Monday, October 05, 2009

Sounds of Greek Vowels

During September I spent nine days proofreading a friend's doctoral thesis. The project was to gather in one place all the textual criticism, notes, variations, etc, for the first half of the book of Job. It was the hardest thing I ever proofread. But the project had the felicitous, unintended consequence of teaching me something about Greek vowel sounds.

This year I am tutoring Greek for one of the kids' friends. Leah's mom had purchased a Greek program a few years ago, but they didn't go very far with it. Now I'm teaching her with those same materials. My problem is that the pronunciation I learned from my Greek prof is not the same pronunciation used by our Greek program. The situation is not unlike the pronunciation differences between ecclesiastical Latin and the way Wheelock's teaches the sounds.

As I proofread the dissertation's decisions on textual criticism in Job, I kept noticing the word itacism. I'd never heard the word before. I learned that itacism is the cause for variations in spelling: one sound can be spelled in different ways. For example, there is Cathy versus Kathy. There is hear versus here, or there and their and they're. Or maybe a better example would be spelling your fizzy barley&hops German beverage b-e-a-r because "ear" and "hear" have the same vowel sound as "-ee-."

Same thing happens in Greek. The scribes would hear a word and accidentally write down one vowel-sound (that sounded right) instead of the other spelling for that sound. Amazingly enough, some of those spelled-differently sounds revealed that I am pronouncing two different vowels with the same sound, exactly as the scribes were doing ... and not as our Greek program's CD pronunciation-guide demonstrates. It makes me think that there's probably as much flexibility in the "proper" pronunciation of classical Greek or Koine Greek as there is in that dead Latin language.

And thus I have an excuse for my funky way to pronounce Greek words. Yes, I do. I just hope that it doesn't mess up the students when/if they listen to the CD for homework help.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the benefits of fewer vowels as vowels are by far the worst offenders. But vowels are also more fun than (most) consonants.

    Itacism is made worse by our habit of stealing alphabets instead of making our own. The English stole our alphabet from the Romans, who stole theirs from the Greeks and so on and so forth.

    The Greek alphabet is not capable of properly handling English nor is the English alphabet capable of properly handling Greek.

    The fact that English has far too many sounds for our alphabet to handle isn't helped by the fact that we don't even use the letters as well as we could. We have 4 letters are, contain, or can be [k]: K ([k]), C ([k] or [s]), Q ([k]), and X ([ks]).