Re: Greek Pronunciation

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Tue Sep 15 1998 - 23:59:11 EDT

Mark, and B-Greekers all:

A busy week last week at my College has meant that I have not had time to
respond to this till now. But at 13:19 98/09/10, Mark O'Brien wrote:

>At 09:12 AM 9/9/98 +0100, Edgar Krentz wrote:
>>Recentlyi Chrys Caragouinis send me a copy of his articler "The Error of
>>Earsmus and un-Greek Pronunciations of Greek,"Filologia Neotestamentaria 8
>>(1995) 151-185.
>>I am curious. Has anyone else read his paper and written an evaluation of
>>it? He concludes that the modern Greek pronunciation is the same as that of
>>ancient Greek, going back to the fifth century BC. He deals with Allen's
>>VOX GRAECA in passing on p. 183.
>I actually recommended this article sometime ago during one of our regular
>(or so it seems) threads on pronunciation... it is very interesting
>reading, especially some of the historical info on Erasmus and his scheme
>(which it is claimed was the result of a joke played on him). I found it
>quite compelling (although perhaps not entirely convincing), and from a
>textual criticism point of view, it has some things to commend it. I think
>I forwarded a copy to Ward Powers... he may have read it as well and may
>have some comment.

Allen's VOX GRAECA deserves more than a passing comment and dismissal. I do
not agree with all that Allen says, but I certainly do agree in his main
points and major thrust. Nor am I persuaded that the so-called Erasmian
pronunciation is the result of a joke which went too far. But I am not
seeking to defend Erasmian pronunciation as such.

Basic background data to keep in mind in a discussion of the pronunciation
of koine Greek is that the koine period ran from about 330 BC to 330 AD, in
round figures, and that (to the best of the information we have about the
situation then), pronunciation was not totally uniform throughout this
whole period nor throughout the whole of the area where Greek was being
used. Assuming that we know exactly how the phonemes were pronounced at all
the relevant times and in all the different Greek-speaking areas (and this
in fact goes beyond the extent of our knowledge), which of the different
pronunciations for particular phonemes should we follow today?

Two considerations are of importance, IMHO, in choosing a prounciation
schema for today for koine Greek. First, that it be historically valid:
that is, that it employ pronunciations which were actually used within the
koine period; secondly that it be phonemically valid: that is, that it
employ a phonemic system, "one phoneme, one pronunciation". This latter
requirement means that if you have a one-to-one relationship between
spelling and pronunciation, then if you can pronounce a word you can spell

>This article actually caused me to experiment for a while with the modern
>pronunciation scheme whilst reading my NT, and I must say that although one
>does lose the ability to differentiate between many of the vowel sounds,

Yes, this is indeed the case. For this reason primarily (and also because
such a pronunciation was not in use in Jesus's day) I myself would strongly
recommend against using modern Greek pronunciation for koine Greek.

>the language does suddenly seem to "live" a little (a personal observation,
>of course). It seems to take on the sound and feeling of a real language,
>rather than what I have always felt was a very artificial flavour. I still
>sometimes read the text aloud to myself using the modern pronunciation

This is indeed a subjective area, in which our personal reactions play a
role, as you have mentioned. But if one is adopting a pronunciation schema
which incorporates the sounds actually used during the koine period, it
would hardly be "artificial".

>although old habits die hard and I do tend to use the Erasmian
>system when conversing with others about the text... perhaps that's a
>happy medium between the two?

There are some definite advantages, when we converse with others about the
text, if we had an agreed pronunciation schema, as you imply.

But the problem of course is: which one? And that is where we hit the
snags, as each schema has its advocates. Though actually, with the
exception of ZHTA, it is only the vowels and diphthongs where the
differences occur.

I advocate (and in my Greek Grammar book I teach) the following:

Z ZHTA dz as in "adze" [reminding one that functionally ZHTA is and
functions as a double letter in Greek, like xi and psi, (e.g., taking
perfect reduplication of just epsilon) and at times functions as a dental
(e.g., in obeying the "dental drop-out rule") and at times as a sibilant].

A as in along (short) or father (long)
E as in penguin
H as in where/there
I as in (short) or ski (long)
O as in got
U as in put (short) or truth (long)
W as in throw
AI as in aisle
EI as in eight
OI as in boil
UI as in penguin (short) or suite (long)
AU as in Strauss
EU as in feud
OU as in group

This schema is almost totally phonemic: the only duplication is that long
upsilon and OU are pronounced the same, so that LUW and LOUW would not be
differentiated. But as long upsilon is not very common, this proves in
practice to be a minor problem.

May I commend this pronunciation schema as offering significant practical
advantages, especially for teaching Greek to beginners.



Rev Dr B. Ward Powers Phone (International): 61-2-9799-7501
10 Grosvenor Crescent Phone (Australia): (02) 9799-7501
SUMMER HILL NSW 2130 email:

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