Re: Two accents in one word??

Carl W. Conrad (
Thu, 9 Jan 1997 07:06:48 -0600

At 8:08 PM -0600 1/8/97, Paul Dixon wrote:
>Leave it to JB (perhaps more renown from the theology list - hi, Jim; hope
>you had a good Christmas) to stir up questions about Greek accents. Boy,
>for the life of me, I can't get excited about accents, let alone 2 accents
>in one word. But, this thread has been very interesting. I've learned
>more about accents in this discussion than I was every taught. Carl's
>comments regarding the relative insignificance of it all (something like
>that) jives well with the de-emphasis put on it by my teachers. Besides,
>since accents were not recorded in the original manuscripts, and since my
>interest is in the original manuscripts, this is one discipline with which
>I have not bothered and probably will not, not unless I want to know how
>better to speak ancient Greek.

While I really DO think that there are issues more worthy of discussion in
Greek than accents, I don't want to leave the impression that I think
accents are altogether negligible. Often they are keys to important
distinctions between words that are otherwise spelled identically. One of
the more celebrated dicta of Heraclitus says, more or less, "BI/OS and
BIO/S are the same, but their effect is the opposite." BI'OS is "life,"
while BIO'S is "bow" (the weapon). There are very significant differences
between A)/RA and A)=3DRA, and although the present tense forms of the older
Greek verb "go" aren't used much in Koine, woe betide the person who can't
distinguish E)IMI/ and E)=3DMI in classical Attic.

What irks me about the accents is that grammarians invented the system of
noting them, ONLY AFTER the ancient pitch-accent had become obsolete, in
order to show how the Greek of older, classical Attic HAD BEEN PRONOUNCED
at the time when the classics of Greek prose and poetry were written. It is
ironic, therefore, that accents then became obligatory in Greek being
written in the late Hellenistic period when a stress accent had replaced
the older pitch accent. I know of only a handful of modern teachers of
Greek who teach pronunciation of Greek in terms of a pitch accent; those
who use the accents (and I do myself) generally teach students to STRESS
the syllable that has the accent rather than to raise the pitch for an
acute or lengthen a vowel so that one can raise and then lower the pitch
for a circumflex.

I never really got much of a grip on the accents until I started teaching
Greek and found that my ignorance about them was embarrassing: when
students ask you questions that you can't answer, you'd better learn or at
least be able to direct them to a reliable source of information. My worst
embarrassment over this came in a seminar in Munich when I turned in a
paper on Aristophanes with accent marks placed rather haphazardly to Rudolf
Pfeiffer (a renowned Callimachean scholar), only to get it back with a
single comment: "Obviously you never learned the Greek accents; why don't
you just omit them altogether or else take pains to get them right?"

One can learn a good deal of Greek and even become reasonably proficient at
reading it without really knowing the accents. I think, however, that one
ought to learn how to accent verbs, at least, because they are relatively
easy; the rules governing enclitics are easy enough also; and it's helpful
to learn the accents on those words that mean different things though
spelled identically. That having been said, however, I think that (1) one
will NEVER learn all that is really worth knowing about Greek; (2) the
accents are not one of the more important things to learn about Greek; and
(3) the accents are, nevertheless, not really quite negligible. If that
sounds like damning them with faint praise, so be it. I'm quite sure that
old "Leatherarms," Dionysius Scutobrachios knew his accents perfectly.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR