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How important is pronunciation for ancient languages? 🗣
🏛 Χαῖρέ τε καὶ salvē! 🏺
So how important is pronunciation when learning a “dead” language like Latin or Ancient Greek?
Well, if you know me and the topic of many of my videos, you might be suprised when I tell you: a truly authentic historical pronunciation isn’t the most important thing. I personally am quite moved by the study of phonolgy in general and the changing sound of Greek and Latin in particular. But what is the pedagogical usefulness of my obsession?
This series of emails has been focused on techniques for fluent reading, so let’s evaluate the role of pronunciation for you as a solo reader of Latin or Ancient Greek at home.
The reality: pronunciation does not matter at all, except that your pronunciation be consistent. Should you bare a strong “accent” from your native language — due to something we call phonotactic limitations, the normal set of sounds you use as a fluent L1 (first language) speaker — if you are reading for yourself and only for yourself, and your interest is in the strict absorption of information in the target lanugage through reading, whatever sounds you hear in your head that correspond to those letters merely need be part of a consistent system in order to accomplish the task of reading.
But we can, and I think should, apply a few caveats to this. The key feature of Ancient Greek and Latin, and that which cuts off the ancient languages we study from the mediaeval languages that imitate their style and use their name, is phonemic vowel and syllable length. Latin and Ancient Greek have a phonemic contrast between long and short vowels, thus a and ā are completely different vowels in Latin, likewise α and ᾱ in Ancient Greek, with the same quality but differing in quantity. Modern languages that have phonemic vowel length include Hungarian, Czech, Finnish, Slovak, Latvian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, etc., so if you don’t speak a language like that, you may be inclined to dimiss phonemic vowel length as academic, or unachievable, when reciting Latin or Ancient Greek.
And while I begrudge no one for trying and failing to have consistent phonemic vowel length in recitation of either language, it really is the only part of the pronunciation that matters, since it’s how the poetry and, indeed, also the prose is structured. Phonemic vowel and syllable length is the foundation of the entire corpus of Greco-Roman literature. Some ancient languages with a evocative literature, like Old Norse and Old English, don’t structure their poetry on phonemic syllable length, and thus the long vowels are considerably less improtant to learn for recitaiton.
While many vowel and consonant qualities in Latin and Ancient Greek fluctuated through the centuries, the one constant is that the literature consitently preserves correct quantity: phonemic vowel and syllable length (syllables are made long by either containing a long vowel or ending with geminated consonants or a consonant combination). The alternation of short and long syllables is how every poem is formed, how speeches are constructed, and even how prose histories and personal letters are composed.
In English literature, metrical poetry (based on stress rather than length) has somehow fallen out of style in most pure written poems — while remaining unsurprisingly vital to popular songs, since nearly all music requires rhythm; and meter has long been flourishing with great rhythmic sophistication in rap — yet the lack of emphasis of appreciation for meter in English poems today I think has adversely affected the modern English speaker’s approach towards poetry in Latin and Ancient Greek. Poetry in most languages historically is either imitative of music, as in Latin, or was actually meant to be sung, as in Ancient Greek. Thus if we do not understand the actual rhythm of a Greco-Roman poem (replacing syllable length with stress will not do), we are literally missing the music.
Whenever I hear a Latin or Ancient Greek poem recited without the least bit of attention to the poem’s meter, I feel like the Emperor in this scene from Amadeus where he is forced to see a bit of Mozart’s opera where the music was removed from a dance in order to satisfy an absurd state law.
To show how profound an effect rhythm has on expression, let’s listen to some of the best music created for television, on one of the best shows ever on television: Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). Towards the end of the first season, composer Bear McGreary treats us to a waltz with “Passacaglia” which you can listen to here:
“Passacaglia” is in 3/4 time. Then in the finale we hear what is actually almost exactly the same piece of music, at least as far as the notes and the key are concerned:
But “The Shape of Things to Come” is in 6/8 time, and the fall of certain beats in the chord progression is different. Notice how your ear can pick up that the quality or basic musical pitches are the same, yet the slight change in the rhythmical structure tells a completely different story:
While “Passacaglia” is hesitant, playful, melancholy, hopeful, “The Shape of Things to Come” is confident, energetic, sweeping, and determined. But the chord progressions between the two songs are nearly the same. Isn’t music amazing?
