Mostly Dead: Greek Pronunciation, Retention, Pt 6

Last week, we looked at five ways to tackle regaining and retaining lost Greek. One of the options was to try the living language approach. A “dead” language is one that is read and studied but no longer spoken. Latin is probably the most widely known dead language. Koinē Greek is a close second.

But all that is changing. There are those who believe it’s time for the resurrection of this formerly dead language. This is the living language approach, where students are encouraged to speak and think in Greek. In the words of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, it’s only mostly dead.

Which is better, to study a fossil of a dinosaur, or an actual, living, breathing dinosaur? Well, languages were never meant to be only analyzed and dissected; they are living and dynamic. Until they aren’t.

Once a language morphs to a point that no one speaks it, it dies. I studied Chaucer and Shakespeare in college.

When I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet (the Leonardo DiCaprio & Clare Danes movie), I was pleasantly surprised that I could fully understand what they were saying. I could understand and perhaps mimic speaking Elizabethan English, but not have a conversation fluently.

But there is a reason there are no Chaucer plays or movies (A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger, is done in modern English for obvious reasons). I could read Chaucer, and understand only some of what was being read aloud in class, but I could never speak it.

Koinē is to Modern Greek what Chaucer is to English.

Thousands of people read the New Testament in Greek, and maybe even the Apostolic Fathers and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), but there hasn’t been much need or interest in speaking Koinē. And yet, our brains are wired to listen to and speak in a language, so it follows that if a person tries to speak it, naturally it will be easier to read it and understand what’s written. This is the point of the living language approach. The problem is that since no one has spoken Koinē for centuries, no one knows exactly how it was pronounced. But do you think that would stop a determined Greek nerd? Not on your life…

There are three main schools of pronunciation of Koinē Greek: Erasmian, Modern, and Reconstructed.

1. Erasmian.

This pronunciation is attributed to Desiderius Erasmus, a Renaissance scholar who described it in 1528. That was 1300 years or so after anyone actually spoke the language. Erasmus knew this is not how Greek ever sounded, but it made for a very effective way to teach students to pronounce it. Each letter and each letter combination has a distinct sound, so when a word is read aloud, everyone in the classroom could write it down correctly. If you learned Greek at seminary, this is the pronunciation you were taught.

The two advantages of this system: it’s easy to learn, and almost everyone who knows Greek knows this pronunciation. It’s like American English compared with South African English. Since we all learned American English from TV and movies, South Africans and Australians and New Zealanders all know how to put on an American accent, but most Americans can’t fake a South African accent (though the best job I’ve heard was Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond).

The objection to the Erasmian system is: we know it’s definitely wrong! It’s like pronouncing the Tetragrammaton as “Jehovah.” Of all the possible vowel pointing options, we know that Jehovah is definitely the wrong one, since it is based on the pointing of Adonai, used by Jews to avoid pronouncing the ineffable name.

As one feisty opponent of this system said,

People say that they use and teach with the Erasmian pronunciation because its easier for students for learning vocabulary, spelling, and what not.

What if Biology professors decided to start teaching their students that whales were fish because it would be easier for students to remember?

Why does Greek succumb to such cop outs for the sake of their students when no other discipline or field of study would accept such a thing?

2. Modern.

As the name suggests, this is when we use the Modern Greek pronunciation applied to Koinē. Since there are millions of people who speak modern Greek, and the pronunciation is easily learned, we can just apply this to ancient Greek, as they use the same letters and many of the same words. The advantage of this is that the language sounds good, is easy to find resources to learn, and makes speaking more attainable.

The downside is that modern Greek has lost the nuance of diphthongs and letter combinations in such a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between various sounds. Many of the letter combinations are pronounced “ee” and “oo” so words start sounding like other words and you need to know the context really well and be pretty well-acquainted with the language to make sense of what is being said.

Personally, I don’t think that objection is a reason to reject this system. The better reason is that very, very few people use this pronunciation for Koinē since it is not taught in seminaries.

I really hope that changes. It would be great if we all spoke the same way, and this is the easiest of the pronunciations (though it is harder to learn Greek at first with it). The same objection can be made for Modern as was made for Erasmian: we know the Greeks in the New Testament did not speak this way.

A.T. Robertson, the godfather of Greek grammarians said,

Few even among professional scholars are aware how small the difference is between the Greek of the N.T. and a contemporary Athenian newspaper.

We should concede that real Koinē certainly sounded closer to Modern than it did to Erasmian.

Which brings us to a very interesting approach…

3. Reconstructed.

This is a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to pronunciation. The leader in this field is undoubtedly Randall Buth. Those who have embraced this idea closely examine manuscripts from the time period when Koinē was spoken (roughly 300 BC to 300 AD) to sniff out spelling errors. This clever technique reveals what different letter combinations sounded like.

Here’s an example in English. Imagine I was dictating to a room full of scribes, and I read out loud, “Please tell me there were no fleas in the cheese.” If some (but not all) of the scribes wrote “Pleez tell mee their were no flease in the cheese,” we could construe that “me” is pronounced “mee” and that “there” and “their” sounded the same, and the “ee” and “ea” letter combination sounded the same, and the “s” and “z” sounded the same in certain conditions, then future scholars could “reconstruct” the pronunciation of these words if English ever ended up a dead language.

Erasmus would say we should pronounce “please” as “plee-as” while we know it actually sounds like “pleeze.”

So, the reconstructed Greek is likely the closest we can get to how it actually sounded back in the day. The downside is that very, very, very few people use this system. If one is going to catch on to replace Erasmian’s dominance, it will probably be the Modern, not the Reconstructed.

It’s times like these I wish there was a Protestant Pope who could declare: “We are all switching to Reconstructed Greek.” Then the debate would die down and we could all get on the same page. On the other hand, being Protestants we would probably react to a Pope by doing the opposite. So there is really no hope of consensus until we all arrive in Heaven and know how to say “worth is the Lamb” in perfect unison. Or perhaps even then “every tribe tongue and nation” means that every camp of Koinē speakers will have its own pronunciation represented.

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