On the Pronunciation of Greek

I’ve ranted about frustrations before, but one thing I really can’t stand are descriptions of Greek pronunciation that have very little value until you actually hear the sound!

A good example of this is Caragounis’ description of the pronunciation of Koine, complete with a chart. Before I begin to criticize him, though, let me say two things:

1) He’s right about the pronunciation. There is no valid reason in my opinion to continue using the Erasmian pronunciation of the language and as my wife studies Greek for her Greek class each day, I only become more frustrated by the fact that they’re making her speak (yes, the class is emphasizing auditory learning as well) Greek using those atrocious sounds! Let the language have its dignity! Please!

2) He’s also right about the historical necessity of knowing Koine as part the stream of history that is the Greek language. While some would question this. They’re wrong. If they want to continue in this opinion, then they can just forget about using the great grammars like those of Moulton and Robertson, because those two great scholars reference classical, koine, medieval, and modern Greek regularly throughout their grammars. Greek is Greek is Greek.

Okay, now about pronunciation descriptions:

Its particularly frustrating when I read people trying to describe with a voiced velar fricative (IPA: [ɣ]) sounds like. I thought this when I was reading Caragounis:

Capitol: Γ, Small: γ, Historical Greek Pronunciation: y, gh (w), as in yet (when followed by e and i-sounds). Before all other positions: Try pronouncing as “go,” but deeper from the throat: “gho”. The result should be similar to ‘w’ in “woe”, but harder and more guttural (The Development of Greek and the New Testament, 352).

I can tell you a couple things. First, no student is going to know what a gutteral is. Secondly, the gamma is not gutteral. Its velar. You put your tongue on the front of that soft patch on the roof of your mouth. Third what in the world does “but harder” mean???

My suggestion? (Greek teacher listen) Take a week. Breeze through the necessary sections of the international phonetic alphabet. Then after that, tell your students that gamma is a voiced velar fricative.

17 thoughts on “On the Pronunciation of Greek

Add yours

  1. Are you sure Caragounis (who by the way taught me for a time at London Bible College, but that was more than 20 years ago so I don’t remember his pronunciation) in fact intends to describe IPA [ɣ]? His description, with “deeper in the throat”, sounds more like a uvular fricative. I know that the modern Greek pronunciation is [ɣ] before back vowels, but is this what Caragounis is describing?

    The problem with modern Greek pronunciation for learning the language is that it fails to distinguish what looks very different in the text. Thus η, ι, υ, ει, οι and υι are all pronounced [i]. This is not helpful for learners. But what is Caragounis’ pronunciation of these?

  2. I think the “atrocious” judgement is as artificial as the “no split infinitives” rule for English grammar. I don’t know how one can decide what is beautiful language and what is not. Yes, there is the issue of historical accuracy, and there is a great deal to be said for understanding the ancient pronunciation, but some of you guys are getting carried away.

    Indeed, there is good reason for using some arbitrary Erasmian pronuctiation to facilitate vocabulary acquisition. It may not be a good enough reason, and it may well be that what you gain does not make up for what you lose, but it’s just jumping on the current bandwagon to say there is nothing to be said for it.

  3. Peter, I think what he’s doing is using language to “get” people who don’t have such sounds to achieve as close an approximation as he can – at least, that’s the impression I get when I read wikipedia’s discussion of “gutteral” in reference to none linguistic usage of the term.

    On the other vowels, from what I can tell, Caragounis believes that υ could have either been an [i] or a [ɨ].


  4. Vlad, I agree about split infinitives. Why say that I English is Latin? It just doesn’t make sense.

    And I’ll concede that vocab is a reason – its just not a good enough one in my mind.

  5. Are there any free online resources for listening to people pronounce Greek? I don’t want to have to make Esteban do this on the phone too often.

    Mounce pronounces some Greek in the lectures on the CD in Greek for the Rest of Us but it’s very English sounding. Similar to people in the U.S. pronouncing Spanish words with English pronunciation rules. Cassa Blaynka is my favorite.

  6. I’m suspicious of the pedagogical value of ministerdavid on youtube. Saying that only the inductive approach to learning biblical Greek is valid seems a bad way to start.

  7. Other then the pronunciation (which I realize is your main point), let’s be careful in not overstating some other things. When you say that “Greek is Greek is Greek”–that might qualify as overstatement. Very few people reject any use of diachronic study. The criticism is making it more important than synchronic. Yes, all the major grammars of the past have used diachronic studies–and that is valid and necessary at the level of, say Robertson. But there *are* differences in Greek from Mycean times to modern. C’s “panhellenic” argument minimizes these and appears, to me, to homogenize the language unduly. The diachronic comparisons of koine and classical can be helpful in koine so long as the differences are clearly recognized, but to argue that *later* Greek is relevant to the study of an earlier period is very anachronistic.

  8. Thank you Dr. Decker, you’re right.

    I shouldn’t make such blanket statements without any clarification. The modern Greek future is a perfect example of the difference. When I said he is correct about understanding Koine within its historical context I should have been more clear that I was referring to the level at which Moulton or Robertson were working.

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