Greek’s Vowelled Undersong.

A correspondent writes that he was puzzled by Oscar Wilde’s reference to “vowelled” Greek, which apparently alludes to this passage from Keats’s Lamia:

Soft went the music the soft air along,
While fluent Greek a vowelled undersong
Kept up among the guests.

What the devil did he mean by “vowelled undersong”? My correspondent did some googling and “found Browning, of all people, discussing it in the preface of his Agamemnon”:

Just a word more on the subject of my spelling — in a transcript from the Greek and there exclusively — Greek names and places precisely as does the Greek author. I began this practice, with great innocency of intention, some six-and-thirty years ago. […] I supposed I was doing a simple thing enough: but there has been till lately much astonishment at os and us, ai and oi, representing the same letters in Greek. Of a sudden, however, whether in translation or out of it, everybody seems committing the offence, although the adoption of u for υ [upsilon] still presents such difficulty that it is a wonder how we have hitherto escaped “Eyripides.” But there existed a sturdy Briton who, Ben Jonson informs us, wrote “The Life of the Emperor Anthony Pie” — whom we now acquiesce in as Antoninus Pius: for “with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes satin.” Yet there is, on all sides, much profession of respect for what Keats called “vowelled Greek” — “consonanted,” one would expect […]

I welcome all thoughts about this odd meme. And I share with you “Flatulence – a sonnet,” discovered in the course of the googling and passed along for my delectation; it begins:

My “vowelled undersong” is not in Greek,
Nor has it, really, much to do with vowels.
It’s not apparent when I try to speak,
But rumbles unimpeded from my bowels.

Thanks, Bruce!


  1. Eli Nelson says

    I find it difficult to understand the Browning passage. Perhaps it would make more sense if I lived in the time period. For example, I am confused by the sentence

    “astonishment at os and us, ai and oi, representing the same letters in Greek.”

    “representing the same letters” as what? Does he think of Latin O and Greek Omicron as literally being the same letter (and so on for U and Ypsilon, A and Alpha, I and Iota)? I mean, this is true in a sense from a historical perspective, but it seems an odd viewpoint to take with respect to the modern languages. There are a number of letters in each alphabet with no equivalent in the other, and even the paired ones have different names in English and Greek, and sometimes more than one counterpart (e.g. Ypsilon corresponds to Latin Y and Vee just as much as it does to Latin U).

    But anyway, I think I get the gist of it. I don’t like the practice he mentions (I don’t see how “Olumpos” etc. is any better than “Olympus”, and there are several ways in which it seems worse—why not just use Ὄλυμπος if you really value indicating the original spelling and/or pronunciation?). But I won’t go into tedious detail on this because Hat has already described how I feel in previous threads like the one on “pace”.

  2. Wilde’s “richer music of the vowelled Greek” (I didn’t know the Keats reference) always made intuitive sense to me: compared to Latin, Greek has more vowels (counting diphthongs) and is more liberal about combining them (e.g.). I’d guess — without having tried to calculate — that it has a higher V to C ratio, too,

  3. Could the passage from Lamia be about the pitch accent? Then “vowel’d music” would make sense. Not sure about “vowelled Greek.”

  4. Re TR’s (e.g.): Interesting that Perseus’ LSJ has not been proofread. ὄμθσσον is ὄμοσσον, and who knows what the caret in ἀάα^τος is intended to mean.

  5. 19th century Europeans loved vowels, commented favorably on languages exotic to them that have open syllables, and judged their speakers less barbaric than others, especially those who flaunt pharyngeals and ejectives.

  6. I think Browning is talking about stuff like “Olumpos” instead of “Olympus,” but I’m pretty sure that the Keats reference just means “notably rich in vowels”. Jewel:jewelled::vowel:vowelled. Colvin’s biography of Keats sez:

    Often in thus conjuring up visions of the classic past, Keats effects true master strokes of imaginative concentration. Do we not feel half the romance of the Odyssey, with the spell that is in the sound of the vowelled place-names of Grecian story, and the breathing mystery of moonlight falling on magic islands of the sea, distilled into the one line—

    Aeaea’s isle was wondering at the moon?

    (Emphasis added.)

    As an aside, “Anthony Pie” for “Antoninus Pius” is probably the smoothest proper-noun localization I’ve seen all year. Anthony Pie! He sounds like a garbled legend from footnotes to Spenser, or maybe a stock panto character.

  7. Y: In that context, how did they feel about, say, Hawaiian? Genuinely curious.

  8. Antonine Pie is of course an impeccable Latin vocative, as in this genuine acclamatio: “Invicte imperator Antonine Pie, felix Aug., multis annis imperes.”

  9. The Isle of Aeaea reminds me of Homer’s “obscure and sinister” epithet ἀᾱ́ατος, brilliantly etymologised by Alexander Nikolaev as literally obscure, namely < *ahāwato- < *n̥-sah₂wn̥to- ‘sunless’.

