This question occurred to me in the context of a previous question of mine, which concerned the etymology of 'physics'.

τὰ φυσικά is 'the collective title of Aristotle's physical treatises' (OED). Here the adjective φυσικά is, as far as I understand, an inflected form of φυσικός, which is derived from the noun φύσις. See the following entries in A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott: φύσις and φυ^σικός .

How were these three (τὰ φυσικά, φυσικός, and φύσις) pronounced in classical (4th-century BC) Greek? In particular, how were υ and ὺ pronounced? Was it like the IPA /y/ (close front rounded vowel) or like the IPA ⟨u⟩ (close back rounded vowel), or something else? How were these words accented?

1 Answer 1


/tà pʰysiká/, /pʰysikós/, and /pʰýsis/.

υ in Classical Attic was /y/, not /u/ (in Aristotle's time /u/ was written ου), and φ was still /pʰ/ (an aspirated p sound), not /f/.

Classical Attic still had its so-called musical accent, and while the details continue to be debated, the acute accent (ά) represented a rising tone, and the grave (ὰ), which only occurred if a normally oxytone word (one with an acute accent on the final syllable, such as the nom. n. pl. definite article τά) is followed by another accented word (rather than a clitic or a hiatus), represented either a falling tone or just a lack of an expected rising tone.
In practice people just pronounce these words with a stress accent on the accented syllable, regardless of whether it has an acute, a grave, or a circumflex (ᾶ, a rising tone on the first mora of a long vowel or diphthong and a falling tone on the second), which is what ended up developing in Greek post-Classically anyway.

(Note that your third word should be φύσις, not φὺσις. You also used a ϕ rather than the usual φ in τὰ φυσικά; that's really just a stylistic variant, but the Unicode codepoint is intended for technical/mathematical applications.)

  • Thank you! I've corrected the two typos you mentioned at the end. I usually don't accept an answer right away, to give people time to comment and such. If nothing surprising turns up in the discussions, I will accept. Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 17:08
  • 2
    Is the acute agreed to be a rising tone? I was taught that it was a raised (i.e. high) tone when it appeared on a short vowel; rising was acute on a long vowel (low-high), and falling was circumflex on a long vowel (high-low).
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 17:14
  • Here's a discussion of the evidence on the pronunciation of the acute: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_accent#Acute_accent . It seems pretty ambiguous, but it does seem to be widely accepted that the acute was not always a rising tone. I believe the accented vowels are all short here, so it seems unlikely that they would be rising themselves, but the preceding syllables may have had a ramping up of pitch or a plateau at the high pitch level.
    – user3597
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 12:52
  • I am reluctant to accept this answer (which I did upvote) until these concerns raised by Draconis and Ben Crowell have been addressed. Commented Sep 18, 2021 at 23:07
  • @Draconis I was waiting for my copy of Philomen Probert's New Short Guide to come in the mail. She points out that Aristoxenus says the spoken accent is continuous (i.e. not jumping from note to note, in contrast to music), suggesting rising rather than raised, but she also uses raised herself later. I think the real answer is still that we don't know, and that the use of rising vs. raised in modern authors is purely a conventional choice, not a meaningful contrast.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 19:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.