I just got back from a performance [NY Times review here] of Antigone by the National Theater of Greece, and a revelatory experience it was. Not revelatory of Sophocles, who barely survived the transmogrification, but of the impassable gap between ancient theater and the modern world. You may think I should have realized this before now, and I may agree with you, but it took the experience of hearing the play in Modern Greek to bring it home to me. Somehow, when I excitedly reserved my ticket a couple of months ago, I had been thinking of it as parallel to seeing the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow do The Cherry Orchard (which pleasure I had last year). As soon as Antigone came onstage and began to speak, I realized my mistake. In place of Sophocles’s somber and unforgettable “O koinon autadelphon Ismenes kara” (OH KOInon AUtaDELphon IZ-MEH-NEHS kaRA), there came the brisk and unmistakably modern “Ismini mou!” This literally means “my Ismene” and is the functional equivalent of simply saying “Ismene!” (in an affectionate sort of way). Now, there’s no way to translate Sophocles’s line into any modern language and have it sound anything but silly: “O common self-sibling head of Ismene!” (Calling someone “head of X” rather than simply “X” is not uncommon in Greek theater; A.E. Housman incorporated it and many similar tropes into his hilarious Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.) Even interpreting it a bit more generously as “Ismene, my full sister, sharer of my (blood, life, what have you)” it’s hard to make it work as an address from one living character to another. But to go the “Hey, Ismene!” route is to lose everything that makes Sophocles Sophocles. It’s as if you were to stage Shakespeare in a modern version which turned “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” into “Damn!” Part of it is the loss of the ancient world, with its blood-pollution, sacrifices, and god-infused thinking; part of it is the loss of poetic theater as a viable genre (comparatively speaking, it’s a piece of cake to translate epic successfully). But what I want to stress here is that there’s no more point seeing Sophocles done in Modern Greek than in English or Japanese; the connection is purely historical—and if you expect more, you will be disappointed.

Unless, of course, you are Greek, in which case you will not realize there is a difference. One thing that astonishes me about modern Greek culture is its insistence on its alleged continuity with Ancient Greece, and part of that is an absurd belief that Ancient Greek was pronounced the same as the modern language—that Sophocles would, like his many-generations-removed descendents, have pronounced Antigone “Andighóni.” I once thought only uneducated people believed this, but then I read an essay by Seferis, one of the most cultured men of the twentieth century, in which he furiously attacked foreigners who pretended that the ancient Greeks used some sort of strange pronunciation, made up out of whole cloth, rather than the authentic speech of the Greeks! I sadly reflected on the ineluctable pigheadedness and vanity of human nature and closed the book with a superior snap.

Addendum: This subject reminds me of the time I was living in New Haven and the Yale classics department put on Euripides’ The Bacchae. I had friends in classics, and as a result I wound up playing the god Dionysos, a most enjoyable experience—I made my own thyrsos and everything. As it happened, one of the women in the cast was about to go to Greece to study, had been learning Modern Greek, and didn’t want to screw up her Sprachgefühl by using ancient pronunciation, so she insisted on reading her part as if it were Modern Greek (which is the way modern Greeks do it). I, in an amazing feat of linguistic prestidigitation, spoke most of the part the ancient way but used modern pronunciation in my dialog with her. And I thumped my thyrsos thwackingly on the ground. A good time was had by all.


  1. Most impressive you can compare those two at all! I and my Dutch girlfriend gave up on our modern Greek lessons after we had only done a handful of verbs in a couple of tenses (I got surprisingly annoyed with their voice-stress rule, after the comfortingly mechanical HUngarian WAY OF ALways STRESSing THE FIRST SYLLable which makes their accent irritating in English, but is one less thing to have to think about in their language….), and I’m ashamed to say I have forgotten all my ancient Greek from school.

    But don’t modern Greeks have a funny debate about how to spell their words, and whether to accept all the Turkish words they now use? I thought, a bit like the Norwegians, there were two different spelling/grammar conventions, with one modern Greek newspaper still holding out for the more Classics-‘faithful’ version?

  2. Can’t deal with a distinctive stress accent, eh, ya lazy sod? Fine, stick to Hungarian, Finnish, Czech, and Tamil. See if I care.

