Correctness in Comparison

Negotiating linguistic norms in Greek

from the Imperial Roman until the Later Byzantine period (I – XV AD)


Linguistic correctness is a concept common to many, if not to all, linguistic systems. It primarily mirrors the basic need for speakers to share acknowledged rules for any form of communication to work. However, it can also have many other implications. For example, it can indicate a user’s (lack of) ability to express their thoughts in what is believed to be a standard language, and thus mark their social, geographical, etc. origins. Further, it can also show how certain social groups were influential in changing existing, or creating new, linguistic norms, etc.

The Greek language is unique among European languages because of the length of its written tradition, ranging from the first documents in the Linear B script (c. 1450 BC) to the present day, and represents an unparalleled terrain for linguistic studies. Among the issues in Greek linguistic theory, linguistic correctness, known as hellenismós, has earned a central status (Pagani 2014). Reflections on the concept can be found as early as the pre-Socratics, and are attested until the late Byzantine period and echoed in the debates on the Katharevousa in the 20th century.

Throughout the ages, hellenismós has been connected to various intellectual traditions: early discussions were framed in a philo­sophical line of thought, focusing, among other things, on the ‘correctness’ of nouns. Further, reflections on hellenismós can also be detected in the philological tradition, that is, the application of grammatical reflections to literary texts by the Alexandrian school. In the Hellenistic period, hellenismós featured as an object of theoretical speculation in the grammatical tradition: treatises on the criteria that can be used to establish correctness first made their appearance at that time.

In the rhetorical-stylistic tradition, too, hellenismós had a prominent role: it was con­sidered one of five virtutes dicendi by the Stoics. It is in this tradition, and in the work of Dionysius of Halicarnassus in particular, that the origins of ‘Atticism’ are usually situated, a movement that emerged during the Roman period and that searched for purity in vocabulary, as well as in morphology and syntax. This move­ment had a major impact on the then current conceptions of hellenismós: the main criterion for correctness became a canon of certain Classical authors, and the attitude changed from (positively) advocating Classical features to (negatively) rejecting anything non-Classical. Lin­guistic correctness, and the proper use of higher-register ‘Attic’ Greek more generally, became a hallmark of elite social identity, and played a pivotal – and very concrete – role in reshaping the inherited literary language.

For a long period of time, this later development, and its effects on linguistic and literary production, did not receive a lot of attention. Horrocks (2010:4), for example, describes how many of his predecessors viewed higher-register Greek ‘as an artificial construct devoid of interest for historical linguistics, a “zombie” language that was incompetently handled by its prac­titioners throughout its pseudo-his­tory’. In recent years, various relevant issues have been ad­dressed, including the consideration of high-register Medieval Greek as a worthy object of linguistic considerations in its own right (Hinterberger 2014); the value of metalinguistic resources such as scholia and textbooks (Gaul 2007; Cuomo 2017; Tribulato 2019); the influence of the lower on the higher register (Horrocks 2017a, 2017b); linguistic levels in non-literary sources (Bentein 2015); new digital approaches to measuring linguistic levels (Bozia 2016); etc. And yet, many other relevant issues remain to be ad­dressed.

The main aim of this conference is to consider the role and importance of linguistic correctness, hellenismós, in later periods of Greek, that is, from the Imperial Roman to the later Byzantine eras (first to fifteenth centuries AD).

Interested scholars are invited to submit proposals (600 words max.) for 30 min. papers on one of the suggested topics to MA Katharina Preindl at: katharina.preindl@oeaw.ac.at, by November 30, 2020.

