Acoustic or Optical?

There have always been problems about how to take possession of the great Homeric epics, about the quality of the various translations, about mastering enough Greek to be able to read Homer easily and for pleasure , and whether one should try to get a good and authentic pronunciation of the Greek, with or without the pitch accents which are marked in every text. Is the Homer we have a written text or should chant the lines in imitation of the guslars? A discussion of these and other problems follows in this paper, with some practical remarks at the end.

I have a copy of Lattimore's Odyssey on the table beside the chair where I sit with my morning coffee, and I often pick the book up and open to a fortuitous page to look into a new vista beyond the lawn and trees and mountains of my countryside eyrie. I also have the Greek text within arm's reach and will often peer in there to see if Lattimore is getting the right feel of the ancient Greek text, not just the words as words but the flow and feeling of the page as read right through. Yes, I think to myself, Lattimore is really quite good. He has been criticized for his long lines, for the fact that nobody writes English hexameters anymore. But the dactyls in his lines are not a forced and measured cadence, we can read ahead as a flowing line of words and let the cadences surface on their own to elicit the meter.

This was always the flowing way to read Greek poetry in the days before the picky librarian Aristophanes of Byzantium around 200 BC laid out the metrics which we still slavishly follow, fitting the words into a rigid rocking-horse grid. But if I read straight ahead and count the average number of syllables in a line in the Greek and compare with Lattimore's English, and I find they are very close. That length sustains the swing of the verse lines which, if read aloud, will unfold like a curtain of writing on a page of papyrus sheet. But the Greek text as we find it on papyrus scraps or scrolls, is as silent and as inert as the printed paper pages in my OCT text or Odyssey translation. The Odyssey is still just a document until someone reads it, whether silently or aloud, and readership is a very complicated matter with more variables than we usually imagine.

Our Western alphabets are always praised for being simple, thoroughly phonetic in concept and very easily learned. Children who start by phonating the sounds soon see that it is the groups of characters separated by a space either side, which are the carriers of information. Many of us look with fright at the complexity of the Chinese character system, forgetting that we read the word "man" and "anthropoid" as character-units, only pausing to consider the individual letters when we find an unfamiliar word, perhaps spelling out a word like "eyrie" which we do not find in the dictionaries.

With this developed "unit-recognition" of groups of letters in a written text, we can read very fast. We tell students they have to be able to read at the rate of forty pages per hour to stay in college, and there is nothing unusual about doubling this rate for a long novel if you want to get through. There are passages which ask to be read again, but the storyline proceeds at its own pace and we as readers have learned how to keep up. Three inch lines in a newspaper can be read without lateral eye motion, a well designed printed page in a book will allow a right and a left eye shift to be done without thinking about it. Years ago my students could read through the Odyssey in English in two weeks, but I think that with the Internet surf and scan reading this would not be possible now for many. We have improved our breadth but lost some of our previous concentration.

For the ancient Greek, reading was entirely different. Manuscripts were written in much larger letters than our fonts, there was no punctuation and only an occasional 'paragraphos' mark. The diacritics or 'accents' which we see as an integral part of Greek writing were invented about 200 BC by Aristophanes of Byzantium, a librarian at Alexandria in an effort to stabilize Greek in a period of linguistic change. But there is much evidence that the Greek reader, even in the bookish Hellenistic period, was obliged to read aloud a text he was studying, in order to understand it from his spoken voice. This continued in the Greco-Roman cultural tradition well into the 5th c. AD when some church fathers started tentatively to prefer silent reading in the monastery.

Reading aloud and listening carefully was still not an automatic procedure and would probably limit the ancient reader to a rate of ten pages a minute. I find when I am reading Plato carefully and intelligently, but without stopping to ponder words or inner meanings, that ten pages is a busy reading rate. Since reading was slow, it would be assumed to be careful, and in such a world any book would be written much more compactly than now. A Book of Herodotus in his easy flowing prose is not very long, it is well scaled to a Greek reader's rate and attention span. On the other hand an English novel of over 600 pages would have been more than even a Greek librarian would have handled in a week's reading. All classical writing is intentional and compact, there are no wasted words, as is suitable in a world where readers were careful and painstakingly cautious in their reading. That is part of the mark of the literary writing we have from the ancient world.


