After the very first contact with Ancient Greek, every student will soon be looking for a solid pronunciation system. Along with the first attempts to practice declinations, when trying to write from memory a sequence like anthropos - anthropou - anthropo etc., or aletheia - aletheias - aletheia etc., there comes the difficulty to remember whether and where the ω/η or ο/ε are used. The first reactions the student gets in this search will probably be not very encouraging, as the positions of different specialists are far from consensus. (For audio samples by several readers, see here, for instance).
J. Reuchlin (1445-1522) held that the pronunciation system of the language spoken by the Greeks of his time (very much like today's Modern Greek) should apply also to Ancient Greek. Basically, the characteristics of this system - the so-called reuchlinian system - are as follows:
|η, ι, υ, οι, υι, ει, ῃ||are all pronounced alike: i (like i in pit)|
|αυ, ευ||are pronounced av/ev, or af/ef, respectively|
|β||is pronounced v|
|The rough spirit is completely neglected.|
This pronunciation system can prove its legitimacy only for times that are later than the classic period. It contains discrepancies which cannot be explained, between writing and speach. Such problems have been outlined especially by those who studied classical Greek poetry.
In his work Διονυσαλέξανδρος, the poet Cratinus, who lived in the 5th century B.C., makes reference to the bleat of sheep using the words, βῆ, βῆ (ὁ δ’ ἠλίθιος ὣσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων βαδίζει, 'but the fool walks saying, «beh, beh», like a sheep'), which, according to the reuchlinian system, would be pronounced, «vee, vee»; evidently, this is not in harmony with the real impression people have - regardless of the language they speak and the time they live - about the sheep sound.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) brought a number of arguments against this pronunciation system. He advocated an ad litteram pronunciation, assigning each sign of the alphabet a distinct sound. This pronunciation system is known as the erasmian system. His arguments are as follows:
- It is illogical to have several signs for the same sound, without some etimological motivation.
- Ancient inscriptions have been found which are carved in stone by ordinary people - who could easily make writing mistakes due to errors of pronunciation -, in which seldom such mistakes are found.
- There are grammar forms which are distinct from one another by signs which would be pronounced exactly the same way in the reuchlinian system; vocalic alternance with morphologic role would have no meaning if, for instance, ει/ι were pronounced the same way, e.g. ἔλειπον, I was leaving; ἔλιπον, I left.
- The way Latins transliterated some Greek words into their language aslo supports an ad litteram pronunciation system. (E.g. phoenix ≺ φοίνιξ, red; aether ≺ αἰθήρ, air).
- The Greek scholars showed that η, as compared to ε is like ω as compared with ο, namely η = ε+ε; ω = ο+ο.
The pronunciation system which we propose here is based on the following principles:
1. We use the phonetic system of Modern Greek (*) to the extent that this does not create important difficulties or confusions in relation with the application of the accent rules (**), and, of course, some common sense articulation of the language (***). For instance, we will pronounce β like 'v' and not like 'b'. We do this mainly because the Greeks today do so; and it would be just normal for us to plan to extend our study of Greek language from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek.
For the Greek of our time, the sound 'b' is associated with the combination μπ. For instance, μπανάνα and μπίρα (which are Modern Greek words) are pronounced [ba'nana] and ['bira], respectively. If we talk with a Greek today and apply the sound 'b' to leter β, we may generate some confusion; on the other hand, pronouncing β like 'v', does not generate any difficulty within the phonetic system which we propose here to apply to Ancient Greek. The shift from ancient to modern Greek will thus be easier and without any significant compromise.
(Perhaps someone would say, "How then shall we read Cratinus' words … ὣσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων…?". We believe compromises of this sort are minor and acceptable).
(*) The audio samples for Modern Greek used in this material are based on the samples provided by a tutorial named φιλογλοσσία.
(**) Here is a sample of Modern Greek (city name plate) where some of the Ancient Greek accent rules do not apply:
If this word were to be found in the New Testament text, we may presume it would be accented as Ν.Αγαθουπόλη, in accordance with the rule stated (and systematically complied with in the text of the NT) at Lesson II 11.3(a), and the reason would be that the ultima is long. Obviously, the η in the city name here is a short vowel. We believe it would be a loss to the ancient language if we turned all of Modern Greek's «i»-sounded long vowels and diphtongs into one short vowel: some of the definitions and rules for the accent would become mere theoretical notions with no practical application.
