Ancient Greek phonology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For assistance with IPA transcriptions of Ancient Greek for Wikipedia articles, see Help:IPA for Greek.

Ancient Greek phonology is characterized by an aspiration distinction in stops, a length distinction in vowels, a gemination distinction in consonants, and a pitch accent system. Because of the passage of time, the original pronunciation of Ancient Greek, like that of all ancient languages, can never be known with absolute certainty. Linguistic reconstructions have been widely debated in the past; however, a good approximation can be established and there is now a consensus in scholarship.

Other stages of Greek[edit]

The reconstructed sound systems of Greek at several stages of its history can be found in Koine Greek phonology. Summaries of the reconstructed sound systems of Greek at several stages of its history can be found in Ancient Greek (or classical Attic Greek), Koine Greek, and Greek language. Only the pronunciation of the classical Attic dialect of the 5th century BC, including its later development towards Koine Greek, is explored here. The practical pronunciations of Ancient Greek used in teaching and literary study today is discussed in Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching.


In comparison with the vowels, the structure of the consonant inventory of Greek has remained relatively stable over time as far as the number of distinctive sounds is concerned. However, the phonetic nature of many sounds is thought to have changed radically, as a whole set of stops has turned into fricatives.

Consonant phonemes
Labial Coronal Velar Glottal
Stop voiceless p t k
voiced b d g
Nasal m n
Fricative s h
Trill r
Lateral l


All the following sounds are thought to have been plosives in Attic Greek. Ancient grammarians (beginning with Aristotle, Poetics) collectively refer to them as ἄφωνα.[1]

Traditional name Phonetic description Bilabial Dental Velar
Greek Latin
ψιλά tenues voiceless /p/ π /t/ τ /k/ κ
μέσα mediae voiced /b/ β /d/ δ /ɡ/ γ
δασέα aspirātae aspirated voiceless /pʰ/ φ /tʰ/ θ /kʰ/ χ

All of the tenues in ancient Greek have retained their voiceless stop values in Modern Greek. All of the mediae changed to voiced fricatives later ([v], [ð], [ɣ] ~ [ʝ]), and all of the aspiratae changed to voiceless fricatives ([f], [θ], [x] ~ [ç]). These are also their values in Modern Greek. The changes are assumed to have happened in antiquity, during the time of Koine Greek, but probably after the time of classical Attic Greek. The changes probably started with the voiced velar [ɡ] becoming [ɣ] ~ [ʝ] in the 3rd century BC, and were completed some time during the 1st century AD with the aspiratae. In the case of the labials, the change may have proceeded through the intermediate stage of bilabial fricatives [β] and [ɸ].

Other consonants[edit]

Apart from the plosives, the consonant inventory of Classical Greek contains two nasals (/m/, /n/), two liquids (/l/ and /r/) and two fricatives (/h/ and /s/) which are further discussed in separate subsections below. Ancient grammarians classified the nasals, liquids and /s/ together as hemiphona (ἡμίφωνα), by which they probably meant that unlike the aphona (ἄφωνα), these sounds could be sustained in pronunciation without vocalic support.[1]

As the terminology of aphona and hemiphona applied to letters of the alphabet rather than phonemes, the letters ψ, ξ and ζ each standing for a consonantal cluster and collectively referred to as διπλά ("double letters"), were also grouped with the hemiphona, presumably because they all contained a sibilant as an element. The pronunciation of ζ is not entirely clear. For metrical purposes it was treated as a double consonant, thus forming a heavy syllable (see below). It is normally assumed to have been pronounced in Classical Attic and immediately preceding dialects as [zd], although there is some disagreement about this; some scholars assert that it was pronounced [dz]. The arguments for each pronunciation are put forward in Zeta. It is quite possible that its pronunciation varied among different dialects. During the classical period, its pronunciation changed to [z]. The two other dipla (διπλά) were probably pronounced [pʰs] and [kʰs] in Classical Attic (they were written ΦΣ and ΧΣ in the old alphabet), but the aspiration of the first element was phonologically irrelevant.


Ancient Greek has two nasals: the bilabial nasal /m/, written [[Mu (letter)|μ]] and the alveolar nasal /n/, written [[Nu (letter)|ν]]. Depending on the phonetic environment, the phoneme /n/ was realized in speech in four distinct manners:

  • before the labials /b/, /p/, and /pʰ/, it changes to [m] and it is there represented in writing by μ. So for example: ἐμβαίνω, ἐμπάθεια, ἐμφαίνω. The same is true when the labial is followed by /s/, as in ἔμψυχος;
  • before the nasal /m/, there is still assimilation in place of articulation but gemination occurs and the two nasals are pronounced together as a prolonged bilabial nasal [mː] and represented in writing by μμ. E.g.: ἐμμένω;
  • before the velars /ɡ/, /k/, /kʰ/, the phoneme /n/ was realized as [ŋ] and is there represented in writing by γ. So for example: ἐγγύς, ἐγκαλέω, ἐγχέω. The same is true when the velar is followed by /s/, as in συγξηραίνω, but this occurs less often. Hence, the spelling γγ does not represent the geminated plosive [ɡː] (compounds with the preposition ἐκ and a stem beginning with /ɡ/ probably had [ɡː], but traditional orthography has ἐκγ- in such words);
  • In all other environments the phoneme /n/ is realized regularly as [n].

