The Great Greek Pronunciation Debate (SBL 2011 Report, pt. 3)

pronounceAt this year’s annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco, there was a session sponsored jointly by the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics Section and the Applied Linguistics for Biblical Languages Group that addressed the topic of Greek phonology and pronunciation. You can see the abstracts here. The basic questions this session was meant to deal with were:

1) How was Greek pronounced in the first century? 2) How should Greek be pronounced in Greek classes today?

I attended the entire session and heard all of the presentations. Here’s a very brief summary, along with some of my thoughts. I didn’t take notes, so I’m going from memory. If you attended the session, please ἄφες μοι if I make any mistakes, and feel free to comment with corrections or to suggest key elements/points I might have left out.

Overview of Greek Phonology
The first presentation was by Oliver Simkin, who is a post-doc at Copenhagen. He has served as an assistant editor on the Cambridge Greek Lexicon Project, and he wrote his doctoral thesis on Greek phonology, so he was well-qualified to give a report on the status quaestionis: How was Greek pronounced in the ancient world, especially in the first century? I found Simkin’s presentation disappointing because it was quite brief (about 8-9 minutes) and very understated. It did not (IMO) drive home its key points, which really needed to be heard by the audience–especially the point that there is a widespread consensus among historical linguists as to how Greek was pronounced at its various stages. If you want a good summary of the consensus, check out A.-F. Christidis’ History of Ancient Greek, which has several articles on the various phonological shifts. Especially relevant is E.B. Petrounias’ contribution on “Development in Pronunciation During the Hellenistic Period” (pp. 599-609).


Erasmian Pronunciation
The second presentation was by Daniel Wallace of Dallas Seminary. He was asked to argue for the Erasmian pronunciation, although, as he explained at the outset, he has no firm conviction that Erasmian pronunciation best reflects the way Greek was pronounced in the Hellenistic world. Indeed, agnostic is a good way to characterize the thrust of Wallace’s presentation. He finds the usual criteria for determining ancient pronunciation (cross-language transliterations, misspellings, onomatopoeia, etc.) inconclusive, and reasons that Greek was likely pronounced differently from region to region, just as New Yawkers and Bahstunites will pronounce English differently than Suth’nas. On the practical question of what pronunciation should be used in classes today, Wallace argued that the vast majority of classes use Erasmian, that that majority was not likely to be overturned, and that in fact Erasmian pronunciation helps students spell Greek correctly and thus learn the language more easily.

I found Wallace’s presentation very easy to follow and enjoyable to listen to, but frustrating at the same time. I think he seriously misrepresented the state of our knowledge on Greek phonology in the Hellenistic and Roman imperial eras. He did not deal with any hard evidence from manuscripts or inscriptions (as subsequent presenters Buth and Theophilos did). He merely pointed out a few of the difficulties with assessing such evidence and then (IMO) cavalierly dismissed them. Papyrologists and epigraphers all recognize the difficulties of using these texts to determine phonology, but they don’t throw up their hands and admit defeat simply because the evidence has to be weighed and assessed carefully.

On the practical side, I think Wallace’s arguments also fell short. In truth, though Erasmian is the pronunciation most commonly taught in Greek textbooks and classes, I wouldn’t say it is really used. How much spoken Greek do you normally hear in a Greek class? Not much, in my experience. And, when words are pronounced, they are almost uniformly mis-accented. So, it’s not like it would be that hard to change from Erasmian to a different system, if this change were accompanied by a change in pedagogy (from a watch-the-paint-dry Grammar-Translation method to an immersive communicative method). Soon after I made the move to oral pedagogy, I switched from Erasmian to a modern pronunciation, with hardly a hiccup. In fact, my students made the switch in the middle of a school year pretty effortlessly! So, the fact that Erasmian is the status quo is not necessarily a point in its favor or an argument against changing to a more accurate, fluid way of pronouncing Greek.

