Lecturing people on classical languages pronunciation [Response]

Recently, I have read concerns about the fact that many scholars in Western Europe and in the Americas, use an ‘Erasmian’ style of pronunciation when reading Classical Greek texts. There is apparently an identitarian trend of calling out people who are not native to Modern Greece, to ‘mispronounce’ classical texts, as if the Modern Greek pronunciation had a more traditional value than other local forms. But it doesn’t. They appear to have issues with hearing other people pronouncing their own way, texts which were written in a language which is, on every level, completely different from its modern evolutions, in terms of grammar, lexicon and phonetics. Here are few of my answers. Text in between square quotation marks is not mine.

「The biggest problems I tend to have with those who adopt a form of Erasmian is」

I don’t see why some other people’s pronunciation of a classical language should give ‘problems’ to anyone as most people use their knowledge to read and understand texts and not to communicate on a daily basis. This is one of the main differences between using a modern language for oral communication and using a language which is not spoken by anyone as a native language anymore. I tend to think that people are globally overreacting when it comes to classical languages pronunciation debates.

「1) it’s not standardized (i.e., there are multiple versions)」

I’m definitely not a big fan of the actual Erasmian pronunciation. But it actually has a standard. However, most people don’t make the effort of using it consistently and they mix it up with the pronunciation they received as a tradition from local and national universities and schools. Nothing really harmful, to be honest. Some people also consider that it should be pronounced as inherited from the local tradition. This is what we’ve been all doing for centuries for Classical Greek and for Latin. So it’s not a conflict between two, but three styles of pronunciation.

One comparison with Latin can bring more light to the question. For centuries, people in Europe pronounced Latin their own national way. And we might expect that English, German, Spanish, French and Italian native speakers could have been making fun of each other when hearing the other ones pronouncing Latin their own way. But did it really matter? Everybody knows that even the Italian way (and the Catholic Church way) of pronouncing Latin is not ‘accurate’ if by ‘accurate’ we mean: as Cicero would have pronounced his own texts.

Now, since the Indo-European family tree discoveries have helped historical linguistics progress to a much better level than what they were two centuries ago, we have come closer to a scientific approach of diachronic phonetics of classical languages. And for both Latin and and Classical Greek, we know now that both the Erasmian and the local and traditional pronunciations were not scientifically ‘accurate’. But at the end, nobody can force any pronunciation on anyone. There is science and there are traditions. I don’t even see why they should be in conflict.

「2) it’s Hellenophobic (because those who use it tend to look down on Greeks today and over glorify Greeks of the past)」

I’ve never met anyone interested in Classical Greek who could be defined as ‘Hellenophobic’. Again, you don’t need to look down on any modern people if you ‘glorify’ or simply like ancient cultures. This is an assumption. If I compare again with Latin, everybody can agree that to be in love with Ancient Rome doesn’t mean you have to look down on Italian rich modern culture. Only binary brains could think like this.

「and 3) it reflects no one era of the Greek language, rather picking and choosing which sounds are preferred and which are jettisoned. The result is a hodgepodge of a language that’s altogether confusing, unattractive, and unrealistic.」

Coming back to historical linguistics, Erasmian work indeed, was not a conclusive achievement. But it’s up to each individual and how far they need to stick to historical reality to satisfy their curiosity. For people who really enjoy comparative linguistics, especially those who learn other IE classical languages, tables of pronunciation classified by era do exist. It can actually be fun to try and pronounce a text according to the exact century in which it has been written. Many ancient phonemes actually make much more sense on a lexical point of view, when compared with other IE languages such as Sanskrit or Celtic languages. And modern languages don’t offer that intellectual bridge.

But in any case, for all classical languages, lecturing people with arrogance for using other phonological traditions than oneself, sounds really pretentious to me.

JSD

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