Saturday, February 04, 2006

Jefferson on Greek Pronunciation

There has been a bit of discussion around the pronunciation of classical Greek at Evangelical Textual Criticism. In my quest for fluency and a non-English sounding intonation, I have decided simply to opt for the modern pronunciation. However, Thomas Jefferson presents a more nuanced view in this letter.

    Very early in my classical days, I took up the idea that the ancient Greek language having been changed by degrees into the modern, and the present race of that people having received it by tradition, they had of course better pretensions to the ancient pronunciation also, than any foreign nation could have. When at Paris, I became acquainted with some learned Greeks, from whom I took pains to learn the modern pronunciation.

    But I could not receive it as genuine in toto. I could not believe that the ancient Greeks had provided six different notations for the simple sound of {i}, iota, and left the five other sounds which we give to n, v, {i-i}, {oi}, {yi}, without any characters of notation at all. I could not acknowledge the {y}, upsillon, as an equivalent to our {n}, as in {Achilleys}, which they pronounce Achillevs, nor the {g}, gamma, to our y, as in {alge}, which they pronounce alye. I concluded, therefore, that as experience proves to us that the pronunciation of all languages changes, in their descent through time, that of the Greek must have done so also in some degree; and the more probably, as the body of the words themselves had substantially changed.
He concludes,

    And in fact, we find that no two nations pronounce it alike, although all pretend to the Erasmian pronunciation. But the whole subject is conjectural, and allows therefore full and lawful scope to the vagaries of the human mind. I am glad, however, to see the question stirred here; because it may excite among our young countrymen a spirit of inquiry and criticism, and lead them to more attention to this most beautiful of all languages.

His closing sentiments still have resonance today.

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