    As for comparing the two, I had the same experience with Greek as with Irish: starting on the ancient language and then realizing it would be a great help to know the modern one (since it’s actually spoken, one can acquire a better sense of how it actually works). In the case of Greek, I was aided by falling in love with the poetry of Cavafy; I once got a pitcher of retsina sent to me in an Athens restaurant because (already drunk) I was loudly declaiming “The City” in Greek. And then I had to drink the pitcher, otherwise I’d be insulting the guy who’d sent it over. And then I went out into the night and found an anarchist rally going on. It was a memorable birthday. I have another anecdote, but I’ll make it an addendum — this comment is too long already.

  3. Sorry, I forgot to address your second paragraph. Yes, they have (or had — it’s pretty much over now, with the long-delayed victory of dimotiki) a debate, and it wasn’t so funny a while back: people were killed in riots over the publication of a demotic Bible a century ago, and when the right wing was in power (especially under the colonels) use of dimotiki (the language people actually spoke) in public was seen as a sign of Communist sympathies and could earn you a spell in prison or worse. There’s an even-handed account of the varieties of Modern Greek here. (The Norwegians had a similar debate, but in typical fashion didn’t let it get violent as far as I know. How boring.)

  4. Yes I am more than a bit lazy, it has to be admitted. And I’m not sure I do want to stay with Hungarian, Finnish, Czech and Tamil, actually.

    I like that document about the three varieties of Greek (though it looked suspiciously as if there were/are five, not three!).

    I shall just have to improve my memory, I suppose, then I can learn these things a bit quicker.

  5. I think that few people believe that Ancient and Modern Greek pronunciation are the same even if they don’t know very much of the language. When I was in school 40 years ago, we were taught that the pronunciation of Greek had changed over time and that Ancient Greek had musical sound that has been lost in Modern Greek. Since then, I’ve read that the main changes were in b to v as in basileus (king) > vasilios and eu to ef as in leukos (white; fair) > lefkos. Still, the late linguist, Mario Pei, said that Modern Greek is closer to Ancient Greek than Italian is to Latin and I pretty much agree with him. Only the Cappadocian dialect of Greek (extinct since the 1960’s?) was radically altered by contact with Osmanli Turkish. I once believed that Johann Philipp Fallmerayer was on to something when he said in 1830 that not one drop of Ancient Greek blood existed in the modern Greek population …that they were basically Slavs with admixtures of some Turk, Albanian and Vlach (Romanian). Over the past decade, however, I’ve have come to doubt him as new archeological and DNA evidence indicates that the Greeks are a very old people and that they still look much the same in physical appearance as the Greeks of the Ancient and Byzantine periods.

  6. brian: Are you Greek? If so, apparently things have changed; if not, your school experience is irrelevant — of course everyone outside Greece knows the language has changed. And I think Fallmereyer has been pretty thoroughly discredited.

  7. Dear Language Hat,
    The first part of your reply is puzzling and sounds like a personal attack whether you intended that way or not. Therefore, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to discuss it. Regarding the second part” “And I think Fallmereyer has been pretty well discredited.” No, not really. Just last year my local newspaper carried an article about Greece and the Greeks echoing Fallmereyer’s contention that the modern Greek was basically a Slav. Also, check out this internet article written only ten years ago about a person in England who wrote an article about the Greeks pretty much mirroring Fallmereyer: Although I have come to disbelieve Fallmereyer’s thesis myself as I said before, I think it’s going to be around in academic circles for some time to come.

  8. The first part of your reply is puzzling and sounds like a personal attack whether you intended that way or not.
    It’s my turn to be puzzled. I can’t for the life of me see how the question “Are you Greek?” can be taken as a personal attack. To spell it out more clearly: you say “When I was in school 40 years ago, we were taught that the pronunciation of Greek had changed over time…” Well, if you were in school anywhere outside Greece, of course you were taught that; so was I, so was everyone I know, it’s common knowledge, like the French Revolution or Darwin. If you were in school in Greece, that means they’re teaching the facts about the actual history of Greek rather than clinging to silly ideas of unchanging pronunciation, which would be interesting to me. I have no idea what could be insulting about that, but perhaps now that I’ve explained my thought process you won’t feel insulted and will see it for what it is, a straightforward question like “where do you live?” or “do you like fish?”

