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Proto-Greek language

The Proto-Greek language is the assumed last common ancestor of all known varieties of Greek, including Mycenaean, the classical Greek dialects (Attic-Ionic, Aeolic, Doric and Arcado-Cypriot), and ultimately Koine, Byzantine and modern Greek. The unity of Proto-Greek would have ended as Hellenic migrants, speaking the predecessor of the Mycenaean language, entered the Greek peninsula sometime in the Neolithic era or the Bronze Age.[1]

The evolution of Proto-Greek should be considered within the context of an early Paleo-Balkan sprachbund that makes it difficult to delineate exact boundaries between individual languages. The characteristically Greek representation of word-initial laryngeals by prothetic vowels is shared by the Armenian language, which also shares other phonological and morphological peculiarities of Greek. The close relatedness of Armenian and Greek sheds light on the paraphyletic nature of the centum–satem isogloss. The close similarities between Ancient Greek and Vedic Sanskrit suggest that both Proto-Greek and Proto-Indo-Iranian were still quite similar to late Proto-Indo-European, which would place the latter somewhere in the late 4th millennium BC.


Scholars are divergent in their views regarding the geographical origins of proto-Greek and when the first Greek-speakers arrived into the Greek peninsula. Vladimir I. Georgiev, for example, placed proto-Greek in northwestern Greece during the Late Neolithic period.[2] In the field of archaeogenetics, Russel Gray and Quentin Atkinson, using computational methods derived from evolutionary biology, concluded that the divergence of Greco-Armenian from Proto-Indo-European occurred around 7300–7000 years ago (~5300–5000 BC) coinciding with the spread of agriculture from Asia Minor to Greece during the Neolithic period; Greek, specifically, developed into a separate linguistic lineage before 6000 years ago (before 4000 BC).[3]


File:Proto Greek Area reconstruction.png
A reconstruction of the 3rd millennium BC "Proto-Greek area", by Vladimir I. Georgiev.[4]

Proto-Greek changes

The primary sound changes separating Proto-Greek from the Proto-Indo-European language included:

  • shortening of long vowels before a sonorant in the same syllable (Osthoff's law): *dyēws "skyling, sky god" > Ζεύς /sdeús/ "Zeus"
  • Debuccalization of /s/ to /h/ in the inter-and pre-vocalic positions (i.e. between two vowels, or if word-initial and followed by a vowel).
  • Devoicing of voiced aspirates.
  • Strengthening of word-initial y- (not Hy-) to dy- (later ζ-).
  • Palatalization of consonants followed by -y-, producing various affricates (still represented as a separate sound in Mycenaean) and palatal consonants; these later simplified, mostly losing their palatal character.
  • Dissimilation of aspirates (Grassmann's law), possibly post-Mycenaean.
  • Vocalization of laryngeals between consonants and initially before consonants to /e/, /a/, /o/ from h₁, h₂, h₃ respectively (unlike all other Indo-European languages).
  • Other unique changes involving laryngeals; see below.
  • Loss of final stop consonants; final /m/ -> /n/.
  • Cowgill's law, raising /o/ to /u/ between a resonant and a labial.
  • Merging of sequences of velar + *w into the labiovelars, with compensatory lengthening of the consonant in some cases. For example PIE *h₁éḱwos > PG *íkkʷos > Mycenaean i-qo /ikkʷos/, Attic híppos, Aeolic íkkos.

Loss of prevocalic *s was not completed entirely, famously evidenced by sȳs (also hȳs, pig, from PIE *suh₁-), dasýs (dense) and dásos (dense growth, forest); syn (with) is another example, contaminated with PIE *kom (Latin cum, Proto-Greek *kon) to Homeric / Old Attic ksyn. Sélas (light in the sky, as in the "Northern Lights") and selēnē/selána (the Moon) may be more examples of the same, if actually derived from PIE *swel- (to burn) (possibly related to hēlios "Sun", Ionic hēelios < *sāwelios).

