• The matter I'm going to discuss leans heavily on knowledge of Greek and Latin, which is not possessed by most of the population these days. I tried not to get too technical, while still being accurate and interesting as much as possible.
  • I used capital letters that are used also in the Greek for all Greek letters, because, though I have Greek fonts on my computer, I'm pretty sure not everyone have them, and I don't know how to make HTML versions of them (if they even exist). In cases where the Latin form of the letter does not resemble the Greek, I used the name of the letter.

While we have no way of accurately knowing for certain the way words were pronounced in antiquity, as they didn't have recording devices then (or at least if they had we have no record of that (c; ), we have several ways of extrapolating the way things were pronounced, these are mainly transcriptions to other languages, onomatopoetic words, spelling mistakes, word games, poetic means like: rhymes (though rhymes are very rare in classic poetry) and metre, certain grammatic phenomena in which letters are interchanged with "close" letters (as is the case in contraction and the breaking of it, elongation, augmentation etc.), versions of words in different dialects of the same language etc.

Until the 16th century Latin was pronounced the way Italian is, and ancient Greek the way modern Greek is (a system now known as Itacism). However, starting with that era various scholars, including Erasmus (who was not, as many believe, the creator of Etacism, but was certainly one of its most prominent supporters), and claimed that this prevalent pronounciation does not fit into the texts we have in these languages, particularly the ones dating to the 4th century BC and earlier in Greek, and the ones dating to the 3rd century AD and earlier in Latin (In later times it is agreed by almost all researchers that pronounciation was closer to the modern use).

In modern Greek the letters H (eta), I (iota) and Y (upslion) and the diphthong EI are all pronounced as the vowel in the English word see, and the letter E (epsilon) and the diphthongs AI and OI are pronounced as the vowel in the English word get. In addition the letter Z (zeta) is pronounced like the English z, and, B (beta) is pronounced as v. In addition no aspirated vowels exist in modern Greek, and there is no ditinction between long and short vowels.

The Etacists, though, claimed that this set of pronounciation did not fit into the findings in writing: first, they said, it is illogical that so many forms of writing will be invented in one language to express the very same thing, second, if all these forms of writing were the same why would certain combinations in other languages be transcripted always in the same way (for instance why would the Latin ae be always transcripted to Greek as AI and vice-versa). In addition there is often interchange between A (alpha) and H, and between E and H, both in spelling mistakes and grammatic phenomena (though rarely between E and A), leading to the though that H was pronounced as something between E and A.

In addition, they said, ignoring the differences between these diphthongs and vowels as far as length goes (that is judging AI and OI the same way as E), twists the cleverly and delicately crafted metre of Greek poetry, and renders all research of it useless.

As for the letter Z, the Etacists showed that the letter was always treated in poetry the same ways as Xi and Psi, meaning: as two separate letters, in addition they showed that in the Aeolic dialect the letter Z hardly ever appears and instead the combinations Sigma-Delta and Delta-Sigma are used, leading to the thought that Z was pronounced as dseta rather than as simple zeta.

As for the B, Erasmus gave a good example of the absurdity of using it the same way modern Greeks do: in one of Aristophanes' plays a flock of sheep comes onstage and says: "BEI BEI" throughout its stay onstage. Now, he said, to pronounce it the way it's pronounced in modern Greek would mean that it should be pronounced as the English "Vee Vee", "I" he said, "have never heard of any sheep saying 'Vee Vee'. I have, however, heard something like 'Bay Bay' from them."

According to the Etacists H is pronounced as like the vowel in ate, Y as the German y and ü, EI as the vowel in hay, AI like the word eye, and OI as in the word joy. B is to be always pronounced as in Boy. O (o-micron) and E are always short, H and O-mega always long, diphthongs are always long, except when OI or AI appear in word endings. The rest of the vowels may be either long or short depending on circumstances.


As far as Latin goes the etacists claimed that the diphthongs AE and OE should be pronounced as eye and boy. C is always pronounced as in Car (even in the combination SC, and excluding the combination CH that is pronounced as it is pronounced like the German bach and never as in ich), G is always sounded and always as in Guide, and V as the English W, H is hardly sounded, and J (which exists only in Medieval Latin) is simply a consonantal I.


Etacism was at first disapproved of by most of the important educational institutions in Europe. In Oxford until the 19th century, teaching, studying or using Etacism was reason enough for expulsion (both for students and professors)

But gradually Etacism gained more and more followers and gradually took its rightful place as the proper way of Latin and ancient Greek pronounciation. It is used these days in almost all schools and universities (excluding Catholic liturgy - and Greek-Orthodox one - and Greek schools, many of whom consider Etacism very close to blasphemy).

E"ta*cism (?), n. [Gr. the letter , . Cf. Itacism.] Greek Gram.

The pronunciation of the Greek η (eta) like the Italian e long, that is like a in the English word ate. See Itacism.

 

© Webster 1913.

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