On occasion, the /n/ phoneme participates in true gemination without any assimilation in place of articulation, as for example in the word ἐννέα. Artificial gemination for metrical purposes is also found occasionally, as in the form ἔννεπε, occurring in the first verse of Homer’s Odyssey.


Ancient Greek has the liquids /l/ and /r/, written λ and ρ respectively.

The letter λ (lambda) probably represented a lateral ("clear") [l] as in Modern Greek and most European languages, rather than a velarized ("dark") [ɫ] as in English in coda position. When /n/ precedes /l/, the first consonant assimilates to the second, gemination takes place, and the combination is pronounced [lː], as in συλλαμβάνω from underlying *συνλαμβάνω.

The letter ρ (rho) probably stood for an alveolar trill sound, [r] more like the Italian or Modern Greek than the English or French r sounds. Word initially, ρ is invariably written with the spiritus asper as ῥ-, probably representing a voiceless or aspirated allophone of /r/ ([r̥] or [rʰ]), hence the traditional transliteration rh. The same orthography is sometimes encountered when /r/ is geminated, as in συρρέω, sometimes written συῤῥέω, giving rise to the transliteration rrh. This example also illustrates that /n/ assimilates to following /r/, creating gemination.


Before the mediae and aspiratae became fricatives, Greek probably only had two fricative phonemes: the sibilant /s/ written with a sigma (Σ, σ, ς), and the glottal /h/. The former is likely to have had a voiced allophone [z] before other voiced consonants, which was not distinguished from sigma in writing.

/h/ could stand only in word-initial position. In Attic, it was originally written with the letter Η. Partly before and partly during classical times, /h/ was lost in pronunciation in Ionian and Aeolian (a process also known as psilosis), but Attic preserved the sound longer than these dialects. In Ionic, where it had been lost early, the letter Η was then co-opted to serve as a vowel letter. On adoption of the Ionic alphabet in the other dialect areas (in Athens in 403 BCE), the sound /h/ ceased to be represented in writing. In some inscriptions it was instead indicated by a symbol formed from the left-hand half of the original letter. Later grammarians, during the time of the Hellenistic Koine, developed that symbol further into the rough breathing (δασὺ πνεῦμα; Latin: spiritus asper; δασεῖα for short), which they no longer treated as a letter in its own right but as a diacritic written on the top of the initial vowel. Correspondingly, they introduced the reverse diacritic called smooth breathing (ψιλὸν πνεῦμα Latin: spiritus lenis; ψιλή for short), which indicated the absence of aspiration. These signs were not adopted universally until the Byzantine age.

The letter digamma, written Ϝ, ϝ, was used in some dialects to represent the sound /w/ in syllable-initial position. This sound had been lost in Attic and Ionic before the classical period, and the letter was no longer used except as a numeral (= 6, later replaced by ϛ). The /w/ of other Greek dialects and of foreign languages was normally rendered with β and later also with ου.

Doubled consonants[edit]

Gemination was distinctive in Ancient Greek, so doubled consonants would have been prolonged in pronunciation, as confirmed by metrical considerations and the modern Greek dialect of Cyprus. Doubled consonants do not occur at the start or end of words. φ, θ, χ are not doubled in the orthography, the combinations πφ, τθ, and κχ being used instead (compare doubled rho above).

A doubled sigma (σσ) in most Ancient Greek dialects and in Koine is generally corresponds to a doubled tau (ττ) in Attic. This often comes from palatalization of κ, χ,[2] and sometimes γ before the pre-Greek semivowel /j/. In Greek grammar, /j/ is often written as iota with a non-syllabic diacritic (ι̯).

  • ἥκ-ι̯ωνἥσσων/ἥττων "weaker" (compare ἦκα "softly")
  • τάγ-ι̯ωτάσσω/τάττω "I arrange" (compare ταγή "battle line")
  • γλῶχ-ι̯αγλῶσσα/γλῶττα "tongue" (compare γλωχίν "point")


Attic Greek phonemically contrasted long and short vowels. The vowel inventory of Attic Greek, as reconstructed, contained five short and seven long vowels as distinct phonemes. Their exact pronunciation at any particular period is difficult to establish with precision, but the following scheme, proposed by Allen (1968), is generally accepted. The following tables show the vowels in IPA notation, together with the corresponding letters of the Greek alphabet, as used in classical Attic orthography.

Short vowels[edit]

Front Back
unrounded round
Close /i/ /y/
Mid /e/ ε /o/ ο
Open /a/

It is apparent that short mid vowels were close-mid, while the long ones were open-mid before the lengthenings of the short vowels due to contraction or loss of a following consonant (see below). Note that early vowel lengthening in Proto-Indo-European or early Proto-Greek times (e.g. in the subjunctive or in the lengthened root vowels of futures and aorists) did not produce the same results. This might indicate that long and short vowels had the same quality at that time; or it might simply indicate that the phonemic distinction between close-mid and open-mid long vowels had not yet developed, and as such the newly lengthened vowel would have had its quality automatically adjusted as appropriate. In Doric Greek, even late lengthening of short mid vowels produced long open-mid vowels, suggesting that the short vowels were also open-mid in this dialect.[citation needed]

Long vowels[edit]

Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close // //
Close-mid // ει // ου
Open-mid /ɛː/ η /ɔː/ ω
Open //

The close front rounded vowels /y/ and /yː/ are both represented in writing by the letter upsilon (υ )irrespective of length. At an earlier date, they had been [u] and [uː]. It is difficult to determine with precision when the fronting occurred. It was likely a gradual process with a close central rounded vowel [ʉ] as an intermediate stage. The fronting did not occur in all ancient Greek dialects, but it was inherited by Koine Greek. The unrounding that produced the modern Greek [i] sound of the letter occurred in Byzantine times, long after the loss of length contrast between long and short upsilon.

