How was 1st century Greek pronounced? And how do we know?

Some highly technical work on this subject has been published, but a recent short video by Benjamin Kantor does a great job of explaining the basics in very simple terms.

Video by Benjamin Kantor

For a more technical discussion, see either of the following:

• Gignac, Francis (1976), A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods: Vol. 1 Phonology, Milan: Instituto Editoriale Cisalpino-La Goliardica, ASIN B0006CVTGQ

• Teodorsson, Sven-Tage (1977), The phonology of Ptolemaic Koine, Göteborg: Göteborg University, ISBN 91-7346-035-4

There’s also a fairly detailed discussion on Wikipedia.

For a discussion of why it matters, and some clear explanation of key terms, see Randall Buth’s excellent discussion of the topic (or the PDF version).

And, of course, there’s Benjamin Kantor’s own discussion of the topic on the same page where he published the video.

Mark 7 in Hellenistic Greek

Are you ready for chapter 7?

The video in ancient Greek is now available from KoineGreek.com, the LUMOS Project, and Faith Comes by Hearing. It was released on July 25.

It does not (yet?) have captions, so I recommend having your Greek New Testament in hand when you watch the video. Pause the video from time to time to read the part you have just heard.

Mark 6 from the LUMOS Project and KoineGreek.com

KoineGreek.com, the LUMOS Project, and Faith Comes by Hearing released chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel in koine (hellenistic) Greek on July 18, the day before I returned from Peru.

Since the subtitles are not yet ready, I recommend that you listen with a copy of your Greek New Testament in hand and pause the video from time to time to look over the text that has just been read in the video.

Brill's Greek-English Dictionary

Brill’s New Dictionary, and Greek Dictionaries in General

Mike Aubrey has written a wonderful overview of the lexica available for Ancient Greek. The article is pitched as an introduction to Brill’s new Greek English Dictionary, but it does much more than introduce that work.

If you are interested in the history of Greek lexica, this is well worth your time to read.

Boy reading a book

The wrong and right way to learn ancient Greek

Not too long ago I ran across this Washington Post article by Stephen Krashen entitled “The wrong and right way to learn a foreign language“, and it reminded me of a number of issues in current approaches to teaching ancient Greek. Those of you who recognize Krashen’s name perhaps know of him as the father of the Comprehensible Input theory of language acquisition. He argues that comprehensible input—hearing or reading things that are presented with enough context to make them understandable—not intense study of grammar and vocabulary, is the real key to acquiring a language.

The article implies challenges to both of the most common ways of teaching ancient Greek currently in use. First, what is derisively called the “grammar translation” model, focuses almost exclusively on teaching grammar and learning vocabulary from lists of words with English glosses. Research on language acquisition shows quite conclusively that this approach does not lead to fluency. It may lead to the ability to use a lexicon and laboriously work through a Greek text to translate it, but it does not lead to the ability to read Greek fluently, understanding what you read without the need to translate it. In this sense, Krashen is certainly right.

And this squares nicely with my experience teaching modern languages (Spanish and English). I do not use vocabulary lists at all, and I have very few discussions of issues of grammar, yet my students consistently reach fluency in the target language in only a few years, significantly faster than the national average.

At the same time, Krashen’s article implies some critique of the newer Communicative approaches currently gaining wider and wider acceptance in ancient Greek studies. He prioritizes reading over speaking in language instruction.

This also squares nicely with what I do in teaching Spanish and English. My students, after the first few weeks, spend the overwhelming majority of their time reading texts in the target language and answering questions about those texts in whatever language feels more comfortable to them. Slowly over time they develop the ability to answer in the language of the text, and they do this quite naturally without having to be forced to use the target language in speech.

What they do have to do is read and understand well enough in the target language to answer the questions, and those questions are always posed in the target language. When they answer in a language other than the target language, I accept those answers at first, as long as they demonstrate understanding. After a significant amount of exposure to the target language (usually a few months), I change my strategy and still accept the answer in the student’s first language, but assist the student in rephrasing the answer in the target language. For example, if we are reading a book on civil rights, and I ask,

  • Why did Dr. King agree to let the children march in Birmingham in 1963?

A student might answer: “Porque los adultos no estaban dispuestos a poner en riesgo sus trabajos, o tenían temor de respuestas violentas.”

