Pronouncing Ancient Greek

It's much easier to pronounce Ancient Greek words than it looks at first. The funny alphabet is a bit off-putting, but really, once you've got the idea, it's straightforward.

The exact soundings as you would have heard them on the streets of Classical Athens have been lost. Greek is a living language which evolved! There are different theories about the ancient pronounciation and (surprise!) they don't entirely agree with each other. Fortunately, none of us are likely to fall through a time vortex into the ancient past, so if we stuff it up, no one who matters will ever know.

There were a zillion different dialects of Ancient Greek. If you lived back then, you could probably have spotted someone's city the moment they opened their mouths. We're going to ignore all the dialects but one: Attic -- the dialect of Athens. Attic Greek is the language of Pericles and Socrates and Nicolaos and Diotima and Plato and Euripides and Sophocles.

Attic Greek became the trading language of the Mediterranean. As it spread, it evolved rapidly, and became known as koine. The koine dialect is hugely important to this day, because it just happens to be the language in which the Bible was written. It's also the ancestor of Modern Greek.

The sound variations between dialects are real, but not big enough to worry someone who only wants to read Ancient Greek words in a book. So I'll ignore them all and give you a single sound system which works.

My Ancient Greek is very limited, by the way, and there are people reading this blog who are practically fluent. If you are one of those clever people I sincerely hope you'll correct any errors in comments. I'd like to learn something too! So with that caveat, here goes...

Α, α

a

father

alpha

Β, β

b

bob

beta

Γ, γ

g

got

gamma

Δ, δ

d

dad

delta

Ε, ε

e

get

epsilon

Ζ, ζ

z

adze

zeta

Η, η

ê

fête

eta

Θ, θ

th

thoth

theta

Ι, ι

i

hit or ski

(take your choice)

iota

Κ, κ

k

kit kat

kappa

Λ, λ

l

let

lambda

Μ, μ

m

met

mu

Ν, ν

n

net

nu

Ξ, ξ

x

box

xi

Ο, ο

o

okay

omikron

Π, π

p

pop

pi

Ρ, ρ

r

rat

rho

Σ, σ, ς

s

sat

sigma

Τ, τ

t

sat

tau

Υ, υ

y

oops!

upsilon

Φ, φ

ph

phone

phi

Χ, χ

ch

khaki

chi

Ψ, ψ

ps

pssst!

psi

Ω, ω

ô

note or saw

(take your choice)

omega


There were also these diphthongs (vowels which combined to form a single sound):

ai as in aisle
ei as in fate
oi as in oil (very important to me because it's used for plurals)
ay as in cow (recall the y transliteration makes an oo sound)
ey as in feud
oy as in soup

Notice there are two letters for the different o sounds, where we have one to handle both.

Also there are effectively three letters for our e & i sounds.

The ch of Greek is much like the ch of German. Which means try to say a k while clearing your throat. No sane English speaker wants to do this. You can get away with a kh.

The z, too, is like a German z, which is a tz or a dz sound. Take your pick.

There is no j sound at all. This means Janet is safe from me making her a character.

Loretta asked in the comments of a previous post how to pronounce Phaedo (the title of a book by Plato). That's a fantastic question, because it opens up a small can of worms. An awful lot of Greek stuff comes to us via the Romans. The Romans spoke Latin, obviously, but all educated Romans spoke Greek too. Koine, in fact. But they mangled Greek names just like the Greeks mangled Persian names. And many Greek texts come to us via Latin translations. Here is the name of Plato's book Phaedo, in Greek:

Φαίδων

Try your newly acquired transliteration skills on this word. Notice anything odd?

That's right, the Romans dropped the final n. The "correct" transliteration is Phaidon, and since the ai is a diphthong as per above, the "correct" pronounciation is

FIDE - OWN

The reality is, though, when you're reading a book you really should pronounce the funny words however you feel like. It's not like the historical Phaidon is going to sue you for mispronouncing his name, and it's far more important that you're comfortable. I put a character list at the start of my first book, in which I gave suggested pronounciations for the characters. I didn't even bother looking at my own transliteration chart when I wrote it; I just put in what I thought would be easiest for modern readers to say.

But! If you're looking for something that sounds "accurate". This chart will do the job.

