I have begun learning Ancient Greek with the revised edition of Clyde Pharr’s work. Some of the case endings are (as expected) slightly different than what I have seen to be the case in Hansen & Quinn – now, all of a sudden, the circumflex for the genitiv plural -ῶν, made sense.

The pronunciation for long vowels with iota subscripts differs in the two:

  1. In Homeric Greek, the iota subscript represents an actual ι sound voiced after the main consonants; if my memory serves me correctly, it is a diphthong. Thus ῃ is /ɛːi̯/.
  2. In later Greek, the iota subscript is not voiced at all; η and ῃ have merged to /eː/. (According to Luke Ranieri’s Greek Pronunciation Chronology, this is post-Koine Greek.)


In the above example, the latter case is two morae long irregardless, but what is the case with Homeric Greek? Per now, I can see the following options for ῃ:

  1. It is three morae long: /ɛːi̯/.
    The η is pronounced for two morae, gliding into the third mora’s ι.
  2. It has merged with ει, thus both ῃ and ει are pronounced /ɛi̯/.
    Mora 1 has the ε sound, mora 2 has the ι.
    Edit: This pronunciation of ει apparantely never occured.

What leaves me even more nonplussed, is the ending for genitive and dative dualis. How is βουλῇιν pronounced? As I analyse it, it could be:

  1. Either: /bou̯.lɛ᷈ːi̯.in/ – 2, 3, 1 morae
  2. Or: /bou̯.lɛ᷈ː.iːn/ – 2, 2, 2 morae
  3. Or: /bou̯.lɛ̌î̯.in/ – 2, 2, 1 morae
  4. Or: /bou̯.lɛ̌î̯ːn/ – 2, 3 morae

There are probably more options too, but these are the ones I could think of. (Would the final /n/ carry a mora? Not as far as I can remember, but I could be wrong. If it does, the final mora count in the above should be +1.)

Question and subquestions restated

How many morae does a long vowel with an iota subscript last? How many morae does a long vowel with an iota subscript followed by another vowel last? And is this latter a disyllabic diphthong plus monophthong, or a monosyllabic long diphthong? (Or some other option?)

  • You're using Pharr, who says, "Current practice is to ignore [an iota subscript] for purposes of pronunciation, although it was probably originally pronounced" (4th ed., p. 8). I'm skeptical about whether it's realistic or desirable to try to divine a certain "correct" pronunciation for Homer. Just as a reality check, Greeks pronounce Homer as in modern Greek, which is radically different. As a native English speaker, I find it extremely difficult to hear or produce the historically restored consonants, so I'm perfectly happy using Erasmian values for χ et al.
    – user3597
    Nov 6, 2021 at 21:03
  • Yes, I am aware it is common for Greeks to read ancient Greek with modern Greek pronunciation; it is the same as Italians reading Cicero with modern Italian pronunciation. Anyone reading any classical language makes me happy, but for me, I find particular enjoyment in studying the development of phonology, and as is clearly established (Erasmus being key to this development!), we can tell quite a lot about how it actually sounded.
    – Canned Man
    Nov 7, 2021 at 0:05

2 Answers 2


I'm not aware of any evidence that "long diphthongs" like ῃ were prosodically different from "short diphthongs" or from long vowels. (BTW the "long diphthong" category includes not only iota-subscript diphthongs but a few rarer ones ending in υ: ᾱυ ωυ ηυ.)

Metrically, long diphthongs scan exactly the same as short diphthongs or long vowels, i.e. as a single heavy syllable (except when shortened by epic correption). This tells us that they were monosyllabic, and that the pronunciation difference between them and those other sounds was not important for meter. This may argue against a trimoraic analysis, since if they were trimoraic you might expect them to scan as disyllables, long+short or short+long.

Accentually they also behave exactly like short diphthongs or long vowels. Again one might expect that if they differed in mora count there might be some difference in the accent rules applying to them, but there isn't.

So the answer seems to be that phonetically (before the iota sound was lost) they were pronounced as e.g. [ɛːi̯], but that for all practical purposes they counted as bimoraic.

An alternate way of looking at it is that Greek distinguishes between light syllables, which are monomoraic, and heavy syllables, which contain any >1 number of morae. For example, in meter a short vowel followed by a coda consonant makes a heavy syllable, meaning that the consonant contributes a mora; but a long vowel followed by a coda consonant also makes a heavy syllable that is indistinguishable from the former type, so you can either say that in this case the consonant no longer contributes a mora or that it does but the difference between a 2- and 3-mora syllable is of no practical consequence.