Dissimilation of aspirates (so-called Grassmann's law) caused an initial aspirated sound to lose its aspiration when a following aspirated consonant occurred in the same word. It was a relatively late change in Proto-Greek history and must have occurred independently of the similar dissimilation of aspirates (also known as Grassmann's law) in Indo-Iranian, although it may represent a common areal feature. Specifically:

  1. It postdates the Greek-specific de-voicing of voiced aspirates.
  2. It also postdates the change of /s/ > /h/, as it affects /h/ as well: ékhō "I have" < *hekh- < PIE *seǵʰ-oh₂, but future heksō "I will have" < *heks- < Post-PIE *seǵʰ-s-oh₂.
  3. It even postdates the loss of aspiration before /y/ that accompanied second-stage palatalization (see below), which postdates both of the previous changes (as well as first-stage palatalization).
  4. On the other hand, it predates the development of the first aorist passive marker -thē-, since the aspirate in that marker has no effect on preceding aspirates.

Laryngeal changes

Greek is unique in reflecting the three different laryngeals using distinct vowels. Most Indo-European languages can be traced back to a dialectal variety of late Proto-Indo-European (PIE) where all three laryngeals had merged (after coloring adjacent short /e/ vowels) but Greek clearly cannot. For this reason, Greek is extremely important in reconstructing PIE forms.

Greek shows distinct reflexes of the laryngeals in various positions:

  • Most famously, between consonants, where original vocalic h₁, h₂, h₃ are reflected as /e/, /a/, /o/ respectively (the so-called triple reflex). All other Indo-European languages reflect the same vowel from all three laryngeals (usually /a/, but /i/ or other vowels in Indo-Iranian). Examples:
PIE Greek Vedic Sanskrit Latin
dʰh̥₁s- "sacred, religious" thés-phatos "decreed by God" dhíṣ-ṇya- "devout" fānum "temple" < *fasnom < *dʰh̥₁s-no-
sth̥₂-to- "standing, being made to stand" statós sthíta- status
dh̥₃-ti- "gift" dósis díti- datiō
  • An initial laryngeal before a consonant (an *HC- sequence) leads to the same triple reflex, whereas most IE languages deleted such laryngeals and a few reflect them initially before consonants, whereas Greek vocalized them (leading to what are misleadingly termed prothetic vowels): cf. Greek érebos "darkness" < PIE *h₁regʷos vs. Gothic riqiz- "darkness"; Greek áent- "wind" < *awent- < PIE *h₂wéh₁n̥t- vs. English wind, Latin ventum "wind".
  • The sequence *CRHC (C = consonant, R = resonant, H = laryngeal) becomes CRēC, CRāC, CRōC from H = h₁, h₂, h₃ respectively. (Other Indo-European languages again have the same reflex for all three laryngeals, e.g. *CuRC in Germanic, *CíRC/CúRC with acute accent in Balto-Slavic, *CīRC/CūRC in Indo-Iranian, *CRāC in Italic and Celtic.) Sometimes CeReC, CaRaC, CoRoC is found instead. Cf. Greek thánatos "death" vs. Doric Greek thnātós "mortal", both apparently reflecting *dʰn̥h₂-tos. It is sometimes suggested that the position of the accent was a factor in determining the outcome.
  • The sequence *CiHC tends to become *CyēC, CyāC, CyōC from H = h₁, h₂, h₃ respectively, with later palatalization (see below). Sometimes the outcome CīC is found, as in most other Indo-European languages, or the outcome CiaC in the case of *Cih₂C.

