[B-Greek] Recent discussion concerning Erasmian pronunciation

Jeffrey T. Requadt jeffreyrequadt_list at hotmail.com
Sun May 3 22:19:48 EDT 2009

I feel like I must apologize for getting the list started again on the
pronunciation debate. I certainly hope it stays within the bounds of
discussion protocol. I think my original question-is there another
artificial pronunciation for a language that has only been used in
academia-was to intended to probe the usefulness of such a system. I think I
would agree with Carl Conrad that the proponents of Erasmian are in that
camp largely because it provides a method for differentiating between the
different letters of a word, thus providing the reader/learner with a
connection between the shape of the letter and a specific sound. I think
there are also some who, like Mark Lightman, believe that such an artificial
system is not only acceptable, but actually preferable to a "real"
pronunciation (such as modern Greek, modern French, etc.).

Perhaps another question might be, why learn any pronunciation at all? Maybe
this seems like an obvious question, but is it? The following is not meant
to cause fights, but rather to probe our own presuppositions and

I'm certainly not a veteran teacher, but I've had a few years under my belt,
plus a couple decades as a reader/writer. I am aware that we use different
sign systems continuously in our lives. As a musician, I can read notes and
know what they mean, without pronouncing a single word. As a mathematician,
I can solve equations without pronouncing a single word. When I look at art,
I can interpret it without pronouncing a single word. Words are unnecessary,
because those forms of communication and expression are not limited to
(indeed, perhaps barely even touch) the realm of language. But when I read
or write something, there is a certain pronunciation embedded in my brain
for each word, depending on its context. Why is that? Why is it that when I
write something, I actually "hear" the words in my head, almost always
instantaneous with actually writing them? When I read, I actually "hear" the
words in my head, even though I can read/hear in my head much faster than I
can read aloud-or sometimes even talk aloud. Why is that? I don't know. I'm
not a linguist or a psycholinguist or a psychologist or an expert on human
development. But I think it has to do with the fact that
language-communication of information and concepts and emotions, etc., from
one person to another(s)-is inherently aural/oral. Yet, there is also a
graphic component as well. From what I understand, researchers have learned
(more or less) that written text is not simply the "graphic" representation
of oral language. It is real language, simply in graphic form. In other
words, there is receptive language: oral (listening) and graphic (reading);
and there is productive language: oral (speaking) and graphic (writing).
There are certain conventions that one must follow in each case in order to
accurately communicate. They are not entirely dependent on one another. When
someone writes something in English, as I am writing now, someone else can
read it in English (as you are doing now), regardless of my pronunciation or
theirs! Yet, writing cannot convey nearly any of the nuances that oral and
body language (another sign system!) can. Every time I stop and think about
the language capacity of the human brain, I am absolutely astounded and
amazed-especially at the brain's need to make sense. We have to make sense.
That's why confusion is so troubling. We usually try to "unconfuse"
ourselves, don't we, unless we decide to give up? I mean, the fact that kids
learn to read, often despite large obstacles, is itself amazing to me. 

How does this relate to Greek? Well, it seems like there are two basic
"camps" on this whole pronunciation thing (I'm not trying to pigeonhole or
stereotype anyone, so please don't be offended if I seem to mischaracterize
your viewpoint). There are the Randall Buth people (with whom I admittedly
would probably lump myself as a result of my experience working with real
human children and speakers of different African languages as well as
English, and my own experience learning French and Greek) who view Greek as
a real language that deserves to be taught on its own merits, which entails
an authentic pronunciation as well as orthography as well as written and
spoken conventions. They seem to have this unshakeable belief that Koine
Greek was a language spoken and written by real people, and those people
have the most prerogative as to what should be spoken, pronounced, spelled,
etc. Then, there is the other camp (I would put Mark Lightman et al. in this
one) that seems to have the opinion that the only really important thing is
that we can understand what the words on the page say. They might even limit
their focus to the words that are found in the New Testament and/or LXX. To
them, they don't really care how the words are pronounced as long as you can
understand what the author was saying.

I can think I can see the point of view of this latter camp (in fact, I've
had excellent correspondence with some of them). But I think the reason I
keep lumping myself with the "Buthites" is that I keep coming back to the
fact that the words of the New Testament were written-language-by some
individual or another to be understood-language-by another individual or
group. The fact that we can actually translate these writings, or read them,
today, is evidence that they are examples of language that are meant to be
understood. They're not just some code. They convey meaning, perhaps on
several different levels. They convey varying degrees of importance and
focus. They are written texts with all the conventions of written texts.
They are language, and they must be treated as such if we are to actually
understand them-what the authors wanted their readers to understand. 

If some French person wanted to learn to read Shakespeare-to understand it,
or even 16th-17th century English literature in general, would we really
want them to learn to pronounce it in a modern French accent? I could
understand that such a thing might happen naturally, much as Americans try
to read French spelling with English phonetic rules ("Parlezz vouz
fransays?"). But would we actually encourage that? Would we tell them that
that's fine, as long as they know what the words mean? I suppose one could
say that pronunciation would matter more in poetry than in prose. But would
we really want a French person to read English spelling of any kind, period,
dialect, etc., with sounds that are purely French? In other words, we would
encourage them to just skip trying to say "th" and substitute "z" instead.

I think the point I'm getting at is that because the texts of the New
Testament were written in Greek, an actual language spoken by actual people
in an actual time and place with actual thoughts to communicate, we need to
treat those texts as more than some kind of code to be understood.
Pronunciation, even though it changes with each generation and location, is
something that is inherently linked to language. Creating a pronunciation,
rather than growing one out of real use, eliminates some aspect of the
reality of the language which it is trying to represent. That's why even
though I might initially agree with Mark Lightman, ("Am I saying that
Americans should learn to speak French using an American accent rather than
sounding like Frenchmen?  Yes, I guess I am, if they intended to communicate
with other Americans and intended never to go to France, as I intend never
to go to Ancient Greece"), I have to disagree because such a method treats
the language as non-language. Even from the point of view of "learning to
read the words, regardless of pronunciation," I would ask, "why?" Why learn
to read the words? Isn't it because you want to know what the author is
saying, and what he/she means? If that's the case, why would you treat the
author's words as less than language?

And by the way, accent (as in, American vs. French) is a totally different
prospect than pronunciation. Yes, they are related, but an American can say
"Parlay-voo Fronsay" rather than "Parlezz vouz fransase" (did you notice
that I changed the spelling from the first time I wrote that? That's because
in English, as in French, and presumably in Greek, I can write the same
sound with several different orthographic options!! And the reader who is
used to English orthography might pronounce them both the same, or might
not!! Aren't are brains amazing?!). There is a HUGE difference between
pronouncing something with a foreign accent, and pronouncing it with WRONG
pronunciation. I can speak French fairly fluently, but my accent leaves a
little to be desired. That's a far cry from pronouncing sounds incorrectly
or mistakenly.

Last, I would challenge the notion that "people actually learn languages
better and faster it they speak it and hear it not like Native speakers of
the target language, but like Native speakers of their own." I'm skeptical.
I do agree that people learn languages better when they get to use their own
native language. But is that because of the accent or the pronunciation?
Wouldn't it be better all around if the target language speakers taught the
new language learners slowly but with a correct pronunciation and real
accent? If I'm missing something here, or there is research to back it up,
let me know. I'm always willing to broaden my perspective.

Just some things to think about.


Jeffrey T. Requadt

Dietz Elementary

(520) 731-4000


"I like to talk. I also like to think. Sometimes they go together." ~ Jeff

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