The language of the Macedonians

What language did these ‘Macedones’ speak? The name itself is Greek in root and in ethnic termination. It probably means ‘highlanders’, and it is comparable to Greek tribal names such as ‘Orestai’ and ‘Oreitai’, meaning ‘mountain-men’. A reputedly earlier variant, ‘Maketai’, has the same root, which means ‘high’, as in the Greek adjective makednos or the noun me¯kos. The genealogy of eponymous ancestors which Hesiod recorded [. . .]

The Pella curse tablet is a curse or magic spell (Greek: κατάδεσμος, katadesmos) inscribed on a lead scroll, dating to the 4th or 3rd century BC. It was found in Pella (at the time capital of Macedon) in 1986 and published in the Hellenic Dialectology Journal in 1993. It is possibly the only attested text in the ancient Macedonian language (O. Masson). This finding analyzed AFTER the article of the Professor N.G.L. Hammond.

by N.G.L. Hammond
The Macedonian State (Oxford: 1989), pp. 12–15.

Has a bearing on the question of Greek speech. First, Hesiod made Macedon a brother of Magnes; as we know from inscriptions that the Magnetes spoke the Aeolic dialect of the Greek language, we have a predisposition to suppose that the Macedones spoke the Aeolic dialect. Secondly, Hesiod made Macedon and Magnes first cousins of Hellen’s three sons – Dorus, Xouthus, and Aeolus – who were the founders of three dialects of Greek speech, namely Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic. Hesiod would not have recorded this relationship, unless he had believed, probably in the seventh century. that the Macedones were a Greek-speaking people. The next evidence comes from Persia. At the turn of the sixth century the Persians described the tributepaying peoples of their province in Europe, and one of them was the ‘yauna takabara’, which meant ‘Greeks wearing the hat’. [1] There were Greeks in Greek city-states here and there in the province, but they were of various origins and not distinguished by a common hat. However, the Macedonians wore a distinctive hat, the kausia. We conclude that the Persians believed the Macedonians to be speakers of Greek. Finally, in the latter part of the fifth century a Greek historian, Hellanicus, visited Macedonia and modified Hesiod’s genealogy by making Macedon not a cousin, but a son of Aeolus, thus bringing Macedon and his descendants firmly into the Aeolic branch of the Greek-speaking family. [2] Hesiod, Persia, and Hellanicus had no motive for making a false statement about the language of the Macedonians, who were then an obscure and not a powerful people. Their independent testimonies should be accepted as conclusive.

That, however, is not the opinion of most scholars. They disregard or fail to assess the evidence which I have cited, [3] and they turn instead to ‘Macedonian’ words and names, or/and to literary references. Philologists have studied words which have been cited as ‘Macedonian’ in ancient lexica and glossaries, and they have come to no certain conclusion: for some of the words are clearly Greek, and some are clearly not Greek.

That is not surprising; for as the territory of the Macedonians expanded, they overlaid and lived with peoples who spoke Illyrian, Paeonian, Thracian, and Phrygian, and they certainly borrowed words from them which excited the authors of lexica and glossaries. The philological studies result in a verdict, in my opinion, of ‘non liquet’[.4]

The toponyms of the Macedonian homeland are the most significant. Nearly all of them are Greek: Pieria, Lebaea, Heracleum, Dium, Petra, Leibethra, Aegeae, Aegydium, Acesae, Acesamenae; the rivers Helicon, Aeson, Leucus, Baphyras, Sardon, Elpeüs, Mitys; lake Ascuris and the region Lapathus. The mountain names Olympus and Titarium may be pre-Greek; Edessa, the earlier name of the place where Aegeae was founded, and its river Ascordus were Phrygian. [5] The deities worshipped by the Macedones and the names which they gave to the months were predominantly Greek, and there is no doubt that these were not late borrowings.

