Citations of the Ancient Macedonian Language

The evidence we have at our disposal regarding the language of the Ancient Macedonians suggests that the issue here is not merely one of a dialect, but of a distinct language that remained alongside the Greek, however allegedly without a literary form of its own. The evidence produced by modern Greeks is not conclusive and can be dismissed simply as Macedonians trying to speak Greek rather than having their own dialect, which would explain the inconsistent and broken wording and the lack of patterns consistent in the actual Greek dialects. The following thesis is based on the surviving citations which speak of the Macedonian tongue, numerous as they are, a compilation of them is necessary in order to bring about some order to the matter and put things in the right perspective.

Firstly, we will view the linguistic situation provided by ancient texts to examine what kind of speakers lived in Macedonia and the surrounding regions and their links to each other. In Homer’s Iliad no people north of Olympus accompanied the united Greeks on their way to Troy, quite the contrary rather, the Paeonians and Thracians who peopled the area fought on behalf of the Trojans. It is recorded that the Halkidik region was historically known as a Thracian land, and it was not until the importation of Greek peoples through colonies did it achieve its later partial Hellenistic character. This being the case, the native language of the land cannot have been Greek, as is indirectly explained by Thucydides;

The cities in Acte are Sane, a colony of Andros, which is just by the canal on the sea facing towards Euboea, and also Thyssus, Cleone, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium – all these later towns being inhabited by mixed foreign races, speaking both Greek and their own dialects. There is also a small Chalcidian element; but the greater number are Tyrrheno-Pelasgians once settled in Lemnos and Athens, and Bisaltians, Crestonians, and Edonians; the towns being all small ones. (4, 109)

Speaking both Greek and their own dialects, meaning there were two languages, Greek and the native with its own dialects. Here we have a clear distinction between the native language of Macedonia and the Greek tongue which are described as separate. Important to note is the reason why in some regions both languages were spoken, which is obviously due to one being native and the other an import, an import that could only have occurred through the colonies described above. These colonies were mostly situated among the native populations hence the reason why Thucydides made mention of the facts above, also the influence of these, cultural-wise, would surely have began to spread to neighbouring regions due to their prosperity. In Strabo’s Geography, a listing is made of all the Greek peoples, the Macedonians do not feature among these. Although Strabo himself tended to believe that the Macedonian region is geographically Greek for unclear reasons, at the same time he makes it plain and clear that those who people Macedonia were certainly not Greek. According to the ancient sources, the Greeks are not natives to the Balkan region, but rather the Pelasgi are, or better still the Thracians and Illyrians. Strabo explains it as follows;

Thracians, Illyrians, and Epirotæ are settled even at present on the sides of Greece. Formerly the territory they possessed was more extensive, although even now the barbarians possess a large part of the country, which, without dispute, is Greece. Macedonia is occupied by Thracians, as well as some parts of Thessaly; the country above Acarnania and Ætolia, by Thesproti, Cassopæi, Amphilochi, Molotti, and Athamanes, Epirotic tribes. (7, 7, 1)

It is highly improbable that these people, collectively referred to as barbarians, were not in some way linguistically connected. If we are to accept ancient history as it is, with different Greek-speaking tribes referred to as nations, then we must also leave open the likely possibility of these barbarians also falling within a similar situation, however without the use of any codified literature and adding to this the ignorance of the ancient Greek writers towards most things barbaric, such details were neglected and as such were not recorded in detail. Not only Macedonia, but also parts of the land to the immediate south, Thessaly, was peopled by Thracians, which comes as no surprise considering the other proofs that corroborate these facts. Interestingly, the regions near Aetolia are also spoken of as inhabited by barbarians, which goes hand in hand with the words of Phillip V of Macedon, as recorded by Polybius;

“What is this Greece which you demand that I should evacuate, and how do you define Greece? Certainly most of the Aetolians themselves are not Greeks!” (18, 5)

Indeed they are not. Now, as we have seen, Macedonia is a Thracian land, even from its origins, its occasional Greek references are due to cultural influence, here is yet another quote from Strabo which describes a linguistic connection between the Macedonians and the Epirote;

They gave the name of Upper Macedonia to the country about Lyncestis, Pelagonia, Orestias, and Elimia. Later writers called it Macedonia the Free, and some extend the name of Macedonia to all the country as far as Corcyra, at the same time assigning as their reasons, the mode of cutting their hair, their language, the use of the chlamys, and similar things in which they resemble the Macedonians; some of them, however, speak two languages. On the dissolution of the Macedonian empire, they fell under the power of the Romans. [7, 7,8]

Customs and language, in which they resemble the Macedonians, it cannot be more precise than that. Once again we see mention of two languages being spoken, one would surely be the native language, while the other would be Greek. What needs to be kept in mind is that the people being spoken of here have already been described as non-Greek, and if they speak the same language we can safely assume that the second language must be Greek, or possibly in some cases Latin, although this latter suggestion is not as likely. Putting the pieces together, the Epirote are a tribe related to the Illyrians, the Macedonians related to the Thracians, and these people as described share the same language. Thus we can already see that there was indeed a native Macedonian language, and that its relation to the west-Illyrian and east-Thracian element was extremely significant.

