[B-Greek] The Pronunciation of Iota

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Sat Aug 9 12:54:27 EDT 2008

2008/8/9 Louis Sorenson <llsorenson at hotmail.com>:
> Hello all,
> While trying to change my pronunciation to more imitate the first century
> A.D. (C.E.), I  have realized that I have been pronouncing iota's
> inconsistently.  (I think being aware of the pronunciation differences will
> help me read and understand the papyri and understand why some variant
> reading occur).    I grew up learning the Erasmian pronunciation - and as
> many beginning grammars teach, there are two pronunciations for iota,
> depending on the length of the vowel: a short like in bit (kri/nw) and a
> long iota like in 'meet' (e)/krina).  Mastronarde (p. 11), Mounce (p. 8 note
> 5),  Croy (Lesson 1.2 p. 2) and  many other grammars teach this variation
> (which must have been a valid pronunciation in Attic around 400 B.C.).

English beginning grammars are not a reliable place for this information.
The most detailed is Francis Gignac, ... Greek ... Phonology, 1976.
Two general linguistic facts must be remembered in trying to reconstruct
sounds of antiquity. And a third point for Greek.
1. short vowels tend to be more centralized as a linguistic universal. This
is because the tongue spends less time, on average, getting out to the full
position of the long vowel. For Attic and Epic Greek this would mean that
the short iota may have been slightly less high.
2. Since Greek only developed one symbol for the short and long vowels
of various positions, one may suppose that a 'quality'/'position' distinction
was of less perceived significance for Greeks than for speakers of a
language like English. This is a simplification, of course, because the
short and long vowels moved around and were sometimes spelled differently
during the period 700-400 BCE.
3. More importantly, one must explain the motivation of the collapse of
the Greek vowel system after Alexander. Loss of length is the reasonable
culprit, both in terms of what we see in the data, and as linguistic
probability. **This means that no distinction existed in the first century
between a long iota and short iota.** Trying to distinguish such sounds
would qualify for Qohelet's/the \Preacher's phrase hevel havalim
'a striving after adiaphora'. Or in modern parlance, 'if it ain't broken
don't fix it.'
Just use the English sound in 'bee', 'tree', 'treat', for all Greek I and EI.

> But when looking at the pronunciation on the 'Living Koine' paper on Dr.
> Buth's site, I see only the 'long' vowel. On page 2, #1,  I see the
> interchange of  ει for ι (ei for i The short pronunciation is never
> mentioned in the paper.  ).

As just explained, there was no 'short' pronunciation. Greek only had
one phonemic length at that time.

NB:   Phonetically we may assume that an open syllable
was slightly longer in average absolute time than a closed syllable.
That is something that tends to be true across languages. The same
would hold true for accented syllables. However, this was not noticed
by the speakers and was not used to distinguish meaning.

> It also says (p. 7) that in Modern Greek ι = ει
> = η = υ = οι. From that statement I assume that a 'short' iota is not
> present in Modern Greek?

Correct. Short iota left when 'length' left the system, in 200-300BCE.

> I believe I have also read that iota was becoming
> syllabic in certain situations. I am also wondering about the pronunciation
> of epsilon in words like πόλεως where εω is not a diphthong, but the accent
> is treated like the ω is short or like εω is a diphthong.

This was due to a metathesis of length in the pre-400BCE system, when
THS PO'LHOS shifted to THS PO'LEWS, but kept the original accent
position, despite the resulting long vowel at the end.

> The July 20, 2008 post titled 'Questions regarding accentuation' makes the
> following statement.
> http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2008-July/047128.html
> Last week we read an inscription at Caesaria
> of Rom 13:1-3 where φοβισθαι FOBISQAI 'to be fearing' occurs
> and the name ΣΗΛΒΑΝΟΥ SHLBANOY  Silvanus. How do you
> want students to read these? Next week at Tsippori they will see TEKNON
> (plural = TEKNWN) and KE=KAI, among many others. These can be multi-
> plied by the ten-thousand from Rome, Athens, the Dead Sea, and Egypt.
>  And was the expert mason, but poor speller, paid his full wage for such
> 'vulgar' spellings?

I would hope that he was paid in full. Everyone could read the inscriptions
clearly. (They didn't have any Erasmians around!)
Please do not think that I am against good spelling or against having a
standard. To the contrary. But we should treat ancients with respect
whatever their practice.

> Of course, fast pronunciation may be different from slow methodical
> pronunciation. So my question is how are the following words Greek (with
> betacode following) to be pronounced in Living Koine?

Yes, languages differ in this. We do sometimes see 'clipped' spellings in
Greek or vowels that are flat out mistakes (=fast writing?). But the safest
assumption is that speakers and listeners normally produced/ perceived
the correct vowels. Just like modern Greek today, or Spanish, ktl.

> τῖς TI=S tiss or teehs(?) long because the circumflex shows
> τις TIS (unaccented) tiss or same as τῖς?

These words are pronounced the same in vowel quality,
but TIS 'who?' always had an OKSYTONOS and
could be heard as a consistant high tone, while
TIS 'someone' normally dropped its high tone and
was spoken with a low tone.

> τί  TI (like bit)

Not like English 'bit' but like English 'bee', i.e. like 'tea'
Again, the question word TI 'what?' was high tone
the TI 'something' was low tone.

> ἔκρινα E)/KRINA (long iota) eh-kree-nah
> κρίνω KRI/NW (short iota) krih-noh

these are the same, I suppose like your
"eh-kree-nah", something that I find hard to
write because it miscommunicates in every
other language in the world.

> μητέρι MHTE/RI, μητρί MHTRI/,  (dative singular - short) mht-rih

 again, there is no "short" vowel in KOINH, only one length,
a 'neutral' length. Use the sound of the English word -"tree".

> λύουσι LU/OUSI (3rd plural ending - short) lu-u-sih

This is a rounded front vowel, like German -ue- or French
"tu". Neutral length, of course, as explained above.
Be careful not to use an English "ou" sound, since that will
produce the Greek word for 'wash/rinse', something that I
often hear from English speakers trying to read Greek.

> ἰατρός I)ATRO/S (syllabic?) yat-ros

Probably by some. But I-A-TROS is also good and "normal".
You meant 'consonantal', part of the same syllable with '-a-'?

Remember that we see spellings of the word 'son'
as YEIOS and OIEIOS, so that so-called diphthongs were
probably spoken as individual syllables after length dropped
from the language. UI became Y-I, while EY became Ew
and then Ev/Ef (these last three spellings Ew Ev Ef are
reflecting the reanalysis of the diphthong as

> καρδία KARDI/A kar-dee-ah or kar-dyah?

you sometimes hear the latter from modern. The first is
correct for the KOINH.
In antiquity we have that pattern in words like PAIDIA',
"pun, game", with accent on final A.

> πόλεως PO/LEWS (syllabic ε?) poh-lyos or poh-le-ohs

The latter is preferred (though I don't know what 'oh' means--
that is a problem with English spelling).

> Louis Sorenson.


Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easily - Progress Further - Remember for Life

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