All of these cases may stem from an early insertion of /e/ next to a laryngeal not adjacent to a vowel in the Indo-European dialect ancestral to Greek (subsequently colored to /e/, /a/, /o/ by the particular laryngeal in question), prior to the general merger of laryngeals. For example:

  • *CHC > *CHeC > CeC/CaC/CoC.
  • *HC- > *HeC- > eC-/aC-/oC-.
  • *CRHC > *CReHC > CRēC/CRāC/CRōC; or, *CRHC > *CeRHeC > *CeReC/CeRaC/CeRoC > CeReC/CaRaC/CoRoC by assimilation.
  • *CiHC > *CyeHC > CyēC/CyāC/CyōC; or, *Cih₂C > *Cih₂eC > *CiHaC > *CiyaC > CiaC; or, *CiHC remains without vowel insertion > CīC.

A laryngeal adjacent to a vowel develops along the same lines as in other Indo-European languages:

  • The sequence *CRHV (C = consonant, R = resonant, H = laryngeal, V = vowel) passes through *CR̥HV, becoming CaRV.
  • The sequence *CeHC becomes CēC/CāC/CōC.
  • The sequence *CoHC becomes CōC.
  • In the sequence *CHV (including CHR̥C, with a vocalized resonant), the laryngeal colors a following short /e/, as expected, but otherwise disappears entirely (as in most other Indo-European languages, but contrast Indo-Iranian, where the laryngeal aspirates a previous stop and prevents the operation of Brugmann's law).
  • In a *VHV sequence (i.e. a laryngeal between vowels, including a vocalic resonant R̥), the laryngeal again colors any adjacent short /e/ but otherwise vanishes early on. This change appears to be uniform across the Indo-European languages and was probably the first environment in which laryngeals were lost. If the first V was i, u or a vocalic resonant, a consonantal copy was apparently inserted in place of the laryngeal (e.g. *CiHV > *CiyV, *CuHV > *CuwV, *CR̥HV possibly > *CR̥RV, with R̥ always remaining as vocalic up until the dissolution of vocalic resonants in the various daughter languages). Otherwise, a hiatus resulted, which was resolved in various ways in the daughter languages, typically by converting i, u and vocalic resonants, when directly following a vowel, back into a consonant, and merging adjacent non-high vowels into a single long vowel.


Proto-Greek underwent palatalization of consonants before *y. This occurred in two separate stages. The first stage affected only dental consonants, while the second stage affected all consonants.

The first palatalization turned dentals + *y into alveolar afficates:

Before After
*ty, *tʰy *ts
*dy *dz

Alongside these changes, the inherited clusters *ts, *ds and *tʰs all merged into *ts.

In the second palatalization, all consonants were affected. It took place following the resolution of syllabic laryngeals and sonorants. The following table, based on Sihler,[5] shows the developments.

Before After
*py, *pʰy *pť
*tsy *ťť
*ky, *kʰy
*kʷy, *kʷʰy
*by  ?
*dzy *ďď
*ly *ľľ
*my, *ny *ňň
*ry *řř
*sy > *hy *yy
*wy *ɥɥ > *yy

In post-Proto-Greek times, the resulting palatal consonants and clusters were resolved in varying ways. Most notably, and were resolved into plain sonorants plus a palatal on-glide, which eventually turned the preceding vowel into a diphthong.

Proto-Greek Attic Homeric West Ionic Other Ionic Boeotian Arcado-
*pť pt
*ts s s, ss s s tt ss ss
*ťť tt ss tt ss tt ss ss
*dz  ?
*ďď zd
*ľľ ll il ll
*ňň in (but *uin > ūn)
*řř ir (but *uir > ūr)
*yy (ai, ei, oi, ui)

In the time between the first and second palatalizations, new clusters *tsy and *dzy were formed by restoring a lost *y after the newly-formed *ts and *dz. This occurred only in morphologically transparent formations, by analogy with similar formations where *y was preceded by other consonants. In formations that were morphologically opaque and not understood as such by speakers of the time, this restoration did not take place and *ts and *dz remained. Hence, depending on the type of formation, the Pre-Greek sequences *ty, *tʰy and *dy have different outcomes in the later languages. In particular, medial *ty becomes Attic s in opaque formations, but tt in transparent formations.

