Re: Accent marks

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Mon Mar 13 2000 - 08:48:19 EST

B-greekers all,

The current lively discussion about accents and punctuation is ranging over
several differing issues. We should not lump them all together, because
what is at stake for each one is different.

First, the question of punctuation. The insertion of punctuation into
modern printed editions of the GNT is very helpful. Carl has pointed out
the debt we owe to the editors for this, and considers that for the most
part the punctuation in modern printed editions of our GNT editions can be
fully accepted. I concur.

Secondly, how we actually pronounce different phonemes. This is the
direction which the discussion is now taking for some contributions to the
list (i.e., whether ei = i). We have had this discussion many times during
the years I have been on the list and have always ended up agreeing to
differ, and I am doubtful whether discussion of this again is a profitable
direction for us to go now. Certainly it is shooting off at a tangent from
Mitchell's original query, which was:

<< 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? >>

This question, as we can see, had nothing to do with how to pronounce
sounds (phonemes). And accent marks have nothing to tell us in this regard.
(There is one minor exception here: the presence of a circumflex over a
vowel informs us that that vowel is long, and this can enable us to know
which it is for vowels which can be either short or long, i.e. A, I, and U.
But nothing much really hangs on knowing this.)

Thirdly, there appears to be something of a consensus on the list that
accents are valuable when it comes to distinguishing things that differ. I
reckon that we can all agree about this. But how many word forms are we
talking about? Actually, the number of such forms totals less than twenty
in the Greek New Testament. We need to ask ourselves: should teachers teach
and students be required to learn the ENTIRE koine Greek accentual system
for the sake of the twenty forms for which it plays any significant role?

So, fourthly, there is the question of learning the accents for all the
other words (other, that is, than ambiguous forms) which occur in the GNT.
Most of the contributors to this discussion so far are saying an emphatic

In this connection, Steven Craig Miller raises the question of what is in
the mind of authors of first-year grammars. He writes:

>And if one will look at a dozen or so first-year grammars, one will find
>that most of them merely give a cursory description of accents at the
>beginning of their grammar, only to largely ignore the accents of most
>words for the rest of their grammar.

As the author of a first-year koine Greek Grammar book, now in its fifth
edition ("Learn To Read the Greek New Testament", SPCK Australia, 1995) I
can provide at least one answer to his enquiry. This Grammar book insists
that breathings (and iota subscripts) are always to be conscientiously
noted and inserted as they are integral to the spelling of the word; and
about accents it has this comment (page 14): "In this book, the Greek words
are given with their accents, because they are printed with accents in the
text of the New Testament which the reader of this book will be learning to
use. There are a small number of instances where accents are useful for the
student, by serving to distinguish between word pairs which are identical
apart from their accent, or by assisting with pronunciation - attention
will be drawn to these instances when they are encountered. Apart from
these special instances, accents serve no real purpose for those starting
Greek study, and can be ignored. (The general principles of accentuation
are set out in #E6, which is reached at the end of the Intermediate Course.)"

Beginning students have just so much time available to put into their
study, and we who are teachers of Greek have (I very much believe) to be
wise and helpful in what we ask of them in relation to the use of that
time. So I put before you the view that to ask beginners to spend any time
at all on learning accents (apart from the twenty particular
otherwise-ambiguous forms where it matters) is to divert them from using
their available time to learn things (grammatical concepts, basic
paradigms) which are MUCH more use to them.

Those who advocate getting students to learn their accents correctly say
that this will facilitate correct pronunciation. At most, this would be
true in relation to knowing which vowel or syllable to stress. But even
this is dubious, because (as also pointed out in the discussion) the accent
was a tone-accent, not a stress-accent.

But even so, there is a valid point to be noted in something else which
Steven said:

>Perhaps the reason some claim that accents have little, or no real value,
>is because for them (and really, for most of us) ancient Greek is only a
>written language and not one to be spoken. What is the value of learning
>how to pronounce ancient Greek, if one is never going to speak it? (This is
>asked only as a "rhetorical" question.)

Actually, in my Grammar book I stress the importance of reading Greek with
the "correct" pronunciation, but this is "correct" from the perspective of
a phonemic pronunciation scheme (i.e., for the phonemes of koine Greek) and
NOT in relation to where an accent might fall on a word form.

So, as an alternative to the other points of view being advocated on the
b-greek list, I put this view:

1. ALWAYS observe, and use, breathings and iota subscript.

2. DO NOTE those twenty word forms where an accent differentiates between
forms which otherwise are ambiguous (in my Grammar book, these are
introduced when encountered, and a list of the sections is cross-referenced
in Section 8.85 on page 120).

3. Otherwise, IGNORE accents at beginners level.

For your consideration.



P.S. Steven also says,

>In order to pronounce ancient Greek, one needs to know more than where the
>accent falls, one also needs some idea as to how syllables are divided. And
>I would dare say, one would search in vain in most first-year grammars to
>find anything more than a very cursory suggestion on syllabification.

I also have a comment on syllabification in Section 1.46, on page 17 of my
Grammar book.

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

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