Suggested topics

  1. Linguistic correctness
  • Which words did the Greeks use to express ‘correctness’ throughout their history? Are there other related words (e.g. soloikismós, barbarismós)? Did the understanding of these terms change throughout the centuries, and if so, how?
  • To what extent did correctness and Atticism (hellênízein, attikízein) overlap? To what extent was the concept of hellenismós maintained in different intellectual traditions in later periods? Did these intellectual traditions mutually influence each other?
  • How does linguistic correctness relate to the different linguistic levels (that is, orthography, morphology, syntax, lexis)?
  • How can cases of ‘hypercorrectness’ be classified? What were the factors that led grammarians/authors to adopt such hypercorrect forms?
  • To what extent did modern prejudices, which labelled deviations from Classical Greek practice as ‘a mistake’, prevent a better understanding of linguistic/sociolinguistic phenomena?


  1. Communities of practice
  • To what extent did different communities of practice (e.g. pagan vs. Christian circles) have diverging views on correctness?
  • Which literary authors/works formed the basis for assessments of correctness? To what extent was it a matter of debate? To what extent did this change from the Post-classical to the Byzantine period?
  • In which urban centers was the concept of hellenismós formed and debated?
  • How was the difference between those who spoke in a linguistically correct manner and those who did not conceptualized? To which social categories were such differences related?
  • What impact did the lower register have on the higher register, and vice versa?
  • How were inherited grammatical norms received among various communities of practice? For example, to what extent are new grammar books, lexica, etc. written in a certain period and within a certain community of practice different from the previous ones?
  • How and why did Greek writers differ in practice from the accepted norm?
  • To what extent did writers vary their language? What impact did genre have in this regard?


  1. Linguistic correctness and related cultures/research traditions
  • What impact did discussions of linguistic correctness in Greek have on other languages (e.g. Latin)?
  • To what extent are discussions of linguistic correctness in Greek comparable with discussions in other ancient languages (e.g. Hebrew, Arabic)?
  • How does the concept of hellenismós relate to concepts of normativity discussed in the (historical) sociolinguistic literature?
  • To what extent can novel digital approaches be advanced?
  • What is the role of manuscripts within linguistic studies?



Bentein, K. 2015. The Greek documentary papyri as a linguistically heterogeneous corpus: The case of the katochoi of the Sarapeion-archive. Classical World 108, 461–484.

Bozia, E. 2016. Atticism: the language of 5th-century oratory or a quantifiable stylistic phenomenon? In G. Celano (ed.) Special Issue on Treebanks. Open Linguistics 2.1. 557–571.

Cuomo, A.M. 2017. Medieval Textbooks as a Major Source for Historical Sociolinguistic Studies of (high-register) Medieval Greek. Open Linguistics 3.1. 442–455.

Gaul, N. 2007. The twitching shroud: Collective construction of paideia in the circle of Thomas Magistros. Segno e Testo 5, 263–340.

Hinterberger, M. (ed.) 2014. The Language of Byzantine Learned Literature. (BYZANTIOϛ. Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization 9). Turnhout.

Horrocks, G.C. 2010. Greek: A history of the language and its speakers. Malden (Mass.).

Horrocks, G.C. 2017a. High and low in Medieval Greek. In: K. Bentein, M. Janse & J. Soltic (eds.), Variation in Ancient Greek tense, aspect and modality, 219–241. Leiden & Boston.

Horrocks, G.C. 2017b. Georgios Akropolitis: Theory and practice in the language of later Byzantine Historiography. In: A.M. Cuomo, E. Trapp (eds.), Toward a Historical Sociolinguistic Poetics of Medieval Greek. (BYZANTIOϛ. Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization 12), 109–118. Turnhout.

Pagani, L. 2014. Ancient theories of linguistic correctness (hellenismós). In: G.K. Giannakis et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek language and linguistics, 360–364. Leiden & Boston.

Tribulato, O. 2019. Making the Case for a Linguistic Investigation of Greek Lexicography: Some Examples from the Byzantine Reception of Atticist Lemmas. In: E. Passa, O. Tribulato, The Paths of Greek: Literature, Linguistics and Epigraphy. Studies in Honour of Albio Cesare Cassio, 241–270. Berlin & Boston.