As S. Teodorsson argues in his work on the phonemic system of the Attic dialect, there is evidence that already in the IV century BC, 'popular' Athenian speech underwent changes such as the merger of ι, η, υ in [i]. Even more conservative reconstructions (such as by W.S. Allen) place at least the disappearance of the subscript iota and the monophthongization of οι into [ø:] before 350.

Yet the grammar textbooks by e.g. Dionysius of Halicarnassus often prescribe e.g. the pronunciation of subscript iota as "correct" hundreds of years after its disappearance.

Was that "correct" conservative pronunciation actually used? Did the politicians use different pronunciations in public and in private? Was there perhaps an equivalent of the Transatlantic accent (having artificial archaizing features such as wh = [ʍ]), taught to students of public speaking?

If so, how could e.g. Demosthenes know to pronounce οι as [oi] in speeches and not [ø:] as everyone around him? The Greeks didn't have our methods of linguistic reconstruction, so slowing down natural phonological change seems almost impossible -- and also useless, needlessly alienating the audience of politicians etc.

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    Spelling pronunciation seems like an obvious answer to the last question. – TKR Feb 8 '19 at 22:37
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    I'm not familiar with the work in question, but a merger of ι, η, υ sounds way too early for the IV century BC. – varro Feb 9 '19 at 0:19
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    As an aside, I pronounce "wh" as [ʍ], and do not regard it as either archaic or artificial. – varro Feb 9 '19 at 1:15
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    And another quote from him (Teodorsson 2013): “Presumably it was demanded from reciters of epics as well as from actors in the theater to observe the traditional rules of pronunciation. A changed pronunciation according to an adjusted orthography, based on the everyday pronunciation, would have been detrimental to the performance. It is reasonable to assume that even in the cases where poetry or prose was read aloud − which was customary − the reader observed the ‘correct’ pronunciation as indicated by the orthography.” – Alex B. Feb 10 '19 at 15:02
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    A very important note so far. As Teodorsson himself writes, his focus was “the pronunciation of the broad mass of (illiterate) people, including the women.” – Alex B. Feb 10 '19 at 15:04

The important thing to be aware of is that ancient speech was highly variable in its pronounciation. Consistency in modern pronunciation is largely a product of television, radio, movies and other mass media that allows people to hear and imitate each other. In ancient times, pronounciation varied from village to village and town to town and even family to family. For example, nowadays we find it amusing how the Kennedy family pronounced words, but in ancient times that was the norm that different families and groups would have predilections in their speech.

Given this, you should see modern themes of ancient pronounciation as tendencies, not hard and fast rules. Lacking specific knowledge, there is no way to know how a particular person, like Demosthenes, would have pronounced a particular word.

Oratorical speech in both ancient Rome and Athens was certainly much different than casual speech. For example, among the Greeks in particular, there was an effort to make orations lyrical as well as rhetorically sophisticated. Cicero wrote about oratory extensively in his Brutus and De Oratoribus. In general, the focus was more on consistency and correctness in pronunciation, rather than a different pronunciation.

  • Why so many downvotes? – Ben Kovitz Apr 27 at 8:26
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    @BenKovitz I think it's because people feel that claims, especially when contrary to the prevalent view, should be substantiated by proof. If there are papers about the homogenisation of pronunciation by the mass media or the diversity of old pronunciation of any language, the case would be stronger. Despite all the mass media, the modern pronunciation of English is very diverse, so I'm not sure I buy the argument. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 27 at 9:34
  • @BenKovitz It's because scholars and people in general like theories, explanations and rules. So linguists have this idea that ancient languages had some specific pronunciations, because the idea that people just said whatever or pronounced things in random ways infuriates them. For example, in Ireland its well known that pronunciation varied from villlage to village as late as 1800, but modern Irish pretend that there is some "correct" and perfect pronounciation of Irish words that is eternal, which is a completely false idea historically. – Tyler Durden Apr 27 at 11:32
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    @BenKovitz I downvoted because I don't see how this answer addresses the question, which is a lot more specific than "did Greek pronunciation vary". (And it's just silly to say that linguists are unaware of, let alone infuriated by, the existence of linguistic variation.) – TKR Apr 29 at 5:25
  • @TKR Ah, I was thinking that the answer didn't directly address the question, not that it claimed anything objectionable. That usually doesn't attract so many downvotes. – Ben Kovitz Apr 29 at 10:11

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