The Ancient Macedonian language (provisional ISO-DIS 639-3.5 XMK) was the tongue of the ancient Macedonians. It was spoken especially in the inland regions of Macedon, away from the coast, during the 1st millennium BC, surviving into the early centuries of the Common Era. It is as yet undetermined whether the language was a separate yet sibling language which was most closely related to Greek, or a dialect of Greek, or an independent Indo-European language not especially close to Greek.

Our knowledge of the language is very limited because there are no surviving Macedonian texts, though a body of authentic Macedonian words has been assembled from ancient sources, mainly from coin inscriptions, and from the 5th century lexicon of Hesychius of Alexandria, amounting to about 700 words and proper names. Most of these are confidently identifiable as Greek, but some of them are not easily reconciled with standard Greek phonology.

The Pella katadesmos, a Doric Greek text found in Pella in 1986, dated to between the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, has been forwarded as an argument that Doric Greek was spoken by the general populace of Macedon in that time.


Only little about the language can be said from the few words that survive. A notable sound-law is that PIE voiced aspirates appear as voiced stops, written β, γ, δ, in contrast to all known Greek dialects, which have unvoiced them, φ, χ, θ.

The same treatment is known from other Paleo Balkan languages, e.g. Phrygian bekos "bread", Illyrian bagaron "warm", but Attic phōgō "roast", all from PIE *bheh3g. Since these languages are all known via the Greek alphabet, which has no signs for voiced aspirates, it is unclear whether de-aspiration had really taken place, or whether β, γ, δ were just picked as the closest matches to express voiced aspirates.

If gotan "pig" is related to *gwou "cattle", this would indicate that the labiovelars were either intact, or merged with the velars, unlike the Greek treatment (Attic bous). Compare in this context Doric (Spartan) glep- for common Greek blep- (v. Blumenthal 1930:21).

kanadoi "jaws" PIE *genu and kombous "molars" PIE *gombh suggest that voiced stops were devoiced, at least word-initially.


Due to the fragmentary attestation widely diverging interpretations are possible. The suggested historical interpretations of Macedonian include (Mallory and Adams (1997), p. 361):

The discussion is closely related to the reconstruction of the Proto-Greek language.

Graeco-Macedonian Group

Some linguists consider that the Macedonian tongue was a sibling language to all the Ancient Greek dialects, and not simply a Greek dialect. If this view is correct, then Macedonian and Greek would be the two subbranches of a group within Indo-European, forming a Graeco-Macedonian group, sometimes also referred to as Hellenic group. This terminology may lead to misunderstandings, since the "Hellenic branch of Indo-European" is also used synonymously with the Greek branch (which contains all ancient and modern Greek dialects) in a narrower sense ( Linguist List being a proponent of this theory.)

A number of the Macedonian words, particularly in Hesychius' lexicon, are disputed (i.e., some do not consider them actual Macedonian words) and some may have been corrupted in the transmission. Thus abroutes, may be read as abrouϜes (αβρουϝες) , with tau (t) replacing a digamma (Ϝ). If so, this word would perhaps be encompassable within a Greek dialect; yet others (notably, Antoine Meillet) see the dental as authentic and think that the word belongs to an Indo-European language different from Greek.

Ancient Greek dialect

An opposing school of thought maintains that Macedonian was a Greek dialect. Those who favour a purely Greek nature of Macedonian as a northern Greek dialect are numerous and include early scholars like Franz Heinrich Ludolf Ahrens (1843) and O. Hoffmann (1906). A recent proponent of this school was Professor Olivier Masson, who in his article on the ancient Macedonian language in the third edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996) tentatively suggested that Macedonian was related to North-Western Greek dialects:

In our view the Greek character of most names is obvious and it is difficult to think of a Hellenization due to wholesale borrowing [...]The small minority of names which do not look Greek [...] may be due to a substratum or adstatum influences (as elsewhere in Greece).Macedonian may then be seen as a Greek dialect, characterized by its marginal position and by local pronunciations. Yet in contrast with earlier views which made of it an Aeolic dialect [...]we must by now think of a link with North-West Greek [...] We must wait for new discoveries, but we may tentatively conclude that Macedonian is a dialect related to North-West Greek.

The view that Macedonian was merely a Greek dialect is less accepted among current linguists but the slender evidence is open to different interpretations, so that no definitive answer is really possible. It is plausible that the Ancient Macedonian was not an Ancient Greek dialect on a par with Attic or Ionic, hence the designation that is sometimes used, calling it a "deviant Greek dialect."

Independent Palaeo-Balkan language

Some linguists consider that the Macedonian tongue was not only a separate language, but that it pertained to a different Indo-European branch rather than to a Hellenic (or Graeco-Macedonian) branch, and they believe that it was not especially close to Greek. They reject the strong Greek affiliation of Macedonian and prefer to treat it as an Indo-European language of the Balkans, located geographically and linguistically between Illyrian in the west and Thracian in the east.

The ancient Macedonian lexical stock reveals some words that do not have cognates in Greek, but do have in other Indo-European languages. E. g. Macedonian goda "intestines", from Proto-Indo-European language *gudom (Sanskrit guda-). There are also some words that do not have cognates in any other language, and may be of pre-Indo-European origin.

Classical sources

There are some classical references that have led a number of scholars to believe that some ancient Greeks viewed the ancient Macedonians as a non-Hellenic tribe, though other scholars maintain that the Macedonians were a Hellenic tribe. Among the references that may indicate that Macedonian was a Greek dialect, there is the dialogue between an Athenean and a Macedonian presented in the 5th century BC comedy 'Macedonians' of the Atheneane poet Strattis, where the Macedonian speech is clearly presented as a form of Greek.

Adoption of the Attic dialect

As southern Greek influence waxed, Macedonians increasingly began to adopt the Attic dialect as their tongue, and over the centuries, Ancient Macedonian fell out of favor and became relegated to the remote inland areas. Eventually, Attic Greek supplanted it entirely, and the Ancient Macedonian became extinct during the first few centuries of the Common Era. Exactly when its final traces disappeared is unknown and perhaps impossible to determine, since the tongue may at the end have survived only among a few individuals (compare the similar fate of the Gaulish language).

Sample glossary

See also



Further reading


  • Graeco-Macedonian group (Ohio State University)
  • Linguist List Hellenic tree
    • Linguist List ancient languages
  • Greek Language (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition)

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