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Slightly Geeky Guide to

Pronouncing Ancient Greek

Without Knowing Any Ancient Greek

(Generally More Than You Actually Need To Know)

Overview

The Absolute Minimum to Remember:
Greek has no sound like English CH.
CH is like English K.

Some 11 or 12 million people speak modern Greek (roughly twice the number who speak Norwegian or Mayan).

But normal people don't speak ancient Greek these days except to import a word or phrase into another language, such as English. That should mean that it doesn't make much difference how you pronounce it, but there are conventions, and you are better off following them, if for no other reason than because everybody else does. Learn this stuff once, and you can impress people (or at least yourself) for the rest of your life. (You can also avoid embarrassing gaffes.)

English transcriptions of ancient Greek words (or English words built on Greek roots —so-called "neo-Grecisms") tend to be based on the letters of written Greek, not the sounds of the language. That is convenient in certain ways, but some of the transcription conventions don't always use English letters the way they are used in other English words, and some Greek letters are not consistently differentiated in their English transcriptions. Here is a list of pointers. (Where Greek letters are given, they include both upper and lower case and are printed in blue.)

The single most important point to remember is that there is no CH (as in "cheese") in Greek. In transcribed Greek names, CH always comes out sounding like K. If you get that right, people will forgive most other missteps.

Greek words used in English, including proper names, are usually anglicized in speech. For example, the region spelled Boeotia comes out "bee-OSH-a" even though that doesn't sound very Greek. In general, if you remember that the spelling OE is pronounced like the EE in "see," you'll be fine (Oedipus = EE-duh-puss).

Consonants

Vowels

Stress

Ancient Greek seems to have had distinctions of pitch —similar to Chinese tones— but apparently stress of the kind we use in English was unknown or unimportant. By about 200 BC the pitch distinctions were marked in some texts by means of diacritical marks that seem to have meant rising, falling, and rising-then-falling. Such markings disappeared by about AD 400, and there is no trace of "tones" in modern spoken Greek (although modern printings of ancient texts include the diacritics).

Most specialists believe that the appearance of the diacritical marks represented a refinement of the writing system to represent speech more accurately, while their disappearance corresponded with the replacement over time of pitch differences by differences in stress. For historians, the careful analysis of such details can be helpful in spotting dialect differences in inscriptions, sometimes attributable to population movements. (For an attempt to pronounce the first 52 lines of Homer's Iliad with reconstructed pitch click here.)

For Greek names used in English stress is not easily predicted from their English spellings (and does not necessarily correspond to where the Greek accent marks went). On short words, go for the penult (the syllable before the last): Achilles ( ͐Αχιλλευς) = ah-KILL-eez. On long words, go for the antepenult (the third one from the end): Telemachus (Τηλεμαχος) = tell-EMM-ah-kuss. You’ll be wrong sometimes, but not too far wrong most of the time.

Factoid

Ancient Greeks referred to themselves as Hellenes ( ͑Ελληνες), i.e., descendents of an ancient king named Hellen ( ͑Ελλην ). Hellen married a prolific sea nymph and their many sons settled across Greece fathering various flavors of Greeks: Aeolians, Ionians, Achaeans, Dorians, Boeotians, and so forth. (Caution: Hellen, with two Ls, is not to be confused with Helen of Troy [ ͑Ελενη ], with one L.)

The Romans, from whom the English word "Greek" comes, called them Graeci or "people from Graea," the location of which is still not certain. Perhaps it is your destiny to discover this lost place. Here is your chance to win scholarly fame and to ride picturesque sailboats around the Mediterranean with National Geographic photographers while you do it.

Now you know.


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