Thursday, October 13, 2005

Erasmian Pronunciation

I may mention classical Greek, every once in a while, but I wouldn't dare to be heard pronouncing it out loud. I listened to my teacher using the usual pedagogical pronunciation, which provides a distinct pronunciation for every letter; and my Greek classmate naturally pronounced classical Greek as if it were his mother tongue, which it was. I was remarkably silent in that class, restricting myself to writing Greek, which I thought was a much nicer alphabet than the Latin one.

(I notice that the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" - based on the actress's own life, BTW- was filmed around the corner from where I went to high school in Toronto.)

Anyway... it was Erasmus who established the 'proper' pronunciation for classical Greek and non-Greeks have been slaughtering the pronunciation of that language ever since. Erasmus is also responsible for the "Textus Receptus", an edition of the New Testament that was the "Received" edition, used, I believe, for the King James Version of the Bible and held sacred to many. Such an influential man, that Erasmus.

However, an enlightened American president, Thomas Jefferson, who lived in Paris for some time, balked at the Erasmian pronunciation of classical Greek as he explains in this letter.

All of this is a leadup to Gary's post in Shadow, where he follows the trail of a pronunciation for classical Greek to the Greek Alphabet site of Harry Foundalis. It is a good read with sound files as well. From Harry's Greek Alphabet site,

"If any (non-Greek) scholar attempts to pronounce classic texts in the reconstructed(1) pronunciation, that, to Greeks is tantamount to sacrilege. As a contemporary Greek myself, I can give you my personal feeling for how the reconstructed pronunciation sounds: it is as if a barbarian is trying to speak Greek."

15 Comments:

Blogger language said...

non-Greeks have been slaughtering the pronunciation of that language ever since

On the contrary, non-Greeks have been pronouncing the language correctly ever since -- it's Greeks who have been slaughtering it. Trust me, we know very well how ancient Greek was pronounced; see Allen's Vox Graeca for details, and Horrocks' Greek for a good explanation of how the sounds (and other linguistic features) changed from one period to the next, all the way from classical times to the present. It saddens and puzzles me that modern-day Greeks are so pigheaded about the silly idea that their language, unlike all others, has magically remained unchanged for 2,500 years; as I said here:

"One thing that astonishes me about modern Greek culture is its insistence on its alleged continuity with Ancient Greece, and part of that is an absurd belief that Ancient Greek was pronounced the same as the modern language—that Sophocles would, like his many-generations-removed descendents, have pronounced Antigone 'Andighóni.' I once thought only uneducated people believed this, but then I read an essay by Seferis, one of the most cultured men of the twentieth century, in which he furiously attacked foreigners who pretended that the ancient Greeks used some sort of strange pronunciation, made up out of whole cloth, rather than the authentic speech of the Greeks!"

As for Jefferson, I read his letter as expressing uncertainty about the basis for any reconstructed pronunciation but preferring the Erasmian to the modern Greek, correctly recognizing the implausibility of the idea that the ancient Greeks would have chosen to arbitrarily write the sound /i/ in half a dozen different ways (among other problems).

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Suz said...

I didn't actually think there was continuity of pronnuncation between ancient and modern Greek but that the reconstructed probnunciation still always sounds like the first langauge of the speaker, English, French etc. so it still doesn't 'sound' great although it may have more one on one relation to the writing.

Anyway I was hoping to get some opinions here. Thanks.

10:49 AM  
Blogger language said...

Ah, OK -- I see your point better now. Yes, ancient Greek tends to sound better (more natural) in the mouth of a modern Greek, even though the actual sounds are completely wrong from a historical-linguistic standpoint; conversely, foreigners using the "correct" Erasmian pronunciation tend to sound awkward and unnatural. (I, of course, am an exception; Socrates himself has praised my accent!)

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Suz said...

Yes, I felt that you must have an exceptional gift!

Speaking reconstructed Greek with an English accent sounds, I'm sure, like speaking French, or any other language, with an English accent. I know one loses the vowel distinctions in Modern Greek and the consonants shift. There is no answer for that.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

This reminds me of the debates between speakers of modern Hebrew and those who employ a different pronunciation (especially the Ashkenazic pronunciation - that is, the traditional pronunciation used by Central and Eastern European Jews and their descendants.) Needless to say, Israelis feel that their pronunciation is the only correct one, and most either consciously or unconsciously assume that Moses would have basically sounded like he was from Tel Aviv. The bottom line, I think, is that when it comes to the reconstruction of ancient languages, people often have trouble removing themselves from national and cultural issues. For Greeks and Israelis, the assertion that they know how to pronounce Ancient Greek or Hebrew, and that this pronunciation is the same as that of their respective native languages, is a way of claiming the ancient languages as particularly theirs, and of asserting continuity with their ancient forbears, as opposed to their immediate ones.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Suz said...

Thanks for expressing that so well. This is the subtext. Often when talking about a classical language, we are talking about a language that a contemporary people claim as their own. I am aware of this and would like to respect it. Since I don't often have to pronounce Greek out loud this doesn't create a huge dilemma for me.

However, I admit that in using a Greek dictionary, I do have to create a reconstructed pronunciation in my head and follow that.

12:56 PM  
Blogger language said...

Yes, ben puts it very well.

Incidentally, the Addendum in the LH post I linked above describes an experience I had performing in an ancient play and using the modern pronunciation with one actor and the restored one with the others!

