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Guide to Greek Pronunciation Conventions

How we pronounce ancient Greek, biblical (Koine) Greek, and modern Greek

Introduction:

The pronunciation of Greek has many conventions. This Greek pronunciation guide contains a brief history of the sounds of ancient, biblical (Koine), Erasmian, and modern Greek pronunciation and a comparative Greek pronunciation chart with audio files for the major conventions.


1. The History of Greek Pronunciation

2. A Chart of Four Major Conventions of Greek Pronunciation

3. Links to examples of the Greek pronunciation conventions

4. Historical Pronunciation Sites

5. Broader Phonetic Sites



1. The History of Greek Pronunciation:

The pronunciation of Greek today is made confusion by many different systems of pronouncing the sounds associated with each letter in the Greek alphabet. Scientists and Mathematicians pronounce them one way, western classicists and seminaries pronounce them another, and modern ethnic Greeks have yet another pronunciation.

The pronunciation of historic Greek has been a hotly debated issue from Erasmus (1533) through the modern day. Broadly speaking, there have been only three major traditions of Hellenistic pronunciation since the height of the classical period, Classical, Byzantine, Modern. The conquest of Alexander the Great brought the classical period of pronunciation to a close. As Greek became the world language, it lost many of its phonetic distinctives. Most significantly, the language lost its tonal qualities, which then caused the meter of the language to change. So a classic tragedy performed in Athens around 200 BC, would have sounded significantly different from the original. Further, the actors would have had to affect their pronunciation to make the poetic meter work.

After the Turks invaded Greece in the mid fifteenth century, many Greeks fled or were displaced to surrounding regions. Whether this diaspora was the primary reason for the rekindling of interest in Greek classics, or whether it played a supporting role to other social factors is difficult to determine. In any case, the surrounding countries now had resident Greeks to teach this forgotten language of western religion and culture. With such a resource at hand, the reformers insisted that the Greek New Testament was the final appeal for exegetical debates rather than Latin translations. Perhaps the greatest pillar of the renaissance was the push for "ad fontes" (to the founts), meaning that a serious education would be founded upon the cornerstones of western literary culture, the Greek classics.

So as broader Europe began to learn Greek (the prerequisite for truly learning the Greek classics) the pronunciation of the dispersed Byzantines was the natural choice. The Byzantine pronunciation is basically the same pronunciation as heard in Modern Greece today. Learning abounded and the Church was strengthened. Martin Luther even looked upon the Greek dispersion as a blessing to the Church (for otherwise, we would have most likely lost touch with our original scriptures that bind the Church together.) He also argued that it would be a most ungrateful act to refuse to learn the language of our faith when God had made it so available. As the years past, Greek retook its place as a western ecclesiastical language.

It wasn't until Erasmus, that the question of pronunciation became an issue. He raised the question of proper classical pronunciation. From various historical clues such as misspellings, transliterations, rhythms and onomatopoeia, he concluded that Classical Greek had a historically different pronunciation than Byzantine Greek. Soon a movement began championing his desire to purify the sound of Classical Greek to make it as historically accurate as possible. The movement was strongly suppressed at first, but eventually became the mainstream in England. There were a number of gives and takes along the way, but by the mid nineteenth century the Erasmian pronunciation finally predominated and is still the academic norm today.

Within this history of the Erasmian pronunciation, we find two major ironies. First, it is ironic that even though Erasmus wanted the pronunciation of the Classical Greek to be as historical as possible, it would also be used anachronistically for Biblical Greek. It is odd that the Erasmian movement didn't also push for historical pronunciations of post classical texts, such as the Septuagint and the New Testament. Second and most significantly, soon after the Erasmian pronunciation predominated for historical puristic reasons, it changed into a mere pedagogical pronunciation. The primary principle quickly changed from "How would Demosthenes have spoken?" to "How can we create a distinctive sound for each letter." This second principle has generated a pronunciation that was never used in history, it is pragmatic versus purist, violating Erasmus' primary principle. So now, Erasmus' own arguments can be leveled against the "Erasmian" pronunciation. Unfortunately the reconstructed historical pronunciation isn't the one that bears his name.

