Re: Accent marks

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Mar 11 2000 - 20:41:47 EST

At 4:25 PM -0600 3/11/00, Mitchell Gray wrote:
>Dear B-Greekers,
>I was recently reading Bill Mounce's Basics to Biblical Greek and in
>chapter 4 he talks about punctuation and accent marks. In it he says that
>accent marks were not present when Koine Greek was being used. But he
>tells us that they should be used today. Are they really that important?
>I read more than a few words and placed the accent in different places and
>didn't really notice a difference. Should the beginner really try hard to
>understand the accent marks and what they do to the word or is that just
>another burden for the student just starting?

This is a question that we have taken up repeatedly from time to time, and
like other matters of pedagogy in beginning Greek, you'll find there's a
divergence of opinions on this. At this point I'll offer only a couple

(1) That the accents weren't written when Koine Greek was being used is not
really relevant to the question whether a modern student should use them;
the reason is that the Koine Greek speaker knew from custom and habit of
hearing and speaking where the accents were on words and which accents they
were. The writing of accents is a help primarily to those who DON'T know
the language and are in the process of learning it and want to pronounce it

(2) The correct pronunciation of ancient Greek at any one period or place,
although there are many who profess to know about it in detail, is subject
to considerable dispute, although many aspects of it may be agreed upon.
One thing pretty widely agreed upon is that the way most of us who endeavor
to pronounce ancient Greek today probably pronounce it wrongly. As one of
those who probably pronounce it wrongly, I personally hold, nevertheless,
that there is very great value in learning a consistent pronunciation
system--and that is that the sound of the language reinforces one's reading
of the written language. And the accents DO have a bearing on whatever
consistent pronunciation one strives to achieve.

(3) Although the accent and its position may not have that much bearing on
the meaning of most ancient Greek words, there are nevertheless quite a few
whose differentiation in terms of accentuation is very important--this is
particularly true, obviously, of words that are otherwise spelled
identically. A simple example is the difference between the
identically-spelled article hO and relative pronoun hO\. We've had more
than a couple instances of questions put to B-Greek that wouldn't have been
asked if the person posing the question had recognized that the text he or
she was reading actually displayed a relative pronoun rather than an
article or an article rather than a relative pronoun. And there are quite
enough words wherein the pronunciation with the correct accent makes the
difference between words which look identical on paper with the accent
unmarked--as in Koine papyri for the most part.

For that reason--pedagogically--I'd recommend at the very least learning
the vocabulary by pronouncing words aloud with an effort at least to use a
stress accent wherever the pitch-mark is on the Greek word.


Carl W. Conrad Department of Classics/Washington University One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018 Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 WWW:

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