Breathings and accents
English translation by Bruna Pogliano
Nowadays, Greek spelling is the result of its evolution from ancient ages until the XVII century; a typical feature is represented by marks placed over vowels. Such marks were used only exceptionally by ancient writers, as it can be seen from papyri and inscriptions. The introduction of these marks is largely due to μεταχαρακτηρισμός, i.e.: the transcription of classical texts as carried out in Byzantine Era, aimed at determining clearly the correct pronunciation of ancient texts, in such a way as to avoid doubts and mistakes that might have been originated by the remarkable changes that Greek pronunciation had undergone over the centuries.
That is the reason why breathings and accents were introduced in Greek spelling.
- Breathing marks were introduced in order to show whether the initial vowel or diphthong is aspirated;
- the rough breathing῾over a vowel means that such vowel is pronounced with an aspiration (as in the German word haben);
- the smooth breathing ᾿merely shows that the vowel below is pronounced without aspiration.
- Accents are placed over stressed vowels, as it is likewise frequent in our European languages. In Greek, all words carry an accent mark mandatorily, with the exception of enclitics and proclitics. More in detail:
- the acute accent ´, as its name implies, indicates a rising tone. It can stand over the ultima (last syllable of a word), or the penult (second-last syllable of a word) or the antepenult (third syllable from the end);
- the grave accent ` is put instead of the acute over the last syllable of a word if the latter is not followed by a punctuation mark;
- thdcircumflex accent ῀can stand either over the penult (second-last) or the ultima (last), provided the vowel is long; the vowels that take a circumflex were pronounced with the voice: rising (acute) at the beginning and then lowering (grave).
Placement and position of breathing and accent marks:
- if a vowel carries both a breathing and an accent, the breathing mark is placed to the left of the accent (both acute and grave), but below the circumflex;
- if the vowel carrying both a breathing and an accent is capitalized, the diacritic marks are written on the upper-left side of the capital letter;
- if proper diphthongs are stressed, then both the breathing and/or the accent are placed over the second vowel, even though the voice must always stress the first vowel of the diphthong;
- improper diphthongs, if stressed, carry both the breathing and/or the accent over the first vowel when capitalized; if an improper diphthong with iota is lower case, the iota is written as iota subscript, whereas capitalized improper diphthongs are written with iota adscript.
- initial υ always carries a rough breathing, never a smooth breathing;
- also the initial ρ is always written with rough breathing, even though it is a consonant; this might have been done to point out that ρ in Greek was pronounced like the Frenchr sound. Some editions show the group ρρ was marked with a smooth breathing over the first, and a rough breathing over the second ρ. Ex. Τυῤῥηνοί, = Tyrrhenians, Etruscans;
- keep in mind that the symbol of the coronis ʼ is identical to the smooth breathing, but it can be distinguished by its position; as a coronis is intended to mark crasis, it is never found over an initial vowel or diphthong.