Differences Between Classical and Hellenistic Greek

Differences Between Classical and Hellenistic Greek

A Quick Introduction by Jay C. Treat

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Blass, Friedrich and A. Debrunner. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated and revised by Robert W. Funk. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Dana, E. H., and Mantey, J. R. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York: MacMillan Co., 1927.

Gingrich, F. Wilbur. "The Greek New Testament as a Landmark in the Course of Semantic Change." Journal of Biblical Literature 73 (1954): 189-196.

Robertson, A.T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934.

Conybeare, F. C. and St. G. Stock. "Grammar of Septuagint Greek." Selections from the Septuagint. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1905.

General Characterization

The sources listed above indicate ways in which Koinê (or Hellenistic) Greek differs from Classical Greek. The following is a summary of some of the main points they raise.

Robertson characterizes Koinê Greek as a later development of Classical Greek, that is, the dialect spoken in Attica (the region around Athens) during the classical period.

To all intents and purposes the vernacular Κοινη is the later vernacular Attic with normal development under historical environment created by Alexander's conquests. On this base then were deposited varied influences from the other dialects, but not enough to change the essential Attic character of the language (Robertson 71).

If the Koinê is an outgrowth of Classical Greek, what are the differences between the two? Robertson states the basic differences succinctly. Koinê was more practical than academic, putting the stress on clarity rather than eloquence. Its grammar was simplified, exceptions were decreased and generalized, inflections were dropped or harmonized, and sentence-construction made easier. Koinê was the language of life and not of books.


Orthographic changes are relatively minor. Attic ττ usually becomes σσ. There is a tendency to change rough breathing to smooth breathing, except in words that once contained a digamma (or words used in analogy with them). Elision is not as common in the Koinê but there is even more assimilation than in Classical usage. There is less concern for rhythm. The -μι forms are beginning to drop out. The movable consonants in οὕτως and ἐστιν are added regardless of whether the next word begins with a vowel, as Classical usages required. Accent by pitch gives way to accent by stress.



Changes in vocabulary are of course too numerous to list here. Generally, it may be said that there are many shifts in the meaning of words and in the frequency of their usage. Some examples that Gingrich gives are as follows. Καλῶς nearly replaces εὖ, ἔσχατος has taken over τελευταῖος and ὕστατος, πρόβατον replaces οἶς, and αφίημι overshadows ἑάω. A dramatic example of a word that shifts meanings is βάσανος, which shifts from "touchstone," to "test," to "torture," to "disease." We notice other important shifts. The cardinal numeral εἷς loses some of its numeric force and become equivalent to the indefinite pronoun τις in many cases. Also, ἴδιος is used as a possessive pronoun. ἑαυτῶν is substituted for the Classical first and second person plural reflexive pronouns. Robertson points out that Koinê is not adverse to useful foreign words


There is quite a bit of difference with reference to accidence. The Ionic substantive form -ρης takes precedence over the Attic form -ρας. Possessive adjectives, which Classical Greek used for the emphatic possessive genitive of the personal pronoun, have to a great extent disappeared in Koinê and have been replaced by the personal pronoun in the genitive. The system used to express degrees of comparison in adjectives has been simplified, since superlative forms have mostly disappeared (comparative forms being used in their place) and what vestigial superlatives remain are used mostly in the elative sense.

It is with respect to the verb that most change in accidence has occurred. First, there are no dual forms in Koinê. Secondly, the future tense has retreated. That is, alternative forms are eliminated in that tense; the (non-periphrastic) future perfect is mostly eliminated; the simple perfect is limited mostly to the indicative mood; and the future participle is becoming disused. However, the future indicative is taking on some of the functions of the aorist subjunctive. Thirdly, the optative has a very limited use (which will be discussed later). Fourthly, verbal adjectives in -τέος are lacking (the only NT example is in Luke 5:38), and those in -τός have been crystallized into a set group. Fifthly, periphrastic construction is on the increase. Sixthly, the pluperfect in Koinê no longer requires the augment, and the tense sign becomes -κει- instead of -κε-. Lastly, the passive is beginning to gain the ascendancy over the middle voice. Most of these trends can be seen to have carried on into Modern Greek.

In the Septuagint, the verbal ending -σαν is used with thematic aorists and imperfects; e.g., -εἴδοσαν, -ελάβοσαν, and -ἤλθοσαν. Aorist verbs in -α occur more frequently in Koinê; e.g., ἦλθαν.


There are many differences between Classical Greek and Koinê in syntax. Koinê has shorter sentences, more parataxis and less hypotaxis, a sparing use of participles, and a growth in the use of prepositions (although some old ones have died out). Variations of nouns, adjectives, and verbs are often according to sense, and a neuter plural substantive may be used with either a singular or a plural verb. Koinê used personal pronouns in oblique cases much more often, whereas writers in Attic used them only when they were necessary for clarity.

One of the biggest syntactical differences involves the use of the optative mood. Blass notes three Classical uses of this mood. The first is to denote an attainable wish. This use still occurs in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and the papyri, but there is a strong tendency to use the imperative in requests and imprecations. Attic εἴθε and εἰ γάρ do not occur with the optative in Koinê (nor do they occur with the indicative to show an unattainable wish); rather ὄφελον with the future indicative is employed. The second use is the potential optative in a main clause with ἄν to denote what is thought. This use has mostly disappeared, although it does occur in some apodoses of conditional sentences. The future indicative or the subjunctive often replaces the potential optative. The third use of the optative is that in indirect discourse. Koinê uses this function very little; in fact, it uses indirect discourse very little. The iterative optative in subordinate clauses is supplanted by ἄν and the imperfect or aorist indicative. Dana says the optative in indirect discourse occurs only three times in the NT but he makes no mention at all of the optative with a secondary tense of verbs of fearing.

In Classical Greek there were five types of conditional sentences (using Blass's classification): 1) real conditions (εἰ with the indicative), 2) contrary-to-fact conditions (εἰ with an augmented tense of the indicative), 3) conditions of more vivid expectation (ἐάν with the subjunctive), 4) conditions of less vivid expectation (ἐάν with the potential optative), and 5) repetition in past time (εἰ with the optative). In Koinê, type 1 (real conditions) has lost ground, type 2 (contrary-to-fact conditions) persists, type 3 (more vivid conditions) prevails, type 4 (less vivid conditions) is barely represented, and type 5 (repetition in past time) has disappeared. One Classical feature Koinê does not have is the conditional relative clause, in which the indefinite pronoun substitutes for the conditional conjunction.

Another syntactical feature of Classical Greek missing in Koinê is the object clause. After a verb of striving, caring, or effecting, Classical Greek uses ὅπως with the future indicative for the object, but Koinê does not.

In Classical result clauses, ὥστε with the infinitive signifies a probable result, while ὥστε with the indicative signifies an actual result. The distinction is more nebulous in Koinê and Dana and Mantey say the infinitive here signifies an intended result.

Robertson says that ὅπως has retreated before ἵνα and ὡς before ὅτι. ἵνα took over the function of the final particle and split the function of declarative conjunction with ὅτι. He also mentions that μή began to take over many of the functions of οὐ, except in the combination of οὐ with εἰ.


See also Greek Language and Linguistics Gateway and A Comprehensive Bibliography of Hellenistic Greek Linguistics.

Copyright © 1998 Jay C. Treat. All Rights Reserved.

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