Note that the outcome of PG medial *ts in Homeric Greek is s after a long vowel, and vacillation between s and ss after a short vowel: tátēsi dat. pl. "rug" < tátēt-, possí(n)/posí(n) dat. pl. "foot" < pod-.

Examples of initial *ts:

  • PIE *tyegʷ- "avoid" > PG *tsegʷ- > Greek sébomai "worship, be respectful" (Ved. tyaj- "flee")
  • PIE *dʰyeh₂- "notice" > PG *tsā- > Dor. sāma, Att. sêma "sign" (Ved. dhyā́- "thought, contemplation")

Examples of medial *ts (morphologically opaque forms, first palatalization only):

  • PreG *totyos "as much" > PG *totsos > Att. tósos, Hom. tósos/tóssos (cf. Ved. táti, Lat. tot "so much/many")
  • PIE *medʰyos "middle" > PG *metsos > Att. mésos, Hom. mésos/méssos, Boeot. mettos, other dial. mesos (cf. Ved. mádhya-, Lat. medius)

Examples of medial *ťť (morphologically transparent forms, first and second palatalization):

  • PIE *h₁erh₁-t-yoh₂ "I row" > PG *ereťťō > Attic eréttō, usual non-Attic eréssō (cf. erétēs "oarsman")
  • PIE *kret-yōs > PreG *kret-yōn "better" > PG *kreťťōn > Attic kreíttōn,[6] usual non-Attic kréssōn (cf. kratús "strong" < PIE *kr̥tus)

Other Post-Proto-Greek changes

Sound changes between Proto-Greek and all early dialects, including Mycenaean, include:

  • Remaining syllabic resonants *m̥ *n̥ *l̥ and *r̥ are resolved to vowels or combinations of a vowel and consonantal resonant. It appears that this process still occurred within Proto-Greek, and resulted in an epenthetic vowel of undetermined quality (denoted here as ). This vowel then usually developed into a, but also o in some cases. Thus:
    • *m̥, *n̥ > , but > *əm, *ən before a sonorant. appears as o in Mycenaean after a labial, e.g. pe-mo (spermo) "seed" vs. usual spérma < *spérmn̥. Similarly, o often appears in Arcadian after a velar, e.g. deko "ten", hekoton "one hundred" vs. usual déka, hekatón < *déḱm̥, *sem-ḱm̥tóm.
    • *l̥, *r̥ > *lə, *rə, but *əl, *ər before sonorants and analogously. appears as o in Mycenean Greek, Aeolic Greek, and Cypro-Arcadian. Example: PIE *str̥-tos > usual stratos, Aeolic strotos "army"; post-PIE *ḱr̥di-eh₂ "heart" > Att. kardíā, Hom. kradíē, Pamphylian korzdia.
  • Loss of s in consonant clusters, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel (Attic, Ionic, Doric) or of the consonant (Aeolic): *esmi "I am" > ēmi, eimi or emmi.
  • Creation of secondary s from clusters, ntja > nsa (this in turn followed by a change similar to the one described above, i.e. loss of the n with compensatory lengthening, e.g. apont-ja > apon-sa > apō-sa, "absent", fem.).
  • Conversion of labiovelars to velars next to /u/ (boukolos rule).
  • In southern dialects (including Mycenaean, but not Doric), -ti- > -si- (assibilation).

The following changes are apparently post-Mycenaean:

  • Loss of /h/ (from original /s/), except initially, e.g. Doric nikaas "having conquered" < *nikahas < *nikasas.
  • Loss of /j/, e.g. treis "three" < *treyes.
  • Loss of /w/ in many dialects (later than loss of /h/ and /j/). Example: etos "year" from *wetos.
  • Loss of labiovelars, which were converted (mostly) into labials, sometimes into dentals (or velars next to /u/, as a result of an earlier sound change). See below for details. This had not yet happened in Mycenaean, shown by the fact that a separate letter /q/ is used for these sounds.
  • Contraction of adjacent vowels resulting from loss of /h/ and /j/ (and, to a lesser extent, from loss of /w/); more in Attic Greek than elsewhere.
  • Rise of a distinctive circumflex accent, resulting from contraction and certain other changes.
  • Limitation of the accent to the last three syllables, with various further restrictions.
  • Loss of /n/ before /s/ (incompletely in Cretan Greek), with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.
  • Raising of ā to ē /ɛː/ in Attic and Ionic dialects (but not Doric). In Ionic, this change was general, but in Attic it did not occur after /i/, /e/ or /r/. (But note Attic korē "girl" < *korwā; loss of /w/ after /r/ had not occurred at that point in Attic.)

