Guide to Greek Pronunciation Systems
How to pronounce the Greek alphabet using ancient Greek, biblical (Koine) Greek, and modern Greek systems
The pronunciation of Greek has many conventions. This Greek pronunciation guide contains a brief history of the sounds of ancient, biblical (Koine), Erasmian, and modern Greek pronunciation and a comparative Greek pronunciation chart with audio files for the major conventions.
1. The History of Greek Pronunciation
2. A Chart of Four Major Conventions of Greek Pronunciation
3. Links to examples of the Greek pronunciation conventions
4. Historical Pronunciation Sites
5. Broader Phonetic Sites
1. The History of Greek Pronunciation:
The pronunciation of Greek today is made confusion by many different systems of pronouncing the sounds associated with each letter of the Greek alphabet. Scientists and Mathematicians pronounce them one way, western classicists and seminaries pronounce them another, and modern ethnic Greeks have yet another pronunciation.
The pronunciation of historic Greek has been a hotly debated issue from Erasmus (1533) through the modern day. Broadly speaking, there have been only three major traditions of Hellenistic pronunciation since the height of the classical period, Classical, Byzantine, Modern. The conquest of Alexander the Great brought the classical period of pronunciation to a close. As Greek became the world language, it lost much of its phonetic distinctiveness. Most significantly, the language lost its tonal qualities, which then caused the meter of the language to change. So a classic tragedy performed in Athens around 200 BC, would have sounded significantly different from the original. Further, the actors would have had to affect their pronunciation to make the poetic meter work.
After the Turks invaded Greece in the mid-fifteenth century, many Greeks fled or were displaced to surrounding regions. Whether this diaspora was the primary reason for the rekindling of interest in Greek classics, or whether it played a supporting role to other social factors is difficult to determine. In any case, the surrounding countries now had resident Greeks to teach this forgotten language of western religion and culture. With such a resource at hand, the reformers insisted that the Greek New Testament was the final appeal for exegetical debates rather than Latin translations. Perhaps the greatest pillar of the renaissance was the push for “ad fontes” (to the spring), meaning that a serious education would be founded upon the cornerstones of western literary culture, the Greek classics.
So as broader Europe began to learn Greek (the prerequisite for truly learning the Greek classics) the pronunciation of the dispersed Byzantines was a natural choice. The Byzantine pronunciation is basically the same pronunciation as heard in Modern Greece today. Learning abounded and the Church was strengthened. Martin Luther even looked upon the Greek dispersion as a blessing to the Church (for otherwise, we would have most likely lost touch with our original scriptures that bind the Church together.) He also argued that it would be a most ungrateful act to refuse to learn the language of our faith when God had made it so available. As the years past, Greek retook its place as a western ecclesiastical language.
It wasn’t until Erasmus, that the question of pronunciation became an issue. He raised the question of proper classical pronunciation. From various historical clues such as misspellings, transliterations, rhythms and onomatopoeia, he concluded that Classical Greek had a historically different pronunciation than Byzantine Greek. Soon a movement began championing his desire to purify the sound of Classical Greek to make it as historically accurate as possible. The movement was strongly suppressed at first, but eventually became the mainstream in England. There were many “gives and takes” along the way, but by the mid-nineteenth century the Erasmian pronunciation finally predominated and is still the academic norm today.
Within this history of the Erasmian pronunciation, we find two major ironies. First, it is ironic that even though Erasmus wanted the pronunciation of the Classical Greek to be as historical as possible, it would also be used anachronistically for Biblical Greek. It is odd that the Erasmian movement didn’t also push for historical pronunciations of post-classical texts, such as the Septuagint and the New Testament. Second and most significantly, soon after the Erasmian pronunciation predominated for historical puristic reasons, it changed into a mere pedagogical pronunciation. The primary principle quickly changed from “How would Demosthenes have spoken?” to “How can we create a distinctive sound for each letter.” This second principle has generated a pronunciation that was never used in history, it is pragmatic versus purist, violating Erasmus’ primary principle. So now, Erasmus’ own arguments can be leveled against the “Erasmian” pronunciation. Unfortunately, the reconstructed historical pronunciation isn’t the one that bears his name.
The following is a list of the various pronunciation conventions practiced today. The first sort of pronunciation scheme, and by far the most popular among classical academics, is some variation on the “Erasmian” pronunciation this is also called the academic pronunciation since it isn’t ethnic or historical. The historic Attic pronunciation, which is what Erasmus first proposed, is listed second. The third convention is the historic Biblical pronunciation and the fourth is the current Modern Greek pronunciation. It will become apparent that there are very few and minor differences between the Biblical and Modern pronunciation.
John Schwandt 2003
Senior Fellow of Classical Languages
New St. Andrews College