The sound of Greek
A critique of Greek phonology.
This essay has three main aims. The first one is an explanation of the Modern Greek pronunciation, as this is often ignored or known only superficially by many of those whoattacked Modern Greek as a degenerated language. The second aim is to address some of the text interpretations made by the followers of the Erasmian pronunciation of AncientGreek. The third aim is to present some unresolved issues regarding the origin of theGreek language, which is classed as Indoeuropean but when first recorded in writing itwas already mixed with non-Indoeuropean languages.There is no attempt in this essay to claim that Greek pronunciation has not changed over time. Rather I claim that in as much as the Erasmians hit upon some facts, they did sohaphazardly and accidentally, as Greek pronunciation has not changed significantly in thetime they considered the change to have occurred – in medieval times. This essaysupports the view and discusses the evidence that Greek pronunciation changes as theyhave been found in the record coincide with a period of other changes in grammar,vocabulary and dialects that were occurring in Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic times(approximately up to the Roman conquest of Greece), an essential error that should havequestioned the continuing adherence to Erasmian theory other than as a simpleconvention for new or inexperienced students.The Erasmian theorists originally had assumed, like Erasmus himself, that thedistinctiveness of the Modern Greek pronunciation was a result of degeneracy, of aslurring of the speech perhaps or some other mental defect of the contemporary Greekswho had fallen into general error and had separated themselves from the true Faith(whether Catholic or Protestant) . These Greeks no longer produced works such as thoseof Plato, Aristotle and the New Testament. By extension, the Erasmians politicallyremoved these works from the sphere of the Greeks as the warrantors of that tradition.However, if the pronunciation and other changes were significant only at around the timeof 2-4
C BC or earlier (the alphabet had been adopted at around the 8
C BC), theByzantine Greeks have quite on the contrary preserved the language and scholarship to ahigh degree. In fact there was a university in Constantinople in Byzantine times andlesser schools elsewhere in addition to the Church. This should set the record straight, for this was once partly an issue of politics and cultural prejudice. This realisation also begsthe question: how did then the distinctiveness of the Greek pronunciation in relation tothe vowel and consonantal diphthongs and especially in relation to the fricative pronunciation of many of the consonants arise, if it was not after all due to mentallaziness?The Erasmian pronunciationErasmus introduced the issue of the pronunciation of ancient Greek in his work De rectalatini graecique sermonis pronunciatione (Basel 1528). He did so in an attempt to restore,at least in his view, the genuine pronunciation of the Ancient Greek language.