Defining "language" is not easy, and for many not even necessary. There are many aspects to this, and I'm interested in something more specific: distinguishing a language from a dialect.

Where did the Romans draw the line between a language and a dialect? Evidence can come in several different forms. Perhaps some grammarian of philosopher made the distinction. From a more practical point of view, I assume there are passages saying roughly "these two languages are pretty similar but still two different languages" or "these two are actually just different dialects of the same language". I'm not aware of any such mentions.

One thing that keeps me from searching is that I don't know if there is a good distinctive pair of words like the English "language" and "dialect" in Latin. Words like lingua and sermo seem to be loaded with many different meanings.


1 Answer 1


The Greeks were keenly aware of dialectal differences, and long before the Romans came on the scene, the Greeks had already categorized their dialects into three or four common groups: Ionic (with Attic a sub-group), Doric, Aeolic, and Arcadian. A great, free introduction to this is Buck's Greek Dialects (or here; the third edition is still under copyright).

You should realize that the word dialect itself comes from the Greek διάλεκτος, and was used in that sense in antiquity:

II. speech, language, Ar.Fr.685; “καινὴν δ. λαλῶν” Antiph. 171; δ. ἀμνίου, opp. τὰ ἔνδον δράκοντος, Hermipp.3; articulate speech, language, opp. φωνή, Arist.HA535a28; “τοῦ ἀνθρώπου μία φωνή, ἀλλὰ διάλεκτοι πολλαί” Id.Pr.895a6; but also, spoken, opp. written language, D.H.Comp.11. 2. the language of a country, Plb.1.80.6, D.S.5.6, etc.: esp. dialect, as Ionic, Attic, etc., Diog.Bab.Stoic.3.213, D.H.Comp.3, S.E.M.1.59, Hdn.Gr.2.932; also, local word or expression, Plu.Alex.31.

That these are understood as separate dialects and not individual languages is made clear by the Panhellenic tendencies of the Greeks, most succinctly put by Herodotus 8.144.2, when an Athenian embassy was beseeching the Spartans not to make a deal with the Persians:

For there are many great reasons why we should not do this, even if we so desired; first and foremost, the burning and destruction of the adornments and temples of our gods, whom we are constrained to avenge to the utmost rather than make pacts with the perpetrator of these things, and next the kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life, to all of which it would not befit the Athenians to be false.

By all accounts, the Spartans were Doric and the Athenians Attic-Ionic. The differences are stark, as anyone who has made the jump from reading Plato to reading Alcman will tell you. Yet they had a "common speech," which shows a clear awareness of dialects. This is also pretty clear from the fact that authors could switch dialects at whim: Athenian tragedians wrote the choral sections in a literary Doric dialect while the rest of the play is Attic.

When the Romans came onto the scene, it was obvious to all parties that Latin and Greek were distinct and not dialects. Cato would rail against Roman historians writing in Greek and instead wrote his in Latin. When the grammarians wrote on Greek dialects, they discussed unusual words and forms, but for the Romans like Cicero, they had to learn a new language with new letters, and were proud of it. Talking about "Greek" when referring to Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Herodotus, and Plato makes them all seem, to the Romans, one distinct language comprised of dialects that did not also include Latin. Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 12.10.34) remarks:

his ilia potentiora, quod res plurimae carent appellationibus, ut eas necesse sit transferre aut circumire; etiam in iis, quae denominata sunt, summa paupertas in eadem nos frequentissime revolvit; at illis non verborum modo, sed linguarum etiam inter se differentium copia est.

A still stronger indication of the inferiority of Latin is to be found in the fact that there are many things which have no Latin names, so that it is necessary to express them by metaphor or periphrasis, while even in the case of things which have names, the extreme poverty of the language leads us to resort to the same practice. On the other hand, the Greeks have not merely abundance of words, but they have also a number of different dialects (lit. "but even the language has an abundance of differences among itself").

This might seem obvious to us today, but it wasn't to all the ancients. In fact, there was an idea current in the first century BCE and later that Latin was after all Greek, specifically Aeolic. This was espoused most notably by Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.90.1:

The Romans speak a language neither completely barbaric nor wholly Greek, but one mixed from both, of which the greater part is Aeolic

It should be noted, though, that Dionysius wasn't a grammarian, and well after comparative linguistics came on the scene, some people still claim unusual things about modern languages, from the easily confused (e.g. Aramaic is a dialect of Hebrew) to the bizarre (e.g. the idea that all Chinese languages are actually dialects because they're written using the same characters, which isn't even true at that!).

For a good article on the subject, check out Benjamin Stevens on Aeolism. I've posted the abstract below:

Aeolism, the idea that Latin is a dialect of Greek, was a matter of debate among a wide range of authors and readers in the Roman world. Often interpreted psychoanalytically, the idea is better understood as articulating a grudging ancient awareness that languages and social groups, including seemingly distinct groups like "Greeks" and "Romans," are in fact always "mixed," and thus that identity is a matter of fluid participation in shared social practices.

Even though Dionysius is clearly wrong, his claims still point to a clear understanding of the differences of languages and dialects. The latter, as its seen from both Dionysius' thoughts and from ancient Greek observations on their own language, are either due to mixing or just from differences over time (the Greek mythographers made the sons of Hellen Dorus (thus Doric among the Dorians), Aeolus (Aeolic) and either Ion (Ionic), or Xuthus, whose sons were Ion and Achaeus (which seemed to be a response to the early use of the Achaean ethnonym and the confusion about how to properly divide the mixed dialects of the north Peloponnese).

  • This answer is excellent. It leaves me wondering one thing, though: is there a quote confirming that the Romans viewed the Greek language consisting of different dialects? I would be interested in seeing how such thing would be expressed in Latin.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 14, 2017 at 6:46
  • 2
    That there is: Quint. 12.10.34.
    – cmw
    Apr 14, 2017 at 11:56
  • Thanks! Quintilian's choice of words was surprising to me. To paraphrase: In sermone Graeco linguae inter se differentes sunt. I would have rather expected lingua for "language" and sermo for "dialect" than vice versa.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Apr 14, 2017 at 18:04
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta I'm not sure that distinction is warranted. Both commonly mean "language of a people," so I would caution against assuming either is "technical language." I took it more as "Greek differs depending on where it's spoken." But it's all Greek to Quintilian.
    – cmw
    Apr 14, 2017 at 18:18
  • 4
    @JoonasIlmavirta Quintilian 11.3.50 mentions Crassus The Rich, governor of Asia, who "quinque Graeci sermonis differentias sic tenuit ut qua quisque apud eum lingua postulasset eadem ius sibi redditum ferret."
    – Alex B.
    Apr 14, 2017 at 19:06

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