Spurious diphthong

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A spurious diphthong (or false diphthong) is an Ancient Greek vowel that is etymologically a long vowel but written exactly like a true diphthong ει, ου (ei, ou).[1]


A spurious diphthong has two origins: from compensatory lengthening of short ε, ο (e, o) after deletion of a consonant or contraction of two vowels:[2]

    • μόντ-ι̯α → μόνσα[3] (assibilation from palatalization) → μοῦσα "muse"
    • δοτερ-ι̯α[4] → δότειρα "giver" (feminine; compare masculine δοτήρ)
    • φιλέ-ετε → φιλεῖτε "you (pl.) love"
    • νόος → νοῦς "mind"

In general, spurious ει, ου contracts from ε, ο + ε, ο, ει, ου. The specific rules are more complex.

True diphthongs[edit]

By contrast, true diphthongs are e or o placed before i or u. Some come from e-grade of ablaut + i, or o-grade + u, co-existing beside forms with the other grade:

  • λείπω "I leave" (e-grade: genuine diphthong) — λέοιπα "I have left" (o-grade)
  • ἐλεύ(θ)σομαι "I will come" (e-grade) — Homeric εἰλ-ήλουθα "I have come" (o-grade)[5][6]


Early in the history of Greek, the diphthong versions of ει and ου were pronounced as [ei̯, ou̯], the long vowel versions as [eː, oː]. By the Classical period, the diphthong and long vowel had merged in pronunciation and were both pronounced as long monophthongs [eː, oː].

By the time of Koine Greek, ει and ου had shifted to [iː, uː]. (The shift of a Greek vowel to i is called iotacism.) In Modern Greek, distinctive vowel length has been lost, and all vowels are pronounced short: [i, u].

Other dialects[edit]

Long e or o existed in two forms in Attic-Ionic: ει, ου and η, ω (ē, ō). In earlier Severer Doric, by contrast, only η, ω counted as a long vowel, and it was the vowel of contraction.[7] In later forms of Doric, it contracted to ει, ου. Throughout the history of Doric, compensatory lengthening used η, ω.[8]

"Severe" refers to the sterner-sounding open pronunciation of η, ω [ɛː, ɔː], in contrast to the closer ει, ου [eː, oː].


  1. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, par. 25: diphthongs
  2. ^ Smyth, par. 6: genuine and spurious ei, ou
  3. ^ Smyth, par. 113: τι̯, θι̯ → σ(σ)
  4. ^ Smyth, par. 221: -ya in short-a feminine
  5. ^ ἔρχομαι. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  6. ^ Smyth, par. 36: vowel-grades
  7. ^ Smyth, par. 59 note 5: Severer Doric εε → η; οο, εο → ω
  8. ^ Smyth, par. 37 note 2: Doric compensatory lengthening