonian linguistic material (proper names, place-names and common nouns) testifies to the Greek character of the Macedonian dialect as:

The etymology of the majority words is Greek (approx. 90%)

the features and vowel changes are common in Greek and so are the inflections and endings.

As for the few words which are recorded as Macedonian in the Lexicon of Hesyxhios and which are not considered by some to be Greek, it is most likely that they are loan-words, a phenomenon that is observed in all languages, and one which does not put their origin in doubt.

Also, there are another 200 words that found in several inscriptions (Posidipus, Pella katadaesmos, Dervinion papyrus e.t.c.) except of course those that recorded from the Ancient writers (about 154) that has the same characteristics.


In summary, we present five facts that prove the Greek origin of the Ancient Macedonian ´language´ (dialect):

Fact 1 - ISO Identification

Ancient Macedonian language (provisional ISO-DIS 639-3.5 XMK).

Subgrouping Code : Ancient Greek language or IEGreekB

Group code: Greek Language or IEGreek.

Fact 2 - Excavated inscriptions

Six-thousand inscriptions - the most famous being the Pella ´katadesmos´ and the ´Dervenion´ Papyrus (both in the Ancient Greek language).

Fact 3 - Words

The known Macedonian words have Greek roots (except very few) according to linguistics that have analyzed the ancient inscriptions (e.g. Pella ´katadesmos´).

Fact 4 - Evidence of non-Greek inscription

There has not yet been found any single non-Greek text; not only in Macedonia but also in the regions that Macedonians have interacted with.

Fact 5 - The Opposing side

None claim the opposite, as there is no evidence of any single Linguistic proof in order to support their theory of non-Greek speaking Macedonians.

Some people from FYROM (namely Stefov, Gandeto etc.) claim that the term ´makedonisti´ (Philotas trial) is what they interpret as "Macedonian language". Obviously, that is clearly wrong!

The term ´makedonisti´ is Greek, which doesn't mean ´Macedonian language´, but ´Macedonian way´ (in this case, of speech). It is a term that is found in many other Greek documents, and not only in the Macedonian case. For example, it can be found as ´attikisti´, implying the ´Attic way of speech´, the attic dialect, or, ´ionisti´ for the ionian dialect, or, ´doristi´ for the doric dialect. In that way, it is easy to reject the misleading FYROM interpretations of such extracts, because they are based on poor logic and on deliberate false interpretation in the translation of the ancient documents.

The Question I now pose to you is: "Was the Ancient Macedonian language (dialect) part of Ancient Greek?"

It is up to you to decide.

Written by Akritas

for MacedoniaOnTheWeb


Australian Macedonian Advisory Council

Proud indigenous Macedonians proud Greeks one people, one language, one culture, one country