A Conversation for Pronouncing Ancient Greek for English Speakers

How do they know?

Post 1


Just out of idle curiosity I wonder how anybody knows how a 2000 year old dead language was pronounced.

Not that I'm doubting your fine article I just wonder what primary sources are used to find out.

How do they know?

Post 2

Gnomon - time to move on

It's a good question.

It's a complicated process which is done by comparing similar words in lots of different languages. Take for example, the letter B. This is pronounced as the sound at the beginning of "butter" in most Western European languages, but as a v sound in Modern Greek and Eastern European languages.

History tells us that the Romans adapted their alphabet (which we still use) from the Greek alphabet. So B should be pronounced the same in all the different languages.

So we can conclude one of three possibilities:

1. B was pronounced "b" and changed to "v" in Eastern Europe, remaining the same in Western Europe.

2. B was pronounced "v" and changed to "b" in Western Europe, remaining the same in Eastern Europe.

3. B was pronounced some other way, and changed to "b" in Western Europe and "v" in Eastern Europe.

The third of these is probably too complicated and can be dismissed. So we have to choose between 1 and 2. There's not much to choose between them.

But if we take a wider view and examine the related Indo European languages in India as well, we find that they have a "b" sound where western languages have a "b" sound. This makes it much more likely that "b" was the original pronunciation, and that the "v" sound came later. In fact, modern linguists reckon that the change to "v" came in about 300 BC at about the time that Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East.

This same process is applied to all the other sounds to get an "educated opinion" as to the pronunciation.

How do they know?

Post 3


Very interesting, I wondered if it was something like that or if there was an ancient lexicon somewhere with phonetic pronunciations... you never know smiley - silly

Have you heard of Coptic Greek? It was spoken by those who lived in and around Trebizond (now Turkish Trabzon) in the old Byzantine empire and in the Ottoman Empire and is thought to be very close (or at least a lot closer) to ancient Greek compared to modern Athenian. I wonder if that is also used as a yardstick for such things. There are still speakers around as the Coptic Greeks were only booted out from their ancient homeland in the 1920s (I think).

How do they know?

Post 4

Gnomon - time to move on

Yes, that would be a great help in finding out the original pronunciation.

We've the same problem in determining the pronuciation of Latin, and a good example is the word "ecce", which is "ecco" (pronounced ecko) in modern Italian.

The word ecce changed into the word eco over time. In modern Italian, "ecce" would be pronounced "etchay". So we can suppose two possibilities:

1. The final e changed to an o but the c stayed the same.
2. The final e changed to an o and the c changed from a "ck" to a "tch".

The first of these is simpler, which leads us to the conclusion that c in Latin was always pronounced as k, even before an e.

How do they know?

Post 5

Dmitri Gheorgheni, Post Editor

Fun entry.smiley - biggrin

I learned to pronounce ancient Greek this way - and then unlearned it in five years of living in Greece.

The Greeks insisted on pronouncing it like modern Greek, silly people, and in transliterating it their *own* way.smiley - winkeye

From then on, I had confusing conversations with non-Greek classicists.smiley - winkeye

How do they know?

Post 6

Gnomon - time to move on

smiley - biggrin

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