Note that /w/ and /j/, when following a vowel and not preceding a vowel, combined early on with the vowel to form a diphthong and were thus not lost.

The loss of /h/ and /w/ after a consonant were often accompanied by compensatory lengthening of a preceding vowel.

The development of labiovelars varies from dialect to dialect:

  • Labiovelars next to /u/ had earlier been converted to plain velars. Cf. boukólos "herdsman" < *gʷou-kʷolos (cf. boûs "cow" < *gʷou-) vs. aipólos "goatherd" < *ai(g)-kʷolos (cf. aíks, gen. aigós "goat"); elakhús "small" < *h₁ln̥gʷʰ-ús vs. elaphrós "light" < *h₁ln̥gʷʰ-rós.
  • In Attic and some other dialects (but not, e.g., Lesbian), labiovelars before some front vowels became dentals. In Attic, and kʷʰ became t and th, respectively, before /e/ and /i/, while became d before /e/ (but not /i/). Cf. theínō "I strike, kill" < *gʷʰen-yō vs. phónos "slaughter" < *gʷʰón-os; delphús "womb" < *gʷelbʰ- (Sanskrit garbha-) vs. bíos "life" < *gʷih₃wos (Gothic qius "alive"), tís "who?" < *kʷis (Latin quis).
  • All remaining labiovelars became labials, original kʷ kʷʰ gʷ becoming p ph b respectively. This happened to all labiovelars in some dialects, e.g. Lesbian; in other dialects, e.g. Attic, it occurred to all labiovelars not converted into dentals. Many occurrences of dentals were later converted into labials by analogy with other forms; cf. bélos "missile", bélemnon "spear, dart" (dialectal delemnon) by analogy with bállō "I throw (a missile, etc.)", bolḗ "a blow with a missile".
  • Note that original PIE labiovelars had still remained as such even before consonants, and hence became labials also in this position, whereas in many other Centum languages, such as Latin and most Germanic languages, the labiovelars lost their labialization before consonants. (Greek pemptos "fifth" < *penkʷtos; compare Old Latin quinctus.) This makes Greek of particular importance in reconstructing original labiovelars.

The results of vowel contraction were complex from dialect to dialect. Such contractions occur in the inflection of a number of different noun and verb classes and are among the most difficult aspects of Ancient Greek grammar. They were particularly important in the large class of contracted verbs, denominative verbs formed from nouns and adjectives ending in a vowel. (In fact, the reflex of contracted verbs in Modern Greek — i.e., the set of verbs derived from Ancient Greek contracted verbs—represents one of the two main classes of verbs in that language.)



As Mycenaean Greek shows, the PIE dative (suffix -i), instrumental (suffix -phi) and locative (suffix -si) cases are still distinct, and are not yet syncretized into a single dative case.

Nominative plural -oi, -ai replaces late PIE -ōs, -ās.

The superlative in -tatos becomes productive.

The peculiar oblique stem gunaik- "women", attested from the Thebes tablets is probably Proto-Greek; it appears, at least as gunai- also in Armenian.


The pronouns houtos, ekeinos and autos are created. Use of ho, hā, ton as articles is post-Mycenaean.


An isogloss between Greek and Phrygian is the absence of r-endings in the Middle Voice in Greek, apparently already lost in Proto-Greek.