The long close-mid vowels /eː/ and /oː/ had a complex history. In some instances, they had earlier been falling diphthongs [ei] and [ou] respectively, and the spellings ει and ου reflect this origin. In other instances, they arose through lengthening of earlier short /e/ and /o/ respectively, compensating for a following consonant or consonant cluster that was lost in pre-alphabetic times. Thus, e.g.: λυθείς, λύουσι for earlier *lutʰents, *luontsi. In yet different instances, /eː/ arises through contraction of εε and /oː/ through contraction of εο, οε, or oo, with the uncontracted versions found in the dialects. When the original diphthongs lost their diphthongal pronunciation having become /eː/ and /oː/ probably in pre-classical times, the spellings ει and ου provided a convenient way of representing the new sounds, irrespective of origin. Wherever the digraph spellings ει and ου correspond to original diphthongs they are called "genuine diphthongs", in all other cases, they are called "spurious diphthongs".

During or soon after the classical period, both /eː/ and /oː/ were raised towards [iː] and [uː] respectively. /eː/ (ει) thus merged with original /iː/, while /oː/ (ου) took up the empty space of the earlier /uː/ phoneme, which had by that time been fronted to /yː/ (see above). The fact that υ was never confused with ου indicates that υ was fronted before ου was raised or that the two sound changes occurred simultaneously.

Alphabetic representation of the vowels of Attic[edit]

The above information about the usage of the vowel letters applies to the classical orthography of Attic, after Athens took over the orthographic conventions of the Ionic alphabet in 403 BC. In the earlier, traditional Attic orthography there was only a smaller repertoire of vowel symbols: α, ε, ι, ο, and υ. The letters η and ω were still missing. All five vowel symbols could at that stage denote either a long or a short vowel. Moreover, the mid-vowel symbols ε and ο could denote both the open-mid /ɛː, ɔː/ and the close-mid long phonemes /eː, oː/ respectively. The Ionic alphabet brought the new letters η and ω for the one set of long vowels, and the convention of using the digraph spellings ει and ου for the other, leaving simple ε and ο to be used only for the short vowels. However, the remaining vowel letters α, ι and υ continued to be ambiguous between long and short phonemes.


Ancient Greek had a large number of diphthongs. All of them were closing diphthongs, ending in either /i/ or /u/ as a semi-vocalic offglide. The first element of the diphthong could either be short or long. This gives the following inventory:[3]

Front Back
Mid Short /eu̯/ ευ
(/ei̯/ ει)
/oi̯/ οι
(/ou̯/ ου)
Open-Mid Long /ɛːu̯/ ηυ
(ɔːu̯ ωυ)
Open Short /au̯/ ᾰυ
/ai̯/ αι
Open Long /aːu̯/ ᾱυ

In the back diphthongs (αυ, ευ, ηυ), the offglide became consonantal during the Hellenistic age, ultimately leading to Modern Greek /av/, /ev/, /iv/. /ɔːu/ was rare and occurred in Ionic, not in Attic.

The diphthongs /ei̯/ and /ou̯/ existed in pre-classical Greek, but they had merged with the long vowels /eː/ and /oː/ by the time of the classical period.


In Ancient Greek the distinction between heavy and light syllables is important as the key element in classical versification. A heavy syllable (sometimes called a long syllable, but this risks confusion with long vowels) is a syllable that either contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in a consonant. If a single consonant occurs between two syllables within a word, it is considered to belong to the following syllable, so the syllable before the consonant is light if it contains a short vowel. If two or more consonants, a double consonant (ζ, ξ or ψ) or a geminated consonant, occur between syllables within a word, the first of the consonants goes with the first syllable, making it heavy. Certain combinations of consonants, namely stops plus liquids or nasals (e.g. τρ or κν) are exceptions, as in some circumstances both consonants go with the second syllable — a phenomenon known as correptio attica. The ancient grammarians called a heavy syllable with a short vowel θέσει μακρά ― "long by convention" (this was translated into Latin as positione longa ― "long by position"), and a syllable with a long vowel φύσει μακρά ― long by nature ― natura longa.


Main article: Ancient Greek accent

In Ancient Greek one mora (half or short syllable) of a word was normally accented. Unlike Modern Greek, this was a pitch accent, meaning that the accented syllable was pronounced at a higher pitch than the other syllables; Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the interval was approximately that of a fifth in music. In standard polytonic orthography (invented in the Hellenistic age, but not adopted universally until Byzantine times), the acute accent (ὀξεῖα) is used to indicate a simple accented syllable. In long vowels and diphthongs the accent could fall on either mora: if it fell on the first, so that the syllable had a high tone followed by a low tone, it is indicated in polytonic orthography by the circumflex (περισπωμένη):

/éè/ = /ɛ̂ː/ = (the /e/s are not really two and not really instances of /e/; this is a symbolical approximation in order to present the rising/falling tone effect),
e.g. Ἀθναι (Athens NOM; the αι diphthong in this case is, or is treated as being, short),
/eé/ = /ɛ́ː/ = ή (likewise),
e.g. Ἀθήνας (Athens ACC; -ας is -ᾱς).

