Greek pronunciation

From: Edward Hobbs (
Date: Fri Aug 02 1996 - 20:23:29 EDT

Dear B-Greek Listers:

     The recent flurry on pronunciation produced a sense of deja-vu in
me, until I realized that the last time we had a go-around on this was
perhaps four or more years ago, when most of those now on the List
were not yet reading my definitive posts on the subject. (Do I need
to put in a smiley? Or is it obvious that I tease myself as I write?)
I'll try not to make this too many pages long on pronunciation, since
most of you would then probably simply Delete without reading.

     There seems to be a fairly widespread misunderstanding about the
pronunciation of Greek of every period. Let me start with the most
important definitive statement:
at no time was Greek pronounced the same way everywhere.
     In the "classical" period, we know that Greek was pronounced
differently in the various cities; some of the great poets reproduce a
few of these "accents" for the purpose of fun.
     {What is an accent? YOU have an accent, if you speak
     different than I do; I never have an accent, since I speak
     the TRUE pronunciation.)
When scholars try to discover the "classical" accent, they normally
aim for the speech of educated Athenians in the fifth century BCE.
Edgar Howard [E.H.] Sturtevant in the first half of this century did
just that, as did Sidney Allen in the second half, in his Vox Graeca
(1968, with successive editions at least through 1987). The so-called
"Erasmian" pronunciation [don't read too much of Desiderius Erasmus
into that label] is a more-or-less approximation to the speech of
classical Athens, with concessions made to modern speakers of English,
who can't usually hear the difference between Phi and Pi (Phi was
pronounced about like the "p" in "pike" while Pi was pronounced about
like the "p" in "spike"), or between Theta and Tau (the difference
between the "t"s in "top" and "stop"), and who can't avoid a
diphthongal glide at the end of a long "a" (French "e") or a long "o".
The Erasmian isn't exactly what ANY Greek ever spoke, probably; but it
IS the pronunciation used today by most of the world's scholars of
ancient Greek.

     As for what happened when Alexander's armies mingled Greeks from
everywhere in Macedonia, Greece, and Ionia, the situation gets a bit
messy. And when the natives of the far-flung kingdoms of the
Diadochoi began speaking Greek, things got even more diverse. They
didn't have television, or even radio, to promulgate a "good" accent.
There WAS a kind of effort on the part of the upper classes and
especially the ruling groups to maintain a semblance of the language
still spoken in (parts of) Greece, and this was assisted by their
teachers and tutors. Those who traveled also tended to spread a
somewhat "generic" pronunciation. But just as English today has many
versions (what is "correct"? -- London Cockney, Oxbridge, Yorkshire,
Highland Scot, Irish brogue, Jersey City, Chicago, Montgomery Alabama,
Bryn Mawr [Katherine Hepburn!], Fort Worth Texas?), so Hellenistic
Greek had many versions. This is easily demonstrated in the
misspellings in thousands of papyri (which mostly show the changes in
accent in Egypt), inscriptions, some graffiti, etc.

     The only way to know about this first-hand is to work through
(and it takes lots of time and effort!) Edwin Mayser's five volumes:
Grammatik der griechischen Papyri aus der Ptolemaer Zeit, 1906-1934,
with revisions of I2 and I3 in 1938 and 1936. This work deals with
the period from Alexander's conquest till Roman take-over. There is a
much-hailed newer work from Sweden (which I have handled, but never
worked through): S.-T. Teodorson, The Phonology of Ptolemaic Koine,
1977 (this one focusses much more closely on pronunciation than did
Mayser's work, which covers much, much more).
     For the Greek of the Imperial period (after Rome's occupation of
Egypt), there is F. T. Gignac, A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the
Roman and Byzantine Periods, 1976, 1981 (again, not focussed
especially on pronunciation).

     To say that Hellenistic Greek pronunciation was more like modern
Greek than like classical Greek, in my view, is pretty far-fetched.
This was a period of rap[id change; but even the virus-like spread of
itacism (vowels all moving toward an "ee" sound) did not gain force
until the second century. There is also a tendency to suppose that
Paul or his fellow-first-century-speakers had the same problems with
confusions of sound that we have. That Americans can't pronounce a
French "u" or German umlaut-u doesn't mean that 1st-century Greek
speakers thought that upsilon sounded just like the "ou" in "soup."
The confusions they had were many; but they weren't just the same as

     In sum: If you want to pronounce Greek the way they did in the
New Testament period, you are in trouble; there were many
pronunciations. And the educated classes probably sounded more
"Erasmian" than anything else! They certainly despised the drift
toward itacism (and thus the most prominent feature of modern Greek

     Advice: The same as before, the same Carl Conrad has given:
Unless you plan to pronounce Greek only to yourself or your close
friends, or to modern-Greek-speaking persons, you should learn to use
the Erasmian pronunciation. You of course should add modern Greek to
that if you wish or need to; but that's not instead of--it's in
addition to knowing how scholars communicate with each other when they
use their voices.

Edward Hobbs

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