The following is a list of the various pronunciation conventions practiced today. The first sort of pronunciation scheme, and by far the most popular among classical academics, is some variation on the "Erasmian" pronunciation this is also called the academic pronunciation since it isn't ethnic or historical. The historic Attic pronunciation, which is what Erasmus first proposed, is listed second. The third convention is the historic Biblical pronunciation and the fourth is the current Modern Greek pronunciation. It will become apparent that there are very few and minor differences between the Biblical and Modern pronunciation.

John Schwandt 2003
Senior Fellow of Classical Languages
New St. Andrews College

2. Four Major Conventions of Greek Pronunciation

Greek Letters Erasmian Pronunciation
(Smyth & Machen version)
(see chart of other versions)
Historic Attic Pronunciation Historic Biblical Pronunciation Modern Pronunciation
a: father same same same
b: boy b: mob v but only using the lips v
g: got1 same y: year or
g in a gurgle sound
same
d same th: this same
e: get same same same
dz same same same
a: late e: French fete a: late i: ski
th t-h: tarnation th: moth same
i: pit (if short)
i: ski (if long)
i: ski (always) same same
k: kite k: pick same same
l same same same
m same same same
n same same same
x same same same
o: obey quicker than o in or same same
p: pick p: skip (less aspiration) same same
r Scottish r French or German r same
s same same same
t same same same
French u same same i as in ski
ph as in phone p-h as in tip-him ph as in phone same
German ch k-h h or German ch (which differs with following vowels) same
ps same same same
o: note aw: saw o: or same
Diphthongs
ai as in aisle same e as in pet or ai as in air same
a as in fate same ei as in receive same
oi as in oil same French u i as in ski
ow in cow same av as in Ave Maria2 same
eu in feud >same ev as in ever3 same
like ou in soup same same same

1 When gamma precedes kappa, chi, or another gamma it has a nasal sound like ng.
2 When this diphthong precedes an aspirated letter like t it will sound af instead of av.
3 When this diphthong precedes an aspirated letter like t it will sound ef instead of ev.

3. Links to examples of the Greek pronunciation conventions

Erasmian - The most popular pronunciation convention, but also the most varied. Explore them from this page.

Historic Classical -You must listen to this! The most foreign of the conventions which involves a tonal system. Here are two very different variations. Listen to Stephen Daitz (Allen system with tones included) and then listen to Stephan Hagel. Read a defense for the including musical pitch in Classical Greek Pronunciation.

Historic Classical and Modern -This page compares the historic Ancient Greek sound and the modern.

Historic Biblical and Modern -This page compares the historic Ancient Greek sound and the modern.

4. Historical Pronunciation Sites

Caragounis Article - In 1995 Chrys C. Caragounis published a fansincating artlical on how close classical and modern Greek pronunciation may be. It was published in the Filologia Neotestamentaria Journal as is called "The Error of Erasmus and Un-Greek Pronunciations of Greek" (Vol. 8 (1995) 151-185.

History of Greek - A fantastic page with brief historical summaries and great links, including audio links.

History of Phonology - A PDF paper by Carl Conrad on the history of the development of Greek pronunciation.

Randall Buth's System of Phonemic Koine Greek - Dr. Buth has distilled an impressive amount of research into a nice summary of the evidence for the pronuncication of koine Greek.

5. Broader Phonetic Sites

International Phonetic Association - This site has great charts which map how sounds are produced.

Free Phonetic Tutorial - This site will let you listen to sounds by selecting phonetic symbols

IPA Tutorial - This site has the International Phonetic Alphabet and has the sound spoken by both a male and female voice.

UCL Department of Phonetics & Linguistics - This site has very good web tutorials.



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