On Pronouncing Greek

Like the majority of NT Greek students who began their journey with Koine Greek in a theological seminary, I was introduced and reared on the Erasmian scheme of pronunciation. I learned it, practiced it, and reinforced it over the years since I first cracked open Mounce’s intro text. However, more recently, I’ve made it a point to move to a modern scheme of pronunciation and now that I’ve been doing this for a little while now, I can hardly bear to listen to Greek fed through an Erasmian meat grinder. It’s been challenging to unlearn the way I “spoke” Greek for all these years, but it has been a rewarding practice and I can read more fluidly than I could several months ago. Admittedly, it’s hard to let go of something that was in place for so long and I still lapse back into it when I encounter particular diphthongs and the like.

I know there is considerable back and forth about which one is more correct, but it seems much more plausible that the modern scheme would be more akin to the ancient way rather than what Erasmus came up with. Nevertheless, I can think of one useful aspect of Erasmian Greek pronunciation—it can be helpful for more technical analysis of grammar, morphology, etc. For example, if a morphological change involves an ω and an ο (can’t think of an example right off hand), the Erasmian way would make an noticeable distinction in pronunciation between these vowels whereas the modern way would not. In such cases, this is helpful because the difference is one that we can hear and, presumably, this would help in identifying the change that has occurred. The same goes for the various Greek letters and diphthongs that have a long “e” sound. Now, this is easily countered by arguing that if one truly knows the language, phonological similarity would be less important because one would know the changes that occurred. I would think that in most cases, a vowel change would be accompanied with other changes since Greek is a highly inflected language.

Despite what pedagogical value Erasmian pronunciation may have, the most appealing factor for me in adopting the modern pronunciation is the way it sounds. Even listening to Erasmian Greek from someone who is very proficient sounds much clunkier and labored than modern.

The one thing that concerns me about all of this is entering the teaching side of things (which I ultimately plan to do). As far as I’ve seen, many seminaries employ Erasmus’ scheme, so what would I do in that case? What if other profs in the department teach pronunciation this way and I go the other? I could see where this would cause problems for students. I suppose in this scenario, I would go with whatever the others do for the sake of continuity.

Have any of you encountered this? What did you do?

Αυτω η δοξα



3 thoughts on “On Pronouncing Greek

  1. Hear, hear!! My journey in brief: decided to teach myself beginning Greek to test out of it in seminary. Weighed the multiple sides of the pronunciation debate before starting, but chose Erasmian anyway for some of the typical reasons (easier to learn because of the distinct vowel sounds, 99.99999% of NT peeps know it, etc.). But from the very beginning I’ve HATED how it sounded.

    Fast forward a few months, and I test into Con Campbell’s exegesis sequence. He is a proponent of modern and attempts to force his students to convert by assigning “performed readings” of the biblical text.

    Of course what’s most important from the scholarly perspective is what’s most likely to be correct, but like you, I have found the biggest benefit to be that I love Modern sounds, and Erasmian sounds like nails on a chalkboard. In terms of teaching, it shouldn’t be a problem to teach a different system from everyone else in your department. I’m pretty sure Campbell’s the only one hear who doesn’t teach Erasmian, and things seem just peachy 🙂

    I know proponents of Modern/Reconstructed Koine want students to learn these pronunciation systems as opposed to Erasmian right off the bat, but I actually think starting with Erasmian and switching is a good way to go because this way, we’re still “conversant” with what the majority of the academy uses. And since Erasmian is pretty intuitive, I imagine that we’ll always be able to “speak” and understand Erasmian and switch when necessary.

    1. Yep, I hear you! It just sounds bad. I’ve not read a great deal on the historical development of pronunciation schemes, but I plan to when I can, for curiosity’s sake. I wonder, though, if Erasmian Greek pronunciation would prepare someone for Latin?!

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