…bring round the heart an indescribable feud. (John Keats)
To explain my pronunciation of Ancient Greek
Way back in 2011 when I made my first Ancient Greek dubbings, I was thoroughly confused by the responses of a few Greek viewers telling me that the pronunciation was wrong. Okay, my singing was terrible (even worse than it is now) and Iâ€™d never heard any form of Greek spoken aloud so I was singing with a horribly strong English accent (Liverpudlian, at that – not the most mellifluous of accents), but wrong pronunciation? That was how Iâ€™d been taught – and as far as I knew, it was a proper reconstruction.
I then investigated and found that Ancient Greek is studied in Greece with the same pronunciation of Modern Greek, which in several cases is extremely different to the pronunciation that is taught in England. This is often called the ‘Erasmus pronunciation’ after the man who supposedly made it up but that’s a separate thing; what’s taught in England is more properly ‘reconstructed Attic’.
First of all, here is a table of the two pronunciations.
|Letter||Koine + modern pronunciation||Attic pronunciation|
|Î‘ Î±||A as in at
||A as in at|
|Î’ Î²||V as in vet
||B as in bet|
|Î“ Î³||Either y as in yet or n as in sing
||G as in go|
|Î” Î´||Th as in there
||D as in dog|
|Î• Îµ||E as in yellow
||E as in yellow|
|Î– Î¶||Z as in zoo
||Ds as in suds|
|Î— Î·||Ee as in sweet
||E-e (ÎµÎµ) as in heir|
|Î˜ Î¸||Th as in thin
||T as in top, but more aspirated|
|Î™ Î¹||Ee as in sweet
||Ee as in sweet|
|Îš Îº||K as in skip (i.e. unaspirated)||K as in skip (i.e. unaspirated)|
|Î› Î»||L as in long||L as in long|
|Îœ Î¼||M as in Mum
||M as in Mum|
|Î Î½||N as in now
||N as in now|
|Îž Î¾||Ks as in kicks
||Ks as in kicks|
|ÎŸ Î¿||O as in on (but closer to a in are
than o in or)
|O as in on (but closer to a in are
than o in or)
|Î Ï€||P as in spin (i.e. unaspirated)
||P as in spin (i.e. unaspirated)|
|Î¡ Ï||R as in butter in American English,
or pero in Spanish, or mera in Hindi.
Not quite rolled: try to say the letter â€˜Lâ€™
while producing a â€˜grrrrâ€™ sound with
teeth clenched; then try to reproduce
the sound you make, with mouth open.
|As modern. If it begins a word,
as if preceded by â€˜hâ€™.
Rolled when doubled in the
middle of a word.
|Î£ ÏƒÏ‚||Somewhere between s as in soap
and sh as in shop
|Somewhere between s as in soap
and sh as in shop
|Î¤ Ï„||T as in stop (i.e. unaspirated)
||T as in stop (i.e. unaspirated)|
|Î¥ Ï…||Ee as in sweet
||U as in French lune or German Ã¼.
Try to say â€˜eeâ€™ with rounded lips.
|Î¦ Ï†||F as in father
||P as in pin (i.e. aspirated)|
|Î§ Ï‡||H as in how
||K as in king (i.e. aspirated)|
|Î¨ Ïˆ||Ps as in dips
||Ps as in dips|
|Î© Ï‰||O-o (Î¿Î¿) as in aural
||O-o (Î¿Î¿) as in aural|
|Hear alphabet read out||Hear alphabet read out|
|Î±Î¹||E as in yellow||Ai as in eye, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh
at the end
|ÎµÎ¹||Ee as in sweet||Ay as in tray, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh,
and closer to ee than ay
|Î¿Î¹||Ee as in sweet||Oi as in toy, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh,
and closer to ee then o
|Î±Ï…||Av as in have||Ow as in loud|
|ÎµÏ…||Ev as in beverage||Ehw – say bell in a Cockney accent|
|Î¿Ï…||U as in hunt (in Northern English)||U as in hunt (in Northern English)|
|Î³Î³||Ng as in sing||Ng as in sing|
|Î³Îº||G as in go||Nk as in ink|
|Î¼Ï€||B as in boy||Mp as in stomp|
|Hear diphthongs read out||Hear diphthongs read out|
At the time I used Italian pronunciation on Latin videos, imitating the Catholic Church which is the only entity that still routinely uses Latin, so I figured I should do the same for Greek. (That’s a short summary of a long experimental process.) But after a version of ‘I Won’t Say I’m in Love’ in Latin that used the classical Latin pronunciation, I decided to stick to classical pronunciation for Latin. However, for many of my Modern Greek videos I have continued to interchange between Modern and Classical (Attic) pronunciation and I’d like to explain why that is.Â This is a longer story than is recounted here, and it’s linked to a wider, more contentious subject, but here are the basic reasons.
1. Modern Greek is a rare language in England. While most advocates of classical study bang on about how useful Latin is for French and Spanish, very few classicists – very few English people full stop, in fact – speak Modern Greek. Likewise, on Youtube, where most members of the multi-language community focus either on a specific film or a specific language family, Modern Greek is terra incognita to most non-Greeks. I decided that I would make Greek a subsidiary niche as far as possible.
2. Most classicists are under the impression that Modern and Ancient Greek are dissimilar if not totally different languages. On the contrary: Ancient Greek is more or less to Modern Greek what Shakespeare’s English is to modern English. I wish to demonstrate this similarity, and altered pronunciation can sometimes mask it.
3. Part of my aim is to present Latin and Greek as spoken languages. Greek was spoken with the current modern pronunciation by the time of the early Roman Empire. It is the way it was spoken at the time the Bible was written. The Greek of the Orthodox Church, ‘Katharevousa’, is almost identical to Ancient Greek and spoken with the modern pronunciation. The ‘Erasmus’ pronunciation is that of 5th century Attic; while this is the period most studied and emulated by British scholars, it is a poor reflection on the history of Greek as a spoken language. (Latin, contrastingly, has so many descendant languages that it’s easiest to use its own pronunciation.)
This is not to say that I consider the Attic pronunciation wrong, and my notes in Modern Greek on videos with Attic pronunciation, pointing out that it’s in Attic, always include a firm assertion that it’s correct. It’s just a different way of doing it that reflects a particular manner of studying Ancient Greek and evokes a particular atmosphere that isn’t always suited to the songs.
4. I want my videos to be accessible to Greeks and for them to be able to understand ‘works of art’ in their own language.Â Ancient Greek is studied with the modern pronunciation in Greece, where it is compulsory for all secondary (high) school students.
5. The modern pronunciation sounds nicer, especially in my accent.