Greek: the gift of a conservative writing system

Spend any time at all looking into Greek pronunciation and you will inevitably encounter the ‘pronunciation wars’. People have very heated opinions about how Greek should be pronounced. This ranges from virulent comments that because Greek is still Greek, modern Greek is the only way to pronounce it and every historical reconstruction is made up nonsense and never really accurate, to Attic purists who complain about Koine texts being pronounced in period-authentic pronunciations because “it sounds like Modern Greek and that’s wrong”, to Homeric purists who insist of perfect pitch accents and think everything from the 7th century onwards is a debased corruption.

All of whom are wrong.

To come at this from a different angle, I want to talk about writing, spelling, and orthography. Greek is a language with a long written history. And like most languages with a long written history, writing is conservative. Even as spoken language changes, written language tends to remain the same, unless there are major spelling-reform interventions. By the Attic period we know that some things were already shifting. By the Koine period we know that the pronunciation of the language had shifted dramatically towards what’s typically thought of as a Byzantine pronunciation. And that is itself much, much closer to Modern Greek. And yet, students of Greek, native speakers and L2 learners, generally learnt (a) to speak Greek as it was currently spoken and pronounced, and (b) to write Greek as it was standardised. This is one of the reasons why, e.g., I can read a Greek text from 500 BCE and from 800 CE and still have a fairly good comprehension. I could even push that second date forwards a bit, depending on the writing. We’re talking 1000-1500 years of literature accessible if you can read.

Now, let’s compare English for a little bit. English has truly awful spelling, if you consider it from a phonetic perspective. The Great Vowel shift didn’t help us. Nor did diverse vowel shifts in regionalised accents. Nor does the long tradition of spelling words differently based on which language we borrowed them out of. To learn English spelling, you need to get schooled in it. You need to learn how the sounds of your own dialect of English map to the words of English, and how the spelling rules work, which are often no longer well-related to how you pronounce things. And yet, the great advantage of English spelling is that it’s dismally phonetic. So you can read things written by speakers of other Englishes, or by Shakespeare, or even by Chaucer. You can read things from hundreds of years ago that native speakers undoubtedly pronounced not only differently, but in many cases in ways that would border on unintelligible to you.

That’s the gift of a conservative writing system. Which is why you should be thankful that ancient Greek remained relatively stable in its written form for so long. You can read, without much difficulty, a good two millenia of literature.

So stop whinging so much about how people pronounce Greek, and stop sniping at people for pronouncing it ‘wrong’. You’re wrong.

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