Thus whether a poem is in dactylic hexameter or hendecasyllable is not a matter of mere academic footnote, but is, in my opinion, the first and most important part of understanding the poem, if your goal is to appreciate the author’s intent: as foundational as perceiving major from minor key, or 3/4 from 4/4. Assuming that the “content” or translatable message of the poem is the only importart part would be like as incorrect as assuming that all you need are the pitches of a song, and how long each note is played for (the rhythm) makes no difference.
As viscerally and as intuitively as you can distinguish the emotive power of the two orchestral pieces above, you can appreciate the meters of Classical works. I recommend training yourself to recognise the inherent rhythm of Latin and Ancient Greek, at least in poetry. But how on earth can one do that, when few courses of either language ever teach the student how?
Worry not! I have a whole free course in this YouTube playlist:
While this playlist is for Latin, nearly all the same rules apply to Ancient Greek. If you are interested in having a series like this for Ancient Greek, let me know and I’ll make it for you on YouTube.
So from my perspective, when folks get annoyed about their preferences for Classical/Ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, or Historical/Modern Greek pronunciation, and obsess over the C in “cēna” being “soft” or “hard,” or the Greek αι being a diphthong or a monophthong, I usually think their arguments are incredibly silly, because while both Latin and Greek show changes during the ancient period in vowel and consonant qualities approaching the modern descendended languages through their long histories, the only constant is that the two Classical languages retain phonemic vowel length as the fundamental element of all their literatures.
For this reason, there are fluent Latin speakers like my great friend and colleague Stefano Vittori that prefer Ecclesiastical Pronunciation in Latin, yet retain perfect phonemic vowel length even in fluent speech. In my opinion, this is a far better way to work with ancient Latin literature, rather than using “Classical” pronunciation yet never employing phonemic vowel length in recitation. I advocate the same for Ancient Greek: use any historical or conventional pronunciation you want; but if you retain phonemic vowel length, a world of the most incredibly poetry ever written will suddenly awaken in your soul as the song it was intended to be.
Let’s continue the musical analogy: the orchestral instruments we use today sound different than they did in the time of Mozart. A modern piano may be compared to Ecclesiastical Latin or Modern Greek pronunciation. A period 18th century piano may be like Classical Latin or historical Greek pronunciations. When playing a song on that piano, you have chosen the instrument (the consonant and vowel qualities), but you must play the right rhythm (the natural scansion of the text) otherwise it simply won’t be that song, as we saw above comparing “Passacaglia” with “The Shape of Things to Come.” To extend the analogy a bit further, you could play a melody on almost any instrument: flute, violin, even humming, but without the rhythm, the song will become unrecognisable.
So, you’re in: you want to try this. You might even use my playlist linked above. Should you expect perfection? Definitely not! It’ll take time. And moreover, I would never expect someone who has spent years and years in a particular pronunciation to fully master something even as important at phonemic vowel length. Habits are always hard to break.
But endeavoring to do so, and making long strides in the right direction, will reap incredible rewards.
And this is why I recommend reciting Latin and Ancient Greek prose with high attention to syllable length, as I demonstrate with my audiobooks.
If you want to hear this in action, check out my newest audiobook released just this week: Caesar’s Gallic Wars Book IV: The War in Britain. In the free sample you’ll find at that link, you’ll hear that all the vowel and syllable lengths are exactly as they are in poetry. Thus you can use the 7-step reading technique I recommend with prose, and create for yourself a fully internalized and automatic system of syllable length, which will automatically work for every poem you encounter. Try it! There is perhaps nothing more magnificent in this world than the inherent music of Latin and Ancient Greek poetry.
But all this is just for you as a solo reader of Latin and Ancient Greek. Our wonderful interconnected world means that even in times of isolation we can interact with other people in real time from around the world, and they might use pronunciation schemes very different from what you are accustomed to. What happens then? When do these differences become an obstacle to communication, especially for those of us who like to speak the Classical languages?
I have a lot of stories I can tell you from experience! But that will have to wait till next time.
Valē atque ἔῤῥωσο!
Luke · Lūcius · Λούκιος 🦂
P.S. If you’re interested in the audiobooks I make, I have some free ones at LukeRanieri.com/audio along with all the audio recordings I make for my Patreon supporters, and I have others at my audiobooks store.