  9. Dear Language Hat,
    I think I see a little more what you mean. First of all, I’m not Greek myself but an American (whose ancestry comes mostly from the British Isles) but that may be immaterial. What you do seem to be arguing is that Greek nationals are educated in the continuity theory to the point where many of them believe that the Ancient Greeks spoke with the same pronunciation as the modern Greeks. On this point you could be right. I have never discussed it with Greek immigrants in my hometown which has the third largest number in the United States. I did tell an American waitress at a Greek-owned restaurant one time however that some of the cuisine names on the menue like baclava, mizithra and keftedes appeared to be of non-Greek origin and she strongly hinted that I’d better not say anything to them (the Greek owners) about it. She told me to go take my inquiries to Berlitz instead. Since then, I have found out that baclava is Persian and Keftedes is from Turkish koefte “meatball” (I still don’t know about mizithra cheese). So it shows you just how sensitive the Greeks are regarding any discussions about their culture or their language.
    I don’t know exactly where you stand on the continuity theory of the modern Greeks being basically the same people as the Homeric and Attic Greeks but if discount Fallmeryer’s viewpoint I would think that you believe in it.
    Anyhow, I’m sorry about the confusion. I only wish that I had responded to this post two years ago when it was new but maybe there are still enough Language Hat readers interested in all things Hellenic who might want to continue with it.
    — Brian

  10. Thanks for being willing to continue the dialogue. Now I see where you’re coming from, and you are drawing the right conclusion from your chat with the waitress — Greeks are indeed sensitive about such things. You’ll have to take my word for it about the fantasy of unchanging pronunciation, but I think if you take it up (carefully!) with some of those hometown Greeks you’ll find they believe it. As to the Fallmerayer stuff, I don’t really care, to tell you the truth — it would not change my views of Greeks or their history a bit whether they are descended from Greeks or Slavs or both. Culture and language are far more interesting to me than genetics.
    I’m glad you found this post; this is why I hate closing comments on old entries!

  11. Actually J. P. Fallmerayer’s theories were not on the “Modern Greek” but specifically on the Greeks of Morea (Peloponnese), which constituted 1/8 of the entire Greek population. Even if Fallmerayer was 1/8 correct, it still makes not much of an argument against modern Greek people in general. Obviously modern Greek and ancient Greek are different, but linguists continue to regard it as the “aged form” of a living language, rather than an offspring of a dead language. Most of the phonology changes mentioned in this page (such as eu to ef, b, g, d to v, gh, dh) did in fact exist in ancient Greek, but only in a dialectal context. With Koine Greek they became standardised. Personally I regard western attitude towards Greek racial/cultural continuity very biased and hypocritical. For example we never read about how Germany was greatly settled by Huns and Slavs during late antiquity, or how Fallmerayer’s “Aryan” homeland, Austria, or the “East Mark” as Charlesmagne called it, was once upon a time on the limit of become a Slavic country. Yet all we get to hear is how mixed Greeks and other modern people are, so that northern europeans can get all the credit for the creation of “Western Civilisations”. Hilarious arguments of the type “modern Greeks are dark i.e. not physically similar to the supposedly blonde ancient Greeks” are very frequent. What’s most ironic is that people who use this argument and back it up with Fallmerayer’s theory, are not aware of the fact that the proto-IE Slavic tribes that invaded the Balkans peninsula in late antiquity were physically much like Germanic peoples (and in fact related to them) and completely unlike modern Greeks and other mediterraneans. The modern Polish people must the one physically closest to the “Great Slavic race” (as Fallmerayer called it”), and I personally find them physically much closer to Germans than and the people of “Morea” (and I think everyone would agree). Criticism on the modern Greek language is another result of those european complex of its barbarian heritage. Despite what people claim, I took Attic in College and without a single knowledge on modern Greek I was able to understand some 80% of a modern Greek newspaper on my first attempt. Of course that doesn’t mean that a speaker of modern Greek would understand 80% of the ancient language on his first go, but it largely proves that Greek is in fact a living language. By the way I’m not Greek and I don’t have any special connections with Greeks, (I’m French from Normandy) but I’m only stating an opinion as a relatively knowledgeable, neutral observer.

