Greek pronunciation in Archaic Age and in Classical Age

English translation by Bruna Pogliano

Greek pronunciation has inevitably undergone deep changes over the centuries. In this context, we will consider only the pronunciation of Greek in archaic and classical ages, in order to compare it with Greek pronunciation as it is practiced in Italian schools today.

We are not likely to ever reconstruct ancient Greek pronunciation and its variants through epochs and regions unequivocally. Yet, after studying and debating for centuries, scholars have now acquired adequate knowledge of some important aspects concerning how Greek was pronounced; such knowledge is based on various criteria:

The table below highlights only the phonetic instances whose archaic and classical pronunciation differed undoubtedly from today's pronunciation in Italian schools.

Click on the examples to listen.
Letters or combinations Classical pronunciation Today's pronunciation in Italian schools
e long close
ποιεῖν, do, make
ποιεῖν, do, make
o long close
νοῦς, mind
νοῦς, mind
voiceless labial + aspir.


Two considerations support the assumption that ει and ου were pronounced as shown in the table above:

Not only φ but also the other two aspirated consonants, θ e χ, must have been pronounced with marked aspiration. Evidence can be found in a number of archaic inscriptions employing alphabets different from the Ionic; these alphabets never represent the three aspirated consonants by one symbol, instead, they consistently display the related mute consonant followed by Η:

Remember that Η represented aspiration in archaic alphabets and it is such original value that was imported into the Latin alphabet, which derived from an archaic alphabet employed in Magna Grecia. Only the Ionic alphabet employed this sign to represent capital ETA. It is important to keep in mind that the Ionic dialect underwent two phonetic innovations with respect to the other Greek dialects:

It so happened that someone conceived the fairly well timed idea of employing the sign Η to represent the new sound; since Η had no longer any phonetic value, while there was not yet any distinct sign to represent the new sound. This is the reason underlying the different value of Η in the Greek and Latin alphabets respectively.

Evidence of such marked distinction, in aspirated consonant pronunciation, between the mute consonant and the aspiration is also traceable in the Roman spelling of imported Greek words.

Ex. φιλοσοφία >philosophia and not filosofia. This clearly shows that Greek φ was not identical to Roman F.

The same remark can be made with regard to the pronuciation of initial ρ . The Romans transliterated ρ as rh (cfr. ῥήτωρ > rhetor), which proves that the Romans perceived Greek rho as different from Roman R, probably because it was similar to French R. For this reason, the conventional spelling deriving from μεταχαρατηρισμός always features initial ρ with rough breathing.

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