Is Erasmian Pronunciation Ugly?

I recently wrote an essay in partial defense of Erasmian pronunciation that will be published in a book (no title yet) which offers essays in defense of different phonological systems for Koine Greek. All the papers were originally read at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference held in San Francisco in November 2011. In my paper I laid out four basic arguments: historical, pragmatic, philological, and aesthetic. Yes, aesthetic. But rather than offer an argument at SBL, I played a tune which I am making available here. More on that in a moment.

I noted in my presentation that whenever I travel to Greece (which I do every year to photograph New Testament manuscripts with CSNTM) I leave Erasmus behind. I drop him like a bad habit once I board the plane and don’t renew my acquaintance with the Dutch humanist until I return to the States.

Regarding the aesthetic argument, Erasmian pronunciation is often considered cumbersome, unnatural, stilted, and ugly. The implication sometimes is that it must not have been the way Greek ever sounded; it is too harsh on the ears for that. Perhaps images of Jim Caviezel torturing our auditory senses with unnatural Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ come to mind. Or any scholar’s attempt to read Coptic gracefully! This argument fails to recognize that even though, to some degree, beauty may be in the ear of the listener, some languages actually do sound harsh. In order to maintain political correctness, I will not mention any, and simply let your own unbridled imagination run where it wishes. I do not think, however, that Erasmian Greek is among them. To be sure, our execution of the language may falter, but that does not mean that the sound of the language is ugly.

Along these lines, Friedrich Blass long ago offered this insightful comment:

“I am perfectly convinced, that, if an ancient Athenian were to rise from his grave and hear one of us speak Greek, on the basis of the best scientific enquiry and with the most delicate and practiced organs, he would think the pronunciation horribly barbarous.”

Blass went on to say, “But if he heard a modern Greek, he would not indeed be so loud in his censure, simply because he [would have] failed to observe that this is supposed to be his own language.”

Blass’s modesty aside, not everyone who enunciates Erasmian Greek butchers the language. For a demonstration of this, consider the Chalcedonian Creed sung with Erasmian pronunciation. The music and lyrics were produced by one of my first-year Greek students, Kit Bogan, who sang all four parts a capella. One of the students in the class, Trace Bailey, who had spent years as a disc jockey, exclaimed, “This may be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard!”

It takes a few minutes to hear the whole thing. So, grab a cup of joe, plug in your 200-watt speakers to the computer, and enjoy the sound of pure worship.

Symbolon ten Chalkedonas, lyrics, music, and song by Kit Bogan.

Update: This is now on Youtube! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dyZyYqESKk&feature=youtu.be

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15 comments on “Is Erasmian Pronunciation Ugly?

  1. Ugly? Yes, it sounds ‘ugly’ & artificial IF you have been introduced to alternative pronunciation.

    I started with Erasmian pronunciation, but switched to “Modern Greek’ pronunciation after I bought Spiros Zhodiates’ Koine Greek New Testament on audio cassette. Many years later, when I listen to Marilyn Phemister’s narration of Greek NT that I downloaded or watch some NT Greek lessons taught by some American teachers on YouTube I do find the pronunciation ‘ugly.’ I’ve never been to Greece, but I heard that native Greek speakers would laugh at you if you use Erasmian pronunciation. Is that the reason why you leave Erasmus behind?

    According to A.T. Robertson,

    Erasmus is indirectly responsible for the current pronunciation of ancient Greek, for the Byzantine scholars pronounced ancient and modern alike. Jannaris quotes the story of Voss, a Dutch scholar (1577-1649), as to how Erasmus heard some learned Greeks pronounced Greek in a very different way from the Byzantine custom. Erasmus published a discussion between a lion and a bear entitled De Recta Latini Graecique semonis pronuntiatione, which made such an impression that those who accepted the ideas advanced in this book were called Erasmians and the rest Reuchlinians. As a matter of fact, however Engel has shown that Erasmus merely wrote a literary squib to “take off” the new non-Byzantine pronunciation, though he was taken seriously by many.

    Regarding Reuchlin, Robertson wrote:

    Roger Bacon, as Reuchlin two centuries later, adopted the Byzantine pronunciation. Reuchlin, who introduced Greek to the further West, studied in Italy and passed on the Byzantine pronunciation.

    One of the main causes of error in the transmission of the text of the New Testament is itacism. So in my opinion, ‘Modern Greek’ pronunciation is the pronunciation used by the ancient scribes, & the one should be taught today. Would itacism be abound in NT manuscripts if the scribes used Erasmian pronunciation?

  2. “Blass’s modesty aside, not everyone who enunciates Erasmian Greek butchers the language. For a demonstration of this, consider the Chalcedonian Creed sung with Erasmian pronunciation. The music and lyrics were produced by one of my first-year Greek students, Kit Bogan, who sang all four parts a capella.”

    Beautiful, indeed. The aesthetic argument, supported. Butchering is not a necessary consequence of Erasmus.

    However, perhaps the Chalcedonian Creed sung with pronunciation A, or pronunciation B, or X, Y, or Z would sound as beautiful? Or even more beautiful.

    And so, is the [beautiful] tune produced by Mr Bogan really a component of a [partial] defense of Erasmian pronunciation? (Granted, your fuller argument is the actual defense, this tune being a mere footnote the intent of which was not to vindicate the aesthetic argument.)

    Come to think of it, would he be willing and able to produce this tune based on other pronunciation systems? For the enjoyment of his listeners, as well as for comparison’s sake?

    • Wesley, good to hear from you! I have no doubt that had Kit sung Chalcedon with a different pronunciation he could make it sound beautiful. But whether it would sound more beautiful is a different matter. Gleason Archer, professor of OT at TEDS for many years, and as multi-lingual as just about anyone on the planet, was once asked whether Erasmian or modern pronunciation sounded better. Instead of giving a discourse on the matter, he simply recited a passage out of Homer, using both pronunciations. Then he asked, “Which sounds better to you?” The answer was Erasmian.

  3. Daniel, there are a lot more issues than you’ve touched on as to how to pronounce ancient Greek. The paper I delivered at SBL addresses these issues. Don’t rush to judgment before you’ve examined the data, rather than just quoting one or two secondary sources.

  4. Dan (if you would permit me to call you Dan), I am quite struggling on this topic since I am studying Greek language with a high loyalty on the Erasmian pronunciation. But on the back of my mind I am thinking that children “usually” adopt the pronunciation, especially of dipthongs, from their parents. One generation of Greek would not drop altogether the Erasmian (if in case that was the old Greek), I don’t know at what epoch of history did one Greek generation switched to what is called modern Greek way of pronunciation.

    I do find the Erasmian more ‘edible’ in basic study of Greek so I can imagine in my mind how to spell a word, while at the same time reprogramming my memory with a new set of writing Greek letters (which, add to even more stuggles, I have to familiarize myself with the Alexandrian text without spaces in between words). I have read some comments made by Greeks themselves that it is not good to pronounce Greek dipthongs differently, like we don’t say the word “brought” in English as “bro-ut”.

    My heart still goes to Erasmian though. I wish to hear your thoughts on what I thought about the switch of pronunciations between one generation to the next. Thanks.

    • You’ll have to read my essay when it is published. But when you consider that we’re dealing with 2000 years of history between Koine and modern Greek, it’s not difficult to envision changes slowly taking place, from generation to generation. In fact, in Greece today things happen much more rapidly. Since 1981, the rough breathing and polytonic accenting went away. If that can happen virtually overnight–and it’s a couple of major changes–surely the several changes in phonetics over the centuries is not unimaginable.

      • Thank you, that is comfort. I forgot that even similar languages, like English or Spanish, have different accents and might have had effect on their adaptation of the Greek language, and thus when it reached Desiderius Erasmus the Greek language had undergone many changes, only that in schools the original Koine was still thought, I guess. I shall wait on your essay, I don’t usually stick to my wild guesses, but only something to ponder about.