  12. “What you do seem to be arguing is that Greek nationals are educated in the continuity theory to the point where many of them believe that the Ancient Greeks spoke with the same pronunciation as the modern Greeks.”
    I can guarantee you that this is not true. Most Greeks I’ve met are not aware of the Erasmian pronunciation simply because classics are not a popular a subject in Greece. However people who are familiar with Classics are well aware of the same things that we are, there’s not “information-hiding”, that’s just ridiculous. “Kefte” in my knowledge is Arabic and not a Turkish word. I don’t think that anyone in greece would ever arguie that kefte or baklava are of greek origin. If you come to France you’ll notice that any kind of oriental kebab-style sandwich is called “grec” (greek sandwich). Ironically the average French would think that this is in fact a greek type of food until the moment he travels in an oriental country and goes “wait a minute, that’s an arabic/turkish thing, those greeks are lying to us”. What the average french is not aware of is that the labelling of this food as “Greek” was a marketing scheme which definitely had nothing to do with Greeks but with French shop owners. I think it’s the same case with baklava and all that stuff.

  13. I find the Anglophone reconstructions of Attic phonology very amusing Try to imagine how ridiculous this would sound to an ancient Greek. Modern Greek phonology would indeed sound much more familiar and authentic to an ancient Greek. The post-classic phonology is indeed different, but as its predecessor, it is based on a set of rules, and is not a matter of simple corruption as most people erroneously think.

  14. A. Fragkis says

    This time long linquistic arguments especially in respect of my own language “Greek” have never stopped to amuse me. Since my childhood, the issue of ancient against modern, or the inbetween versions of “koini”, “archaizousa”, “katharevousa”, “kathomiloumeni” and “dimotiki” has been prominent. What does it matter anyway? No one has told these “self proclaimed scolars” that language is living and ever evolving? Why it is so vital to know if Socrates pronounced his “ει” as “ee” or “a”?. Does this effect the enormous value of his philosophy or make him more or less immortal?
    High time all these time wasters did something useful.

  15. A. Fragkis says

    As I have now read all comments made more carefully, I feel that I must give afew answers with regard to words adopted in Greek from other languages. However, before I do this, I would like to mention that 70% of the English or indeed the French vocalulary is of Greek origin and the German grammar is a true copy of the ancient Greek one. That said, Greece as a Nation, was under a multiple of foreign rulers, no Greek speakers, for almost two millenia. The fact that a handful of Greek people, emerged in the 19th Century as a sovereign state with its language intact and evolved as it were, not only proves the continuety of the language but in deed the race. No Greek will have difficulty in reading Ancient Greek and understanding a good part of it, while the same cannot be said for languages that derive from Latin. Words of foreign origin that appeared in the course of history, can only serve to enrich the langage, and enforce the continuety of it, as they do stand out!

  16. Sigh.

  17. Came for the ineluctable pigheadedness, stayed for the impassible gap. Your reaction to “Ismini mou!” reminds me of a college class where we read the Oresteia in Richmond Lattimore’s translation. It opens with the watchman seeing the beacon signaling the return of Agamemnon and shouting “Ahoy!” The professor went on a magnificent rant about how the Greek word was so much more deeply emotional and we didn’t have a modern English equivalent. He was Greek-American himself, but I don’t think he mentioned ancient vs. modern pronunciation.

    The Housman link is dead, but there are many other places to find it. Here’s one with annotations pointing out that these lines:

    But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
    And do not understand a word I say,
    Then wave your hand, to signify as much.

    are directly from the Agamemnon! It’s what Clytaemnestra says to Cassandra.

  18. Thanks for the working link, and yes, that’s one of the many brilliancies of that brilliant parody.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    One thing that’s odd about this particular aspect of Greek nationalism is that the most pigheadishly-continuity-theorist Englishman, let’s say one who thinks that Stonehenge is his very own ethnocultural patrimony and disregards the (probably multiple) language shifts between the constructors of Stonehenge and his own time, is usually perfectly willing to accept that his own pronunciation of English varies materially from that of the time of Shakespeare or the time of Chaucer. He may well think reciting Shakespeare or Chaucer in reconstructed-original pronunciation an unnecessary affectation, but he is not likely to find it an affront to his sense of the continuity of English culture.