  • Your final rounding up of your points answers my question concisely and clearly: ‘you can either say that in this case the consonant no longer contributes a mora or that it does but the difference between a 2- and 3-mora syllable is of no practical consequence.’ Most excellent! I will leave this answer open for some more time, to encourage more (possible) answers, but as it stands, this seems to be a definitive answer to my question. The rare long diphthongs was completely new to me, so thank you for adding that!
    – Canned Man
    Nov 7, 2021 at 0:02

The short answer is that counting moras is not simply a matter of counting short and long vowels. Understanding moras, actually begins with counting the types of "acceptable" syllables rather than the actual phonetic length of any given syllable. This is apparently what gives speakers of a language its base sense of rhythm, which can then be altered, sometime substantially, by other factors.

There are different levels of language analysis. The bottom level can be thought of as the level of phonetics, which are objective sound values used in words and where sounds are pronounced with an objective length that can be measured by scientific instruments. Above that level are phonemes, which include a "psychological" component agreed on subconsciously by most or all speakers of a language. For instance, the "p" sounds in the English words "pie" and "spy" correspond to two different phonetical realizations of /p/, i.e., [pʰ] and [p], as in [pʰai] and [spai], or in Ancient Greek spelling, φᾷ and σπᾷι; however, they are felt to be the same "sound" or rather the same phoneme (/p/) by English speakers.

The concept of moras is best thought of not as an objective measure of sound length at the phonetic level, but rather as something linguistically based on the idea that each language has a minimum phonological foot that speakers of a language perceive as acceptable for content words and as giving the language its base rhythm. This is more like the phonemic level of language, if I can stretch the normal usage of the word phoneme.

In Ancient Greek, the minimum phonological foot in content words contains two moras. I think this is the same in modern English, where content words must contain at least two moras as well. A one-syllable content word in English or in Ancient Greek cannot consist of only one mora; however, in other languages, such as in Japanese, there is no such requirement.

Even though the syllables in Ancient Greek can vary in actual length at the phonetic level, they were mostly perceived psychologically to contain only two variations in rhythmic length: light or heavy. That is why closed syllables containing long vowels plus a consonant are treated only as heavy and not as a third type of "extra heavy" syllable. In contrast, if you add a closing consonant to a syllable with a short vowel, you change its type from short to heavy. In other words, adding a consonant at the end of a short syllable changes its type and makes it heavy, but does nothing to a syllable that is already heavy because of a long vowel. In the first case, a consonant has no "length" value, but in the second case, the closing consonant seems to equal one mora.

If all this seems strange, note that adding a certain number of consonants at the beginning of a syllable will change its phonetic length, but does not change the type of syllable, no matter how many consonants may appear. I think this is true even in a language like Georgian which has words like gvprtskvni ("you peel us")--beginning with six pronounced consonants--that are still felt to form only one syllable in length, since there is only one vowel.

Also note the the final syllable of a verse of Ancient Greek poetry was always treated as heavy. It could be that verse-final syllables ending in short vowels were actually phonetically lengthened in performance, but it could also be that the actual or even psychological pause at the end of the verse was enough to act like a closing consonant for an otherwise light syllable, again changing its type into a heavy one. Again, the actual phonetic value was not as important as its psychological phonemic value.

If we take the case of the long diphthongs, adding the iota is like adding a consonantal "y" sound, it might change the default phonetic length of the syllable, but does not change its type, just as adding a closing consonant to a syllable with a long syllable does not change its type. Consider how some people in the American south pronounce the word "right." You might write the pronunciation phonetically in Greek as ρᾱιθ. This is phonetically longer than ραιθ (with a short vowel), which is how many other Americans might pronounce it, but is still the same length as how those other Americans would pronounce the word "ride," which ends in a voiced consonant that automatically lengthens the vowel in American English. In all three cases, these are just one syllable words, containing two moras in English, phonetically having perhaps different lengths, but phonemically having the same length.

As you recite poetry in English or in Ancient Greek, you should adjust your phonetic speaking rhythm slightly to bring out the phonemic poetic rhythm. In English, this is governed by which syllables, regardless of type, are stressed. In Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Classical Arabic, the rhythm was governed by the two types of syllables, based on whether they contained one or two moras. In Japanese, the normal length of spoken syllables are ignored, while the underlying moras are exaggerated. In all these languages, the poetic rhythm is based on rhythm that actually underlies or underlay normal speech, but it is more regularized to create its effect.

Why are there just two types of syllables, and why talk about moras as if they always equal the same actual length of time? I think because two light syllables or one "mora" were felt generally to be the equivalent of one heavy syllable with two "moras." This math works in the poetry of Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Classical Arabic and so became a fixed part of linguistic usage. I think there may be some cross-linguistic reality behind this in most languages, but the details of the poetry in other languages and the details of their acceptable phonetic feet are also different.

  • This is an excellent example of how comparative linguistics can enlighten one’s study of a specific language. You provide a great selection of examples, and the way you approach it philosophically is very informative. Thank you, and welcome to the site!
    – Canned Man
    Nov 8, 2021 at 10:46

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