Accentuating: the positives and the negatives

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?

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5 Responses to Accentuating: the positives and the negatives

  1. Gavin says:

    First of all, lucky students to have this thoughtfulness behind their teaching. I agree with your solution. Actually teaching the basic principles of accentuation needen’t take very long.

    The first of your reasons against strikes me as fallacious. Any word obviously had an accent when Sophocles wrote it, even if it wasn’t written. Sophocles didn’t have a way to write aitches (except when the previous word ended in p, t, or k) and I suspect he didn’t have a way to distinguish between the ei sound, epsilon and eta, when writing the language down.

    The third of your reasons in favour strikes me as the one problem. Unlike in Latin, whether the relationship between accent and quantity is almost perfectly regular, the Greek accent does not work easily with metre (at least, if pronounced accentually and if the verse in question is written before Nonnus). I’d say the failure of British students to understand quantity is almost as bad and probably more important than their failure to learn accents. I’d choose metre over accents if it came down to a fight, esp. considering the idiosyncratic preference of Greek syllabuses for verse over prose.

  2. Anne says:

    I am facing a similar issue regarding quantities in Latin. I have a mixed class of ex-HSC students (i.e. did Latin all the way up to their final high school exams) and ex-beginners who’ve got only one year of learning Latin (at university) under their belt. This, of course, poses its own problems, but they are united in never having been taught, for example, that it is always servō and amāvit and so on, or that there’s a difference in sound as well as meaning between ēdō and edō (some of the high school kids have picked some of this up, but it isn’t part of the syllabus so many haven’t). I’m encouraging them to relearn their declension and conjugation tables with quantities included, and to pay attention to macrons in their dictionaries, because we’re doing a fair bit of scansion work, and wondering whether – when I teach the beginners course next year – I ought to give them the quantities all the time as a matter of course. I think on the whole that I should, though we face time pressures with our beginners courses just as you do. In fact, I may follow your lead with a pros and cons sheet, if you don’t mind…

  3. Calum says:

    Great blog – and a thorny issue. I could not help but notice that in Zurich the students / pgs pronounce Greek very differently to what you would normally hear here. They use the pitch as a stress accent, thus ensuring they remember where the accent goes. I was very ashamed of my pronunciation when I joined a reading group. And PS: they very much can read Greek out in metre.

  4. Gabriel says:

    As you probably can imagine, I think most of the arguments against the teaching of accentuation are pretty weak (1. as Gavin points out, is not even true; 2. is precisely the reason we _should_ worry about it). Arguments such as 4. are the ones I encountered most often, and assume that accents are an optional extra that don’t really help with learning the language and just slow it down.

    Actually though, I think your approach is a sound one. Let them know that accents exist, point out odd features and things that will help, and make a habit of using them youself. (I would also encourage students to use them, just to that a word without accents looks odd, a bit naked, but don’t give them a hard time if they get δῆμος mixed up with δημός.)

    My approach to mentioning accentuation in class is effectively the same as I take to mentioning indoeuropean linguistics or the physiology of phonetics. Sometimes a basic understanding of underlying rules (cognates vs. loan-words; the reason behind all labials becoming ψ in the aorist and future) is both interesting and helps students to remember things that will serve them well in the future. None of these things need take very much class time nor panic students trying to fit everything into a revision timetable.

    Thanks for the post, very thoughtful. Your number 1. pro argument alone is more persuasive than anything I’ve ever come up with.

  5. simonides says:

    Thanks, everybody. I’ll either rephrase the first “con” to refer explicitly to _written_ accentuation, or gloss it carefully while talking through the handout.

    I would stress the other part of the same point, though: those who “pronounce” the accents by putting a stress accent on the relevant syllable (as Calum reports from Zurich) are not really reproducing the ancient pitch accent. But it is still better to say θάλαττα with stress on the first syllable, rather than on the second, and I’ll encourage the students to do so…

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