Note: if you want a good summary of Erasmian pronunciation in its different forms, take a look at John Schwandt’s helpful chart: Chart of Major Conventions of the Erasmian Pronunciation.

johnpapReconstructed Koine
Randall Buth of the Biblical Language Center presented third and advocated his reconstruction of 1st century Koine Greek. If you want a summary of his system, take a look at his page on it here: Koine Greek Pronunciation. Among those teaching Koine Greek as a living language, Buth’s method has been widely adopted. It draws on the evidence from 1st century papyri, and numerous examples from F. Gignac’s work on phonology in Roman and Byzantine era papyri. Basically, Buth’s system is modern pronunciation plus two more vowel sounds ([y] and [e]). Buth, of course, advocates immersive methods for teaching Greek, so the pronunciation issue is a “live” one of very practical import for him. If you are going to try to internalize a language, you want to make sure you pick a pronunciation you’ll want to live with.

Buth’s presentation contained what Wallace’s lacked: a lot of evidence which demonstrated that however they were pronouncing Greek in the first century, it sure wasn’t Erasmian! Furthermore, he showed that the regional differences objection did not really hold, as the same sounds were “confused” in texts from across the ancient world. So, while the pronunciation might have differed slightly from region to region, the phonemic structure remained stable.

greece1Neo-hellenic or Modern Pronunciation
Michael Theophilos, who teaches at Australian Catholic University, presented last and advocated the modern pronunciation. You can find that pronunciation summarized here with audio samples. Theophilos speaks modern Greek but also believes that most (or all?) of the modern phonology was in place by the first century. He made some very helpful methodological points. For example, he argues that we should be looking for phonological clues mainly in the non-literary papyri, which are more likely to contain phonetic spellings. He also offered several examples of iotacism in early papyri to show that there is at least some evidence that οι, η, and υ had iotacized by the 2nd century CE.

I really enjoyed Theophilos’ presentation. He came armed with some helpful slides that let the audience see the evidence he was discussing. He was also very methodologically circumspect in the way he made his case and the measured way he drew his conclusions. By the time you heard Simkin, Buth, and Theophilos, Wallace’s agnosticism seemed thorougly untenable. Theophilos didn’t have a whole lot to say about the practical reasons for using the modern pronunciation. I wish he would have, since it’s helpful for Erasmians to realize there’s an entire country of people who speak Greek and can’t bear to listen to the awful linguistic barbarity known as Erasmian. When Wallace was making the argument that Erasmians are by far in the pedagogical majority, he conveniently left out the millions of Greek students on this little peninsula in the Aegean . . . Smile

In the next post: I will offer a few brief reflections on the issue of pronunciation and some of the points that I wish the presenters could have addressed.


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
This entry was posted in Announcements, Pronunciation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Great Greek Pronunciation Debate (SBL 2011 Report, pt. 3)

  1. Grigoris says:

    Thanks for the summary. Buth does argue well his reconstruction of the Koine pronunciation for the first cent. AD, but I don’t see why that should be the pronunciation adopted for teaching. The pronunciation that he reconstructs was obviously one that was in the last phases of transition to the traditiona/historical/Byzantine/Modern pronunciation, and probably didn’t last much more than a century or two. Adoption of that pronunciation only makes sense if your only goal is to read the NT and related documents. It seems a pretty unsatisfactory choice for those of us who are interested in the larger corpus of Greek literature. Personally, I couldn’t ever get past the use of [y] for οι, which is very confusing, even if historically correct (although I have my suspicion that the confusion of οι with υ in the papyri probably means that it was pronounced more like [ɨ], as in Russian ы, which is much closer to the eventual result). As for the usefulness of the traditional pronunciation, I must say that most of the arguments about unintelligibility are red herrings. As a pretty fluent speaker of Modern Greek and chanter in the Greek Orthodox Church, I can testify that few are the times that I am tripped up by iotacism; I listen with more or less full comprehension to the scriptural readings and hymns in church. What the critics of the traditional pronunciation forget is that when one is listening to the language, the morphological possibilities of a given word and its surrounding context greatly diminish the chances of confusion. I think that the main practical benefit of the traditional pronunciation is that it is the only pronunciation that has a definite standard. The reconstructed pronunciations vary so much from one speaker to another that is hard to say that there is any practical standard, especially when one factors in the issue of accents, which you mention. Even though I know the reconstructed Classical and Erasmian pronunciations very well and am compelled by circumstances to teach them, when my colleagues mention a particular Greek word to me, I almost never know which word they mean, because their personal interpretation of the pronunciation, combined with disregard for accents or, even worse, an attempt to recreate pitch accents, in the end makes the word unrecognizable to anyone but themselves.

