Re: accents

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Tue Feb 11 1997 - 07:01:58 EST

At 3:06 PM -0600 2/10/97, Paul F. Evans wrote:
>Carl,I would like to demonstrate my usual knack for the
>"basic" and elementary question. In the recent discussion
>of accents, it has been observed, and I am well aware of
>the fact, that accents were not original to the text (NT
>in particular). Where do they come from, and by what system
>were they put into place? And if they do, in some instances,
>make a material difference to meaning, surely where the
>meaning is ambiguous in the first place, or a textual variant
>disputed, accents cannot be the determiners?

I have to plead ignorance on this one, but I would readily defer five or
six list-members whom I know to be fully competent to offer a quick answer
to this one. I do know that later Greek MSS do show accents and breathing
marks, but my impression is that these were a Byzantine invention, intended
to indicate how Greek HAD been pronounced prior to the gradual shift-over
to a stress-accent pronunciation that may have been in process already as
the shift in pronunciation of 2/3 of the vowels to an (English) long-E
sound, "itacism" was completing itself (dare I use he "reflexive voice"

It would certainly be hard to estimate the full measure debt we users of
neatly punctuated, word-separated, fair-font-figured, generally elegant
Greek texts of our NT and other ancient Greek literature owe to editors and
printers. One must learn a great deal (that I have never learned) in order
to be able to make good sense of the important early MSS. I must add that I
think Isidoros is quite correct in saying that the printing of accents and
breathing-marks is at best a mixed blessing: rough breathings make sense to
indicate where we should aspirate a vowel, but we could just as well leave
unaspirated initial vowels unmarked; and unless we serious intend to give
Greek words a pitch accent in correspondence with values indicated by
theory (and I have come across fewer scholars than can be counted on the
fingers of one hand who do), it would be more sensible to mark only the
syllable receiving the stress accent, and an acute would be the only accent
needed (or whichever other anyone preferred, as it would not be indicating
pitch, in any event). That is, I think, the procedure adopted in current
modern Greek, and unless it can be shown that spoken Greek of the NT era
was still being pronounced with a pitch accent, it would seem reasonable to
me to reform the orthography of the Greek NT that way. But even if that
should seem wise to some, I frankly don't expect it to happen within my
lifetime if it ever does; the U.S. cannot even make the obviously desirable
change-over to the metric system, and we know that Law and Religion in
general are the most conservative institutions in human culture.

It's too early in the morning where I am to be thinking such futile thoughts.
Time to lighten up! Anyone for accents?

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

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