THE MUSICAL PITCH ACCENTS IN GREEK



One cannot help feeling proud and pleased with the lovely sound of Classical Greek. A language with a clear-ringing and transparent set of vowels, backed up by smoothly sliding diphthongs, a language which cannot tolerate double consonants at the word-end, even smoothing down an initial sibilant -s- to the whisper of a 'rough breathing' (rough indeed....?) - - - this must be one of the loveliest languages of the world.

Lovely indeed are, as Dionysus put it, the "interwoven cadences" of Sappho's lyric verse, or the many-colored phrases which combine musically in every sentence of Plato's musical art-prose. One thinks of Pindar's world of words flowing in a river of rhythm, a pure art of words quite separate from his mythology or his biography; or Aeschylus' choral storms of built-up sound, or Sophocles' restrained artfulness of words interlaced with innuendo.

But then I have to ask my Classical colleagues: Why have you insisted all these years on ruining the sound when you read your Greek aloud, hammering the light pitch-marked sounds inexorably so they come out loud, obliterating the clearly indicated durations of the vowels - - - - thus depriving yourselves of the true musicality of ancient Greek?

There is no question but that the ancient Indo-European languages used musical pitch as a regular feature of their sound system. Pitches are clearly marked out in Vedic Sanskrit, retained in 16th century Lithuanian by its ancient linguistic tradition, and preserved with diacritics in writing in Greek since the Alexandrian period. These markings do not always agree inter se, but they indicate an ancient practice of altering the voice in speaking, which clearly dates from prehistoric times. When large numbers of non-native Greek speakers began to use Greek in the Hellenistic period, scholars at Alexandria marked in the "accents" above the text with diacritic markings, so that the barbarians like Syrians and Romans could pronounce the lilting quality of classical Greek correctly.

According to the later Greek grammarians, the acute accent (oxu "high") indicated a tone rising about a musical fifth from a normally low base level. The circumflex (perispomene or "wheeling around") was used only on long-duration syllables; it slid up, held and then slid down again in something like a wheeling action. The grave (baru "low") was often marked on papyrus school texts for learners on all un-pitched syllables, which in our texts show no accent marks, indicating a general low-pitched "base level" . But the grave was also used to indicate a high-pitch (oxu) which, for secondary euphonic reasons, was changed to a low (baru).

To summarize, all unmarked vowels in our texts are to be considered low, that is to be read on a low voiced base line. This is intended to represent the normal center of a speaker's range. A vowel marked with the grave (baru) is also low, so marked because it was once high (oxu) by itself, but is no longer high in the context of the text. So the grave (baru) can be seen as a degraded acute (oxu), pronounced no different than an unmarked vowel which is also a theoretical grave.

The circum-flex used on a long or overlong vowel (with a duration of three morae), first does an upward slide just like an acute, it pauses a bit at the top and then slides down to the base line again. Musically is would be something like a triplet from A to F, or even E, in 16th notes on a modern staff, tempo perhaps as adagio.

This ancient Greek pitch system is basically simple , since there are only two pitch rises above the base line to consider: one is the acute rising upward, the other is the circumflex or perispomene rising and then falling back to the base line. In every modern printed text these "accents" are marked with the familiar diacritics for us to read acoustically as we read the flow of words. There is no memorization of sounds from childhood that is required as when one studies Russian or Chinese.

Now we must ask ourselves: What have we been doing for all these years with these carefully planned acoustic diacritics? Universally we place a heavy stress or dynamic increase in loudness on all of the pitch indicated vowels. We use the same "stress" for the rising tone, the perispomene "wheeling-over tone", and (most illogically of all) for the marked grave, which is a deactivated "high" and nothing more. But we are dealing with clearly marked musical pitches and not word stresses, so in fact we are doing something silly, something unwarranted, and worst of all something very bad-sounding.

But this is not all. Concentrating on stress as misinterpreted from the pitch diacritics, we ignore the fact that the Greek vowels occur in two durations, some being short and others long. Long means something in the range of twice as long as short. You can even see that relationship in Gr. o-micron (written o), beside o-mega written oo, or double-o, giving our cursive omega. So we have a second sound system operating beneath the pitches, which is a system of durations with eta and omega clearly defined as long-durations in the writing, while alpha, iota and upsilon are not defined but can be long or short depending on the situation.

