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Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching

Ancient Greek has been pronounced in various ways by those studying Ancient Greek literature in various times and places. This article covers those pronunciations; the modern scholarly reconstruction of its ancient pronunciation is covered in Ancient Greek phonology.

Greek world

Among speakers of Modern Greek, from the Byzantine Empire to modern Greece, Cyprus, and the Greek diaspora, Greek texts from all periods have always been pronounced using contemporaneous, local Greek pronunciation, which makes it easy to recognize the many words which have remained the same or similar in written form from one period to another. Among Classical scholars, this is often called the Reuchlinian pronunciation.

Nevertheless, Greek textbooks for secondary education give a summary description of the reconstructed pronunciation of Ancient Greek.[1] This includes differentiation between short and long vowels and between the various accents, pronunciation of the spiritus asper as /h/, of β, γ and δ as plosives and of diphthongs as such, whereas often no mention is made of the pronunciation of θ, φ, and χ.

Eastern Orthodox Church

The Theology faculties and schools related to or belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church use modern Greek pronunciation, following the tradition of the Byzantine Empire.

Renaissance scholarship

The study of Greek in the West expanded considerably during the Renaissance, in particular after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when many Byzantine Greek scholars came to western Europe. At this time, Greek texts were universally pronounced using the medieval pronunciation which survives intact to the present day.

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. This work culminated in Erasmus’ dialogue De recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione.

The pronunciation described by Erasmus is very similar to that currently regarded by most authorities as the authentic pronunciation of Classical Greek (notably the Attic dialect of the 5th century BC). However Erasmus did not actually use this pronunciation himself.[2]


In 1540, John Cheke and Thomas Smith became Regius Professors at Cambridge. They proposed a reconstructed pronunciation of both Greek and Latin, which was similar to Erasmus’ scheme, although derived independently, and this became adopted in schools.

Soon after the Cheke and Smith reforms, English underwent the Great Vowel Shift which changed the phonetic values assigned to the English "long vowels" in particular; the same changes affected the English pronunciation of Greek, which thus became further removed from the Ancient Greek original and also from Greek as pronounced in other western countries.

A further peculiarity of the English pronunciation of Ancient Greek occurred as a result of the work of Isaac Vossius who maintained in an anonymously published treatise that the written accents of Greek did not reflect the original pronunciation. Moreover, Henninus (Heinrich Christian Henning) published Dissertatio Paradoxa which claimed that accentuation in Ancient Greek must follow the same principles as in Latin. This view is now universally considered to be erroneous (it is generally accepted that the accented syllable in Ancient Greek (as in Modern Greek) is the one carrying the written accent, although most authorities consider that this was a pitch accent as opposed to the Modern Greek stress accent). However, the Henninian theory has affected the pronunciation taught in schools in the UK and the Netherlands, although it has been resisted in the United States and other countries.

Thus by the mid-19th century the pronunciation of Ancient Greek in British schools was quite different not only from Modern Greek, but also from the reconstructed pronunciation of Ancient Greek (which by this time had been fairly well agreed amongst scholars), and from the pronunciation used in other countries. The Classical Association therefore promulgated a new pronunciation[specify],[3] based on the reconstructed ancient pronunciation, which is now generally in use in British schools.

The reforms in the pronunciation of Ancient Greek in schools have not affected the pronunciation of individual Greek-derived words in English itself, while there is now considerable variation in the English pronunciation (and indeed spelling) of the names of Ancient Greek historical or mythological personages or places; see: English words of Greek origin.


The situation in present-day German education may be representative of that in many other European countries. The teaching of Greek is based on a roughly Erasmian model, but in practice it is heavily skewed towards the phonological system of the host language.

Thus, German speakers do not use a fricative [θ] for θ, but give it the same pronunciation as τ, namely [t], although φ and χ are realised as the fricatives [f] and [x] ~ [ç]. ζ is usually pronounced as an affricate, but voiceless, like German z [ts]. In return, σ is often voiced, according to the rules for pre-vocalic s in German, [z]. ευ and ηυ are not distinguished from οι, both pronounced [ɔʏ], following German eu, äu. Similarly, ει and αι are often not distinguished, both pronounced [aɪ] just like the similar-looking German ei, ai, while sometimes ει is pronounced [ɛɪ]. No attempt is usually made to reproduce the accentuation contrast between acute and circumflex accents.

While these deviations are often acknowledged as compromises in teaching, awareness of other German-based idiosyncrasies is less widespread. German speakers typically try to reproduce vowel-length distinctions in stressed syllables, but often fail to do so in non-stressed syllables, where they are also prone to use a reduction of e-sounds to [ə]. Distinctive length of double vs. single consonants is usually not observed, and German patterns whereby vowel length interrelates with closedness vs. openness of syllables may affect the realisation of Greek vowels before consonant clusters even in stressed syllables: ε, η = [ɛ] ~ [eː]; ο, ω = [ɔ] ~ [oː]; ι, ῑ = [ɪ] ~ [iː]; υ, ῡ = [ʏ] ~ [yː]; ου = [ʊ] ~ [uː].