The accent can only fall on one of the last three syllables of a word, and if the last syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong, it can only fall on one of the last two syllables, though there are some exceptions to the latter, e.g. NOM sing. πόλις, pólis, GEN sing. πόλεως, póleōs, IPA: [póleɔːs] (unless, that is, the supposed exceptions should be considered a case of, for example, hidden, underlying synizesis).

The circumflex can only fall on the last two syllables, and only if that syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong.

An acute accent on a final syllable (except before a pause or an enclitic word) is regularly (according to specified rules) replaced in the orthography by a grave accent (βαρεῖα); this may indicate a lowering of tone or a lower tone in that syllable, but the evidence from ancient authors is unclear on this point:

'Μακρ συλλαβή.', "long syllable",
'Συλλαβ μακρά.', "long syllable" (the difference in the order of the words might, e.g., indicate different emphasis).

If the penultimate syllable is accented, it normally has the circumflex if it contains a long vowel or diphthong and the last syllable contains a short vowel, otherwise it has the acute. An accented final syllable can have either the acute (or grave) or the circumflex.

In most inflected forms, word-final -αι and -οι – but not -αις, -αιν, -oις or -oιν – are, or are treated as if they were, short.


In Ancient Greek, any vowel may end a word, but the only consonants that may normally end a word are ν, ρ, ς. If a stop ended a word in Proto-Indo-European, this was dropped in Ancient Greek, as in ποίημα (from ποίηματ; compare the genitive singular ποιήματος). Other consonants may end a word, however, when a final vowel is elided before a word beginning in a vowel, as in ἐφ᾿ ἵππῳ (from ἐπὶ ἵππῳ).


The above information is based on a large body of evidence which was discussed extensively by linguists and philologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The following section provides a short summary of the kinds of evidence and arguments that have been used in this debate, and gives some hints as to the sources of uncertainty that still prevails with respect to some details.

Internal evidence[edit]

Initial systematicity between letters and sounds[edit]

As is the case whenever an alphabetic script is devised or adopted for a language, a significant degree of systematicity, if not a one to one correspondence, is at play between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds of the language it represents. This renders spelling mistakes unlikely "by design" for as long as the pronunciation of the language remains unchanged, following the adoption of the alphabet. As the pronunciation undergoes change over successive generations of speakers, either the spelling conventions end up changing in an attempt to reflect the corresponding changes in pronunciation, or else the spelling remains conservative, and a traditional spelling becomes established. In the former case, which may be termed a spelling reform, the date of introduction of the reform provides a date a quo for the corresponding changes in pronunciation. In the latter case, when a historical orthography is established, spelling mistakes by writers with imperfect knowledge of the writing conventions become the principal tools that allow linguists to reconstruct pronunciation and date its evolution over time.

Spelling mistakes[edit]

  • If it is found that scribes very often confuse two letters, then it can be inferred that the sounds denoted by the two letters had merged into one in speech. This happened early, for instance, between ι and ει, a little later between υ and οι, between ο and ω, and between ε and αι, later still between η and the already merged ι and ει.
  • If it is found that scribes very often omit a letter where it would be needed in standard orthography, or that they falsely insert it where it did not belong (hypercorrection), then it can be inferred that the sound denoted by that letter had been lost in speech. This happened early with word-initial rough breathing ([h]) in most forms of Greek. Another example is the occasional omission of the iota subscript of long diphthongs (see above).

Spelling mistakes are an important type of evidence, but they have their limitations. They only prove that the phonetic development in question existed in the language of the particular scribe, not that it was adopted universally by all speakers of the language at the time. Ancient Greek was not homogeneous or static, but a language divided in many regional variants and social registers. Many of the linguistic features characteristic of Late and Modern Greek were probably anticipated in some dialects and some registers of Attic already in the Classical Age, but the older varieties seem to have persisted for centuries.

Onomatopoeic words[edit]

Greek literature sometimes contains representations of animal cries in Greek letters. The most often quoted example is "βῆ βῆ", used to render the cry of sheep, and is used as evidence that beta had a voiced bilabial plosive pronunciation and eta was a long open-mid front vowel. Onomatopoeic verbs such as μυκάομαι for the lowing of cattle (cf. Latin mugire), βρυχάομαι for the roaring of lions (cf. Latin rugire) and κόκκυξ as the name of the cuckoo (cf. Latin cuculus) suggest an archaic [uː] pronunciation of long upsilon, before this vowel was fronted to [yː].

Morpho-phonological facts[edit]

Sounds undergo regular changes, such as assimilation or dissimilation, in certain environments within words, which are sometimes indicated in writing. These can be used to reconstruct the nature of the sounds involved.

  • <π,τ,κ> at the end of some words are regularly changed to <φ,θ,χ> when preceding a rough breathing in the next word. Thus, e.g.: ἐφ' ἁλός for ἐπὶ ἁλός or καθ' ἡμᾶς for κατὰ ἡμᾶς.
  • <π,τ,κ> at the end of the first member of composite words are regularly changed to <φ,θ,χ> when preceding a spiritus asper in the next member of the composite word. Thus e.g.: ἔφιππος, καθάπτω
  • The Attic dialect in particular is marked by contractions: two vowels without an intervening consonant were merged in a single syllable; for instance uncontracted (disyllabic) εα ([e.a]) occurs regularly in dialects but contracts to η in Attic, supporting the view that η was pronounced [ɛː] (intermediate between [e] and [a]) rather than [iː] as in Modern Greek. Similarly, uncontracted εε, οο ([e.e], [o.o]) occur regularly in Ionic but contract to ει and ου in Attic, suggesting [eː], [oː] values for the spurious ει and ου diphthongs in Attic as opposed to the [i] and [u] sounds they later acquired.

