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<boring background> I've been doing some recordings of language drill in Homeric Greek (1, 2, 3), in which my pronunciation has been chosen based on a certain set of criteria: (1) They're meant to be listened to in the car or while cooking, and in these noisy environments it's often difficult to make out what's being said. For that reason, I've tried to clearly differentiate the pairs ω/ο and η/ε. (2) Erasmian pronunciation works better than a reconstructed pronunciation, since native English speakers like me (as well as speakers of most other languages) have a hard time hearing and saying the distinctions between the stops in reconstructed Greek (examples of recordings). (3) I would like these to be of use to other people, not just me, so I want to be as consistent as possible with the pronunciation used by others. (4) The pronunciation should ideally work well with Homeric metrical verse. Based on these criteria, I tried to work out what seemed to be the most widely used US Erasmian pronunciation. (History. Some of this article was written by me.)</boring background>

So during the process described above, I settled on pronouncing ω as [o̞] or [o] (IPA vowel chart with audio), like my native Californian "o" in "go" but not diphthongized, and ο as [ɔ], which requires considerable effort, since I have the cot-caught merger. (I also have started trying to consistently pronounce ω with double the temporal length, as in metrical poetry. Although this may be unnatural outside of poetry, it makes it easier to hear the distinctions.)

After practicing and doing a lot of recording according to this rule, I'm not sure I would seriously consider changing, but I did poke around recently to try to clarify for myself whether what I'd been doing was a truly "vanilla" choice for English-speaking students of Homer. I've looked at written sources of information such as textbooks, Allen's Vox Graeca, and the historical pamphlets by Peck and by Arnold and Conway. I've also listened to publicly available recordings by some classics professors and a couple of enthusiastic amateurs. The results are a little perplexing, and they make me wonder if I'm misunderstanding something, hence this question:

Question: What convention is followed by the plurality of English-speaking students of ancient Greek for the pronunciation of omega and omicron?

The printed information is especially difficult to figure out, because the authors of textbooks and of the pamphlets referenced above have a tendency to assume that their readers must naturally speak the same dialect of English as they do. So they give examples of English words that are supposed to exemplify the vowels they have in mind, and they assume you know what that vowel sounds like when they say it. (I suppose Peck et al. were writing before the IPA even existed.) So for example, the textbook by Pharr (4th ed.) uses the minimal pairs go/rose and ought/saw, but to me these vowels are indistinguishable. I'm then reduced to silliness like looking up the fact that the book was published by the University of Oklahoma press and trying to use that to guess what kind of accent Pharr had. Er, unless the table has been rewritten by his 21st-century coauthor Paula Debnar, who seems to be a northeasterner. Oh, but she got her undergrad degree from Colby College, so maybe she's from Maine, so maybe her vowels are different...? This way lies madness.

But given the written descriptions I've seen, it looks like every logical possibility has advocated as "correct:"

  1. Pharr/Wright/Debnar say that in Erasmian, ο="rose" and ω="go," which to me is the same vowel on the IPA chart. (I pronounce "rose" with greater temporal length, but I assume that isn't the distinction they have in mind.)

  2. Smyth gives a triangular diagram on p. 9, which is basically the IPA chart upside down. He has ω more open than ο.

  3. Arnold and Conway describe ω as open and ο as close. Their French examples are ω=encore (=[ɔ]) and ο=monologue (=[o]), which is also ω more open. But their English examples are ω=ore, and ο=cannot, which is harder to make out for sure without knowing their dialect, but in dialects I'm familiar with, this would again make ω more closed, contrary to their own description.

  4. A random American Koine amateur gives this table, with ω clearly and consistently described as more closed.

Turning to recordings:

  1. Two professional classicists, Nagy and Debnar, both seem to pronounce ω and ο identically in terms of vowel quality (not temporal length), similar to a Californian "o." For Debnar, this seems to be consistent with the English approximations in her book.

  2. A professional classicist, Muellner, pronounces ω more closed, as does enthusiastic amateur David Moore.

  3. A native Greek speaker, Kostas Katsouranis (recommended by classicist Walter M. Roberts III as a guide to correct pronunciation), doing a reconstructed pronunciation, pronounces ω more open.

So it seems that one can find well-qualified people practicing and teaching all three possibilities (ω the same as ο, more open, or more closed). My question is which of these is the most common.

3 Answers 3

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There's immense variation in modern pronunciations of Greek for a variety of reasons, not least that many classicists don't know or care much about phonetic accuracy and basically just use whatever system they happen to have been taught. So, though I don't know the answer to your question about frequency, it may not matter that much for your purposes -- whatever distinction you choose will probably have some precedent but will also sound unfamiliar to many in your audience.

Given that I would go with ω = [ɔ:] and ο = [o], both because that's the most historically accurate pronunciation as far as we know and because preserving the length distinction seems important as you're reading metrical verse.

For a similar reason I'd recommend [y] for υ -- in this case that is actually the standard pronunciation so a different choice might be confusing, and [y] is arguably more distinct from [u] than is [ʊ].

