Ancient Greek using Modern Greek pronunciation

Discussion in 'Ελληνικά (Greek)' started by James Bates, Dec 19, 2012.

  1. James Bates Senior Member

    English America
    Does it really make a difference which pronunciation one uses to learn Ancient Greek? For example, in Modern Greek the accent marks stress but it doesn't in Ancient Greek. If I were to follow the rules of Modern Greek and stress the syllable with the accent would it make a difference?
  2. Perseas Senior Member

    Athens - GR
    this is what we do at school. We read out ancient texts as if they were Modern Greek. Besides, who can be absolutely sure about the Ancient Greek pronunciation?
  3. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    When Aristophanes has his sheep saying βῆ βῆ it is perhaps useful to know that he pronounced it /bɛɛ bɛɛ/ , not /vi vi/.
  4. James Bates Senior Member

    English America
  5. Nikolaos_Kandidatos

    Nikolaos_Kandidatos Senior Member

    Rethymno, Crete
    Basically, we need to make a distinction between phonology and phonetics here - we certainly can't be sure about the "absolute" phonetic values (you know, as in what a physicist would measure with an instrument of some sort) but we do know a lot about the "relative" phonemic values - for example, that η was used in Plato's time to mark a front vowel that was a) long as opposed to short, b) more open than ι and ει but more closed than α. So when we look at the way what we get is pretty much a long ε, as fdb says.

    As to the relative merits of both systems, both have their pros and cons. I started myself with the reconstructed classical pronunciation and found it was a HUGE aid to learning the morphology and orthography of ancient Greek, because the modern pronunciation blends together so many endings that learning them may become more difficult (Greek speakers who grow up with modern Greek have the advantage that they learn basically the same (with minor changes) orthography for modern Greek so it's easier to memorize all the different spellings and even then it's difficult).

    However, when I got confident with the language, learned modern Greek and settled in Crete, I started preferring the modern pronunciation - once you know what you're doing, it feels so much more "alive" than the dusty classroom pronunciation, which I now use only when looking at texts of a certain period from a linguistic point of view. It depends on your personal preferences and perhaps also the period you're interested in: as a Byzantinist the modern pronunciation comes much more naturally to me, whereas, to take an extreme example, it feels somehow weird when reading, say, archaic dialect inscriptions from 500 BC.
  6. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Pronouncing ancient Greek using modern Greek phonetic values of the letters has as much sense as pronouncing Latin with French phonetic values of the letters. Not much sense, but highly esteemed both in France and in Greece. Let it be the local custom.
  7. James Bates Senior Member

    English America
    Thank you both!
  8. Nikolaos_Kandidatos

    Nikolaos_Kandidatos Senior Member

    Rethymno, Crete
    Ben Jamin, I would respectfully like to disagree with you - why should we take it for granted that Latin should "correctly" be pronounced with Cicero's accent and not that of, say, Jerome and Augustine? Or Bede, or Dante, or <insert random medieval name> which is much closer to modern Italian or French? In all cases, even when talking about Cicero, a case can be made for using the historical pronunciation of the time the texts were read, not only the time they were written. For example, as I said, I mainly deal with Byzantine Greek texts, and if I were to investigate, say, the reception of Homer in Late Byzantine literature it would make far less sense for me to use the ancient pronunciation than the modern one, which was used by the Late Byzantine consumers of Homer's text.
  9. Perseas Senior Member

    Athens - GR
    We can't ascribe with safety sounds of animals to human phonemes. How do we know that "βη βη" was pronounced exactly /bεε bεε/ and not otherwise?
    Is /bεε bεε/ the way all people "render" the sound of the sheep? Ancient Greeks said "υλάκ", Modern Greeks say "γαβ" and English "bark". In English it is "cock-a-doodle-doo", in Modern Greek "κικιρίκου". So I don't think that "βη βη" proves much.