We move on now deep into the Alexandrian conquest of Asia, in which certain instances occurred where the usage of the Macedonian tongue was recorded. The Philotas trial as described by Quintus Rufus is revealing in more ways than one, and is an important text that goes a long way in helping to verify the existence of a non-Greek, native Macedonian language. The main aspects of the trial are as follows;

Alexander fixed his gaze on him: “The Macedonians are going to judge your case, please state wether you will use your native language before them.”

Philotas replied: “Besides the Macedonians, there are many present who, I think, will find what I am going to say easier to understand if I use the language you yourself have been using, your purpose, I believe, being only to enable more people to understand you.”

Then the king said: “Do you see how offensive Philotas finds even his native language? He alone feels an aversion to learning it. But let him speak as he pleases – only remember he is as contemptuous of our way of life as he is of our language.”

Here Alexander is clearly trying to play to the sentiments of the Macedonian element in his army by asking Philotas if he is going to speak in their native language, hence Macedonian. Philotas’ words here are crucial, explaining how due to the non-Macedonians in the crowd he should use the language that Alexander himself had been using so as to have more people understand his words. This other language is of course, the lingua franca of the era, which is Greek, used by Alexander for various purposes such as mass communication and administration. The dubious claim that the other language was Persian is a desperate effort at trying to claim something that never was, and this is confirmed with the next lines from the same text;

“One charge made against me is that I disdain to communicate in my native language, that I have no respect for Macedonian customs. That native language of ours has long been rendered obsolete through our dealings with other nations, and conquerors and conquered alike must learn a foreign tongue.”

That native language has been rendered obsolete, according to Philotas, the lingua franca, Greek, obsolete? In that era? Hardly. So as can be seen there is no way that Philotas had given up the Macedonian language for Persian, but rather for Greek, for as he says even conquerors must learn a foreign tongue, for this case in the name of progress, communication and empire. The language of the Macedonians may have been well spread in diverse variants amongst the other related people such as the Thracians and Illyrians, however due to the lack of a proper script or any literary tradition it was much more diverse and could in no way compare to the prestige and uniformity of Greek at that point in time. Important also is the fact that most of the conquered lands had pre-existing Greek settlements or trading influence, it was a language that was already known thus making a practical choice for the language of administration. Reverting back to the native Macedonian language, a revealing passage explains much more;

Among the officers was a certain Bolon……Philotas had ridiculed men from the country, he continued, calling them Phrygians and Paphlagonians – this from a man who, Macedonian born, was not ashamed to use an interpreter to listen to men who spoke his own language.

An interpreter was required, such is the extent of the Hellenistic tendencies of Philotas and certain others of the Macedonian nobility. Surely Philotas would not need an interpreter to comprehend Greek, even many Persians spoke Greek, thus he quite possibly may have wanted to distance himself from the barbaric origins of the Macedonians. This is made explicit in Bolon’s accusation where he explains that to ridicule the Macedonians, Philotas called them Phrygians and Paphlagonians, why such names? Probability says that because the native language of the Macedonians was similar to these people, which is further evidenced by the fact that the Phrygians migrated to Asia from the Macedonian region, while many remained, going by their original name of Brygians, the Brygians being known as a Thracian tribe. The Paphlagonians on the other hand lived among the Veneti of Asia, who are related to the Illyrian Veneti, thus to the Epirotes and subsequently the Thracians and Macedonians. Not until over a thousand years later would most of these tribes come under a common uniform identity via language, in the era of the Slavs, but this should come as no surprise for not in a thousand years did the ancient Greeks manage to form some uniform identity, hence the reason why the Macedonian conquest of Greece wasn’t such a difficult task.