(***) Consider, for instance the phrase οἱ υἱοί in ἐλεύθεροί εἰσιν οἱ υἱοί: it would sound, if Modern Greek pronunciation is used, like anything but articulated language - something like [e'lefθer'i isin i i'i].
2. The main 'witness' we invoque when judging the extent to which we apply the phonetic system of Modern Greek to Ancient Greek is the accent system of the old language.
We assume that those who invented and promoted the accent system of Ancient Greek, applied to the texts we have today in printed form, did so in order to preserve pronunciation as they knew it, which probably began to change. Those people saw how the phonetics of their language was altering, and wanted to offer a common standard for everybody. It was the time when Greek language became 'international', along with the expansion of the Greek empire. Learning of this language was no more limited to Greeks, but was spreading within the whole world. While a mother tongue is learned naturally, in the family and in the comunity where the child grows up, a foreign language needs to be rigorously defined in order to be assimilated correctly.
It is not difficult for us to understand these things, as we have the living example of English, which may be labelled as the 'international language' now. However, anyone who has enough experience communicating with people from different countries will agree with that which I heard somewhere, namely that the most widespread language today is broken-English. A commercial ad somewhere informed the viewers that 'All is in ze box', which indicates that there is already a certain consolidated tendency to avoid pronouncing the 'th' the proper way. Then, another ad (video this time) showed a young officer in a telephone conversation with a captain of a ship, the latter one shouting, 'We are sinking!... We are sinking!...' The young officer's very calm reaction was, approximately, 'End vaht ar ju sincking ebaut'? This also suggests the need to assimilate proper pronunciation when learning a foreign language.
What though shall we not do? For instance, we shall not pronounce ευ like 'ev' or 'ef' as in Modern Greek, because if we did so, we would strip it of its quality as a diphtongue, and some of the accent rules applicable to diphtongues would make no sense. Moreover, consider, for instance, the word ἐκφευξόμεθα in πῶς ἡμεῖς ἐκφευξόμεθα. Pronouncing this word in accordance with Modern Greek phonetics [ekfefx'omeθa] appears to be quite far from anything euphonic.
The pronunciation of each letter and combination of letters are described below. For reasons of comparison and understanding why we prefer that some aspects of modern phonetics should be maintained and others not, the description is done in parallel for the two generations of this language.
Ancient Greek itself includes, of course, several generations and dialects, from homeric Greek to byzantine Greek; we shall dare though include all of them into one only, as far as phonetics is concerned. It is not essential, we believe, to strive to pronounce the classical texts of philosophers differently than we do the patristic texts or the New Testament, or the Septuagint, or Homer's poems. It is evident that anyone who does so will have to reconstruct those systems only partially and accept various compromises where proofs are not available for one side or another. But there is no mistake in using a phonetic system which is in full compliance with the rules that derive from the accent system: those who invented this system were Greeks, they knew very well these problems and are therefore the most authorised voices in this respect. Regarding Modern Greek, one needs, of course, to observe all its rules when using this language. In summary, we shall apply to Ancient Greek the phonetics of Modern Greek, as far as they do not collide with the accent rules of the old language, as well as some common sense articulation.
ἄλφα (Ancient Greek)
άλφα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like a in father.
Duration: may be long, like a in barn, or short, like u in shut.
ἀνατομή, ἄτομος, ἁμαρτία (Ancient Greek)
ανατομία, άτομο (Modern Greek)
Diphtongs: αι, αυ, ᾳ
- αι (pronunciation: like i in bike)
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced like e in bet.
- αυ (pronunciation: like ou in shout)
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced as follows:
- like ov in love, when succeeded by a vowel or one of the consoants γ, δ, λ, μ, ν, ρ
- like ough in cough, when succeeded by one of the consonants κ, π, τ, χ, θ, ς, ξ
- ᾳ (pronunciation: like a long α)
In Modern Greek, it is not used.
φαίνω, αἱρετικός, αὐγή, αὔριον, παύω, αὐτός, ναυπηγεῖον, αὐστηρός, ῥᾴδιος (Ancient Greek)
φαινόμενο, αιρετικός, αυγή, αύριο, παύω, αυτός, ναυπηγείο, αυστηρός (Modern Greek)
βῆτα (Ancient Greek)
βήτα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like v in violonist, voice.