  10. Here’s Rev. Robinson Thornton (1867) speculating on the origin of languages and the causes of language change: “On comparative philology, with reference to the theories of Man’s origin” (Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute, Or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, vol. 1)

    Those anatomical or physiological peculiarities which constitute the differences between races of men are not without effect upon their speech. The inhabitants of a southern climate, and of a richly fertile territory, naturally fall, after a generation or two, into slothful unenergetic habits. They speak lazily; they shrink from the difficulty of hard consonantal pronunciation, and complicated inflexion. Compare the Polynesian tongues with every other family; or, to come to differences in the same family, contrast the soft Italian with the harder Rumonsch of the mountains; Servian with Polish; Bengali with Mahratta, — nay, the English of Aberdeen with the English of Exeter. Again, a peculiar conformation of the organs of speech, produced by some external cause, climatic or otherwise, would soon eliminate some sounds, and introduce others; and thus, if I may so express it, the tuning of the national ear would take a particular direction, and the pronunciation and vocalization of the language would have a tendency to alter towards one class of sounds, and away from another class.

    Or compare Finnish with Tashlhiyt Berber.

  11. January First-of-May says

    And “Anthony” should probably be Antonius, not Antoninus, anyway. In fact, Marcus Antonius of the late Republic is now commonly known as Mark Antony.

    (There’s a somewhat related anecdote on that point: a common coin type of said Mark Antony was made with the legend ANT AVG. When a reissue of the type was made 200 years later under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, the respective legend was expanded to avoid inevitable misinterpretations: ANTONIVS AVGVR.)

  12. > As an aside, “Anthony Pie” for “Antoninus Pius” is probably the smoothest proper-noun localization I’ve seen all year

    Almost as good as John Pick of Mirandola, which I once saw.

  13. Mark Tully is another good one.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I had to read the Browning passage several times before it stopped seeming totally nonsensical. My hypothesis for making sense of it is that he’s saying “if people admire Greek for its voweliness, as the Keats line suggests they do, they ought to share my idiosyncratic desire to actually get the vowels right” (where using the conventional filtered-through-Latin orthography for Greek proper names is viewed as Just Plain Wrong).

    My more speculative hypothesis is slightly more sophisticated, or at least complicated. Greek-origin proper names in their conventional English spelling are likely to be subject to ordinary English pronunciation practices like having vowels reduced in unstressed syllables, esp since Anglophones are used to doing that with Latinate-looking vocabulary. So “Olympus” will definitely have a schwa in the final syllable and possibly in the first syllable as well, whereas “Olumpos” will look so comparatively weird and foreign the Anglophone will end up sufficiently baffled as to what is and isn’t stressed that perhaps everything will get at least a little stress and nothing will get reduced to a schwa, and you’ll thus get some half-assed approximation of all the proper Greek vowels in their full splendor. Of course, if *everyone* adopted Browning’s preferred orthography, it would after a while no longer look novel, and vowel reduction would likely creep back in.

  15. Rodger C says

    In the mid-twentieth-century it was a common practice among English translators of the classics–Fitts, Fitzgerald, etc.–to transliterate directly from the Greek. As an English teacher, this drove me crazy: How is one supposed to pronounce “Kirkê” or “Kyklôps” in an English sentence, let alone so that undergraduates will know you’re referring to their (still just possibly) familiar Sursey and Sighclops? What’s Hekabê to them, or they to Hekabê? The fact that I know Greek only made matters worse. Fortunately this practice seems to have faded among translators writing for the public.

  16. I like the transliteration style, as I associate it with historical novels. To me, Socrates and Aristotle are figures from the history of philosophy, whereas Sokrates and Aristoteles are actual persons who happen to be philosophers. (I can go either way on Plato vs. Platon.) And I definitely prefer the actor Nikeratos in The Mask of Apollo yelling “Iakchos!” to create terror in a darkened theatre with an echo chamber: if he had yelled “Jacchus!” I would have laughed instead.

  17. Rodger C says

    I can see the appropriateness of that in a novel. It’s another thing when trying to recite Homer.

  18. Matt,
    I was thinking about Hawaiian especially. See a summary here.

  19. Thanks, Y! I actually own that book — better put aside some time to sit down and read it.

  20. It’s ironic that Jespersen’s subjective comparison of masculine English with childlike/effeminate Hawaiian, cited in The voices of Eden, comes from a native speaker of Danish — a language with a huge vowel system, famous for leniting its obstruents, and so increasingly “vowelled”. But then other eminent linguists and philologists of that generation wrote, in all earnestess, such nonsense as H. C. K. Wyld in The best English (1934):

    If it were possible to compare systematically every vowel sound in Received Standard with the corresponding sounds in a number of provincial and other dialects, I believe no unbiased listener would hesitate in preferring Received Standard as the most pleasing and sonorous form, and the best suited to the medium of poetry and oratory. [Emphasis added]

    Unbiased, my aaahse!

  21. But then there is J.Y.T. Grieg, who described RP as “the silliest and dwabliest [Scots: most feeble] of all the English dialects […] artificial, slovenly to a degree, absurdly difficult for foreigners to acquire, and except to ears debased by listening to it, inharmonious. […] It obliterates distinctions, tends to reduce all unstressed vowels to the same natural grunt, and then — as if by some obscure process of psychical compensation — diphthongizes and breaks up vowels that in other Standards are cleanly and simply articulated […]. It needs to be taken out in the open air, and buffeted by trans-Atlantic winds.”

