The following is an excerpt from Reading Koine Greek, by Rodney Decker.
Building on his father’s power base in Greece, Alexander III (356–323 BC), best known as Alexander the Great, accomplished a spectacular conquest of the ancient world: Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Persia, and the frontiers of India. In accomplishing this, the young military and political genius spread Greek language and culture over a vast area.
The language in use as this triumph began was standard Attic. The process of assimilating many other cultures (as well as large numbers of foreign troops into the ranks of the Greek army) had a deep impact on the language, becoming Koine Greek (κοινὴ διάλεκτος, “the common dialect”), the lingua franca of the Alexandrian Empire. “For the first time the notion of ‘Greek,’ which hitherto had unified the dialects only as an abstraction, acquired a more or less concrete instantiation in the form of the standard written, and increasingly spoken, Koine.” The language changed as it spread, absorbing some non-Attic features and being simplified grammatically.
Learning this language became imperative for indigenous populations, whether to enable military or civil service in the new regime or simply to do business with their new neighbors and masters. Koine, which was imposed top-down by the Greek rulers in the administrative centers of the empire, served a unifying function “by cementing in place the idea of a common Greek culture based on a common intellectual heritage expressed in a common Greek language.”
Even through the political and military maneuvering of the second and first centuries BC, in which Rome emerged as the new world power, having defeated all the various divisions of Alexander’s empire, Koine Greek remained the lingua franca despite the formal position of Latin as the language of Rome. Greek language (and to a lesser extent Greek culture) remained the de facto standard for most areas of life under Roman rule for several centuries.
©2014 by Rodney J. Decker. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
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