Why accents matter

In this post I want to talk about why I think learning accents for Ancient Greek is important, and shouldn’t be put off.

The Case Against

First, let’s consider a case against accents. In Duff, “The Elements of New Testament Greek”, we are given three reasons:

1. Accents were not present in written Greek in the New Testament period.

2. The rules of accentuation are complicated, and you have enough to learn.

3. Accents don’t help you translate or understand Greek.


Duff immediately recognises that 3 is not strictly true, there are a few cases where accentuation does matter. However I am not convinced that 1 and 2 are really good reasons either. To discuss 1, I think this is a false appeal to NT writing. We don’t read 1st century manuscript writing anyway. Unless you do papyrus work, most students aren’t doing that. Most scholars aren’t doing that. So to be truly consistent on point 1, shouldn’t you teach Majuscule texts with no word divisions, and instruct students how to make word divisions on their own? I don’t think an appeal to 1st century “authenticity” will work on one basis (writing) when used to argue against another basis (pronunciation).

I also think 2 is a very poor pedagogical principle. It does match very well with what Duff writes on p1, that the aim of the book is “[t] help you learn enough Greek to read the New Testament”. That is a very truncated goal in itself. The NT is, give or take, 138,020 Greek words. That’s like one of the later books in the Song of Ice and Fire, or an overly long PhD dissertation. Imagine you learnt enough of a language to read one dissertation and that was it. How odd, we would say.

Principle 2 would, in my view, be equivalent to ‘admitting’, “hey, Greek is hard, it’s a language, and languages are hard, let’s teach you just enough to act like you almost knew Greek”.

A Case For

Here’s why I think accents should be taught from day 1:

Greek was not a ‘written-only’ language; there exist a very few languages that are designed not to be spoken, and Greek is not one of them. So that should remind us that there is an interplay between a once-spoken language and its written representation. Accent marks were added later, yes, but they were added to preserve information that is present in spoken Greek, and this is particularly useful to learners.

Latin actually provides a really good parallel here. We know that Latin has a distinction between short and long vowels: a, e, i, o, u, ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. But Latin writing doesn’t use macrons, only we do, in learner’s texts. Why didn’t Latin writing use macrons (in general, that is)? Because this information didn’t need to be marked – if you learnt to speak Latin you knew, by the sound, what was a long and what was a short vowel. But here is what’s key: vowel length carries semantic significance. Not always, and I’m sure L2 speakers made Latin blunders all the time and were yet understood, but est and ēst are two different words.

English readers generally have difficulty taking note of diacritical marks on letters, because we are used to operating in a Latin script that doesn’t utilise them, and in English they aren’t tremendously meaningful, because we, who speak English, already know how to pronounce English words. Though actually English proununciation is hell on earth.

Learning accentuation in Greek is forcing you to learn how to pronounce words accented correctly. It is an authenticity criterion just like Duff’s principle 1 is, but it goes the opposite direction: learn to accent correctly and you could read unaccented text fine, learn to read unaccented text and you will always struggle to accent correctly (like most of us!).

Hebrew vowel pointing provides a partial analogy. Everyone learns vowel pointing for Biblical Hebrew. Then, when you read an unpointed text, you can usually work out what’s going on. No one learns to read unpointed Hebrew, unless they learn to speak Hebrew in which case the Hebrew ‘is’ pointed, i.e. the vowel information is already encoded into the speaker’s mind.

It’s much harder to learn accentuation later. That’s because we treat it as ‘extra’ and so ‘extraneous’ data. By teaching it from day 1, we teach is as significant and as semantic, it carries differences in meaning that actually matter in the Greek, which is why if we’re actually teaching the Greek language, and not just hoping to pass a grammar exam and forget about Greek until the next sermon insight comes along, I argue for accents from the start.

4 responses

  1. I have a very simple way of looking at accents. When people mispronounce English words to me, and when the only thing wrong is the accent, I still have to mentally re-state what is said. Accent is part of the word. Not learning it is foolish. Learning it badly results in extra work, effectually, two or more words are rattling about in your brain competing for dominance. Is it έλεφας…. ἐλέφας…. ἤ έλεφάς;;;

    • I think this is right. Of course people can mispronounce English words and still be understood, but fluent English speakers think, “that’s not quite right”, and if it’s wrong enough the interlocutor can’t be understood. In some cases accentuation in English produces different meanings, but usually this can be resolved contextually. All of this is similar for Greek: incorrect accentuation doesn’t necessarily impede meaning, but in some cases it can; in all cases it represents getting something ‘a bit wrong’.

  2. I appreciate that you make this argument but the point you made about Hebrew is well taken but as you pointed out (pun intended) the vowel point are only necessary for a time before they end up obsolete in Modern Hebrew. For example, Modern Hebrew texts. None of which are pointed.
    Now I think the reason for the difference is that Modern Hebrew is a spoken language and Biblical Hebrew is not.

    Now we come to the difference in learning a language. When one is approaching a language to learn how to produce it (i.e.writing/speaking) the accents and vowels points are only needed temporarily whereas when learning a language to study it, the vowels in Biblical Hebrew are essential. But the accent marks in New Testament Greek do not mostly determine meaning all by themselves, most of the time meaning can be determined by context independent of accents. So there is not as much confusion reading the New Testament without knowing the accents especially since most are just reading the text and not trying to speak it or produce it.

    So I would say for a sense of completeness accents are necessary in New Testament Greek but vowel points are essential for Biblical Hebrew.

    • > So I would say for a sense of completeness accents are necessary in New Testament Greek but vowel points are essential for Biblical Hebrew.

      Of course, because this is the point at which the analogy is disanalagous.

      I do appreciate your comments though. Thanks for joining in.

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