PURism in Antiquity

PURism in Antiquity: Theories of Language in Greek Atticist Lexica and Their Legacy

PURA is an ERC Consolidator project (grant agreement no. 865817) which started in January 2021 at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. PURA investigates the theories of linguistic purism that were developed in ancient Greek culture, and the way they were received in later periods. The focus of our analysis is Atticist lexica, ancient ‘dictionaries’ that collect linguistic features to be cultivated or avoided in correct Greek.

Linguistic purism is a recurrent phenomenon in periods of societal crisis, when issues of cultural or national identity are at stake or in the process of being redefined. It responds to the anxiety that a language is decaying, disappearing or being ‘threatened’ by other languages and multilingualism. Such attitudes are common in contemporary societies and have marked the history of European culture at several stages (Italy, Greece and Germany being some prominent examples). Yet their roots can be traced back to antiquity: an antecedent that remains mostly unknown outside Classics and that has never been studied in a multidisciplinary perspective.

PURA goes to the heart of this problem and seeks to build a bridge between ancient and modern purist theories by producing the first diachronic study of Greek purism, the texts which upheld it, and their legacy in later ages.

The PURA logo has been created by Arturo Knipe and Olga Tribulato. The drawing is by Alberto Gottardo.

Focus and methodology

The focus of our analysis are the Atticist lexica, ancient ‘dictionaries’ which collected linguistic features to be cultivated or avoided in correct Greek. These texts were compiled by scholars who lived in the multilingual Roman Empire and wished to counter the natural evolution of Greek by freezing it at an ideal stage of purity, identified with Attic, the extinct dialect of Classical Athens. These lexica were so central to Greek culture that in spite of their very technical contents they have survived into the modern age, through the fundamental mediation of medieval manuscripts and Renaissance printed editions.

PURA is characterized by a multidisciplinary methodology combining Classics, linguistics, textual philology, codicology and historical lexicography which will tackle both the immaterial heritage of Atticist theories and their material history as books. We aspire to create a model of textual, linguistic and philological analysis that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of Classical studies.

A risky but rewarding journey: Greece (2nd-3rd c. AD), Byzantium (9th-10th c. AD), Venice (15th-16th c. AD), Greece (18th-19th c. AD). PURA will map the journey of Greek purism from ancient Greece through Medieval Byzantium, Italian Humanism and the presses of Renaissance Venice down to its legacy in the Modern Greek language question


Our first objective is to provide a global mapping of the purist theories of Atticism. To achieve this objective PURA will perform a diachronic linguistic analysis of the lexica which will study the history and evolution of Atticist features across the whole history of the language: Ancient, Medieval and Modern Greek.

Our second objective is to study the intellectual and cultural legacy of Atticism in the Middle Ages and early modern age. We will achieve this objective by charting the history of all the lexica as books: from the production of manuscripts at Byzantium to their arrival in Humanist Italy down to their first circulation in print across Italy and the rest of Europe in the Renaissance.

Our third objective is to make the theories of these specialist and intricate texts accessible outside the traditional format of critical editions and more approachable for non-experts. PURA will achieve this objective by creating the Digital Encyclopedia of Atticism, a unique web-based platform which will collect the output of our linguistic, philological and palaeographic study.

Through its original diachronic approach PURA will study how the theories of purism which grew out of Classical culture blossomed into separate but intertwined traditions whose ramifications reach Italian Renaissance culture and the Modern Greek language question.

Cod. Laur. Plut. 58.26 (f. 47v), which contains Pollux' Onomasticon, one of the most important Atticist lexica. Florence, Laurentian Library. Courtesy of the MiC. Any further reproduction by any means is prohibited.

Digital Encyclopedia

The Digital Encyclopedia of Atticism, the unique web-based platform created by PURA, opened in October 2022. It consists in three main parts, devoted to:

  1. the diachronic linguistic commentary on entries from the Atticist lexica;
  2. the works and lexicographers involved in the Atticist debate;
  3. the manuscripts and early printed editions through which the lexica spread across time and places.