In reading poetry, it is customary to render the scansion patterns by strong dynamic accents on the long syllables, counter to the natural accentuation of the words, and not by actual length.


Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in French secondary schools is mostly based on Erasmian pronunciation, but modified to match the phonetic system of French (and even orthographic conventions of French in the case of αυ and ευ).

Vowel length distinction, geminate consonants, and pitch accent are discarded completely, which matches the phonology of standard modern French. This disregard of vowel length is such that the reference Greek-French dictionary, Dictionnaire Grec-Français by A. Bailly et al., does not bother to indicate vowel length in long syllables.

Vowel length notwithstanding, the values for simple vowels are generally correct, though many speakers have problems with the openness distinction between ε and η, ο and ω, matching similar confusion by many speakers of standard modern French. α or ο followed by a nasal and another consonant are often nasalized as [ɑ̃] or [ɔ̃] (e.g. [ɑ̃ntrɔpos] for ἄνθρωπος); these allophones appear under the influence of the French phonetic system.

The pseudo-diphthong ει is erroneously pronounced [ɛj] or [ej], both before vowel and before consonant, and regardless of whether the ει derives from a genuine diphthong or a ε̄. The pseudo-diphthong ου has a value of [u], which is historically attested in Ancient Greek.

Short-element ι diphthongs αι, οι and υι are pronounced rather accurately as [aj], [ɔj], [yj] (though at least some web sites recommend a less accurate pronunciation [ɥi] for υι). Short-element υ diphthongs αυ and ευ are pronounced like similar-looking French pseudo-diphthongs au and eu, i.e. [o]~[ɔ] and [ø]~[œ], respectively.

The ι is not pronounced in long-element ι diphthongs. As for long-element υ diphthongs, common French-language Greek methods or grammars appear to ignore such diphthongs in their descriptions of the pronunciation of ancient Greek in France.

The values for consonants are generally correct. However, due to lack of similar sounds in standard modern French, the spiritus asper is not pronounced, and θ and χ are pronounced [t] and [k], while φ is pronounced [f]. For similar reasons, ρ and are both pronounced [ʀ],[nb 1] whereas γ before velar is generally pronounced [n]. Digraph γμ is pronounced [ɡm], and ζ is pronounced [dz] though both pronunciations are questionable in the light of modern scholarly research. More generally, no attempt is made to reproduce unwritten allophones that are thought to have existed by modern scholarly research.

One particularly famed piece of schoolyard Greek in France is Xenophon's line "they did not take the city, but they had no hope of taking it" (οὐκ ἔλαβον πόλιν· άλλα γὰρ ἐλπὶς ἔφη κακά, ouk élabon pólin; álla gàr elpìs éphē kaká). Read in the French manner, this macaronically becomes "Où qu'est la bonne Pauline? A la gare. Elle pisse et fait caca." ("Where is young Pauline? At the station. She's pissing and taking a shit.")[4][5] In English literature, the untranslated line makes an appearance in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.[6]


Ancient Greek in Italy is taught in the Erasmian pronunciation without exception. However, Italian speakers find it hard to reproduce the pitch-based ancient Greek accent accurately, so circumflex and acute accents are not distinguished. Poetry is read using metric conventions stressing the long syllables. The distinctions between single and doubled consonants that are present in Italian are recognized.


The following diphthongs are pronounced like the similarly-written Italian diphthongs:

  • αυ = [au]
  • οι = [oi]
  • ει = [ei]
  • αι = [ai]


  1. ^ French editors generally edit geminate -ῤῥ- as -ρρ- anyway.


  1. ^ Υπουργείο Εθνικής Παιδείας και Θρησκευμάτων, Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο; Νικόλαος Μπεζαντάκος; Αμφιλόχιος Παπαθωμάς; Ευαγγελία Λουτριανάκη; Βασίλειος Χαραλαμπάκος (n.d.). Αρχαία Ελληνική Γλώσσα Α' Γυμνασίου Βιβλίο Μαθητή (PDF). Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών Βιβλίων. pp. 18–19. ISBN 960-06-1898-4. Retrieved 2006-11-29. 
  2. ^ Faulkner, John Alfred (1907). Erasmus: The Scholar. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham. pp. 234–235. 
  3. ^ W. Sidney Allen (1987): Vox Graeca: the pronunciation of Classical Greek, Cambridge: University Press, (3rd edition, ISBN 0-521-33555-8) — especially Appendix A Section 1 "The pronunciation of Greek in England" and Section 2 "The oral accentuation of Greek".
  4. ^ Arbre d'Or eBooks. "Pluton ciel que Janus Proserpine...". Invalid language code.
  5. ^ Genette, Gérard & al. Palimpsests, p. 41.
  6. ^ FinnegansWiki. "Ouk elabon polin".

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