Non-standard spellings[edit]

Morphophonological alternations like the above are often treated differently in non-standard spellings than in standardised literary spelling. This may lead to doubts about the representativeness of the literary dialect and may in some cases force slightly different reconstructions than if one were only to take the literary texts of the high standard language into account. Thus, e.g.:

  • non-standard epigraphical spelling sometimes indicates assimilation of final κ to γ before voiced consonants in a following word, or of final κ to χ before aspirated sounds, in words like ἐκ.

Metrical evidence[edit]

The metres used in Classical Greek poetry are based on the patterns of light and heavy syllables, and can thus sometimes provide evidence as to the length of vowels where this is not evident from the orthography. By the 4th century AD poetry was normally written using stress-based metres, suggesting that the distinctions between long and short vowels had been lost by then, and the pitch accent had been replaced by a stress accent.

External evidence[edit]

Orthoepic descriptions[edit]

Some ancient grammarians attempt to give systematic descriptions of the sounds of the language. In other authors one can sometimes find occasional remarks about correct pronunciation of certain sounds. However, both types of evidence are often difficult to interpret, because the phonetic terminology of the time was often vague, and it is often not clear in what relation the described forms of the language stand to those which were actually spoken by different groups of the population.

Important ancient authors include:

Cross-dialectal comparison[edit]

Sometimes the comparison of standard Attic Greek with the written forms of other Greek dialects, or with the humorous renderings of 'alien' dialectal speech (e.g. Spartan Doric) in Attic theatrical works, can provide hints as to the phonetic value of certain spellings.

Towards the end of the 5th century BC, Attic authors sometimes transcribe as σ the sound of Spartan θ: ναὶ τὼ σιώ (att. θεώ), παρσένε, ὀρσά (ὀρθή), ἀγασώς (ἀγαθούς) in Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and we also find σύματος (θύματος) in Thucydides with the latter spelling found even in Spartan inscriptions of the 4th century BC. It can be inferred that in Spartan Doric, θ was already a fricative (at least in pre-vocalic position) and could be made fun of, since Attic maintained the plosive pronunciation.


The spelling of Greek loanwords in other languages and conversely, the spelling of foreign loanwords in Greek, can provide important hints about pronunciation. However, the evidence is often difficult to interpret or indecisive. The sounds of loanwords are often not taken over identically into the receiving language. Where the receiving language lacks a sound that corresponds exactly to that of the source language, sounds are usually mapped to some other, similar sound.

In this regard, Latin is of great value to the reconstruction of ancient Greek phonology because of its close proximity to the Greek world which caused numerous Greek words to be borrowed by the Romans. At first, Greek loanwords denoting technical terms or proper names which contained the letter [[phi (letter)|Φ]] were imported in Latin with the spelling P or PH, indicating an effort to imitate, albeit imperfectly, a sound that Latin lacked. Later on, in the 1st centuries AD, spellings with F start to appear in such loanwords, signaling the onset of the fricative pronunciation of Φ. Thus, in the 2nd century AD, Filippus replaces P(h)ilippus. At about the same time, the letter F also begins to be used as a substitute for the letter [[theta (letter)|Θ]], for lack of a better choice, indicating that the sound of Greek theta had become a fricative as well.

For the purpose of borrowing certain other Greek words, the Romans added the letters Y and Z to the Latin alphabet, taken directly from the Greek one. These additions are important as they show that the Romans had no symbols to represent the sounds of the letters [[upsilon (letter)|Υ]] and [[zeta (letter)|Ζ]] in Greek, which means that in these cases no known sound of Latin can be used to reconstruct the Greek sounds.

Comparison with older alphabets[edit]

The Greek alphabet developed from the older Phoenician alphabet. It may be assumed that the Greeks tended to assign to each Phoenician letter that Greek sound which most closely resembled the Phoenician sound. But, as with loanwords, the interpretation is not straightforward.

Comparison with younger/derived alphabets[edit]

The Greek alphabet was in turn the basis of other alphabets, notably the Etruscan and Coptic and later the Armenian, Gothic, and Cyrillic. Similar arguments can be derived in these cases as in the Phoenician-Greek case.

For example, in Cyrillic, the letter В (ve) stands for [v], confirming that beta was pronounced as a fricative by the 9th century AD, while the new letter Б (be) was invented to note the sound [b]. Conversely, in Gothic, the letter derived from beta stands for [b], so in the 4th century AD, beta may have still been a plosive in Greek although according to evidence from the Greek papyri of Egypt, beta as a stop had been generally replaced by beta as a voiced bilabial fricative [β] by the first century AD.

Comparison with Modern Greek[edit]

Any reconstruction of Ancient Greek needs to take into account how the sounds later developed towards Modern Greek, and how these changes could have occurred. In general, the changes between the reconstructed Ancient Greek and Modern Greek are assumed to be unproblematic in this respect by historical linguists, because all the relevant changes (spirantization, chain-shifts of long vowels towards [i], loss of initial [h], restructuring of vowel-length and accentuation systems, etc.) are of types that are cross-linguistically frequently attested and relatively easy to explain.

Comparative reconstruction of Indo-European[edit]

Systematic relationships between sounds in Greek and sounds in other Indo-European languages are taken as strong evidence for reconstruction by historical linguists, because such relationships indicate that these sounds may go back to an inherited sound in the proto-language.