The records say that in the ninth century Homer was sung aloud by a chorus of Greek maidens to an annual festive assembly of hearers. Presumably the reason for many girls was to increase volume, like the violin section of a symphony orchestra; and the high pitch of girls' voices falls within the best acoustic perception range of human years with overtones in the 2-5K range. The lyric poets of the archaic period would always have been read as a special kind of Performance Art, sung with a musical instrument and with great care for the expression and the sound of the words. In the 5th and 4th centuries BC the word 'read' (anagignosko or lego) means specifically "to read out loud". Only recently with the new interest in Oral Poetry, have we become aware of the importance of sound in our Greek poetry, as a recent surge of interest in the indicated "pitches" in our texts has produced a large literature about acoustic sound as a signal part of the ancient Greek language.

But we do not normally read that way. We are basically silent readers and only read aloud when we have read a poem and then try experimentally to see if the acoustic side amplifies our sense of the art. I am not sure if I get much new depth from reading Emily Dickinson's poems, those little treasures of withdrawn conciseness written on small sheets of paper tied together with a string and put safely in the back of a dresser drawer. I believe these were essentially written poetry, constructed with words written on paper only indirectly following her imagined sounds. Hearing James Joyce's rare recording of a passage from Finnegans Wake, we are interested but somewhat disappointed at his dry and un-musical sound. But Joyce was really a musical man and all ears for the sound of words, so when Sioban McKenna does a reading from FW, it comes out as all music. But we do not have patience for a full acoustic reading of the Wake however well done. But when we are reading in our silent mode, we want to pause and stop to think, and go back and turn to another paragraph, because that is the way we do our reading.

When I sit down for an afternoon's reading Dickens over again in the garden, I do not need the sound of the words as a musical accompaniment. The art of the novel is packed with brilliant visual displays and vivid social imagery, which each reader's imagination can call up in sequence as the book leads on. I might at first seem to be the passive reader of the flowing sentences, but in fact I am creating a full visual scenario in my mind. I bring the characters into focus and animate them as I listen to their tirades or their curious dialect intonations. Words require imagination to make them work, otherwise they are like the data in textbooks, useful and necessary to read but not interesting. We love our books because as we read them they turn on our capacity for imagination.

The Odyssey when read by a sensitive reader, is just such a book. It is carefully broken down into twenty four segments or Books, which range from a thin ten pages to a little over twenty five for the long ones. If I were to aim at reading Book XI in the manner of an educated upper-class Greek like Xenophon, whom I imagine unrolling his papyrus script at his desk in the study, I could read along intoning and enjoying the sound of the words. This would take about three hours going from start to end. But if the genial Xenophon had organized a "reading" for members of his family and friends who asked for something special that afternoon, he might bring in a professional storyteller. This would be a man famous for his style, he would not need the text as a score any more than a skilled violinist would have to watch the score when doing a Violin Concerto.

But this would be very different from my private reading of this same Book XI. It would have been enhanced by the technique and the inventiveness of the poetic reader, and the audience would be listening to musical sound in the air while watching a professional storyteller at work. Under his direction they would imagine the sea growing dark toward the horizon as the men pulled hard on the creaking oars, or darkening night creating a mist against the distant mountains. In the 5th c. BC the oral-acoustic and optical-reading techniques went hand in hand, they were both available for different uses in a changing world which had not yet made up its mind about how or which way to read.

Would an acoustic performance not seem a richer and a livelier way into that book of Homer, than my silent reading of the words in Greek while they unfold in scenes under the wrap of my imagination? For a society used to the art of family and professional storytelling, an acoustic performance would indeed have much more depth and feeling. On the other hand many of us do not have a family storytelling tradition, we go to the library to find writing which will open the imaginative corner of our mind. That is the natural result of a world which has a plethora or even an excess of written material on its shelves. All the Classical Greek writing we have now can be put on one CD disc, the whole burned Alexandrian library might have taken up ten or twenty of these, perhaps a few more. When Harvard's Widener Library opened in l910, it was said that it could house ten million books, an amazing statement for that time. In half a century the space was gone, and now it is all a matter of putting writing into an electronic format which takes up no space at all.