Using the "Stress System" as we do, it is bad enough that we plod through sensitive Greek art-prose thumping our way along. But when we come to poetry, we do something even more peculiar: We abandon the stresses which we mistakenly derived from the pitch diacritics or "accents", and now we substitute heavy stress for the long vowels and the compensatory longs "by position" (where Gr. thesis actually means only a grammatical "convention"), leaving the short vowels soft. This shift from a pitch system to stresses in prose, which employing stress for length in verse while disregarding pitch diacritics, is inexplicable, and it is educationally daft, since everything our students learn in First Year Greek they have to forget when starting to read the epic verse of Homer!

For years I have insisted on putting things right for myself and for my students, in terms of what the historical tradition of the Greek language clearly indicates. I pronounce the acutes as sliding upwards, circumflexes sliding up and then down while taking a bit more time, and all others vowels (or syllables) as low as at base level, whether unmarked or marked by the grave.

Doing this rigorously, I am at last free to pronounce the long vowels and long syllables as long and the shorts as about half that length. Longs are like musical quarter-notes, shorts eighth-notes, and the vowels under circumflexes are something like tripletted dotted quarter-notes. Tempo of course is variable for the meaning of the words, and can vary any way you want following what the passage seems to require.

Now with the durations of the vowels in hand, I can proceed to superimposing the musicality of the indicated pitches. The first surprise for a modern monotone reader, is in the difficulty of placing a rising fifth on top of a short vowel since this is something our ears are not used to hearing. Next is the matter of understanding the diacritically marked grave as meaning a "nothing", merely a warning not to rise, and keeping it down with all the unmarked vowels at the low base level. At this point we must remaining aware of the longs and shorts of the vowels, while simultaneously intoning a pitch-schema over them, and we find that doing this easily and intuitively requires considerable effort and practice. Remember that if we started students doing things right in the first place, we would not have to face the difficult unlearning of our old and unholy habits.

The important surprise is, when you have done this a while, and got used to the sound, that it sounds so fine and sensitive. Reading Sophocles or Plato, or even better Pindar or Homer in this musically aware and authentic way, you come into possession of a whole new perception of the sound of Greek.

I need not go into the proofs of what I am saying, since this is readily available linguistic knowledge. The only real question is the range of the base-to-high interval, either a diatonic fifth or something less perhaps like a major third. Once that is established to the reader's satisfaction, the system I have been discussing can be put into operation when you read your Greek.

Who could object to such a fine-sounding and commonsensical system of reading ancient classical Greek, at long last uniting prose and poetry under the same linguistic roof? Academic traditionalists will of course object, saying that this is not the way they have been doing it since the world began. And I have heard linguistic-ethnicists object, saying they didn't want their Greek to sound like Chinese, or the soundtrack of a Bergman film. The Classics has always been a conservative discipline, for centuries ally to church and state and an automatic purveyor of the accepted past.

But here we are dealing with a much more important matter than the controversial pronunciation of hard or soft -c- in Latin, or whether its -v- is a bilabial -w-. What we are discussing in Greek affects the whole acoustic character of a language always known for the exceptional beauty of its writing, in its literary art-prose as well as poetry. I recommend that we take this situation seriously, and teach ourselves to become familiar with the ancient and esthetic pronunciation first, so that we can teach our few remaining college students how classical Greek sounded.

"Classical Civilization" and "Classics in Translation" courses have told the students that they can read Homer and Plato and the Drama in English and save a lot of time learning the language. These courses have already robbed the educational cradle, but we should let the few survivors who have courage and interest to come to us to learn ancient Greek get a glimpse of the real thing. Doing it with the right esthetics, we might even get an unsuspected flush of interest in learning Greek, a way of validating the study of the Greek language as something exceptional and worthwhile, in a world where most people believe that education is technically a means to a job. Studying the Greek literature through the language is the only direct way to grasp the writings and thought of some of the most original minds the world has ever seen. In studying Greek there is no other purpose than making this contact, since to be in the presence of wisdom and beauty is an without question a complete end in itself.



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris