Last summer I took a summer course in Greek at the local Greek Orthodox Church. We began by reading the text out loud.
“No, no, you’ve got to speak real Greek!” the teacher admonished me as I spoke what I had thought was Greek.
I later learned that the way I was taught Greek was the Erasmian style typically used by classicists. Now I was learning the modern pronunciation. The modern one, I was told, is better, more melodious, than the stilted and pedantic Erasmian reconstruction. Daniel Wallace disagrees, but listen for yourself (at about 4:40):
Moreover, my teacher claimed, it is disrespectful to pronounce Greek using the Erasmian style. It disregards Greek as a living language.
For about a week, I fell under the spell of this argument. Classicists, I thought, were doing it all wrong! We should speak authentic Greek!
Wait a minute. Authentic? What does that even mean? If we pronounce Homer using Erasmian pronunciation, we risk using a made-up phonetic system that was possibly never used. But if we pronounce Homer using modern pronunciation, we commit the cardinal sin of presentism. Neither seems very “authentic.”
In an ideal world we might pronounce a Greek text using the time period (roughly) it was written in. So for Homer and Herodotus we could use Erasmian, for Koine texts we could use Randall Buth’s reconstruction, and for modern Greek we could use modern Greek.
But then what of geographic differences? Must we discern the difference between Attic and Ionic before reading a word of actual Greek text? Must we learn the musical pitch tones of ancient Greek too?
And who exactly owns the past anyway? It is dangerous to create a debate resting upon a modern group’s proprietary feeling towards a particular ancient culture, whether in the same region or not. Modern Greeks are not striving to claim the religions or gender roles of Plato’s Athens. Why the language? And if, as some have told me, a modern Greek speaker trying to read Homer is like us trying out Chaucer or Beowulf sight unseen, what would make a modern Greek feel that ancient texts should be pronounced in a modern tongue? The legacy of Greece is not just for modern Greeks; it has disseminated for centuries across all Europe and the U.S.
Clearly the question of pronunciation is a political one. My answer is more pragmatic. The Erasmian pronunciation, as ugly and fussy as some may call it, is phonetically simpler. It predates the iotacism of modern Greek, the collapsing of vowel sounds that makes words sound the same (e.g., ᾿υμιν and ῾ημιν). I prefer the sound of the modern pronunciation, but the ease of the Erasmian.