    As for Jespersen, his opinion of his own language is (by comparison with English) on record:

    The English consonants are well defined; voiced and voiceless consonants stand over against each other in neat symmetry, and they are, as a rule, clearly and precisely pronounced. You have none of those indistinct or half-slurred consonants that abound in Danish, for instance (such as those in hade, hage, livlig), where you hardly know whether it is a consonant or a vowel-glide that meets the ear. The only thing that might be compared to this in English is the r when not followed by a vowel, but then this has really given up definitely all pretensions to the rank of a consonant, and is (in the pronunciation of the South of England) either frankly a vowel (as in here) or else nothing at all (in hart, etc.). Each English consonant belongs distinctly to its own type, a t is a t, and a k is a k, and there is an end. There is much less modification of a consonant by the surrounding vowels than in some other languages; thus none of that palatalization of consonants which gives an insinuating grace to such languages as Russian. The vowel sounds, too, are comparatively independent of their surroundings; and in this respect the language now has deviated widely from the character of Old English, and has become more clear-cut and distinct in its phonetic structure, although, to be sure, the diphthongization of most long vowels (in ale, whole, eel, who, phonetically eil, houl, ijl, huw) counteracts in some degree this impression of neatness and evenness.

  22. A /t/ is a [t]? In English?? In the first volume of his monumental Grammar Jespersen himself describes some very un-[t]-like allophones of /t/.

  23. Growth and Structure of the English Language is a popularization, though Jespersen says he hopes it may be “of some profit to the expert philologist”. Naturally, expert philologists in 1905 were rather less knowledgeable than their counterparts today.

  24. It’s a book I learnt a lot from, as it was the first history of English I read . But yes, it’s long past state of the art.

  25. John Cowan says

    As for *Eyripides, the reason we have never written that it is that even after υ shifted to /y/ in Classical times, the dipthongs αυ and ευ remained /au̯/ and /eu̯/ while still keeping their old spellings. Of course, nowadays they are /av/ and /ev/.

  26. January First-of-May says

    Of course, nowadays they are /av/ and /ev/.

    In Russian as well (probably due to Byzantine Greek), thus Эврипид (or Еврипид, as the case may be; I’m not sure which option is more common, though judging by the Russian Wikipedia article it’s probably the latter).

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    The regrettable practice of calling (for example) the island of Crete “Krête” was described by our forefathers as “Grotesque”, in honour of George Grote’s “History of Greece”, in which such foibles abound.

  28. Lars (the original one) says

    And he went on about Greek caves so much that now they are called grottoes, not many people know this. (Should be grotes, of course, I blame the perverted spelling on the relentless exoticizing of the antiquities cabal).

  29. For some reason the system refuses to let the comment through.
    Speaking of Greek caves, what does (το σπήλαιο) Απήδημα mean? Just ‘non-jump’?

  30. Rodger C says

    The regrettable practice of calling (for example) the island of Crete “Krête”

    This was a fashion of mid-20th-century translators like Fitzgerald and Fitts. I’m so glad it’s over. As a teacher who does a lot of recitation, I was always at a loss as to what pronunciation was intended. Knowing Greek only made matters worse. Plus those spellings could only be a source of confusion for my freshmen and survey students. What’s Hekabê to them, or they to Hekabê?

  31. Heh. You said the same thing two years ago! (I mock not, since I do the same thing repeatedly.)

  32. Stu Clayton says

    It’s only human for a writer to recycle his/her/its writing when he/she/it thinks it’s good. There are different ways to do this. In any case you usually notice it only through intensive reading of the writer’s productions.

    I have read 10,000+ pages of Luhman, and never come across a recycled passage. Many of the ideas are basically unchanged, but he always tries to exposit them more clearly.

    I’ve read pretty much everything Sloterdijk has written, and I’m here to tell you that he’s bold as brass about recycling. When he wants fresh income, he goes through books he wrote 20 years ago, grabs chapters and presents them unaltered as essays in the new book.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Does he at least say so, or does he self-plagiarize?

  34. Juha: Speaking of Greek caves…

    It seems to mean the same as Ancient Greek πήδημα ‘leap, jump’ in the local dialect, so the initial alpha is not privative. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps there used to be an initial ἀπο- there, simplified by haplology; cf. ἀποπηδάω ‘jump off’, but I’m just guessing.

  35. Ευχαριστώ πολύ!

  36. Stu Clayton says

    On the jackets, the publishers don’t trumpet these recycled collections as being such. Sl. doesn’t either, but nor does he hide it. It’s all very urbane. I just get pissed off at paying good money for stuff I’ve read before.

    Actually Sloterdijk is an essayist of the small idea. I have the impression that he gets an idea, writes a bunch of paragraphs and puts this aside. His books are always patchworks of these little essays, stitched together with weird chapter headings and some transition material.

    It only appears that topics are being systematically developed. The continuity is provided by hand-waving.

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