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  • Thanks for the correction re the French. I've edited the question accordingly. This doesn't really seem like an answer to the question. and because preserving the length distinction seems important as you're reading metrical verse. I'm not sure what you mean by this. Temporal length is independent of vowel quality.
    – user3597
    Nov 17, 2021 at 20:10
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    @BenCrowell True, it isn't an answer to the question, more a suggestion that the assumption that there's "a truly vanilla choice for English-speaking students" may not be right (or that there are many such choices). For length I meant that whatever vowel qualities you choose you might want to have the [:] in there for omega.
    – TKR
    Nov 17, 2021 at 20:14
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I don't have an answer to your question, but I decided to go to look for the pronunciations in one of my Ancient Greek grammars, An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach by C.A.E Lusching, written about 1975. It recommends differing vowel qualities for long and short α and ι, apparently treating them somewhat like the pronunciation of Latin has been treated in the English speaking world over the last few centuries, with differing vowel qualities depending on whether the vowel is short or long. It even makes such a distinction for alpha ("short: cup; long: father").

For eta, Lusching surprisingly recommends: "long e, French tête." It is unclear in this case, however, when comparing this with other entries, if these are alternative pronunciations, variations, or descriptions of the same pronunciation. French tête is pronounced historically and still in some accents as [tɛːtʰ] with a long open mid vowel.

Lusching prescribes for omicron the pronunciation "short o: pot (German Gott)." The German word is unambiguously pronounced /ɡɔt/, with an /ɔ/. I presume the use of "pot" as an example is for those that pronounce "pot" with an /ɔ/.

For omega, Lusching inexplicably seems to give two alternatives. He says omega should be pronounced as in "go (or saw)!"

Among the description of the diphthings, Lusching recommends that ει be pronounced as "(ei) sleigh [ā]" and υι as "(uy) (cf. New York)."

For the aspirate consonants, he recommends the modern fricative pronunciations /θ/ /f/ and /χ/ for practical reasons, while noting their likely ancient aspirate pronunciations.

If this somewhat loose pronunciation system is typical of the students you are trying to reach, I would guess that how you pronounced omega would not matter much. English students will have differing pronunciations according to their dialect. If, however, you are trying to aim for students who "want to try to sound like they think Homer or a fifth-century Athenian sounded, I think it would be important not to use a very close vowel for the sound of omega. I also think it would be important to show consistent differences in vowel and consonant length, with everything else being negotiable for practical reasons.

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  • Thanks for taking the time to write this up. For omega, Lusching inexplicably seems to give two alternatives. He says omega should be pronounced as in "go (or saw)!" I think here he means that go is the Erasmian pronunciation and saw is believed to be a more historically accurate reconstruction of Attic. Pharr gives the same two examples. I think this is a case where textbook authors and publishers want to broaden their market by pleasing every possible taste among professors who might adopt their books. It's still hard to guess what kind of English accent is intended for "saw."
    – user3597
    Nov 21, 2021 at 23:12
  • It was inexplicable for me, because I thought the original recommended pronunciation that came down from Erasmus was a close vowel for both eta and omega (as in Latin long e and long o) and a diphthong for the sequence ει like Latin /ei/. I assumed Lusching used "saw" for his recommendation with the intent of referring to the General American /ɔ/ in the long version expected in an English monosyllable. The words "pot" or German "Gott" would be inappropriate for a long vowel, even if the quality was right. Lusching's choice seemed like a mishmash of three different approaches. Nov 21, 2021 at 23:31
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For this self-answer, I'm surveying nine online audio recordings of Homer. Eight are of the same material (the opening lines of Iliad 1), while Zinsstag is a different book of the Iliad. While I was at it, I checked what people were doing with ε and η as well. Some of these people are doing an Erasmian pronunciation, others a restored one. All of them seem to be pretty serious students of how to recite Homer in a way that is artistic (or at least pedagogically OK) -- serious enough to put their recordings out there online. As far as I can tell, these people are mostly English speakers.

One thing I didn't quite understand was that a couple of speakers (Hagel and Zinsstag) seem to habitually pronounce ω closed, except that in inflectional endings -ων and -ῶν, they pronounce it open. You hear this when Hagel pronounces ἡρώων and ανδρῶν, and when Zinsstag says Τρώων.

In the table below, the notation > means yes, vowel A is more open than vowel B, while = means they're pronounced the same except for temporal length, while < would mean that A was more closed.

speaker ε more open than η ? ο more open than ω ?
Nagy > =
Lombardo > >
"Sarpedon" = unclear (1)
Tomin > >?
Muellner unclear (2) >
Chamberlain > >
Debnar > =
Hagel > > (3)
Zinsstag = > (3)

(1) Sarpedon seems to pronounce ο more open than ω in χολωθεὶς, ω as a very open vowel in οἰωνοῖσί and πρῶτα.

(2) Muellner seems to pronounce η open in Μῆνιν, closed in οὐλομένην.

(3) Except in inflectional endings -ων and -ῶν, where ω is open.

So as far as I can tell from this sample, there is a very clear vanilla choice that doesn't call unwelcome attention to itself. People seem to have an overwhelming tendency to pronounce ε and ο more open than η and ω. In the case of ο/ω, this seems to be exactly the opposite of the historical reconstruction.

Because I'm Californian, I have the cot-caught merger, and that makes it more difficult for my brain to perceive the openness of o-ish vowels. If there are folks here who might have more confidence in their perception, it would be nice to hear whether they think I've correctly judged the final column in the table. I thought it was generally very easy to tell what was going on with the e-ish vowels, especially in the word οὐλομένην at line 2.

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    Nagy's etas are all over the place -- sometimes they're a very open [ɛ] / [æ], at other times they sound like the English diphthong [eɪ]. (BTW "In the case of ο/ω, this seems to be exactly the opposite of the historical reconstruction" -- also in the case of ε/η.)
    – TKR
    Dec 1, 2021 at 19:57

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