Proto-Greek inherited the augment, a prefix é- to verbal forms expressing past tense. This feature it shares only with Indo-Iranian and Phrygian (and to some extent, Armenian) lending some support to a "Graeco-Aryan" or "Inner PIE" proto-dialect. However, the augment down to the time of Homer remained optional, and was probably little more than a free sentence particle meaning "previously" in the proto-language, that may easily have been lost by most other branches.

The first person middle verbal desinences -mai, -mān replace -ai, -a. The third singular pherei is an innovation by analogy, replacing the expected Doric *phereti, Ionic *pheresi (from PIE *bʰéreti).

The future tense is created, including a future passive, as well as an aorist passive.

The suffix -ka- is attached to some perfects and aorists.

Infinitives in -ehen, -enai and -men are created.


  • "one": masculine *héms~héns, feminine *hmía (> Myc. e-me /hemei/ (dative); Att./Ion. εἷς (ἑνός), μία, heis (henos), mia)
  • "two": *dúwō (> Myc. du-wo /duwō/; Hom. δύω, duō; Att.-Ion. δύο, duo)
  • "three": *tréyes (> Myc. ti-ri /trins/; Att./Ion. τρεῖς, treis; Lesb. τρής, trēs; Cret. τρέες, trees)
  • "four": nominative *kʷétwores, genitive *kʷeturṓn (> Myc. qe-to-ro-we /kʷetrōwes/ "four-eared"; Att. τέτταρες, tettares; Ion. τέσσερες, tesseres; Boeot. πέτταρες, pettares; Thess. πίτταρες, pittares; Lesb. πίσυρες, pisures; Dor. τέτορες, tetores)
  • "five": *pénkʷe (> Att.-Ion. πέντε, pente; Lesb., Thess. πέμπε, pempe)
  • "six": *hwéks (> Att. ἕξ, heks; Dor. ϝέξ, weks)
  • "seven": *heptə́
  • "eight": *oktṓ
  • "nine": *ennewə
  • "ten": *dékə

See also



  1. ^ A comprehensive overview in Hooker, J.T., Mycenean Greece, (1976, 20142), especially Chapter 2, "Before the Mycenenan Age", pp. 11-33 and passim; for a different hypothesis excluding massive migrations and favoring an autochtonous scenario see, Renfrew, C. "Problems in the General Correlation of Archaeological and Linguistic Strata in Prehistoric Greece: The Authochous origin" in Crossland, R.A. & Birchall, A. (eds.), Bronze age Migrations (1974), pp. 263-275, especially p. 267.
  2. ^ Georgiev 1981, p. 192: "Late Neolithic Period: in northwestern Greece the Proto-Greek language had already been formed: this is the original home of the Greeks."
  3. ^ Gray & Atkinson 2003, pp. 437–438; Atkinson & Gray 2006, p. 102: "Hittite appears to have diverged from the main Proto-Indo-European stock around 8700 years ago, perhaps reflecting the initial migration out of Anatolia. Indeed, this date exactly matches estimates for the age of Europe’s first agricultural settlements in southern Greece. Following the initial split, the language tree shows the formation of separate Tocharian, Greek, and then Armenian lineages, all before 6000 BP, with all of the remaining language families formed by 4000 BP. We note that the received linguistic orthodoxy (Indo-European is only 6000 years old) does approximately fit the divergence dates we obtained for most of the branches of the tree. Only the basal branches leading to Hittite, Tocharian, Greek and Armenian are well beyond this age."
  4. ^ Georgiev 1981, p. 156: "The Proto-Greek region included Epirus, approximately up to Αυλών in the north including Paravaia, Tymphaia, Athamania, Dolopia, Amphilochia, and Acarnania), west and north Thessaly (Hestiaiotis, Perrhaibia, Tripolis, and Pieria), i.e. more or less the territory of contemporary northwestern Greece)."
  5. ^ Sihler 1995
  6. ^ Lengthened -ei /eː/ due to Attic analogical lengthening in comparatives.



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