Phonology, Pronunciation and Language Learning

I’d like to take up the question of what pronunciation system should be used for teaching Greek from a different perspective.

When we talk about pronunciation, what we’re actually talking about is how a language organizes its sounds into a system. And every language has a different system based on different constraints and rules for how each sound interacts with other sounds. How to vowels respond when they are beside each other? Are vowels even allowed to appear beside each other? What happens when stops (e.g. b, p, d, t) appear before or after fricatives (f, v, th, s, z)? Do they change? What about when two fricatives articulated in different places (e.g. lips or the alveolar ridge) are put together (e.g. fth – English allows this: fifth, but Koine Greek doesn’t: φθ is pronounced “pth”)? Does the language even allow that to happen? These are the sorts of questions phonology asks, among others. Phonological systems are not simply groups of sounds that a given language uses. They’re all in it together.

So what happens when these different sound systems come in contact with each other? What happens when a person who knows one language tries to learn another? Well, we try to make things fit as best we can.

English has a system of eleven vowel sounds, which I’m going to represent with this table below.


Granted, there are 16 boxes here, not 11, but I prefer symmetry for this. We can live with 16.

So what do things look like when we move on to Hellenistic Greek, as represented by Randall Buth’s pronunciation?


The Box as a whole is the same size, but the space is organized quite differently (and yes, I know Buth’s system has 7 sounds not 9). And when the language learner comes to learning the pronunciation and phonology of the new language. The immediate result is to attempt to force these new vowels into original first language system:


Of course, this is rather distorted. And its also why second languages speakers have an accent. But it generally works and the speaker is understandable. And potentially, over time, those boxes will progressively look more and more like those of the native speaker, at least, potentially.

Its actually more difficult to go the other direction. Because what a native speaker with a 5 (Modern Greek) or 7 (Buth/Mussies) vowel system thought and has internalized as a single vowel turns out to be 2 or maybe more vowels in the second language.

So what about the Erasmian pronunciation?

Well, in essence, it does actually exist, at least not any more. Think about it in light of everything I’ve just said, which applies to all languages and all second language learning. And then think about the fact Erasmus did not speak English. Erasmus didn’t have an 11 vowel system so there is no way that he would have divided the space in his mouth used for pronunciation the way we do. There is really very little way of being sure of exactly how Erasmus pronounced his Greek. But we can be sure it wasn’t the way that it taught in North American schools, which is based on American Standard English Phonology rather than on Dutch, German, Latin, or Greek – the languages that Erasmus knew. None of them have English Phonology and yet we call what we use today in North American Erasmian Pronunciation??? That’s nonsense!

This is what we do. We take American English Phonology:


And then apply it to the Greek Alphabet:


When I use multiple boxes for each vowel, I’m not saying that we then  just merge the identical boxes together for a single sound. No, I’m saying that we apply multiple sounds to each of the Greek orthographic symbols. ι then actually has two different pronunciations: ee as in “heat” and i as in “bit.” And don’t even get me started on the diphthongs, which so conveniently match very nicely with our English vowel glides.

What this means is that we’re not actually teaching Greek, at least not in any substantial way or in any manner comparable to the teaching of any other language in the world. We’re teaching English and saying, “These orthographic symbols that you pronounce with these English sounds mean this English word.” And when students read the Greek New Testament with this English phonology, they doesn’t actually read Greek. Rather they’re reading the English in their heads and then going through all these hoops to remember the grammar code that Dr. Smith taught them. And once they’ve figured that out, they can write out the secret message on to a separate piece of paper and have their professor check to see how well they’ve done in getting the message right. Its all a big sham.

And then we wonder why so few students actually get very far in Greek! Or why so few students continue using their Greek in ministry afterward!

Maybe they’d use it more if they actually knew the language to begin with. Because knowing a language is far, far more than a bunch of grammar rules or vocabulary. Phonology is a key element of any language and its one that you cannot avoid.