Re: Pronunciation, was Re: Did Paul Speak Greek with a Turkish Accent?

Date: Sat Mar 20 1999 - 17:39:19 EST

Just for the record on the pronunciation issue-- New Testament Greek isn't exactly
dead, as you may know. It is still the only text read in Greek Orthodox churches (at
least in Greece) even today. It is getting a little hard to understand for those
without an education, so there is some move (strongly resisted) to adopt a more modern
translation; but any educated (and I don't mean highly educated!) Greek can understand
it perfectly well and not a few yia-yias (grandmas) can recite rather long parts of it
with a little prompting. The elevated literary language ("Katharevousa") is rather
close to it. And NT words and sounds have been echoing and reverberating throughout
Greek literature almost since the day St. Paul wrote the opening lines to the
Thessalonians. Let us not underestimate the importance of auditory cues for the
building up of understanding!

I think the arguments about the pedagogical usefulness of an erasmian pronunciation
are specious. In that case, why not teach ESL students some kind of made-up
"erasmian" pronunciation of English? Try it sometime-- the results are hilarious; for
example, the expression "try it sometime" becomes "tru eat so-may-tea-may"-- Fer
shurrrr! Such experiments are possible only when no native speaker exists to hear
them. Why are we convinced this is true?

For a long time it has struck me as odd and arrogant, not to say imperialistic, that
western academics seem blithely to suppose that the actual Greeks don't know how to
pronounce their own language, perhaps never did. Despite going to all that trouble to
copy all those manuscripts over the years! Not to deny that vocalic shifts etc
happen-- but when was "logos" *ever* "logg-oss"? When we know that the iotization of
diphthongs etc took place BC, why hang on to an artificial system invented for a
language they didn't speak by our worthy German predecessors?

You get used to the modern/Byzantine pronunciation in a very short time. I learned
the erasmian and got pretty good enough at Greek in that mode that it became more or
less second nature; but later I became a member of a Greek church, where I was a
little surprised to find that my pronunciation was met with chuckles and winks and
certainly didn't work in church. What could I do? I adapted. It was a little odd to
me at the start, but the NT actually *sounds* very beautiful in its own tongue. Sure,
I do occasionally find myself looking up a word under the wrong spelling, but not very
often; you just train yourself to pay attention to what you have to pay attention to,
just as in English (e.g., the rule about i and e and its exceptions). BUT-- here's
the payoff-- by accustoming yourself to the idea that this is actually a living
language with a living tradition, you just might stumble, one day, across the
**enormous** amount of really amazing poetry, prose, commentary, liturgy, hymnography,
etc that marks the splendid, even fiery trajectory of the NT through the
Greek-speaking culture for the next two thousand years (and counting!) Byzantine
language and thought was literally steeped in the NT and LXX idiom in a way we can't
even imagine. And in turn, the way the text was received can often provide really
useful keys and insights into the meaning of the text itself. To be sure, trajectory
is not authorial intention-- but the fathers were native speakers, after all; many of
them *very* highly educated, and not without insight into their own language.

A couple centuries ago, western scholars tended to view the NT rather as they would
have viewed a text from outer space-- It was a God-revealed collection of proof texts
with no earthly connection to anything that came before or after it! Since then, we
have come a long way towards recognizing its background in the late antique Jewish and
Hellenistic world. But I think we still hardly (want to) connect it to anything that
came after it. That seems to me (for what it's worth) to be part of the hidden
background of the discussion of NT pronunciation!

Best regards to all.

John Burnett, M.A.

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