  2. Nick Norelli says:

    Death to Erasmianism! Long live Buth’s reconstruction and modern Greek!

  3. Aaron says:

    I’m just getting started in Greek, but it was not hard for me to settle on the modern pronunciation, just as I do for Hebrew. I have seen Buth argue elsewhere that the NT writers would not have put on a different accent if they were to read Plato; they would have used what was contemporary. To me, this implies that although reconstruction is an interesting and worthwhile pursuit for historical purposes, it is not ideal or necessary for reading and speaking. I realize that iotacization can cause some confusion, but I suspect this can be overcome with familiarity and context, just as it is in Modern Greek.

    I also think using the modern Greek pronunciation exhibits deference and respect to the Greek people and validates their historical experience. I know it is not meant this way, but I can’t help but feel that ignoring the modern Greek pronunciation implies that the Greeks who live today are somehow not legitimate heirs to the Greek language. Does that make sense?

    • Ioanna says:

      Amen to this. As a Native Greek and student of Ancient Greek for more than 20 years I can tell you that I have been made to feel ‘less than’ for insisting on Modern Greek pronunciation of Ancient Greek in academic circles.

      • rexorum says:

        I am a native Greek speaker and have been studying ancient Greek dialects such as Mycenaean (and I’m talking about the hardcore script that uses characters rather than the alphabet) and I have no problem using the academic pronunciation because the evidence speaks for itself. You be hard press to use modern Greek pronunciation with the archaic dialects especially since certain letters/sounds don’t even exist anymore such as digamma.

  4. Jose Diaz says:

    Thank you very much Professor Streett for sharing a summary of what happened at SBL since I could not attend, especially with the issue of pronunciation. The same as many of you, I struggled to change from the Erasmian pronunciation to Modern Greek pronunciation after I read Dr. Chrys Caragounis book the Development of New Testament Greek. From then on, I started getting acquainted with the Modern Greek pronunciation and switched to it. Now, I am in between the Reconstructed pronunciation by Randal Buth, since I am using his books and CD’s, but at least now I can recognize when it differs with Modern Greek pronunciation and try to follow the Modern Greek pronunciation. I definitely agree with Gregoris and the last point made by Aron. Thank you very much.

  5. drew says:

    Thank you for reporting back and offering a helpful summary. Very interesting discussion.

  6. Just wanted to second what others have said about how nice it is to have this summary for those of us who did not attend. ἔχω μὲν οὖν χάριν σοι, ὦ Δανιηλ!

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  8. Brian Davidson says:

    Before this panel, I had never seriously considered an alternative to Erasmian pronunciation. Nevertheless, I thought Buth and Theophilos were the most convincing, particularly Theophilos. Perhaps I was swayed by the aesthetics of his presentation. Arguments from papyri, especially when you show me images of the papyri, will win every time against pragmatic arguments. Thanks for the links and the summary. This was one of my favorite sessions this year, yet I had only a couple notes.

  9. Thanks Daniel,

    I follow Buth’s scheme after migrating from Erasmian slowly through the years. To me, the main difference compared to modern pronunciation is η = [e] and not =[i]. Modern Greek had to change the words ἡμεῖς and ὑμεῖς to deal with this change, as the phonology of modern Greek could not communicate adequately when these two words pronounced identically. Buth gives an alternative scheme where υ = οι = ι, which he says was present in the mid first-third centuries. Modern Greeks hear [y] as [i], so that’s not a problem, and if the phoneme [y] is not in the speakers language, [i] most likely is (is there any language without it?), let them pronounce υ and οι as [y].

    The arguments on the other side (for Erasmian) are
    1) Used in Schools
    2) Helps more in spellings.