28 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

Adding to my randomness -- I taught myself how to transliterate/pronounce New Testament Greek a few years back.

Reasoning? I got bored one day and decided I wanted to read the NT in its original Greek. Didn't get very far, but I can now effectively transliterate and pronounce the words. No idea what I'm saying though.

Gary Corby said...

Yep, that is slightly random! There are actually some very good resources around on Biblical Greek if you want to keep going.

RWMG said...

Breathings? Accents? Go on, Gary, I dare you.

Gary Corby said...

I did actually write a paragraph about the language being aspirated. Then realized it was totally unnecessary for anyone reading Greek names in a modern book, and deleted it.

However, Robert, you have just volunteered to write a guest post on breath notation...if you dare. You are far, far, more qualified than me! Let me know if you're crazy enough to try it.

(For normal people...there are notations in the ancient script which tell you when to breathe in and out. But no full stops or paragraphs. Wouldn't want to go overboard, after all.)

Amalia T. said...

One of my Classics professors used to say that he just threw in the accents wherever it seemed to make sense when he wrote Greek, and didn't worry about it.

Gary-- my question is less related to Greek, and more related to your comment about the character list. Did you include that character list in the manuscript you queried, or was it inserted later?

Stephanie Thornton said...

Man, this is almost as bad as reading hieroglyphs. I gave that a shot and once I got past the alphabet I threw in the towel.

I usually try to learn the basics of a language before I travel to a foreign country. Last summer when we went to Greece I didn't even try. Even the modern version is too foreign for my English-wired brain.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie! If you think that's a challenge, try Japanese. Or Finnish.

Over the years I've visited something between 30 and 35 countries, depending on how you count various ones that have disappeared and/or merged, and I managed to learn yes, no, please, thank you, and basic counting in all but Japanese and Finnish.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia,

The character list was almost the last thing written. I did it at Editor Kathleen's suggestion as part of the editorial letter she sent. That was months after the book had sold to St Martin's.

Merry Monteleone said...

Kind of makes you understand how the phrase, "It's all Greek to me" gained its popularity, doesn't it?

:-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Merry!

I can see it's going to be a challenge to convince people this isn't too hard. :-)

I've got a question you asked long ago lined up for the next post, by the way. Stay tuned...

Merry Monteleone said...

Gary,

Language is often that way - it's harder to explain, or the explanation makes it look hard to understand :-) Once you get the basic grasp of it, it becomes much simpler.

The fun thing about English is all of the words we've taken that have their roots in other languages.

For instance, I have a Greek neighbor whose parents made him go to Greek school when he was a child (many Greeks in America still do this, and many of them speak both Greek and English, which I think is pretty cool). He said it made it really easy to learn Geometry in school.

Can't wait to see the next post, Gary, they're always interesting.

RWMG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RWMG said...

If you look at Greek texts you will see signs like single opening and closing inverted commas (rats, can't show them properly here but imagine ‘ and ’ are curly) over the first letter of words that begin with a vowel or a rho. We were taught that curly ‘ (called a rough breathing) was to be pronounced as if the word began with an h, and curly ’ (called a smooth breathing) could be ignored.

Greek texts also have accent marks like French (e.g. ò ó ô). We were not taught what difference they made to the pronunciation, only the rules for when they appeared - the rules made my head ache and I have long forgotten them, but we did get to learn cool words like antepenultimate.

There is a society for reading Greek with a reconstructed pronunciation, so if you want some idea of what Sophocles may have sounded like you can go to http://www.rhapsodes.fll.vt.edu/Greek.htm.

Loretta Ross said...

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question! I didn't realize when I asked it that it was so complicated! The mention of breathing notes reminds me of the poem Spring and Fall by Gerard Hopkins, with its lyrical rhythm. (http://www.bartleby.com/122/31.html if you're interested). I do love the sound and cadence of words, though. :)

I bet the Romans dropped that final n for some reason having to do with dialect. It makes me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who convinced his second wife Lydia to add an n to the end of her name. They lived in New England and he got tired of all the Yankees referring to her as "Lydiar".