The next incident which will be looked at is the death of Cleitus and the events surround it before its occurance. As recorded by Plutarch;

Then Alexander turned to Xenodochus of Cardia and Artemis of Colophon and asked them, “When you see the Greeks walking about among the Macedonians, do they not look to you like demi-gods among so many wild beasts?”……others crowded around him and begged him to be quiet. But Alexander leaped to his feet and shouted out in the Macedonian tongue for his bodyguard to turn out, a signal that this was an extreme emergency..(Alx, 51)

Not only do we have mention of the Macedonian language here, but also yet another clear distinction between Macedonians and Greeks. The argument preceding the incident was in regards to Alexander’s increasing arrogance and desire to be worshipped as some god by his own citizens, and due to his continued insults and slurs towards his real father, Phillip, due apparently to Alexander’s own belief of his “divine” descent as compared to that of a mere mortal. Leaving that aspect of the text aside for a moment, what does Plutarch mean by Alexander’s usage of the Macedonian tongue being a signal of an extreme emergency? As has been admitted, by this time the common language of communication amongst the various nations was generally Koine, if Macedonian was Greek are we to then assume Alexander always spoke as if in an extreme emergency? Surely not, the most plausible explanation here, as has been stated by numerous historians, is that when a moment arose where Alexander felt threatened, by habit he naturally reverted to his native language, the language he grew up with at home, the language of his father, as would any other who speaks two languages, one native and the other taught. If this was not the case then Plutarch need not mention that fact at all, evidently, he felt he needed to as it was an fundamental part of the scene at hand and gives a unique insight into to the psyche of our great king. Getting back to the first part of the text, and Alexander’s reference to Macedonians and Greeks, his comment was directed to Cleitus in order to justify why others pay homage to himself as if he were some god, basically that Greeks walk about amongst Macedonians as some demi-gods, therefore Macedonians, or at least one Macedonian(Alexander himself) should walk about his subjects like a demi-god. Alexander admired many aspects of the Greek culture, none more so than the divinity inspired by the stories told to him by his Olympia, Aristotle and that of others he had read about, hence the reason why he continually referred to his so-called “divine” descent, our king Phillip on the other hand, would use such stories only as long they served his purpose, and then would dismiss them without giving it another thought. Regarding Alexander’s own inclinations, Quintus Rufus tells us;

To feed this desire of his there was no lack of pernicious flattery – ever the curse of royalty, whose power is more often subverted by adulation than by an enemy. Nor were the Macedonians to blame for this, for none of them could bear the slightest deviation from tradition: rather it was the Greeks, whose corrupt ways had also debased the profession of the liberal arts. (8.5.6/7)

Clear as day.

The following two texts regard a certain character named Eumenes, who was a Greek and not a Macedonian. Here is a passage which was written on an old papyrus fragment, telling of a situation during the year 321bc, in which the Greek commander, Ambiance, faced the Macedonian phalanx with the Macedonian Neoptolemus at its head. Ambiance wished to avoid direct battle with the Macedonians, so he asked for the assistance of Eumenes, who was known to them;

When Eumenues saw the close-locked formation of the Macedonian phalanx ... he sent Xennias once more, a man whose speech was Macedonian, bidding him declare that he would not fight them frontally but would follow them with his cavalry and units of light troops and bar them from provisions.

So, even though Eumenes was known to the Macedonians and he may very well have know a bit of their language, he still felt he needed to send one of proper Macedonian speech to communicate with the Macedonians in order to gain their respect and understanding. If the Macedonians naturally spoke Greek, Ambiance himself could have went to them let alone Eumenes, however this was not to be. The aims of Eumenes were simple, he wished to appeal to the Macedonians by having them addressed in their native tongue by one of a kin stock to themselves. Eumenes relationship with the Macedonian troops was hot and cold due to him being a Greek, however it would seem that at a some point he gained much respect by the Macedonians for certain of his deeds, so much so that;

On the first sight of the general of their heart, the troops saluted him in the Macedonian language, clanked their arms, and with loud shouts challenged the enemy to advance, thinking themselves invincible while he was at their head. (Plutarch, Eumenes XIV)

Such was the limit of respect gained by this Greek general amongst the Macedonian troops that they honoured him in the Macedonian language, a mark it would seem of the highest honour for a non-Macedonian, they indeed began to consider him one of their own for a while. These two texts also conclusively confirm that the language of the Macedonian army was Macedonian, it would seem that only when it had become internationalised was there a need to introduce a language more broadly understood by the masses of foreign troops for basic communication. Why not in the Greek language, or in Koine, but Macedonian? Why the constant distinction? Simply because the Macedonians were not Greeks and the authors generally follow this criteria in their tellings, there can be no explanation of so many language citations other than the simple fact that a Macedonian language did indeed exist in ancient times.