To Greek literary writers before the Hellenistic period the Macedonians were ‘barbarians’. The term referred to their way of life and their institutions, which were those of the ethne¯ and not of the city-state, and it did not refer to their speech. We can see this in the case of Epirus. There Thucydides called the tribes ‘barbarians’. But inscriptions found in Epirus have shown conclusively that the Epirote tribes in Thucydides’ lifetime were speaking Greek and used names which were Greek. [6] ln the following century ‘barbarian’ was only one of the abusive terms applied by Demosthenes to Philip of Macedon and his people. [7]

In passages which refer to the Macedonian soldiers of Alexander the Great and the early successors there are mentions of a Macedonian dialect, such as was likely to have been spoken in the original Macedonian homeland. On one occasion Alexander ‘called out to his guardsmen in Macedonian (Makedonisti), as this [viz. the use of ‘Macedonian’] was a signal (symbolon) that there was a serious riot.’ Normally Alexander and his soldiers spoke the standard Greek, the koine¯, and that was what the Persians who were to fight alongside the Macedonians were taught. So the order ‘in Macedonian’ was unique, in that all other orders were in the koine¯. [8] It is satisfactorily explained as an order in broad dialect, just as in a Highland Regiment a special order for a particular purpose could be given in broad Scots by a Scottish officer who usually spoke the King’s English.

The use of this dialect among themselves was a characteristic of the Macedonian soldiers (rather than the officers) of the King’s Army. This point was made clear in the report – not in itself dependable – of the trial of a Macedonian officer before an Assembly of Macedonians, in which the officer (Philotas) was mocked for not speaking in dialect. [9] In 321 when a non-Macedonian general, Eumenes, wanted to make contact with a hostile group of Macedonian infantrymen, he sent a Macedonian to speak to them in the Macedonian dialect, in order to win their confidence. Subsequently, when they and other Macedonian soldiers were serving with Eumenes, they expressed their affection for him by hailing him in the Macedonian dialect (Makedonisti). [10] He was to be one of themselves. As Curtius observed, ‘not a man among the Macedonians could bear to part with a jot of his ancestral customs.’ The use of this dialect was one
way in which the Macedonians expressed their apartness from the world of Greek city states.


[1]- See J. M. Balcer in Historia 37 (1988) 7.
[2]- FGrH 4 F 74.
[3]- Most recently E. Badian in Barr-Sharrar 33–51 disregards the evidence as set out e.g. in
HM 2. 39–54, when it goes against his view that the Macedonians (whom he does not define)
spoke a language other than Greek.
[4]- The matter is discussed at some length in HM 2. 39–54 with reference especially to
O. Hoffmann, Die Makedonen, ihre Sprache und ihr Volkstum (Göttingen, 1906) and J. Kalléris,
Les Anciens Macédoniens I (Athens, 1954); see also Kalléris II and R. A. Crossland in the Cambridge
Ancient History 3. I. 843 ff.
[5]- For Edessa see HM 1. 165 and for the Phrygians in Macedonia 407–14. Olympus occurs as a
Phrygian personal name.
[6]- See Hammond, Ep 419 ff. and 525 ff.
[7]- As Badian, loc. cit. 42, rightly observes: ‘this, of course, is simple abuse.’
[8]- Plu. Alex. 51. 6.
[9]- Curtius 6. 9. 34–6.
[10]- PSI XII 2 (1951) no. 1284: Plu. Eum. 14.11. Badian, loc. cit. 41 and 50 n. 66, discusses the former and not the latter, which hardly bears out his theory that Eumenes ‘could not directly communicate with Macedonian soldiers’, and presumably they with him. Badian says in his note that he is not concerned with the argument as to whether Macedonian was a ‘dialect’ or ‘a language’. Such an argument seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. We have a similar problem in regard to Epirus, where some had thought the language of the people was Illyrian. In Plu. Pyrrh, 1. 3 reference was made to ‘the local phone¯ ’, which to me means ‘dialect’ of Greek: it is so in this instance because Plutarch is saying that Achilles was called ‘in the local phone¯ Aspetos’. The word ‘Aspetos’ elsewhere was peculiar to Greek epic, but it survived in Epirus in normal speech. It is of course a Greek and not an Illyrian word. See Hammond, Ep. 525 ff., for Greek being the language of central Epirus in the fifth century BC


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