In such a case, I would never answer, “Please say that in English.” In stead, I would say, “That’s a great insight, let me help you phrase it in English. —The adults weren’t willing to put their jobs at risk— and —They were afraid of violent responses— Those are two useful things to say. Let’s work on saying them.”

The student’s response in the first language demonstrates understanding of the text, and providing guided speech to help overcome production deficiencies in the target language removes the stress of having to speak without sufficient vocabulary or grasp of the target language structures.

Inevitably, after a few weeks of providing this kind of assistance, the student will begin to answer directly in English (or Spanish, as the case may be) without needing the additional support. Or perhaps still needing it, but willing to take the risk, knowing that appropriate support will be given if needed.

My own online grammar for Hellenistic Greek fits well within the “grammar-translation” model. I wrote it decades ago, though I’ve made updates to some lessons more recently. I consider it useful for learning grammar and a small collection of vocabulary items (a few hundred of the most frequently used words), enough for getting started in working laboriously to translate Greek texts, but it cannot possibly produce fluency.

Several people are currently teaching hellenistic Greek in a way that can. I am also working on materials with that aim. What I see as a current need in communicative methods is to increase the amount of reading in Greek as a language acquisition strategy. It may be a long time before my own materials for that purpose are ready, but I continue to hope.

Take a look at the following text and see if you can answer the questions that follow it. Can you answer them in English? If so, great, but take a look at the vocabulary in each question and the relevant vocabulary in the passage and see if you can construct an answer in Greek. I bet you can do pretty well if you can read the text and understand the questions.

καὶ τὸ παιδάριον Σαμουηλ ἦν λειτουργῶν τῷ κυρίῳ ἐνώπιον Ηλι τοῦ ἱερέως καὶ ῥῆμα κυρίου ἦν τίμιον ἐν ταῗς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις οὐκ ἦν ὅρασις διαστέλλουσα. . .

  1. τί ὄνομα τοῦ παιδάριου;
  2. ἐνώπιον τίνος ἦν τὸ παιδάριον λειτούργος;
  3. τί ἦν τίμιον ἐν ταῗς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις;
  4. διὰ τίνα ἦν τίμιον;

Feel free to answer in a comment if you’d like my feedback.

Of course, Krashen is not the only language acquisition theorist whose work is worth the time for teachers of Ancient Greek to study, but his writings are certainly a good place to start. His 1982 book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition is now available online as a PDF document with a few corrections and some added bibliography.

Mark 5 in Hellenistic Greek

Mark 5 is available, but it doesn’t have captions yet. KoineGreek.com promises to add them soon.

Mark 5 in Hellenistic Greek using Reconstructed Historical Pronunciation

Mark 4 from the LUMO Project and KoineGreek.com

I was at 16,522 feet above sea level on Vinicunca the day the LUMO Project and KoineGreek.com released chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel in Greek using the reconstructed historical pronunciation. I was in no condition to post anything to the blog that day! But here it is a little late.

Mark 4 in Greek with Reconstructed Historical Pronunciation

Mark 3 is now available

While I was away in Peru this summer, the LUMO project and KoineGreek.com completed the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel in koine (hellenistic) Greek using the reconstructed historical pronunciation. (They also completed chapter 4, coming in the next post.)

Mark 3 in Greek with Reconstructed Koine Pronunciation

If you are learning the language, watching the video and listening carefully is a great way to support your studies.

Recommended Blog Post

I don’t usually discuss other people’s blogs, but I read a post at Koine-Greek.com that is well worth your attention if you are interested in how linguists decide if a particular grammatical category exists in a particular language. We can express almost anything in almost any language, but we don’t necessarily do it the same way. We don’t necessarily have the same grammatical categories.

This graphic is not a part of the post at Koine-Greek.com, I just think it’s a little funny. Read the recommended blog post and maybe you’ll agree.

Updates to Greek-Language.com

After several days of wrangling with HTML and CSS I have released a refreshed version of Greek-Language.com. I’ve also updated the “Learn Greek” page to provide information about programs teaching Ancient Greek as a living language. These are listed under “Communicative” approaches.

Screenshot of Greek-Language.com

I would be very surprised if I have not left something out that should be included. If you know of a program using communicative methods to teach Ancient Greek, please let me know and I will be glad to add it.

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You can contact me using the menu above. If you see the icon to the left in the upper right corner of the screen, click on it, then choose “Contact”. If it’s not there, chose the word “contact” from the menu just under the page header above.