One of the questions I’ve had to think about while thinking about the Beginners’ Greek class is the question of accents: the acute, grave and circumflex used in writing and printing ancient Greek, like this:
Ὦ κοινὸν αὐτάδελφον Ἰσμήνης κάρα
This is a rather nerdy matter, but interesting partly because it highlights some of the difficulties in teaching a language which isn’t spoken, as well as broader questions about how to deal with teaching a language quickly.
Basically, it goes like this. Beginners classes in ancient Greek teach, for various historical reasons, the form of the language which was spoken in Athens in the classical period (fifth and fourth centuries BC). At that time, nobody wrote Greek using written accents. But during the Hellenistic period (perhaps starting ca. 200 BC) accents started to be used sporadically, especially on rare or difficult words. Over time accentuation became more common and extensive in the writing of earlier texts, largely because it was used to indicate earlier pronunciation in a world where everyday Greek had changed. In the middle ages this became the system of accentuation now used for all editions of Greek texts. When my students see Greek printed, they will always see it with accents.
In many countries, it is usual to learn how accentuation works, and to learn individual items of vocab. with accents, from the very beginning.
In the UK, it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a while. So younger scholars (myself included) generally didn’t learn accents from the beginning, but picked them up later. In fact, a valuable book was published a few years ago, the purpose of which is to help those who know Greek already to catch up on accentuation. But (and I speak from experience) this is not an ideal way to do it, and I certainly don’t have as good a knowledge as I would if I had been learning them from the start.
Most of the time, it isn’t a terrible handicap simply to ignore the accents, at least as far as translation and meaning are concerned (especially since a few special cases can be learnt as one-offs, as for instance with τις and τίς, which have different meanings.
On the other hand, the accents are valuable evidence as to how the words were pronounced in the classical period. Classical Greek accented words by pitch (the accent going up in pitch perhaps as much as a perfect fifth higher than the pitch of surrounding syllables). So at least in theory paying attention to the accents gets us closer to having an idea what it actually sounded like.
I discovered from the previous teacher of the course I’m about to do that usual practice in previous years has been to explain some of the rudiments of accentuation, so that it shouldn’t be a complete mystery, but not to insist that the students write the accents when they write Greek. (It’s more common not to do even this, but simply to tell the students to ignore the accents altogether: see here for a haughty dismissal of this practice!). And I’ve decided that I shall try to do the same.
On the basis that honesty is the best policy, I’ve written a handout for the students explaining not only what accents were, but also why we don’t insist that they learn them, and I’ll talk through it next week. I put this table of “pros” and “cons”:
Reasons for spending time on accents in a beginners’ class:
- We ought not to be satisfied with ignoring any feature of the language.
- The accents are telling us something about real features of ancient Greek.
- The information conveyed by accents may help us to appreciate the acoustic aspects of verbal artistry, especially in poetry, and to pronounce less inaccurately.
- Sometimes the accent can help us to see what the words mean, and it’s easier to notice these places when one understands accentuation more generally.
- In the Good Old Days, when schoolboys were beaten for getting their verbs wrong, it was usual to learn accents, and why should we be any different?
- The (stress) accent in modern Greek tends to fall in the same place as the (pitch) accent did in ancient Greek, and thus learning accents makes it easier to pronounce modern Greek if you learn it in future.
- If I meet a student of classics from (e.g.) Italy or Germany, (s)he might be surprised to discover that we aren’t doing accents, and might laugh at me or suggest that this makes Scotland (or the UK) a less than perfect country.
Reasons for not worrying:
- Accentuation is a medieval convention and does not in practice enable us to pronounce the pitch accent properly anyway (Sophocles and Plato didn’t use accents, so why should we?).
- Beginners in UK universities (and, generally speaking, in UK schools) never learn accents, and even the course organiser first learned Greek without accents and consequently sometimes can’t remember how a particular word should be accented.
- In the “Good Old Days,” the small proportion of people who went to fee-paying schools had more time to learn Greek than we do, and classical education concentrated very heavily on language at the expense of many other interesting features of the ancient world: we don’t necessarily want to model ourselves on them.
- The purpose of this course is to get to the point of being able to read real ancient Greek texts as quickly as possible on the basis of as good an understanding as possible of the necessary features of the language, and that means moving fast: in these circumstances, accents are expendable.
The last of the “reasons for not worrying” is the most important. As Gavin commented about my previous post, the key thing with this course is speed. But the first of the “pros” should perhaps worry me more than it does: when students arrive at university for the first time, it goes against the grain to tell them in the first week that a phenomenon which they can already see on almost every word of Greek is something they can just ignore. It goes against a general principle which I try to go by: “it’s ok to admit that something’s hard, but never to suggest that it’s too hard for them to do”. But it’s a common practice (in the UK), it won’t stop them reading texts in Greek as fast as possible, and that is the main thing we are trying to do.
Is this the right choice?