    They [ἐκεῖνοι οἱ Erasmian espousing erudites] NEVER deal with mis-accentuation. Which is their first and foremost problem. The reason is that how a word is pronounced does not matter to them. What matters is what is written. It’s true that accent does not matter as much when reading Attic/Homeric poetry, as the focus is on metra (timing), and the rhythm of any given meter does not necessarily match the accents of any given word (unless you use tones). But for prose and communicative texts, such as the NT, accents do matter. And in some instances change the meaning of words.

    Accents and pronunciation come to the forefront when trying to teach from a spoken methodology. Everyone has to pronounce every word the same (within dialectical differences). I’ve got a class member from Boston (OK Phili area). He tends to want to pronounce his etas as epsilons — I keep chiding him, but I understand what he is trying to say. (I’m sure in many languages there is only the short e sound.) The upcoming Koine community that uses spoken Greek to teach and learn can be satisfied with either Modern pronunciation, Buth’s Restored Koine, or something between the two, as they are mutually intelligible. The two are not very far apart. But the school spell-talk of Erasmian should be left there – in school, like you left your Dick and Jane book or your book about Spot. It is a relic that needs to be forgotten.

    • rexorum says:

      I just wanted to point out that like at any point in the history of the Greek language, there were differences in pronunciations according to geographical area and dialects. In Greece today, there are several different dialects and some of them have retained their ancient characteristics. For example, Pontic Greek pronounces eta as epsilon to this day and they actually have gotten rid of η and replaced it with ε in their alphabet. For instance, mother is μητἐρα in the standard modern Greek but in Pontic Greek it is μετἐρα.

      Tsakonian Greek is heavily influenced by Doric Greek and the dialect my island of Zakynthos has weird things like οὖλος which is the Ionic for ὅλος. There are many more dialects around Greece with different variations which just goes to show you some things just have changed since 2000 years ago.

  10. Anna I says:

    Thank you for a wonderful summary. I naively studied Biblical Greek with Erasmian pronunciation. Then, a few years later I converted to Greek Orthodoxy. Then, I met and married a native Greek speaker.

    When you walk into a Church that has been reading the same Gospel in the same Greek for two millenia, any other system just pales in comparison.

    It took me a long time to unlearn Erasmian pronunciation (I’m neither gifted nor really diligent in languages), and I really regret ever having learned it. And, yes, when native Greek speakers hear Erasmian pronunciation, they do laugh. Not in a mean way, but language mistakes can be funny – and embarrassing.

    To me, Erasmian pronunciation is much like reconstructionist history. We decide to disregard eyewitness, first person accounts of events, then replace them with a “modern, scientific scholar’s” idea of what MIGHT have happened – even though that scholar has never been there or seen the events in question.

  11. Paul says:

    I have responded to a number of points in this blog. My article is long and for technical reasons was difficult to post. It can be found here:

    You need to scroll down the page to find it.

  12. Alexander says:

    Hi, Daniel! I am Russian, and I use the reconstructed pronunciation of Attic 6th Century BC, as described in the ‘Vox Graeca’ by W. Allen. It helps me to remember spelling. I even pronounce tones, and for that, I adapted the tone system of the Navajo language. It is pretty close IMHO to the ancient greek system.

  13. Gerald Aurand says:

    No language remains unchanged, especially in pronunciation, for 2000 years. That’s not how real languages or anything human works. Reconstructing earlier stages of a language is NOT disrespectful. I’ve enjoyed listening to Chaucer and Shakespeare in reconstructed pronunciation. Scholars do this out of love not disrespect.

    • Paul says:

      Of course, all living languages change over a period of 2000 years. They change in pronunciation, orthography, grammar and vocabulary. If you listen carefully to the pronunciation of English in films made in the 1940\’s and compare it to that of films made in this decade of the 2010\’s you will certainly notice a difference. That\’s during a period of 70 years. It\’s within the living memory of a generation.