History of the reconstruction of ancient pronunciation[edit]

The Renaissance[edit]

Until the 15th century (during the time of the Byzantine Greek Empire) ancient Greek texts were pronounced exactly like contemporary Greek when they were read aloud. From about 1486, various scholars (notably Antonio of Lebrixa, Girolamo Aleandro, and Aldus Manutius) judged that this pronunciation appeared to be inconsistent with the descriptions handed down by ancient grammarians, and suggested alternative pronunciations.

Johann Reuchlin, the leading Greek scholar in the West around 1500, had taken his Greek learning from Byzantine émigré scholars, and continued to use the modern pronunciation. This pronunciation system was called into question by Erasmus (1466–1536) who in 1528 published De recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione dialogus, a philological treatise clothed in the form of a philosophical dialogue, in which he developed the idea of a historical reconstruction of ancient Latin and Greek pronunciation. The two models of pronunciation became soon known, after their principal proponents, as the "Reuchlinian" and the "Erasmian" system, or, after the characteristic vowel pronunciations, as the "iotacist" (or "itacist" ) and the "etacist" system, respectively.

Erasmus' reconstruction was based on a wide range of arguments, derived from the philological knowledge available at his time. In the main, he strove for a more regular correspondence of letters to sounds, assuming that different letters must have stood for different sounds, and same letters for same sounds. That led him, for instance, to posit that the various letters which in the iotacist system all denoted [i] must have had different values, and that ει, αι, οι, ευ, αυ, ου were all diphthongs with a closing offglide. He also insisted on taking the accounts of ancient grammarians literally, for instance where they described vowels as being distinctively long and short, or the acute and circumflex accents as being clearly distinguished by pitch contours. In addition, he drew on evidence from word correspondences between Greek and Latin as well as some other European languages. Some of his arguments in this direction are, in hindsight, mistaken, because he naturally lacked much of the knowledge developed through later linguistic work. Thus, he could not distinguish between Latin-Greek word relations based on loans (e.g. ΦοῖβοςPhoebus) on the one hand, and those based on common descent from Indo-European (e.g. φῶρfūr) on the other. He also fell victim to a few spurious relations due to mere accidental similarity (e.g. Greek θύειν "sacrifice" — French tuer, "kill"). In other areas, his arguments are of quite the same kind as those used by modern linguistics, e.g. where he argues on the basis of cross-dialectal correspondences within Greek that η must have been a rather open e-sound, close to [a].

Erasmus also took great pains to assign to the members in his reconstructed system plausible phonetic values. This was no easy task, as contemporary grammatical theory lacked the rich and precise terminology to describe such values. In order to overcome that problem, Erasmus drew upon his knowledge of the sound repertoires of contemporary living languages, for instance likening his reconstructed η to Scots a ([æ]), his reconstructed ου to Dutch ou ([oʊ]), and his reconstructed οι to French oi (at that time pronounced [oɪ]).

Erasmus assigned to the Greek consonant letters β, γ, δ the sounds of voiced plosives /b/, /ɡ/, /d/, while for the consonant letters φ, θ, and χ he advocated the use of fricatives /f/, /θ/, /x/ as in Modern Greek (arguing, however, that this type of /f/ must have been different from that denoted by Latin f).

The reception of Erasmus' idea among his contemporaries was mixed. Most prominent among those scholars who resisted his move was Philipp Melanchthon, a student of Reuchlin's. Debate in humanist circles continued up into the 17th century, but the situation remained undecided for several centuries. (See Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching.)

The 19th century[edit]

A renewed interest in the issues of reconstructed pronunciation arose during the 19th century. On the one hand, the new science of historical linguistics, based on the method of comparative reconstruction, took a vivid interest in Greek. It soon established beyond any doubt that Greek was descended in parallel with many other languages from the common source of the Indo-European proto-language. This had important consequences for how its phonological system must be reconstructed. At the same time, continued work in philology and archeology was bringing to light an ever-growing corpus of non-standard, non-literary and non-classical Greek writings, e.g. inscriptions and later also papyri. These added considerably to what could be known about the development of the language. On the other hand, there was a revival of academic life in Greece after the establishment of the Greek state in 1830, and scholars in Greece were at first reluctant to accept the seemingly foreign idea that Greek should have been pronounced so differently from what they knew.

Comparative linguistics led to a picture of ancient Greek that more or less corroborated Erasmus' view, though with some modifications. It soon became clear, for instance, that the pattern of long and short vowels observed in Greek was mirrored in similar oppositions in other languages and thus had to be a common inheritance (see Ablaut); that Greek υ had to have been [u] at some stage because it regularly corresponded to [u] in all other Indo-European languages (cf. Gr. μῦς : Lat. mūs); that many instances of η had earlier been [a:] (cf. Gr. μήτηρ : Lat. māter); that Greek ου sometimes stood in words that had been lengthened from ο and therefore must have been pronounced [o:] at some stage (the same holds analogically for ε and ει, which must have been [eː]), and so on. For the consonants, historical linguistics established the originally plosive nature of both the aspirates <φ,θ,χ> [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] and the mediae <β,δ,γ> [b, d, ɡ], which were recognised to be a direct continuation of similar sounds in Indo-European (reconstructed *bʱ,*dʱ,*gʱ and *b,*d,*g). It was also recognised that the word-initial spiritus asper was most often a reflex of earlier *s (cf. Gr. ἑπτά : Lat. septem), which was believed to have been weakened to [h] in pronunciation. Work was also done reconstructing the linguistic background to the rules of ancient Greek versification, especially in Homer, which shed important light on the phonology regarding syllable structure and accent. Scholars also described and explained the regularities in the development of consonants and vowels under processes of assimilation, reduplication, compensatory lengthening etc.

