Greek pronunciation over the millennia

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Languages evolve over the centuries, and so it's not surprising that there are differences of opinion as to how Attic Greek, the language of ancient Athens during the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, should be pronounced.

In prepping for the first session of the Ancient Greek class I'm teaching at Augustine Christian Academy, I discovered that the pronunciation guide textbook differed in several important respects from the method I'd learned in college. For example, the new book by Prof. Cynthia Shelmerdine says that eta should be pronounced as "a" in man; I'd learned it as the "a" in late. Shelmerdine says omega should be like the o in long; I'd learned it as the "o" in lone. She calls for pronouncing phi and theta as breathy p and t rather than as ph in phone and th in thin.

In addition to the formal Attic Greek courses I took in college, I took a course in New Testament Greek during MIT's Independent Activities Period (IAP), a kind of minimester in between New Year's and the start of spring classes in February. The teacher, an electrical engineering graduate student, had us use modern Greek pronunciation, which I found confusing. Part of the problem is that modern Greek uses the same sound -- "ee" -- for a wide range of vowels and diphthongs, while the traditional academic approach to pronunciation assigned different sounds to each.

The consonants changed, too. Beta was now pronounced by buzzing air between closed lips -- halfway between English v and b. I remember being puzzled that countries like Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, and Botswana weren't to be found near the front of the line for the parade of nations at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens The mystery was solved a while later, when they all showed up toward the end of the Ms. Apparently the combination m-p is as close as modern Greek gets to an English b, giving us Μπαχάμες, Μπαγκλαντές, Μπαρμπάντος, Μπελίζ, Μπενίν, and Μποτσουάνα, respectively. And since delta has turned into the th in then, the closest Greek equivalent to the English d is n-t ντ.

What I knew as the traditional academic pronunciation traces its roots back to Erasmus, the 16th century Dutch scholar who also published the first printed Greek New Testament, assembling the best available manuscripts available in northern Europe at the time and drawing on the expertise of the Greek diaspora, displaced by the Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the mid 15th century.

From what I read (see links to a selection of articles below), Erasmus's approach is probably pretty close to the sound of the language in classical Athens; later textbook variations deviated from accuracy to achieve the pedagogical goal of a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds.

But among the various Greek city-states different pronunciations and spelling conventions prevailed. By the end of the classical period, as Alexander unified Greece and conquered the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, he spread a simpler language, the "common tongue," much closer in pronunciation to modern Greek.

So how should Ancient Greek be pronounced in schools? I've opted for the traditional approach, so that sight and sound work together to aid memorization.


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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 17, 2012 9:06 PM.

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