      I reckon though that the diction of a native English speaker of the 21st century would be far more useful in the reconstruction of 16th century English than the pronunciation of English by a native Hungarian. I would apply the same logic for reconstructiing 1st century Greek pronunciation. Studying Modern Greek, which is the historical successor of NT Koine Greek, is bound to help. The diction of a Modern Greek speaker would be closer to NT Greek than the diction of a Dutchman or an Englishman

    • Tzetzes says:

      It would be bizarre to read Shakespeare always with a reconstructed “Chaucerian” pronunciation (from before the Great Vowel Shift). Yet that’s what people do when they read Alexandrian and Roman-era works with a reconstructed 5th-century BC “Attic” pronunciation.

  14. Pingback: Michael P. Theophilos, “On the Pronunciation and Interpretation of ‘Biblical Greek’: A Re-assessment in Light of the Papyri” | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  15. Dwayne says:

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate your posts and I’ve learned a lot from them over that past few years!

  16. Penn says:

    Thank you so much for this summary.

    • pavlakis99 says:

      Dear Daniel,

      I wonder if you can help me with this: How do you say in Koine

      What work do you do? What is your job?

      All I found on internet is

      ποθεν διαζη;  How does he make a living?

      I thought of the following:

      Τι εργον ποιεις;

      Τι εστιν η ασχολια σου;

      Τι εστιν η τεχνη σου;

      Τι εργαζη;

      What do you think?

      Kind Regards,



      • I think ποθεν διαζης might work. Εργασια is also used of one’s occupation/job. So, που/τι εργαζη; or τι εστιν η εργασια σου; might also work. LSJ has some Koine examples of διαζαω for ‘making a living.’

      • pavlakis99 says:

        Many thanks for the suggestions.

        Εργασία is still used in Modern Greek for work / occupation.

        How would one say:

        I was joking.

        It was only a joke.

        The only word I could find is κωμωδία.


      • I think σκωπτω works here, but humor words are hard to nail down without looking at a bunch of examples and trying to determine whether the word has positive or negative connotations–just as we differentiate between jokes meant to entertain without hurting, puns, practical jokes, etc.

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  18. ‘In the next post: I will offer a few brief reflections on the issue of pronunciation and some of the points that I wish the presenters could have addressed.’ Did you ever write that, it would be interesting to hear your take on the matter. Andrew

  19. Justin says:

    Dear Daniel,

    I am slightly distressed as I cannot decide how I should pronounce the diphthongs αυ/ευ accurate to the 1st century AD New Testament period. We know that some time during the Koine period they went from /au, eu/ to /af, av/, /ef, ev/. Randall Buth’s above mentioned system already advocates for a bilabial fricative pronunciation of /aɸ, aβ/, /eɸ, eβ/, though Gignac seems to argue that the fricative pronunciation wasn’t generalized till the late Roman/early Byzantine period. Before the 4th century AD, he does find several (I counted six) examples of spelling errors with αβ/εβ, but these are less common than interchanges with α(υ)oυ/ε(υ)oυ, which Gignac takes as representing the earlier intermediate phase as a semivowel /aw, ew/ (or, I suspect, a labialized bilabial fricative (/aɸʷ, aβʷ/, /eɸʷ, eβʷ/: if you’ve read Geoffrey Horrocks’s “Greek: A History…”, you’ll see him transcribe Hellenistic papyri or the Septuagint with this pronunciation.)

    The earliest of the spellings with αβ/εβ mentioned in Gignac begin from the 2nd century BC with ῥάυδους for ῥάβδους, and continue with several more in the early 1st century (my period of interest), like Πνευτῦνις for Πνεβτῦνις; this means the sound change was already complete for at least some, more ‘advanced’, speakers. I don’t know if there was a time lag between when illiterate speakers started this pronunciation and when it spread to the middle register. There were additional spellings with γ inserted after the diphthong, which could represent either the semivowel (according to Gignac) or a reflex(?) of the semivowel /aβɣʷ, eβɣʷ/ (according to Horrocks, but analyzing different documents from Byzantine times.) When Horrocks transcribes New Testament passages, he also has them pronounce /aɸ, aβ/, /eɸ, eβ/. Personally I would really prefer the bilabial fricative as its the easiest (it’s hard for me to distinguish the semivowel from the actual diphthong.)