While comparative linguistics could in this way firmly establish that a certain source state, roughly along the Erasmian model, had once obtained, and that significant changes had to have occurred later, during the development towards Modern Greek, the comparative method had less to say about the question when these changes took place. Erasmus had been eager to find a pronunciation system that corresponded most closely to the written letters, and it was now natural to assume that the reconstructed sound system was that which obtained at the time when Greek orthography was in its formative period. For a time, it was taken for granted that this would also have been the pronunciation valid for all the period of classical literature. However, it was perfectly possible that the pronunciation of the living language had begun to move on from that reconstructed system towards that of Modern Greek, possibly already quite early during antiquity.

In this context, the freshly emerging evidence from the non-standard inscriptions became of decisive importance. Critics of the Erasmian reconstruction drew attention to the systematic patterns of spelling mistakes made by scribes. These mistakes showed that scribes had trouble distinguishing between the orthographically correct spellings for certain words, for instance involving ι, η, and ει. This provided evidence that these vowels had already begun to merge in the living speech of the period. While some scholars in Greece were quick to emphasise these findings in order to cast doubt on the Erasmian system as a whole, some western European scholars tended to downplay them, explaining early instances of such orthographical aberrations as either isolated exceptions or influences from non-Attic, non-standard dialects. In doing so, some scholars seem to have been influenced by an ideologically motivated tendency to regard post-classical, especially Byzantine and Modern Greek as an inferior, vulgarised form of the language, and by a wish to see the picture of ancient Greek preserved in what they regarded as its 'pure' state. The resulting debate, as it was conducted during the 19th century, finds its expression in, for instance, the works of A. N. Jannaris (1897) and T. Papadimitrakopoulos (1889) on the anti-Erasmian side, and of Friedrich Blass (1870) on the pro-Erasmian side.

It was not until the early 20th century and the work of G. Chatzidakis, a linguist often credited with having first introduced the methods of modern historical linguistics into the Greek academic establishment, that the validity of the comparative method and its reconstructions for Greek began to be widely accepted among Greek scholars too. The international consensus view that had been reached by the early and mid-20th century is represented in the works of Sturtevant (1940) and Allen (1968).

More recent developments[edit]

Since the 1970s and 1980s, several scholars have attempted a systematic re-evaluation of the inscriptional and papyrological evidence (Smith 1972, Teodorsson 1974, 1977, 1978; Gignac 1976; Threatte 1980, summary in Horrocks 1999). According to their results, many of the relevant phonological changes can be dated fairly early, reaching well into the classical period, and the period of the Koiné can be characterised as one of very rapid phonological change. Many of the changes in vowel quality are now dated to some time between the 5th and the 1st centuries BC, while those in the consonants are assumed to have been completed by the 4th century AD. However, there is still considerable debate over precise dating, and it is still not clear to what degree, and for how long, different pronunciation systems would have persisted side by side within the Greek speech community. The resulting majority view today is that a phonological system roughly along Erasmian lines can still be assumed to have been valid for the period of classical Attic literature, but biblical and other post-classical Koine Greek is likely to have been spoken with a pronunciation that already approached the Modern Greek one in many crucial respects.

Recently, there has been one attempt at a more radically revisionist, anti-Erasmian reconstruction, proposed by the theologian and philologist C. Caragounis (1995, 2004). On the basis of the inscriptional record, Caragounis dates virtually all relevant vowel changes into or before the early classical period. He relies heavily upon Threatte and Gignac for data from the papyri, but he provides little if any actual interaction with their own markedly different analyses of the very same historical data. He also argues for a very early fricative status of the aspirate and medial consonants, and casts doubt on the validity of the vowel-length and accent distinctions in the spoken language in general. These views are currently isolated within the field.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Aristotle, Poetics, 1456b.20: Τῆς δὲ λέξεως ἁπάσης τάδ᾽ ἐστὶ τὰ μέρη, στοιχεῖον συλλαβὴ σύνδεσμος ὄνομα ῥῆμα ἄρθρον πτῶσις λόγος. Στοιχεῖον μὲν οὖν ἐστιν φωνὴ ἀδιαίρετος, οὐ πᾶσα δὲ ἀλλ᾽ ἐξ ἧς πέφυκε συνθετὴ γίγνεσθαι φωνή· καὶ γὰρ τῶν θηρίων εἰσὶν ἀδιαίρετοι φωναί, ὧν οὐδεμίαν λέγω [25] στοιχεῖον. Ταύτης δὲ μέρη τό τε φωνῆεν καὶ τὸ ἡμίφωνον καὶ ἄφωνον. Ἔστιν δὲ ταῦτα φωνῆεν μὲν <τὸ> ἄνευ προσβολῆς ἔχον φωνὴν ἀκουστήν, ἡμίφωνον δὲ τὸ μετὰ προσβολῆς ἔχον φωνὴν ἀκουστήν, οἷον τὸ Σ καὶ τὸ Ρ, ἄφωνον δὲ τὸ μετὰ προσβολῆς καθ᾽ αὑτὸ μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἔχον φωνήν, μετὰ δὲ [30] τῶν ἐχόντων τινὰ φωνὴν γινόμενον ἀκουστόν, οἷον τὸ Γ καὶ τὸ Δ.
    All speech consists of these parts: letter, syllable, conjunction, noun, verb, inflection, phrase. A letter is an indivisible sound, not any sound, but a sound out of which a compound sound [syllable] is naturally made up of, since the sounds of animals are also indivisible, and I call none of them a letter. The categories of sound are vowel, semivowel, and mute. These categories are the vowel, which has audible sound but no contact [between lips or between tongue and the inside of the mouth]; the semivowel, which has audible sound and contact (for example s and r); and the mute, which has contact and no sound by itself, becoming audible only with [letters] that have a sound (for example g and d).
  2. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth. Greek Grammar. par. 112.
  3. ^ Allen, W. Sidney: Vox Graeca: A guide to pronunciation 3rd ed., page 63. Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Recent literature[edit]

