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Greek, Pronunciation of

Three different methods of pronouncing Greek have been followed in the schools of America and England. They may be called, respectively, the English method; the Reuchlinian or modern Greek method; and the Erasmian method.

I. The English method gives the letters their ordinary English sounds, but follows the Latin rules of accent (accenting the penult if it is long in quantity, but otherwise the antepenult). This method is still current in England, but has almost disappeared in the United States.

II. The Reuchlinian method, called after Reuchlin (q.v.), a great scholar of the fifteenth century, who was one of its earliest advocates, aims to follow the pronunciation of the modern Greeks. Of the vowels, η, υ, ει, οι, and υι, all have the sound of i in machine; αι is pronounced much like a in fate. In the diphthongs αυ, ευ, ηυ, and ωυ, υ is pronounced like v when the diphthong stands before a vowel, or β, γ, δ, ζ, λ, μ, ν, ρ; otherwise like f. π, κ, τ, after nasals, are pronounced like b, g, d. χ has the two sounds of German ch. δ is pronounced like th in then, β like v, γ like ch in German ach, ζ like English z. It has been argued that scholars ought to agree to pronounce Greek as the Greeks of today pronounce it, but many changes and corruptions have crept in during the centuries since the classical period; so that the pronunciation which prevails in Athens at present differs widely from that of ancient times. This method has therefore found few adherents in England or America, though it has been strongly advocated by a number of eminent men.

III. The Erasmian method, first proposed by Erasmus in a humorous dialogue published at Basle in 1528 (see below), is the one which is now prevalent in the United States and on the continent of Europe, though with various modifications. In the United States the ordinary pronunciation is as follows: α like a in father; η like a in fate; ε like e in met; ι like i in machine; ω like o in note; ο the same sound, but shorter; υ as French u or German ü; αι like ai in aisle; ει like ei in freight (or more often like ei in height); οι like oi in boil; υι like ui in quit; αυ like ou in out; ευ like eu in feud; ου like ou in soup; , , like α, η, ω. The consonants are pronounced as in English, except that γ is always hard; before a palatal it is pronounced like n in anxious; ζ like dz; θ like th in thin (not like th in this); ς never like z; τ never aspirated; χ like German ch in ach. The written accent is followed in pronunciation.

We have so far been describing the methods of pronunciation generally followed by modern scholars. How the ancient Greeks pronounced is very difficult to determine, but on many points a tolerable degree of certainty can be arrived at. When the comic poets transcribed the cry of a sheep with βῆ, βῆ, it is plain that β was not pronounced like v, or η like i in machine, as in modern Greek. So, too, υ cannot have been pronounced like i in machine, as is seen from the description of the two sounds in Dion. Hal. ( Comp. xiv. 96), and from the existence of the diphthong υι. It is probable that υ originally received the sound of oo in boot, later that of French u (German ü), and not until the ninth or tenth century of our era the sound of i in machine. αι and οι were true diphthongal sounds until a late period (αι=ah-ee=i in pine; οι=o-ee =oi in boil, nearly). ει was at first a true diphthong (ε^-εε=e in ere, nearly); about B.C. 400 it came to be the simple sound of ei in rein; and not till much later was it sounded like ei in seize. αυ and ευ were true diphthongs (ah-oo and ĕ-oo). ου was originally a diphthongal sound, but later assumed the sound of ou in youth. υι was probably like French ui in lui. In the so-called improper diphthongs, , , , the ι was probably pronounced until about the second century B.C., when it became silent, and was often omitted, even in writing. Of the consonants β, which in modern Greek has the sound of v, was reckoned a mute by the ancient Greeks, and hence must have been sounded as in English. The same argument proves that γ and δ received their English, rather than their modern Greek, sounds. But γ before palatals had the sound of n in anxious. ς was pronounced like s in sink, except before middle mutes and liquids, when it was pronounced like s in as. ζ had the sound of sd or zd, as is seen from such compounds as Ἀθήναζε (for Ἀθήνασ-δε), and from the fact that the preposition συν loses ν before ζ, just as before στ, σπ, etc. The aspirates φ, χ, θ were pronounced as two sounds (p-h, k-h, τ-h), as in English uphill, block-house, hothouse. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that these consonants were classed as mutes and not as spirants. The ancient consonant called digamma or vau (ϝ) was probably pronounced like English w rather than v, as the strong v-sound would not have disappeared so quickly or completely as the digamma did.

The accent in ancient Greek consisted in a raising of the pitch, and not in the stress or duration of the sound. But the latter element was added at the period of the decay of the language, and the Greeks of to-day make all accented vowels long and all unaccented vowels short. When this change took place can be determined only approximately, but it must have been during the Alexandrian period and before the beginning of our era, as may be gathered from some of the rules of prosody observed by such poets as Babrius and Nonnus. The difference between high pitch and low pitch, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, amounted to almost a fifth (Dion. Hal. Comp. 58).

Bibliography.—Erasmus, De Recta Latini Graecique Sermonis Pronunciatione (Basle, 1528); Seyffarth, De Sonis Litterarum Gr. (Leipzig, 1824); A. Kirchhoff, Studien zur Geschichte des griech. Alphabets (Berlin, 1877); K. Zacher, Die Aussprache des Griech. (Leipzig, 1888). More valuable than any of these is F. Blass, The Pronunciation of Ancient Greek, translated by Purton (Cambridge, 1890). Material for this article has been freely drawn from the latter.

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