    I was wondering if you had any idea how far along this sound change was in the 1st century, taking into account the social standing of the New Testament writers (the higher the class, the more conservative the accent.)

    • pavlakis99 says:

      Daniel, I read new comment below. Do you have Caragounis’ book The Development of Greek and the New Testament: Morphology,Syntax,Phonology, and Textual Transmission ? 2006 Edition pp 375, 376 address the issue. See also

      pdf pp12, 13  his 170, says much the same as the book. Paul

  20. Trencavel says:

    The New Testament authors were members of an élite (an inchoate, if not yet fully defined, priesthood). Since, at the very least, they were “educated to a high standard”, we should conclude that their oral delivery of any text in a public context would have been rhetorical in manner. To such as Peter and Paul, high “officers” of the Church, formality and linguistic conservatism when expounding doctrine to a congregation would be especially applicable.

    It is for this reason that I choose the Attic/Erasmian pronunciation as my standard when reading koine Greek: every letter carefully pronounced as written, including diphthongs and diacritics, accent and hard breathings.

    Modern Greek shouldn’t even enter into discussion, since no part of our Bible is in any way colloquial or modern in idiom. To the contrary, its language is elevated, literary, conservative, and, more often than not, formal and sacerdotal.

    It would be hard to argue against the epithet Classical as best fitting the lion’s share of its content.

    [Apologies for originally posting this comment under the wrong blogpost…]

  21. Antonis says:

    My thought is that the Erasmian pronunciation was proposed because it makes Greek easier to be spoken. It flows better so to speak.
    A reason why English speaking people say Zakynthos, by putting the emphasis on the y.
    In English it is pronounced Ζακύνθος and not Ζάκυνθος as it should be. This is because for an English speaking person, the Greek pronunciation is extremely difficult to be fitted with the rhythm of the language.

  22. John W. says:


    Thank you for this blog. It is refreshing to see so many like-minded people express themselves on the issue. I studied Modern Greek and Koine Greek at an Orthodox Church. Naturally, the teacher used the modern pronunciation in both classes (because native Greeks shake their heads in wonder, if not in outright disgust, at the Erasmian pronunciation).

    Some people suggest that the Erasmian pronunciation makes it easier to learn Greek. I can’t agree with that. I strongly believe, from my own experience, that pronouncing a language like a real human language helps one internalize the language better than simply being able to spell it. I think we humans have an innate sense of what a real human language does and does not sound like. Our motivation is to learn something human. The Erasmian pronunciation does not sound human to my ears – especially when I hear it tripping off the tongues of teachers and students who don’t care about correct accents, the purity of vowel sounds, or avoiding glottal stops between vowels. After learning the euphonious sounds of Modern Greek, Erasmian pronunciation is the proverbial sound of fingernails on a blackboard. Hell, to me, would be forcing me to listen to someone endlessly repeating contract verbs (1st Pers. Sing) using the Erasmian pronunciation.

    I personally believe that either the modern pronunciation or Mr. Buth’s reconstructed pronunciation provide the best results. Both have a human quality to them that the Erasmian pronunciation sorely lacks. Furthermore, Buth’s Reconstructed Koine (unlike the modern pronunciation) actually accounts for transliterated names and pronunciation that distinguishes words in a way that Modern Greek tends to confuse. Buth’s system has an historical basis too. The common dialect had changed drastically after Alexander’s conquest. (This is a fact the Erasmian teachers refuse to acknowledge.) Most, if not all, of the phonology and accentuation rules had changed to something that closely resembles Buth’s method by the First Century B.C.E. (I could easily overlook the few possible discrepancies.) That is especially true regarding the common dialect use in Alexandria from the Second Century B.C.E. forward – from which the NT writers received the Septuagint, if not a large part of their their knowledge of the language.

    To the extent that the Erasmian pronunciation can be defended at all, it can only be defended as a method for teaching Ancient Greek (@ 500-400 B.C.E.) – assuming that it is changed to accommodate the correct vowel quantities and tonal pitches used back then. It has no place in a class on Koine Greek.

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