    OTOH, I’ve been told (but don’t have the ear to judge personally*) that Greek Orthodox services done in Greek by at least well-trained clergy/chanters are optimally chanted in a medieval/Byzantine pronunciation that someone with a good ear can tell varies materially from modern pronunciation. If this is true, you would think it would undercut the absolute-continuity-of-pronunciation belief. But maybe it’s not really true, or maybe the differences between ecclesiastical and normal-modern pronunciation are sufficiently subtle that you don’t notice them unless you’re primed to.

    *My ear can, however, definitely tell that they’re NOT chanted in the Ivy-League-classics-department reconstructed pronunciation of ancient Attic! To be fair, although I had a professor a mere 36 autumns ago who tried to teach us how koine NT Greek was pronounced differently from that, I’ve forgotten the differences and if asked to read an NT passage aloud would do so in reconstructed-pagan-Attic (no doubt as further degraded by an American accent).

  20. I had a professor a mere 36 autumns ago who tried to teach us how koine NT Greek was pronounced differently …

    I had a (British Grammar School — which dates it to more like 50 Autumns) Classics master — which even then was such a minority interest he had to double the Latin and the Greek — who alleged he could make himself understood in then-contemporary Greece. (We suspected the coach drivers and tour guides were humouring him.)

  21. Far Outliers quotes an apposite passage from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos:

    As we sat by the brazier before going to bed, I tried out the few bits of Homer I knew by heart on my host and hostess, and a couple of bits of Sappho. I suppose it was rather like a Greek, in an incomprehensible accent, hopefully murmuring passages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English to an old fisher couple in a Penzance cottage. Even so, the verses seemed to have a sort of talismanic value to their ears, and caused pleasure rather than the nonplussed tedium its English equivalent might have evoked in Cornwall. I struck luckier with Fauriel’s Greek folksongs, in the collection of Nadejda’s grandfather. They knew several of them, and my hostess Kyria Eleni – an alert old woman with wide-open blue eyes, dressed and elaborately kerchiefed in black – even sang a few lines here and there in a quavery voice. Once I had got the hang of the modern pronunciation of the vowels and diphthongs, with the fact that all hard breathings had evaporated and that all the accents merely indicated where the stress of a word fell, I saw that reading it aloud, though halting at first, would soon become plain sailing. I could also break down the construction of the sentences; even, now and then, and in spite of the deep demotic, the ghost of an inkling of their drift. Old newspapers hinted their meanings a stage more easily, as through a glass darkly, but with a battered missal I found on a shelf, it was almost face to face. All this was full of promise for the coming months; for, Constantinople once reached, I was planning a private invasion of Greece. But, infuriatingly, we were still confined in conversation to my halting and scarcely existent Bulgarian.

    See this comment from last year for my story about Warren Cowgill and “what he considered Greek.”

  22. January First-of-May says

    AFAICT the big sound change representing the difference between Attic and Modern, namely aspirated plosives (such as /pʰ/) becoming fricatives (such as /f/), had already happened by Koine times. The vowels were still partially distinct, though.

    I think Middle Byzantine would be effectively Modern in pronunciation terms, except IIRC some of them would have still had /y/ for upsilon, and maybe some of the clusters hadn’t simplified yet.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Once I had got the hang of the modern pronunciation of the vowels and diphthongs, with the fact that all hard breathings had evaporated and that all the accents merely indicated where the stress of a word fell, I saw that reading it aloud, though halting at first, would soon become plain sailing.

    I find myself wondering whether reading Greek aloud as he described would be similar to reading Portuguese as if it were Spanish, with obvious substitutions like saying -ción when the text has -ção. I found that that worked quite well when I was on a commission to report on chemistry research units in Portugal. Virtually all the discussion was in English, but occasionally there were texts in Portuguese that had to be read.

  24. Thanks @Hat. By an astonishing coincidence, Youtube’s algorithms today feed me Talking to a Frisian farmer in Friesland with Old English.

    Hmm I’m unconvinced. After establishing ‘broun cou’ as the conversation topic, they’re both just riffing on the subject. If they got as far as haggling over the price, it wouldn’t go well.

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