βιολόγος, βάζω (Ancient Greek)
βιολογία, βάζο (Modern Greek)
γάμμα (Ancient Greek)
γάμα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like g in get, but somewhat softened towards h.
γραμματίζω, γεοῦχος (Ancient Greek)
γραμματική, γεολογία (Modern Greek)
Combinations: γγ, γκ, γχ, γξ
- γγ is pronounced (nasally) like ng in English
- γκ is pronounced (nasally) like nch in anchor
- γχ is pronounced (nasally) nh [ŋh]
- γξ is pronounced (nasally) nx [ŋks]
ἄγγελος, ἄγκιστρον, τυγχάνω, φάραγξ (Ancient Greek)
αγγλικά, ιδιοσυγκρασία (Modern Greek)
In Modern Greek, only two of the four combinations described above are found - γγ and γκ -, both of which are pronounced the same way, like ng in English.)
δέλτα (Ancient Greek & Modern Greek)
It is pronounced [ð] like th in the, other.
δελφίς, δράκων (Ancient Greek)
δελφίνι, δράκος (Modern Greek)
ἒ ψιλόν (Ancient Greek)
έψιλον (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like e in get.
Duration: short. For comparison, see η.
ἔμβρεος, ἐγώ, ἕτερος (Ancient Greek)
έμβρυο, εγωιστής (Modern Greek)
Diphtongs: ει, ευ
- ει is pronounced like a in lake
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced like i in pit
- ευ is pronounced [eʊ] like eu in the Spanish/Italian words europeo, eucalipto
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced as follows:
- ev, when succeeded by a vowel or one of the consonants β, γ, δ, ζ, λ, μ, ν, ρ
- ef, when succeeded by one of the consonants κ, π, τ, χ, φ, θ, σ, ξ, ψ
ζευγίον, νεῦρον, εὖρος, νευρολάλος, πνευμονία, εὐτυχής, εὐθεῖα, εὔκολος, εὐθανασία, θεραπευτικός (Ancient Greek)
ζεύγος, νεύρο, εύρος, νευρολογία, πνευμονία, ευτυχώς, ευθεία, εύκολος, ευθανασία, θεραπευτικός (Modern Greek)
ζῆτα (Ancient Greek)
ζήτα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like z in zeal
ζέμα, ζωγράφος (Ancient Greek)
ζέβρα, ζωλογία (Modern Greek)
ἦτα (Ancient Greek)
ήτα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like ée in the French athénée (or like e in pet, only two times longer).
Duration: long. For comparison, see ε.
ἤρεμος, ἔρημος, ἡδονή (Ancient Greek)
ηχώ, ήρωας (Modern Greek)
Diphtongs: ηυ, ῃ
- For pronunciation of ηυ, see the examples below.
In Modern Greek, it does not exist.
- ῃ is pronounced like η
In Modern Greek, it does not exist.
ηὐεργέτησα, ηὐλαβήθην, ηὐξημένως, ταύτῃ, παραβολῇ
θῆτα (Ancient Greek)
θήτα (Modern Greek)
It is pronounced [θ] ca th in month, thief.
θέατρον, θεραπεῖα (Ancient Greek)
θέμα, θεραπεία (Modern Greek)
ἰῶτα (Ancient Greek)
γιώτα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like i in bit, or like ea in beat
Duration: may be long or short (as in the examples above).
ἰδιολογία, ἴσος, ἱστορία (Ancient Greek)
ιδέα, ιστορία (Modern Greek)
κάππα (Ancient Greek)
κάπα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like k in key, or like ch in anchor
κάθοδος, κενός (Ancient Greek)
καθολικός, κέντρο (Modern Greek)
λάμβδα (Ancient Greek)
λάμδα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like l in lamp
λαμπάς, λύκος (Ancient Greek)
λάμπα, λιώνω (Modern Greek)
μῦ (Ancient Greek)
μι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like m in magic
μάρσιππος, μαγεία (Ancient Greek)
Μάρτιος, μαγεία (Modern Greek)
Combinaţia μπ is pronounced mp
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced mb or b.
ἄμπελος, ἐμπορία, ἐμπάθεια (Ancient Greek)
αμπέλι, εμπορία, εμπειρικός, μπανάνα, μπίρα (Modern Greek)
νῦ (Ancient Greek)
νι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like n in new
ναῦς, ἐννέα (Ancient Greek)
νάρκισσος, εννιά (Modern Greek)
The combination ντ is pronounced like nt in testament.
