I was reading the answers to this interesting question, about the analogy of forming compound nouns from muia ("fly") and genea ("birth"). And cnread brought up the interesting point that the alpha in muia is short1, whereas the alpha in genea is long2. As a result, the final vowels might undergo different alterations when forming compound nouns (i.e. the alpha in muia would get shortened to an omicron, but this would not be the case for genea).

My question, is, how do we know the vowel lengths of the alphas in muia and genea? Are we able to deduce that the final vowel of muia is short because of the circumflex that precedes it? Is there a similar rule that lets us deduce that the alpha in genea is long?

1 See Wiktionary, which places a breve over the alpha.
2 Ibid. Macron over the alpha.

  • 2
    Off the top of my head, my guess would be metered poetry. That's our best source for vowel lengths in general.
    – Draconis
    Nov 25, 2017 at 18:37
  • @Draconis That would make a good answer. Even just the two sentences.
    – ktm5124
    Nov 25, 2017 at 20:01

2 Answers 2



As mentioned in varro's answer, there are rules about the placement of accent in Greek words. The Wikipedia article on Ancient Greek accent summarizes a pertinent rule as follows:

  • If the ultima is short, accent can be on one of the last three syllables: the antepenult, penult, or ultima. When the antepenult is accented, it must have an acute whether it is long or short. When the penult is accented, it must have an acute if it is short, but a circumflex if it is long.

  • If the ultima is long, accent can be on one of the last two syllables: the penult or ultima. The penult must have an acute accent, not a circumflex. When a one-mora vowel in the ultima changes to a two-mora vowel, or an ending adds a syllable, the accent moves forward in the word.

The Wikipedia article says "There are a few exceptions to the ultima length rule" (for example, in words where the last syllable is derived from an enclitic) but none of the examples it gives are words with penult circumflex accent and a long ultimate vowel. So, as suggested in ktm5124's original post, the circumflex accent on the penultimate syllable of "μυῖα" seems to be strong evidence that the vowel in the ultimate syllable was short, not long.


According to the Wikipedia article on Ionic Greek, the following sound changes applied differently to the Proto-Greek long vowel *ā in different dialects:

Proto-Greek ā > Ionic ē; in Doric, Aeolic, ā remains; in Attic, ā after e, i, r, but ē elsewhere

Wiktionary and Liddell & Scott list "γενεή" as an Ionic variant of "γενεά". If we assume the two forms are fully cognate, and that nothing else is going on that affects the vowel length, that implies that the Attic form has a long vowel.

  • @sumelic: The comparison of Ionic γενεή with Attic γενεά is suggestive, but not conclusive. Compare, e.g. Ionic κοῦρος with Attic κόρος,or (more to the point) Ionic καλός (with a long alpha) with Attic καλός (with a short alpha).
    – varro
    Nov 26, 2017 at 2:09
  • @varro: I tried to leave room for unexpected correspondences with my last sentence, but maybe I didn't phrase it very well. Nothing can be completely conclusive, of course. The two examples you give of vowel length differences between Greek dialects look like they may be based on variation in the development of consonant clusters involving digamma.
    – Asteroides
    Nov 26, 2017 at 2:16
  • @sumelic: Point taken. I don't think we actually disagree on facts here.
    – varro
    Nov 26, 2017 at 2:25
  • I think the one remaining step, before I'm totally convinced, would be to show that γενεά and γενεή are not just cognate, but derive from a Proto-Greek word with a final long ā. Then the claim by Wikipedia would kick in about the evolution of the Proto-Greek ā. But I'm not sure we've established that as the ancestor yet. Perhaps a good etymological dictionary could help.
    – ktm5124
    Nov 27, 2017 at 5:05
  • 2
    @ktm5124: Well, since Proto-Greek is a reconstruction, the only way to show that a word had *ā in Proto-Greek is by comparison of the extant forms in different dialects (which of course may include archaic dialects that we have records of). That's what I attempted to do by bringing in the Ionic forms with ή, but I don't know enough about Greek historical linguistics to know if there is any other evidence that would support or undermine the reconstruction of Proto-Greek *ā in this word. I agree with you that an etymological dictionary might have this kind of information.
    – Asteroides
    Nov 27, 2017 at 5:17

As @Draconis mentioned, poetry provides a strong indication of vowel quantity, but the actual Greek tradition of accentuation should not be ignored. The shortness of the final alpha in μυῖα is guaranteed by the circumflex accent. While technically the acute accent in γενεά does not guarantee a long vowel, in fact I know of no first-declension nouns with a final short alpha in Greek with an oxytone accent, so it's reasonable to assume the vowel is long.

  • I see what you're saying. So Greek words with oxytone accents tend to have a final long vowel (at least with the alpha, but I'm assuming this generalizes). It basically amounts to a rule of thumb.
    – ktm5124
    Nov 26, 2017 at 6:32
  • @ktm5124: I wouldn't put it that broadly - I can think of plenty of oxytone words in general with a short vowel, but 1st declension nouns with the short version of alpha are not (or, to put it another way, first declension nouns with an oxytone accent will have a long vowel in the stem. Note that there are forms like κριτά (with short alpha, vocative of κριτής), but I don't regard these as real exceptions, since the stem vowel is still long. I don't know if this "rule" as I have stated it is without exceptions, but I can't think of any exceptions just now.
    – varro
    Nov 26, 2017 at 17:15
  • After re-examining my answer above, I see that I misstated it by making it appear that it applied to all words ending in final alpha. I have edited it accordingly,
    – varro
    Nov 26, 2017 at 18:31

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