[B-Greek] language pronunciation

Carl Conrad cwconrad2 at mac.com
Sun May 3 10:54:13 EDT 2009

On May 2, 2009, at 6:43 PM, Nicholas Aggelopoulos wrote:

> Some of these languages are no longer living languages, therefore  
> there is no option available but to attempt to reconstruct the  
> pronunciation. That of Esperanto is artificial of course. The irony  
> is that whereas the Cambridge choirs for example pronounce Angelus  
> ad Virginem as Andzelus ad Virdzinem (i.e. as a voiced palato- 
> alveolar affricate), clearly dismissing the historic pronunciation,  
> the equivalent practice regarding Greek pronunciation has been until  
> recently to pronounce Greek, a living language, in an artificial  
> "reconstructed" style.
> As with Latin, some say that the English of Shakespeare differed  
> from today's - indeed John Donne does not always rhyme in Modern  
> English because the pronunciation has changed. Yet most people read  
> John Donne at Universities in the Modern English style, even with an  
> American pronunciation, without anyone protesting. Shakespeare plays  
> are normally in the Modern English pronunciation. On the other hand,  
> the language of the Byzantine scholars at the time of Erasmus and  
> Shakespeare as far as we know was not significantly different from  
> today's Greek in its pronunciation, but with Greek we have a problem.
> Indeed the assumption was that Greek pronunciation had "degenerated"  
> in Byzantine times - and not in the classical period. Presumably it  
> would not be possible for the Greeks of ancient times to be  
> "degenerates", being the subject of study by Professors of the time,  
> whereas the new Greeks of Byzantium who nobody studied must have  
> been responsible for much degeneration. Homer whose language was a  
> mix of Ionian, Aeolian and Doric was apparently of a pure  
> undegenerated Erasmian standard. Is it acceptable for Greeks to find  
> this special "restoration" of the ancient Greek pronunciation  
> flattering, unusual, surprising? The Erasmian school almost by  
> definiton took no interest in the Orthodox Church and Byzantine  
> scholarship. Greek literature and scholarship post New Testament has  
> been summarily dismissed by the Erasmians.
> Nikolaos Aggelopoulos

I think it is unfortunate that discussion of reconstructed ancient  
Greek pronunciation of Attic Greek and of the pronunciation of the  
"Kunstsprache" of Homeric poetry should become embroiled in  
phraseology suggestive of cultural hostilities: "Byzantine  
Greek" (enlightened) vs. Barbarian Europe (unsophisticated). If  
Europeans sometimes spoke of the prnunciation of Greek in later  
periods as "degenerate," it is a sad fact, since we are well aware  
that language is always, perhaps inevitably, in flux. Orthography in a  
written language, whether ancient or modern, has a tendency to be more  
conservative than the current pronunciation (unless orthography is  
under a process of legitimized updating as in German and in some other  
languages). Certainly the "gh" in such English words as "night,"  
"thought," and "rough" bears no discernible relationship to the way  
these words are currently pronounced.

The effort to reconstruct a functional pronunciation of Greek as it  
might have been spoken and heard in the era of the Periclean empire  
and as it may have been intoned by rhapsodes performing the Homeric  
poems at the Panathenaea and other Hellenic religious-cultural  
festivals certainly derives from the conviction that the Greek  
pronunciation employed by speakers of Byzantine Greek must differ from  
the pronunciation of Greek in those earlier centuries when Iota, Eta,  
Upsilon, and the diphthngs OI, EI, and UI must have employed sounds  
that were distinct enough to be represented by those distinct written  
characters -- the whole phenomenon termed "itacism." It is unfortunate  
if this conviction found expression in phrases speaking of a "purer  
ancient Greek pronunciation" and a "degenerate later Greek  
pronunciation" -- as if unquestionably did.

I don't have access to a text of Erasmus’ dialogue entitled "De recta  
Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione." I would like to read it and  
ascertain for myself the extent to which what Erasmus actually wrote  
about the pronunciation of ancient Greek relates to the pronunciation  
which I was taught originally back in 1952 and which I myself taught  
for many years. I've come to regret my own participation over the  
years in the perpetuation of the "Erasmian" pronunciation, but I did  
warn my students that this pronunciation almosst certainly didn't  
reflect the way Greek was ever spoken in any particular time or place.  
It has one advantage and one only (and for its deliberately continuing  
users it is reason enough): the written characters of the Greek  
alphabet are pronounced -- more or less, rather than precisely -- with  
distinct enunciations. In particular the vowels and diphthongs are  
pronounced -- more or less -- with discernible distinct sounds. For  
those teachers and learners who continue to use this pronunciation, it  
provides a sufficient method for vocalizing written texts of Homer,  
Euripides, Plato, or even the New Testament. We all acknowledge, I  
think, the importance of aural reinforcement of visual apprehension of  
the Greek text. While this is not  the method of pronunciation that I  
would now recommend, I think that it does represent a preferable  
alternative to the pronunciation of the Homeric poems and the classics  
of Attic literature than employing the pronunciation of Modern Greek  
when reading these texts. For reading the Greek NT, however, I think  
probably Modern Greek is better to use, unless one is willing to go  
with Randall Buth's apparently quite probable Koine pronunciation  

The reconstruction of the sounds of pre-Hellenistic Greek for which I  
peronally have the greatest respect coninues to be the work of W.  
Sidney Allen (1987): Vox Graeca: the pronunciation of Classical Greek,  
Cambridge: University Press, (3rd edition, ISBN 0-521-33555-8) —  
especially Appendix A Section 1 "The pronunciation of Greek in  
England" and Section 2 "The oral accentuation of Greek". Quite a few  
Classical Attic textbooks have adopted this pronunciation and there  
are available some recordings of Homeric and Attic texts employing  
this pronunciation. If I were teaching Classical Attic today, this is  
the pronunciation which I would endeavor to teach my students. On he  
other hand, I wouldn't attempt to teach this pronunciation to students  
of Biblical Greek, in which area I think Randall's scheme is the one  
to be employed. I think it is unfortuanate that some have lumped  
Sidney Allen's reconstructed scheme of pronunciation with "Erasmian"  
pronunciation. It seems to me that the lumping of these schemes  
together perhaps reflects an attitude that rejects ANY reconstruction  
of how Greek may or must have been sounded prior to the Hellenistic era.

I am always hesitant to attempt to reiterate or clarify my stance on  
the "proper" pronunciation of ancient Greek, especially the Greek  
spoken in the earlier centuries of the history of the literary  
language. I think that there are several who honestly believe that it  
is wrong-headed to attempt any reconstruction of pre-Hellenistic  
ancient Greek pronunciation, and I would suppose that those who  
believe that way are perfectly content to sound the Homeric poems and  
the prose of Plato using a Modern Greek pronunciation. I respect those  
who feel that way, but I cannot agree with them.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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