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Suz said...

I didn't follow the link before but that is quite a story. I can hardly imagine.
here I tried an updated translation of Haimon talking to his father, to get the effect, and then I decided that it could not be maintained. Wyckoff's translation had flow and style.

BTW I saw Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar this spring in NY and that production does *not* update Shakespeare's English.

So in prinicple I would agree with you but since a reconstructed pronunciation usually has the *intonation* of the native language of the speaker, it sounds a little awkward.

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Greeks pronounce /I/ or /ei/ or /h/ in a very different way… Like the Italians pronounce /t/ and /tt/ differently! The thing is that people tend to forget when comparing Greek to Latin is that the Greek language is still in use and has a linear history. It’s logical to assume that the more “correct” pronunciation is (attention not the correct but the closest possible)?….
I leave that for you to decide :)

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Erasmian pronunciation is just a failed attempt to fix a stage in the pronunciation of the Greek language that was "authentic".

Needless to say, there is no such stage, and ancient Greek unerwent phonetic stages from Mycenaean to Late Antique times, but has remained mostly the same ever since.

The Erasmian supporters, of course, pronounce Hellenistic and Roman era, and even Byzantine era texts with their Erasmian pronunciation, even though clearly those texts where not pronounced with the classical Athenians pronunciation (let alone the Erasmian one). They do so, because they have some irrational preference for classical Greece as if it was some linguistic nirvana.

Need we also forget Cratylus?

"Soc. For example, in very ancient times they called the day either
imera or emera (short e), which is called by us emera (long e)."

So, the etacists who insist on pronouncing eta as (long e) are actually reproducing a newer form of the language than the modern Greeks who call a day "imera"!

is a way of claiming the ancient languages as particularly theirs, and of asserting continuity with their ancient forbears

Greek has been in continuous use, so there is no question of continuity. Modern Greeks didn't need to go to school to learn it, it was handed down to them by an unbroken line of succession.

Incidentally, this does not apply only to the demotic form of the language, but also on the antiquizing forms which have also been handed down in both their oral and written forms from antiquity.

6:59 PM  
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10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am to strongly agree with the tone of the anonymous comment. Furthermore I would like to see numerous aspersions cast on those who believe that a reconstruction can be equivalent to learning or studying the actual living greek speech.I believe this is an issue because people who use the erasmian way only read books in greek and thus in this way have become divorced from the actual living greek speech. They would have us believe that the sounds of it make one sound like the fixed immutable pronunciation of the 5th century which was pure and every letter was a distinct sound. There isn't of course one shred of archaeological data about it and of course there almost beyond all reasonable doubt never will be. Every pronunciation seems to be something which is actually handed down from speakers before in a chain of evolution. I believe this puts more clearly what has been alluded to at times above. The classicists all believe they've got it right, or at least a lot of them, and modern greek is "wrong" for ancient greek because it's so "different..." as frequent a stigma as I've ever seen, such as the above, in what "language" says. This kind of cultural ignorance is passed on as casual, but isn't it most often the case with such things as prejudice? I want to not only 1. call attention to their lack of a knowledge of the modern greek and 2 their lack of studying the language as a whole unit, not just greek and latin classics---books but also their 3. lack of a certain awareness about this. They would many of them have you believe that the living greek language is so different because it DOES sound different than what they produce, who have never thought of using the actual greek way that exists now and sometimes indeed the ancient greeks were even these exhalted beings that they deem so worthy of their study, like the past is MORE important than the present ever ever could be and if you question that you're a maverick or crazy. It seems like the whole thing's resting on some shaky pillars though.DEus

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is I concur quite adamantly with the last "anonymous." I also wish to react to "Ben" and "languages" other comments refering to different Hebrew pronunciations. As I've made it clear in my main previous comment I believe this is actually a distinctly different case in it's actual nature, and I want the context of nationalism/ dialectic prejudice and its conflicts as regards to dominant pronunciation removed from this. I think that's a comparison that may work only superficially and in the context of some cultural assumptions which may be happening. Since "language" also says the greeks pronounce their language and "slaughter" it I wouldn't be surprised he would agree with this comparison which seems to embody a heavy tone of "people can't divorce themselves from their national or cultural issues..." as if outsiders were discussing the conflict between different groups of people speaking hebrew, comparing that to the greeks, aloof, even, it might seem, better than them? Look in the mirror, "boys".DEus

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look I will add that it may look like on a level there's a dominant pronunciation debate going on, and ALMOST SURELY THERE IS ONE ON BOTH SIDES IN SOME CASES AND ITS ABOUT BIG EGO ISSUES TOO IN THESE CASES as far as I know: but it's not the same situation because it's one thing to have different or variant pronunciations of the language but to have one pronunciation for all ancient greek is almost certainly as incorrect as thinking by spelling only we can understand the pronunciation of the 5th century bc without being in a way "taught it" after the fact like we would HAVE HAD TO HAVE BEEN IF we lived then, of we were greek we would know it, if we weren't we'd have to spend time learning it's "sounds" from a greek...I wouldn't put it too lightly that we intellectualize this kindof thing and fetishize it, and in a way we've let go of the essential truth of humanity. That sounds sentimental but I find it almost poignantly poetic in this case. Sorry: my last post for now DEus

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