“Come now, turn your attention from things divine to the affairs of men….You will see that whole tribes and nations have changed their abodes. Why we find Hellenic cities in the very heart of barbarian countries? Why the Macedonian tongue among the Indians and the Persians?”( Seneca the Younger to Helvia on Consolidation VI 6 – VVI.1)

Hellenic cities, Macedonian tongue. Here the author has a perfect opportunity to claim the Macedonians as Greek-speaking people, yet they do not. They refer to the cities as Hellenic, typically interpretaria Graeca, which is a rough description if we take into account the cultural aspects adopted by Macedonians from Greeks and then passed on to others, however these so-called “Hellenic” cities would also have had much in common with cities as those in Thrace or Illyria, therefore deeming the term “Hellenic” inaccurate per se in accordance with the wide cultural sphere which all the Balkan nations had a claim on and contributed to. Let us not forget that it was a Thracian who taught the Greeks how to sing, Pelasgo-Phrygians who gave them religion, Egyptians who gave to them much of the educated arts, the Phoenicians who gave to them an alphabet, and the Macedonians who gave them the experience of glory that they could never have achieved on their own. The Greek tongue was not necessarily understood but definetly known amongst the Persians and Indians, but the Macedonian tongue? It was most certainly not before the Alexandrian campaign, and that is what the author points to as a topic of interest and amazement, that the Macedonian language was now to found amongst Persians and Indians, not only the administrative Greek or Koine as a result of the “Hellenic” cities, but also Macedonian.

Below is a text which explains some influences in the Greek language from Persian and Macedonain;

"And my justification is this. Even in the ancient poets and historians, those who wrote the purest Greek, one may find Persian words adopted because of there common use in the spoken language, such as " parasangs", "astands" and " angari " and "schoenos", musculine or feminine; this last is a measure of distance still so called among many people. I know too, of many Attic writers who use idioms of the Macedonians as a result of intercourse with them.”( Athenaeus .. Deipnosophistae, III. 121-122)

So even those who wrote pure Greek used Persian words, and later, Attic, which is considered to be the purest Greek, adopted idioms from the Macedonians. Did Attic also adopt idioms from the Spartans? Why would a “pure” Greek language adopt idioms from a “poor and barbaric” Greek language? It simply makes no sense for one dialect to adopt wholesale words of another if they both belong to the same family and especially when those idioms are adopted from a people who themselves adopted Attic as an official language for their administration, this is a paradox. The adoption by Macedonians of the Attic and therefore Greek tongue would make no sense if it meant a people would give up using their language for administration for the sake of adopting another of the same family but of a different dialect, such an instance is not only unheard of it is utterly absurd. Would the writers of Attica adopt idioms of those they make fun of for their inability to speak proper Greek? Or is it more plausible to suggest that they adopted idioms from a foreign language? If one is to be realistic about it, the latter can be the only explanation, hence the reason why Macedonian and Persian are basically spoken of in the same light in the above text, essential as foreign elements in the Greek tongue.

Yet another text of Plutarch’s mentioning the Macedonian language is one in reference to the beautiful and mighty Egyptian Queen of Macedonian origin, Cleopatra, it goes as follows;

She spake unto few barbarous people by interpreter, but made them answer her self, or at the least the most part of them: as the Ethiopians, the Arabians, the Troglodytes, the Hebrews, the Syrians, the Medes, and the Parthians, and to many others also, whose languages she had learned. Whereas divers of her progenitors, the kings of Egypt, could scarce learn the Egyptian tongue only, and many of them forgot to speak the Macedonian. ("Life of Anthony", 27)

Let us focus not on the linguistic abilities of Cleopatra, but on the last sentence of that text which speaks of the Egyptian kings, who were of course, Macedonians themselves. It states that they struggled to learn the Egyptian tongue only, as compared with the multitudes of Cleopatra, and the Macedonian language many of them forgot. Note how Macedonian and Egyptian are on equal footing here as languages, if the Macedonian kings could barely learn Egyptian, and had forgotten the Macedonian, then what are we to assume, that our Macedonian-Egyptian kings were mutes? A laughable notion. The fact is, by that time Koine was well in use and was used extensively, therefore it would have been the language that was employed mostly by the Macedonian-Egyptian kings, the Egyptian tongue being way too foreign and difficult to learn for most, and the Macedonian tongue being neglected for public and administrative use even from the days of Alexander. Unless of course we are expected to assume that by “Macedonian” Plutarch means “Greek”, which would mean that they had forgotten the Lingua Franca of that era, an idea that belongs in the fiction category along with that of Philotas forgetting the Lingua Franca of his era.

As the sources show, there was indeed a native Macedonian language, and it was related to that of the Thracian, Illyrian and other surrounding peoples. It was a language which, although not used for public matters, was still nevertheless considered sacred to the Macedonians, and they never fully abandoned it, even during the Roman era it persisted, until the coming our of great Macedonian sons and saints Cyril and Methody, who revived it and spread this native language well beyond its borders and culturally unified all those of a related speech who peopled old Thrace, Illyria and Scythia.