        “What is the geniune way of pronouncing the word ‘geniune’, is it ‘jen-win’ or ‘jin-wyn’? – as I speedily thought about it, I used to pronounce it the former way but then switched to the latter, I’m not sure what is archaic or how Brits and Americans pronounce it. I’ll look it up later. :)

        I do find studying Greek using the Erasmian method much easier, and if that’s how it was in the earliest centuries, then it brings me closer to the atmosphere of the ancient manuscripts. Regarding someone rising from the dead, I think the ancient Greek had already adapted the modern Greek, being updated with the recent Greek elects who had gone to heaven (just a humor). Thanks and many thanks!

  5. *the original Koine was still taught – i mean (I confused ‘taught’ with ‘thought’, sorry).

  6. Dr. Wallace,

    I’m attempting a self-study of Biblical Greek and I can see how the Erasmian pronunciation aids learning. However, I am concerned that once I get that pronunciation stuck in my head, I won’t be able to switch to a modern Greek pronunciation if I want to later on. I’d be willing to sweat out the more difficult approach of learning Modern Greek pronunciation now if it will save me more headaches later on.

    In general, do your students find it easier to start Modern and go Erasmian or vice versa?

    • My students only learn Erasmian because that is what is spoken in the academy. But when I learned modern, I found it took very little time to convert. However, I have now had two students who learned modern Greek first and they had a very hard time learning Erasmian.

  7. [...] They didn't use Erasmian! I'm pleasantly surprised. Erasmian pronunciation is an abomination. Is Erasmian Pronunciation Ugly? | Daniel B. Wallace __________________ The Jig is up! They exchange the glory of being created in the image of God [...]

  8. […] is better, more melodious, than the stilted and pedantic Erasmian reconstruction.  Daniel Wallace disagrees, but listen for yourself (at about […]

  9. Two direct admissions by classical Greeks that they did not speak erasmian:

    1)Λοιμός (disease) + Λιμός (hunger). There was an old saying that Athens is going to suffer from Limos. However the citizens of Athens did not know if the prophecy spoke about Λοιμός/disease or Λιμός/hunger because “οι” and “ι” sounded exactly the same. Λιμός + Λοιμός are modern Greek words too. They sound exactly the same. (Thoukididis Β, 54).

    2)Καινά (news) + κενά (empty or lack) . There was an old saying (like the previous one, was not written) speaking about kena of war. But the people did not know if the prophecy spoke about Καινά (new developments concerning the war) or κενά (lack of preparations). Why is that? Because “ε” + “αι” sounded alike.

    Erasmian pronunciation is a huge fallacy. I have read Erasmus, Allen and all the erasmian shit. No evidence at all. They constantly speak about Latin, indo European language etc etc, ignoring passages like the two above that do not fit with their theory.

    There are countless other arguments against erasmian pronunciation. Like the spelling mistakes of the classical Greeks. The less educated for instance, confused ι , ει, η and οι, as they all sounded alike (the name Aristides have been found written Αριστείδης, Αριστίδης, Αριστήδης on banishing shells).

    • Thucydides never said that there was confusion due to the pronunciation but rather they were just not sure what word the oracle said. Did you not ever play the game where you say a sentence in the ear of one person and then see how it changes by the time it gets to the tenth person?

      Also ει η ι did not sound the same during the Classical age and before. How do we know? See for yourself:


      Or do you have an explanation as to why in the early Classical period you see spelling of words such as ΗΙΠΠΟΚΡΑΤΟΣ instead of ΙΠΠΟΚΡΑΤΟΣ? Eta was originally a consonant instead of a vowel and was replaced by the rough breathing accent. Also, even today the historic pronunciation of eta is seen in Pontic Greek where they have replaced eta entirely by epsilon so ΜΗΤΗΡ is ΜΕΤΕΡ indicating that eta was not pronounced as “i”

      What you think is authentic pronunciation of Greek is actually heavily influenced by the Romans after the Hellenistic Age. For example, they confused υ with the Latin v which where ev and av developed from au and eu.

      I suggest you buy a book on the history of the Greek language, you do this great language a disservice by not realizing it’s diversity in pronunciation over time. For example have you ever heard of Old Attic Greek spoken in the late Ottoman era and early days of the Kingdom of Greece? In this dialect, OI was pronounced as ou!

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