    Moreover, what's the point in trying to find out the ancient pronunciation since there is no sound document of the past. Besides, antiquity was a large period of time and the pronunciation was not always the same. The wisdom of the ancient texts lies in their meaning. Verba volant, scripta manent!
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2012
  10. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    How does a classicist who wants to make sense pronounce the name of god «Ποσειδῶν» ?
    Because Plato in his dialogue Cratylus writes that the name of Poseidon derives from the fact that he is the foot-shackler («Ποσίδεσμος») of seas:
    «Τὸν οὖν ἄρχοντα τῆς δυνάμεως ταύτης θεόν ᾠνόμασεν Ποσειδῶνα ὡς Ποσίδεσμον ὄντα».
    A can of worms thus opens for the dogmatic followers of classic reconstructed pronunciation
  11. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member


    Perseas writes (#9):

    That's precisely the point - there is no sound document, so we have to try to infer it. I would argue that especially for understanding and appreciating ancient rhetoric and particularly poetry, we should at least make the effort to apprehend and appreciate the sound-effects. And the fact that the conclusions at which we arrive may at best be an approximation does not render the exercise pointless.

    And he continues:

    Indeed. And over a wide geographical expanse, as is evidenced by the dialectical variations in orthography between Doric, Aeolic, Ionic and koine forms of Greek. Aristophanes (in e.g. Lysistrata) plays on the Doric in the words he gives to Lampito. These surely reflect what were at the time well-known differences of accent, at least, rather than merely of spelling (as is the case in written US English, in comparison with British).
  12. Nikolaos_Kandidatos

    Nikolaos_Kandidatos Senior Member

    Rethymno, Crete
    Perseas, it is true that there are no sound documents but that doesn't mean we don't have a great deal of material on which to base our conclusions. The case of βη βη in Aristophanes in itself proves next to nothing, as you say, but no linguist would claim it does - it just happens that it is often used to illustrate the process of reconstructing the ancient phonemic inventory, since Desiderius Erasmus is said to have used it as an example in his seminal work.

    The phonological reconstruction of Ancient Greek which is taught in universities both here in Greece and abroad does not lie on an insecure basis and in general terms is taken as established fact by historical linguists working with the language - uncertainties concern specific details rather than basic facts such as those which I mentioned above for the pronunciation of η. The most extensive material is based on errors of orthography. As you know from personal experience, Perseas, spelling errors are an everyday occurrence and many less educated people make <<πεντακόσια λάθη>> even in simple sentences. The spelling errors occurring in ancient inscriptions and papyri - especially private documents - have been studied in detail and the statistics reveal the changes taking place during antiquity. For example, in archaic/classical Attic the distinction of e.g. η, ει, ι or αι, ε or ο, ω is clear from the lack of confusion of these spellings, whereas from the hellenistic period onwards we have increasing confusion. My point is that the reconstructed phonology is not based on guesswork of the type "how does a sheep bleat in Greek" but on extensive statistical study. Other material is available in e.g. transcriptions of Greek names and words in Latin (which is why Aristophanes is still written in English in the LAtin form Aristophanes and not Aristofanis, which would have been equally acceptable in the Roman alphabet if it had been pronounced that way the time Romans first heard the name being used)

    Your last point about the pronunciation being different in different times is of course true, and we might add that it was also different in different places. However, thanks to the large amount of material this can be taken into account. The reconstructed system on which school pronunciations are based (they are never the same since concessions to the students' mother tongue are always made in some form or another) attempts to reproduce the Athenian pronunciation of about 400 BC, but if someone should wish it (and some do) there is no reason why similar reconstructed pronunciations could not be used for e.g. New Testament κοινή or Early Byzantine Greek.

    As Scholiast points out, one reason we do need to be informed of the phonology of different forms of Ancient Greek is correct appreciation of metre and rhythmical effects. Another is dialectology, since the development of AG dialects would be incomprehensible without the sound system. And, of course, for linguists the history of the language in itself is reason enough to study phonology.
  13. Scholiast

    Scholiast Senior Member

    Greetings once again

    To Nikolaos_Kandidatos' excellent points in his latest post (#12), one might add that the science - and indeed it is that - of comparative philology can extrapolate general principles of linguistic, including phonological, developments from contemporary phenomena, just as from fossils and astronomy palaeontologists and physicists can derive knowledge of the far-distant past beyond the reach of any direct observation. It is sometimes possible to work backwards from an existing arrangement of pieces on a chessboard through the moves that brought the players to the position their pieces are in.

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