Such dim-conceived glories of the brain…

…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 I’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 I’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
Α α A as in at
A as in at
Β β V as in vet
B as in bet
Γ γ Either y as in yet or n as in sing
G as in go
Δ δ Th as in there
D as in dog
Ε ε E as in yellow
E as in yellow
Ζ ζ Z as in zoo
Ds as in suds
Η η Ee as in sweet
E-e (εε) as in heir
Θ θ Th as in thin
T as in top, but more aspirated
Ι ι Ee as in sweet
Ee as in sweet
Κ κ K as in skip (i.e. unaspirated) K as in skip (i.e. unaspirated)
Λ λ L as in long L as in long
Μ μ M as in Mum
M as in Mum
Ν ν N as in now
N as in now
Ξ ξ Ks as in kicks
Ks as in kicks
Ο ο 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)
Π π P as in spin (i.e. unaspirated)
P as in spin (i.e. unaspirated)
Ρ ρ R as in butter in American English,
or pero in Spanish, or mera in Hindi.
Not quite rolled: try to say the letter ‘L’
while producing a ‘grrrr’ 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 ‘h’.
Rolled when doubled in the
middle of a word.
Σ σς Somewhere between s as in soap
and sh as in shop
Somewhere between s as in soap
and sh as in shop
Τ τ 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 ü.
Try to say ‘ee’ with rounded lips.
Φ φ F as in father
P as in pin (i.e. aspirated)
Χ χ H as in how
K as in king (i.e. aspirated)
Ψ ψ Ps as in dips
Ps as in dips
Ω ω O-o (οο) as in aural
O-o (οο) as in aural
Hear alphabet read out Hear alphabet read out
αι E as in yellow Ai as in eye, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh
at the end
ει Ee as in sweet Ay as in tray, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh,
and closer to ee than ay
οι Ee as in sweet Oi as in toy, but without the
exaggeratedly rounded -yuh,
and closer to ee then o
αυ Av as in have Ow as in loud
ευ Ev as in beverage Ehw – say bell in a Cockney accent
ου U as in hunt (in Northern English) U as in hunt (in Northern English)
γγ Ng as in sing Ng as in sing
γκ G as in go Nk as in ink
μπ 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. 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. 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.

2 Responses to "Such dim-conceived glories of the brain…"

  1. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak English so I have no idea what your “Liverpudlian” (Liverpool) accent would sound like. (youtube’ing it I get this word “Scouse” as well :P)

    Never noticed that we, classicists, always talk about the Romance languages but never really talk about Ancient Greek benefits… other than doing etymology (particularly scientific and medical)

    “Shakespeare’s English is to modern English”… hilarious thought just flashed through my mind. Disney using Elizabethan English

  2. livia

    Mwahaha, I have made a point of not speaking in English on Youtube, that is why :P ‘Scouse’ is indeed the term for the very strong Liverpool accent; our milder accent is simply ‘Liverpudlian’. Paul McCartney’s accent is Liverpudlian; Coleen Rooney’s is Scouse. Mine is somewhere in between Liverpudlian and Scouse. When I’m with my family it’s mostly Liverpudlian; (funnily enough) it asserts itself and veers towards Scouse when I’m around people who aren’t from Liverpool XD
    Exactly! *bobs up and down indignantly* But now you have noticed :P
    The one thing that tempts me to do videos in English is the prospect of ‘translating’ the songs from Tangled or Frozen into British English, partly as a parody, partly in all seriousness. ‘Sweep again, and by then, it’s, like, seven fifteen!’ Really? ‘It’ll be totally strange!’ UGH!

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