By the 16th cent. B.C., Greek-speaking people were established in Greece, probably having come as invaders from the north. In antiquity there were a number of dialects of the Greek language, the most important of which were Aeolic, Arcadian, Attic, Cyprian, Doric, and Ionic. Ancient Greek was prevalent in the Balkan peninsula, the Greek islands, W Asia Minor, S Italy, and Sicily. Because of the political and cultural importance of Athens in the classical period of Greek history, the Athenian dialect, Attic, became dominant. From Attic there developed an idiom called the koinē, which means "common" or "common to all the people" and which became a standard form of Ancient Greek.
After Alexander the Great the koinē developed into an international language that remained current in the central and E Mediterranean regions and in parts of Asia Minor and Africa for many centuries. Most of the New Testament was written in the koinē, which helped to gain a wide audience for Christianity. Byzantine Greek, based on the koinē, was the language of the Byzantine or East Roman Empire, which lasted from A.D. 395 until it was crushed by the Turks in 1453.
The earliest surviving texts in Ancient Greek are of the 15th cent. B.C. and are written in a script known as Linear B, which was deciphered in 1953 by Michael Ventris. Later documents, including inscriptions and literary works, are written in the Greek alphabet, which was derived from the script of the Phoenicians c.9th cent. B.C. A variety of the Greek alphabet is still used today for the Greek language.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.