An essay by J. M. Tyree on “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph” (found via the invaluable wood s lot) reminded me of the clever (annoyingly clever, if you will) title of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, in which

the first word is the Hellenistic Greek term for the early Christian love-communion. The participants were to greet one another, according to St. Paul, with “an holy kiss.” Originally, this was an open-mouthed mutual breathing, in which one “inspired” the Holy Spirit from the lips of another believer… But in the fallen state that Gaddis links to modern life, one is often merely “agape” when one opens one’s mouth, whether in sexual kissing, talking, or, as Tabbi suggests, the slack-jawed response to mass-entertainment culture and mechanized art… So little, after all—a mere Greek accent—separates the false cognates agape and agape.

Now, I don’t know what the last sentence means (accent as in “accent mark”?—but there is none in English—or as in “Southern accent”?—but presumably nobody but a few first-generation Greek-Americans says the English word with a Greek accent), but that’s not what interests me. [I should have checked the actual title of the book, which has a macron over the first e to represent Greek ēta. This is still not a “Greek accent” but at least I know what he means.] What I want to know is how you pronounce the first agapē, the word for “Christian love” (or however you want to define it). I’ve always put the stress on the second syllable, ə-GAH-pay, and this is the first pronunciation given in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary; I assume the stress derives from the accented syllable in the Greek (which was a stress, not pitch, accent by New Testament times). The second pronunciation given has the stress on the first syllable: AH-gə-pay. The only pronunciation given in the OED also stresses the first syllable (which derives from the tradition of pronouncing Greek words as if they were Latin, with the stress on the antepenult if the penult is short), but it is anglicized to AG-ə-pee (first syllable rhyming with bag). So, assuming you ever use the word in speech, how do you say it (please mention which country you’re from)? And (a separate question) which do you think fits better in the title: ə-GAH-pay ə-GAYP, AH-gə-pay ə-GAYP, or AG-ə-pee ə-GAYP? (I don’t suppose anybody knows how Gaddis pronounced the word, but if you do, please share.)


  1. ə-GAH-pay. USA, midwest/Ohio valley.

  2. I forgot to answer part two. I’m not sure any particular pronunciation fits the title. It seems to be a purely visual title, one which doesn’t read well at all.
    I don’t suppose “a gay pee” is an option?

  3. caffeind says

    I’ve heard the same in California.
    From a little Googling, looks like the Greek is αγάπη, and since eta is pronounced i in modern Greek, the “pee” ending is not necessarily just an Anglicism.

  4. Yeah it is — they’re not pronouncing it according to modern Greek (which very few Englishmen, including and perhaps especially classicists, have ever learned) but according to traditional anglicized Latin, courtesy of the Great Vowel Shift. The “ee” sound in agape is there for the same reason it’s in meet.

  5. I just want to give LH high marks for mentioning Gaddis. He has a fearsome reputation. I have yet to read The Recognitions or Agape Agape, but I would encourage people to take a look at JR or Carpenter’s Gothic. His novels may seem dense and forbidding at first but once you get used to fact that almost the entire story is told in dialogue, the effect is a little like listening to a radio play, and you may find yourself surprisingly well entertained. Gaddis actually had a pretty decent sense of humour.

  6. Folquerto says

    I am living in the Netherlands and I am used to speaking Dutch, but it is not my maternal language. How I pronounce the Greek agape completely depends on the company I am with and the land I am in. In Greece simply aghápi when speaking Greek. Elsewhere gymnasium-style with gymnasiasts which is the Latinized stress accent, then the reconstructed classical Attic with real scholars (extremely few those), then a Dutch pronunciation in ordinary Dutch sounds and then a likewise reconstructed Coptic pronunciation when I speak Coptic, I make no difference here between Bohairic and Sahidic and the other dialects are too much in the dark. In the Netherlands I produce a differently sounding agape than in an English conversation, and again I of late have started to make an absolute difference between American sounding Amerenglish and Oxbridge. Like I like complexities like this.

  7. [‘ægəpeI] with the un-English [eI] because I feel it’s not naturalized; I treat it as a recent borrowing direct from Ancient Greek, like some other theological terms such as kairos or kerygma, where we simply anglicize the Greek pronunication* rather than fully naturalizing them via Latin and Middle English.
    However, I find it was taken into English in 1696. The (old) OED still marked it with ‘||’ for not naturalized, but gave the more English pronunciation [‘ægəpi:]. This is how I’d pronounce it as the name of e.g. a nymph or city.
    I don’t know whether I’ve ever heard anyone pronounce it; I’ve been in company very rarely with people who might have occasion to. I’m not sure if my compromise is influenced by others. The modern Chambers dictionary also gives [‘ægəpi:] alone, so that must be the ‘standard’ British pronunciation. I should switch to that.
    * It would be hair-splitting to distinguish borrowings from Classical and NT. I agree it would be [a:’ga:peI] if we did so. The fact that the eta had probably moved up from [æ:] ~ [ε:] to [e:] by that time fortunately doesn’t affect the nearest available English, or we would get really finicky.

  8. As an albeit temporary professional proofreader I have to say that asterisk really makes that typo stand out gloriously, dammit.

  9. I’m Greek-Australian and was raised speaking Modern Greek.
    Obviously whenever I look at the word, I can do nothing else but pronounce it as a-GA-pi. Anything else feels criminally incorrect to me.
    The problem however is that this extends to a lot of other words that I know in Modern Greek. For instance, I can’t say SO-crates, which seems to be the accepted manner of saying the word in English. Instead, it always comes out as so-CRA-tes because of Σωκράτης in Greek.
    Then there’s household kitchen items. I feel dirty saying things like oregano, and have actually made friends understand the Greek ρίγανη simply because in my mind, there is no other word that the herb can go by.
    Apparently Aristotle developed his essentialism because of supposed mispronounciations.
    And don’t get me started about pronouncing Aristotle!

  10. Κολοκύθια με τη ρίγανη!

  11. Γλώσσακαπέλε, τα γάϊδουρια κλάνουν.

  12. Another vote for ə-GAH-pay ə-GAYP
    And further to Vanya’s comment above — Gaddis is a fine writer in general but specifically, “Agape Agape” will blow your mind. The thing is a rhythmic whirlwind, very difficult to put down from the moment you start page 1. (I say this as someone who enjoyed “A Frolic of His Own” quite a bit but thought it was a little overdone, and who thinks he would have liked “JR” had he been able to keep at it.)

  13. The voice of ignorance: in my head, at least (not sure I’ve ever said it out loud), I say AH-gə-pay. Of course, I was not paying attention when they tried to explain greek pronunciation back in high school. However I muddled through, it was certainly based on however one muddled through Latin, whose “rules” I also ignored at the time. This was high school in Boston, and our Greek teacher was Greek.

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