At 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).
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.
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.
Neo-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 . . .
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.