  • W. Sidney Allen (1987): Vox Graeca: the pronunciation of Classical Greek, Cambridge: University Press, (3rd edition, ISBN 0-521-33555-8) (A preview is available at Google Books)
  • C. C. Caragounis (1995): "The error of Erasmus and un-Greek pronunciations of Greek". Filologia Neotestamentaria 8 (16) [1].
  • C. C. Caragounis (2004): Development of Greek and the New Testament, Mohr Siebeck (ISBN 3-16-148290-5).
  • A.-F. Christidis ed. (2007), A History of Ancient Greek, Cambridge University Press (ISBN 0-521-83307-8): A. Malikouti-Drachmann, "The phonology of Classical Greek", 524-544; E. B. Petrounias, "The pronunciation of Ancient Greek: Evidence and hypotheses", 556-570; idem, "The pronunciation of Classical Greek", 556-570.
  • G. Horrocks (1997): Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0-582-30709-0).
  • F.T. Gignac (1976): A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods. Volume 1: Phonology. Milan: Istituto Editoriale Cisalpino-La Goliardica.
  • C. Karvounis (2008): Aussprache und Phonologie im Altgriechischen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (ISBN 978-3-534-20834-0).
  • M. Lejeune (1972): Phonétique historique du mycénien et du grec ancien, Paris: Librairie Klincksieck (reprint 2005, ISBN 2-252-03496-3).
  • H. Rix (1992): Historische Grammatik des Griechischen. Laut- und Formenlehre, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (2nd edition, ISBN 3-534-03840-1).
  • A. L. Sihler (1995): New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-508345-8).
  • R. B. Smith (1972): Empirical evidences and theoretical interpretations of Greek phonology: Prolegomena to a theory of sound patterns in the Hellenistic Koine, Ph.D. diss. Indiana University.
  • S.-T. Teodorsson (1974): The phonemic system of the Attic dialect 400-340 BC. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis (ASIN B0006CL51U).
  • S.-T. Teodorsson (1977): The phonology of Ptolemaic Koine (Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia), Göteborg (ISBN 91-7346-035-4).
  • S.-T. Teodorsson (1978): The phonology of Attic in the Hellenistic period (Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia), Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis (ISBN 91-7346-059-1).
  • L. Threatte (1980): The Grammar of Attic Inscriptions, vol. 1: Phonology, Berlin: de Gruyter (ISBN 3-11-007344-7).

Older literature[edit]

  • G. Babiniotis: Ιστορική Γραμματεία της Αρχαίας Ελληνικής Γλώσσας, 1. Φωνολογία ("Phonology")
  • F. Blass (1870): Über die Aussprache des Griechischen, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung.
  • I. Bywater, The Erasmian Pronunciation of Greek and its Precursors, Oxford: 1908. Defends Erasmus from the claim that he hastily wrote his Dialogus based on a hoax. Mentions Erasmus's predecessors Jerome Aleander, Aldus Manutius, and Antonio of Lebrixa. Short review in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 29 (1909), p. 133. JSTOR 624654.
  • E. A. S. Dawes (1894): The Pronunciation of Greek aspirates, D. Nutt.
  • E.M. Geldart (1870): The Modern Greek Language In Its Relation To Ancient Greek (reprint 2004, Lightning Source Inc. ISBN 1-4179-4849-3).
  • G. N. Hatzidakis (1902): Ἀκαδημαϊκὰ ἀναγνώσματα: ἡ προφορὰ τῆς ἀρχαίας Ἑλληνικῆς ("Academic Studies: The pronunciation of Ancient Greek").
  • A. Jannaris (1897): An Historical Greek Grammar Chiefly of the Attic Dialect As Written and Spoken From Classical Antiquity Down to the Present Time. London: MacMillan.
  • A. Meillet (1975) Aperçu d'une histoire de la langue grecque, Paris: Librairie Klincksieck (8th edition).
  • A. Meillet & J. Vendryes (1968): Traité de grammaire comparée des langues classiques, Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion (4th edition).
  • Th. Papadimitrakopoulos (1889): Βάσανος τῶν περὶ τῆς ἑλληνικῆς προφορᾶς Ἐρασμικῶν ἀποδείξεων. Athens.
  • E. Schwyzer (1939): Griechische Grammatik, vol. 1, Allgemeiner Teil. Lautlehre. Wortbildung. Flexion, München: C.H. Beck (repr. 1990 ISBN 3-406-01339-2).
  • W. B. Stanford (1967): The Sound of Greek.
  • E. H. Sturtevant (1940): The Pronunciation of Greek and Latin, Philadelphia (2nd edition).

External links[edit]