3

I asked this question in an online forum, but did not get a response, so I thought I would try it here. It is about the proper pronunciation of the letters ‘epsilon’ and ‘eta’ in Archaic/Ancient Greek, and the way that this pronunciations might have changed through Koine and I to Demotic and Modern Greek, as well as why the Greeks felt that they might need two letters for the /i/ sound in the Modern language.

Here in the English speaking world, we seem to be in a bit of a confusion about how the letters ‘epsilon’ and ‘eta’ were pronounced in the ancient tongue. The confusion that I see is exemplified by the two examples seen below, one from Wiktionary and the other from the blog of a New Testament scholar.

(1) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_alphabet Here it states that:

“Ε ε epsilon, έψιλον, pronounced anciently like ‘ea’ as in Scottish English ‘great’, pronounced modernly similar to ‘ay’ as in English ‘overlay’, but without pronouncing the ‘y’.

Η η eta, ήτα, pronounced anciently like ‘e’ as in English ‘net’, but long, or like ê as in French tête; pronounced modernly like ‘i’ as in English ‘machine’.”

(2) https://thestarman.pcministry.com/bible/lang/greek/GreekAlphabet.html Here it states that: ​ “Ε​, ε​; ‘ἒψιλόν’; pronounced anciently like ​‘e’ in ‘met​‘

Η​, η​; ‘ἦτα​‘; pronounced anciently like ‘a’ in late​.”

One can see that the ‘wiktionarian’ has ‘epsilon’ pronounced as /e/ and ‘eta’ pronounced as /ε/, while the other author has ‘epsilon’ pronounced as /ε/ and ‘eta’ as /e/. Did these pronunciations “swap” between the times of Classical and Koine Greek? This leaves one scratching one’s head and saying “Jesus…what the fu€k!?” If anybody in this forum can give a more-or-less authoritative answer to how the ancients said these letters, then please give your opinion here, so that I will be able to cease using the Lord’s name in vain. What were the true pronunciations of ‘epsilon’ and ‘eta’ in Ancient Greek?? I have the personal idea that ‘eta’ was the “flatter” ‘e’ sound, like /ε/, while ‘epsilon’ made /e/, but this is only a suspicion based on word context. Also, I have noticed that in pre-Classical Greek there appears to have been some “fluidity” ( for lack of a better term) in the use of epsilon and eta. I note, for instance, that, while noun τέλος and adverb τῆλε are not derived from the same IE root, the first lemma uses the epsilon while the second uses the eta in the same morpheme. What was the relationship between the two Greek letters which allowed for this phenomenon?

Beyond that, the pronunciation of these letters has changed between the time Pericles was speaking them and today. The pronunciation of “eta” in particular has undergone a drastic phonetic change, so that now instead of being pronounced as an /ε/ or an /e/, it is pronounced as an /i/. I think that this change happened after the Hellenistic period, since the name of Jesus was spelled Ἰησοῦς, that is, with the ‘eta’, in Koine. The change in the pronunciation and f ‘eta’ was probably Byzantine in origin. Why do you suppose that the Greeks might have wanted a second letter to pronounce /i/, when ‘eta’ had a seemingly better function anciently? With the rather drastic change in the pronunciation of ἦτα that has occurred between Classical and Modern Greek, has ἦτα developed a similar relationship with ἰῶτα in Modern Greek that it once seems to have had with ἒψιλόν in Classical Greek?

1 Answer 1

6

This will somewhat depend on what you define as "Ancient", but there are a few things we know for sure, about some nebulous point after Greek started being written down:

  • At some prehistoric point, lengthening an ε gave η, and combining an ε with a /j/ gave ει.
  • ε was quantitatively shorter, and η and ει quantitatively longer, in terms of how much time they took to pronounce.
  • In historic times, the quality of ε was the same as the quality of ει, not the quality of η. If you put two εs together in classical Greek, you get ει, not η.
  • In the Attic and Ionic dialects, most long ᾱs became ηs (this is one of the most distinctive features of these dialects). For a while, this was actually written with a special letter different from both alpha and eta, but eventually it was always written as eta. It was never written as ει.

From this, a reasonable deduction is that eta must have been lower than both epsilon and ει; in broad transcription, we can say that eta was something like /ɛː/, epsilon was /e/, and ει was /eː/.

Over time, though, both the quality and quantity distinctions were lost. That's how you get the situation in Modern Greek, where both eta and ει are /i/, while epsilon is /e/. We can roughly date this process by looking at loans into Latin. During the Hellenistic period, ει was borrowed into Latin as ē before vowels but ī before consonants (Aenēas, Nīlus); eta was borrowed as ē in all environments.

This suggests that ει merged into /iː/ first (originally just when it was before consonants, then everywhere), creating a gap in the phonological system for eta to get a bit higher. Eta merged into /iː/ later, and then the length distinction was lost entirely, creating the Modern system.

3
  • Is it the case in Modern Greek that both η and ει are /iː/, while ι is /i/? I have not noted that in hearing Greeks speak, but I’m sure the difference is subtle…minimized…in colloquial speech.
    – Zwing
    Feb 14 at 23:43
  • 1
    @Zwing I don't speak Modern Greek, but as far as I'm aware, there's no length distinction left. They're all just /i/.
    – Draconis
    Feb 15 at 0:09
  • 1
    Go to Ranieri : past the 7th century, it's just plain /i/. Triumphant iotakism, as in Bavarian. In Modern mainstream Greek, in contrast to dialects, ι, η, υ, ει, οι sound the same. Feb 17 at 22:25

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.