rough breathing

Michael Haggett michaelhaggett at
Mon Jan 28 13:25:10 EST 2002

Waldo Slusher wrote, 28 January:

| Modern Greek no longer makes use of the rough
| breathing (h) mark. I was told that accent marks were
| added by scribes much later than the first century.
| Which leads me to ask if learning rough breathing
| marks is critical to Koine Greek? Does not context
| itself determine whether EIS is a preposition or
| number?

Yes, you are right that accents are a comparatively recent
addition to our Greek texts, however breathings do fall into a
slightly different category.  Irrespective of any sort of
diacritical mark (the collective term for accents, breathings,
subscripts, etc.) we know that some words were pronounced with
an initial "h" sound by means of the aspiration of the preceding
letter. So we know that UMWN was pronounced with an INITIAL "h"
sound, but that ALLWN wasn't from the contrast between the two
in Thessalonians 2:6


Another factor is that one diacritical mark WAS used in the
first century, the double dot.  Personally, I believe that this
also indicated an "h" sound (or, to be more precise, a gap into
which an "h" sound could be inserted) but it would be fair to
say that others think the mark has no significance in terms of
pronunciation. Certainly it was only used over I's and U's.
There was an exchange on this subject on the TC-list a year or
two ago.

Other than these, there is no way of knowing whether the
copyists that first added breathing marks were correct in their
identification of which words did and which words didn't start
with an "h" sound. I believe we should assume they were, and
take the rough breathings which we have inherited in the
absence of any more compelling evidence.


That said, I would like to repeat something that I and
others have advocated for some time.  That we should omit the
useless smooth breathing from our texts completely.  Thus
leaving the rough breathing to stand out clearly as the
equivalent of "h".  Perhaps a case might be made for retaining
it to indicate crasis, where it is essentially the equivalent of
an apostrophe.

The usual objection to this is that we are tampering with about
a thousand years of tradition.  My answer to this is that we DO
make changes to the way words are printed on a regular basis.
Each new edition of UBS and NA has a handful of such changes.

One example I would like to cite is words beginning ARR.., such
as ARRABWN, ARRHTOS and ARRWTOS.  Even as recently as 1967,
these were printed (in a lexicon) with a smooth breathing over
both the A and the first R, and then with a rough breathing over
the second R.
I can't imagine that anybody today would think of this as
anything other than silly.  It was something that cried out to
be changed, and WAS changed in our lifetime (although before
1967, I'm sure).  If we can do that, there is nothing to stop us
going one stage further and getting rid of the smooth breathing

Michael Haggett

PS: for any that might be interested, the above website has the
complete text of the NT in the way I would like to see it
presented everywhere.  With no capitalization, no accents, no
smooth breathings and no subscripts.  I think it is so much
easier to read than our current conventions.  Of course I
realize that, for some people, this will be going too far.  But
of all the changes I'd like to see, the omission of the smooth
breathing is surely the easiest to accomplish.

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