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced nd.
ἀντωνυμία, φαντασία (Ancient Greek)
αντώνυμο, φαντασία (Modern Greek)
ξῖ (Ancient Greek)
ξι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like x in exodus
ξύλον, ξυλοτομία (Ancient Greek)
ξένος, ξενοφοβία (Modern Greek)
ὂ μικρόν (Ancient Greek)
όμικρον (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like o in pot (like in Oxford Dictionary - the British pronunciation; see also here, in ορθόδοξος and ορχήστρα).
Duration: short. For comparison, see ω.
ὀρθογράφος, ὄρος, ὅπλον (Ancient Greek)
ορθόδοξος, ορχήστρα (Modern Greek)
Diphtongs: οι, ου
- οι is pronounced like oy in boy
In Modern Greek is pronounced like i pit
- ου is pronounced like oo in boot
(The same in Modern Greek)
οἰκομαχία, οἰκονομία, ἐνθουσιασμός, ἀκουστικός (Ancient Greek)
οικολογία, οικονομία, ενθουσιασμός, ακουστικός (Modern Greek)
πῖ (Ancient Greek)
πι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like p in pedagogy
παιδία, παιδαγωγία (Ancient Greek)
παιδίατρος, παιδαγωγός (Modern Greek)
ῥῶ (Ancient Greek)
ρο (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like r in the Italian word favore or the Spanish perdon. If placed at the beginning of a word, it always has a rough spirit and is pronounced hr.
ἄριστος, ῥήτωρ, ῥᾴδιος (Ancient Greek)
ρήτορας, ράδιο (Modern Greek)
The combination ῤῥ is pronounced rhr
In Modern Greek, it is not used.
σῖγμα (Ancient Greek)
σίγμα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like s in set
Remark: pronunciation of s in Modern Greek seems to be very similar to the Spanish s - something between the English s and sh[ʃ].
The form ς is used only and always when located at the end of a word.
σοφιστής, σωτηρία (Ancient Greek)
σοφία, Σεπτέμβριος (Modern Greek)
ταῦ (Ancient Greek)
ταυ (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like t in top
τύραννος, τραῦμα (Ancient Greek)
τύραννος, τραύμα (Modern Greek)
ὗ ψιλόν (Ancient Greek)
ύψιλον (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like u in French or ü in German. At the beginning of a word, it always has a rough spirit and is pronounced hü.
Duration: can be long (Germ. müde) or short (Germ. übligens).
ὕμνος, ὑγίεια, ἄστυ (Ancient Greek)
ύμνος, υγιεινή (Modern Greek)
The diphtong υι is pronounced üi
In Modern Greek, it is pronounced like ι.
ὄργυια, υἱός (Ancient Greek)
φῖ (Ancient Greek)
φι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like ph in philosophy
φιλοσοφία, φιλολογία (Ancient Greek & Modern Greek)
χῖ (Ancient Greek)
χι (Modern Greek)
It is pronounced like a rough h (like g and gh in 'Van Gogh', as a Dutch would pronounce it).
Remark: We prefer not to assign this letter the normal 'h' sound like in Modern Greek. Spirits are not used in Modern Greek, but we have them in Ancient Greek. Therefore we want to avoid confusions between words like ῥῆμα (word, saying) – χρῆμα (a thing that one needs or uses) or ὧρα (hour) – χῶρα (place, spot), which, if we applied the same 'h' sound to the rough spirit and the letter χ, would be pronounced the same way, respectively.
χάος, χεῖρ, ἡσυχῇ (Ancient Greek)
χάος, χέρι (Modern Greek)
ψῖ (Ancient Greek)
ψι (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like ps in perhaps
ψυχή, ψυχρός, ἀψευδής (Ancient Greek)
ψυχίατρος, ψυχολογία (Modern Greek)
ὦ μέγα (Ancient Greek)
ωμέγα (Modern Greek)
Pronunciation: like ο in norm
Duration: long. For comparison, see ο.
Ὠκεανός, ὡροσκοπεῖον (Ancient Greek)
ωκεανός, ωροσκόπιο (Modern Greek)
The diphtong ῳ is pronounced like ω
In Modern Greek, it is not used.
συνῳδία, ᾠδή, αὐτῷ