Though I've never been anywhere, really, I have picked up a smattering of words from many languages. Most of mine aren't very useful in real life though. I can say "my cat has beautiful kittens" in Polish, "I want to be an American spy in Russia so I can spy on handsome Russian men" in Russian (of course) and the ever-important "ball point pen" and "felt tipped pen" in Chinese. And I used to be able to sing a candy commercial in Fahrsee, but God! It's been too many years. ;)

Gary Corby said...

Actually Loretta, I should thank you for the question. I've been meaning to write about the letter sounds but never got around to it.

What I really want to know is, did your Russian phrases have any effect?

Gary Corby said...

Thanks so much, Robert! I seriously don't understand how the aspiration and accents work. I'm glad someone does.

For anyone who hasn't tried it, Robert's link takes you to some fascinating reproductions of what Ancient Greek and Latin sounded like.

Loretta Ross said...

What I really want to know is, did your Russian phrases have any effect?

I did manage to avoid the international incident that one could have inspired. On another occasion, however, I had an interesting conversation in Spanish (which I also don't speak), that could have led to unpleasantness. I was trying to ask two young men if the stories I'd heard about giant pythons were true. Apparently, either they misunderstood my combination of Sesame Street Spanish and sign language or they were keeping large reptiles in their hotel room. I refrained from going back there with them so they could show me.

Whichever it was, I really didn't want to know.

RWMG said...

I won't trespass on our host's good nature by telling you the full story but apparently 'hen' in Spanish is not 'polla' as I rashly assumed on one occasion.

Sarah W said...

Thanks for helping me 'koine' a phrase! :)

Gary Corby said...

*groan* Thanks for that, Sarah.

Loretta & Robert, with your combined language skills, it sounds like you would make excellent travel companions.

Loretta Ross said...

He's trying to get rid of us, Robert! :-O

Gary Corby said...

Hardly! I'm thinking more along the lines of one of those road movies where the hapless travellers get into all sorts of trouble.

Loretta Ross said...

I'm thinking more along the lines of one of those road movies

We're off on the Road to Mycenea!
This language is hard on the mind!
Now we're prayin'
what we're sayin'
won't get us shot for sure!
I'll bet you 8 to 5 we should have
signed up for a tour!
We certainly do get arou-ou-ound!
And if we can't ask directions we'll
never be found!

:P

Gary Corby said...

You've totally missed your calling Loretta. You should have been a lyricist.

Meghan said...

Late to the party, but wanted to throw this monkey wrench in for fun.
According to Nicholas Ostler's book, Empires of the World: A Language History of the World, "...the language in those centuries BC would have sounded very ifferent from Greek as spoken today. The main reason for this was the fact that it was tonal each word given a distinctice melody of high and low tones, in a way that is most closely parralleled today by accent in Japanese."

They also compounded terms so that they would come up with some crazy words. One comedy has this as a name for a gastronomical masterpiece:

lopadatemakhoselakhogaleokranioleipsandrimhpotrimmatosilphikarabomeelitokatakekhumenokikhlepikossuphophattoperisteralektrunoptokephalliokinklopeleiolagoisiraibaphetraganopterugon.

And no, I did not just fall on my keyboard. :p

Gary Corby said...

Hi Meghan, wow, you seriously know your stuff. Yes, those marks Robert was talking about might in fact be tonal notation, but no one's too sure.

For those interested, here's the Greek version of Meghan's word:

λοπαδο­τεμαχο­σελαχο­γαλεο­κρανιο­λειψανο­δριμ­υπο­τριμματο­σιλφιο­καραβο­μελιτο­κατακεχυ­μενο­κιχλ­επι­κοσσυφο­φαττο­περιστερ­αλεκτρυον­οπτο­κεφαλλιο­κιγκλο­πελειο­λαγῳο­σιραιο­βαφη­τραγανο­πτερύγων

Aristophanes made it up in one of his plays, deliberately to make fun of some of the long compound words the Greeks really did use. In which respect they were somewhat like Germans.

INFO said...

IMO, the closest thing to ancient Greek must be the Greek of the Greek orthodox church liturgy. They aren't allowed to change the way they utter the words (that's what religion is after all... tradition... dogma).

Check this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhbsae-Dytg

Gary Corby said...

I don't know, but it's an interesting idea! If so, the pronunciation will be for koine.