There has been activity in the last decades to try to read Homer aloud in an authentic manner, using the pitch accents as Dionysus marked them while observing the vowel patterns with their long and short syllables. But there are difficulties doing this in English, as a language which has neither pitches nor phonematic vowel lengths. As recorded by professional Classicists, Homer usually ends in an interesting but unintelligible mumble, because it is not done by professional actors who know how to read script properly. Beside this we have the problem of national accents, an Italian reading Homer will do his interpretations with an Italian accent, while a some British classicists seem to have a dialect of their own.

Americans reading Greek or Latin verse have always inclined toward the rocking-horse mode, thinking forever of how they cribbed in the longs and shorts over their schoolbook text. Beyond this there is the question of reading in a conversational talking format like our daily form of communication, although Homer told us specifically to sing it with the telling word "aeide" at Iliad I 1. He certainly wasn't thinking of Verdi, but since he was living on the edge of a clearly Near Eastern world, he may have had in mind the ancient chant modes which we still find in the historical singing of the Synagogues and the Mosques of Islam. I have done a musical recording of some passages of Homer chanted in a modified Eastern Mode, but have decided not to put it on the internet yet. Do our professional teachers of ancient Greek want to hear Homer chanted in such an unfamiliar manner, or are they more at ease with the spoken tones of their academic classroom, translating the Greek word by word into a pedestrian English as a daily lesson?

I have asked for a group to undertake the arduous task of experimenting with new ways of re-creating the ancient art of Homer. This is laid out in a detailed article with a set of parameters by which this could be done with a group of diversified talents, ranging from scholar to actor to musician to recording engineer. But I do not find interest appearing on the academic horizon, and regretfully suspect that we may have to deal with Homer as a book and a written text for the foreseeable future. It is good to imagine the world of a Homeric bard weaving together ancient tales into a social performance, but in fact our Homer is a book with a long tradition in written characters, and that fact after more than two millennia of survival, does not really require an apology.

In the meantime, I think we should make an effort to understand better the way writing and reading first appeared as a fundamental technique in 7th c. BC Greece. There is a great difference between the literary world of Plato and the time of lady Phrasikleia whose sculpture from 540 BC had a written text at the base, with an early effort to say something about her life and death. The crudeness of the writing shows how new and unfamiliar writing was at that time, even if used on a touching funerary stone. This was in the very period in which the Peisistratid rulers had arranged for a text of "Homer" to be written down in the Semitic alpha-beta characters borrowed from the Phoenician coast, now becoming slowly familiar for use through Hellas. Alphabets had local character variants in the various Greek dialects, the appearance of many legal inscriptions shows that the Greeks had already understood the importance of written documents, and literacy with the new writing system was clearly on its way. The only surprising thing is that the thousand pages of the Homeric Epics were committed to papyrus in a period when literate reading was still in its infancy. The written Homer does not have an exact date, some have questioned the Peisistratid account, but there are no records of regular oral presentations datable for that period. It is odd that something as finite as the works ascribed to Homer should have such an unclear textual history.


We have been speaking of the great difference between the oral acoustic approach to poetry, and the silent reading of words which is so natural in the modern world. Now I think I should describe a couple of plus-minus situations on the equation to make clear the essential nature of the two reading styles:

Listening to a read storyline text seems initially more immediate, but there is a computing cost. The brain has to listen to the spoken sound, to register it in a system of inner circuitry and while transmitting to use specialized functions of the brain to elicit language meanings from the sounds qua sounds. The pathway works quickly from the auditory organ in the ear to a relay in the brain-stem, and then to the decoding center for the language, upstairs. This is no simple process, some of us do it quickly and deftly, other find it more cumbersome. Our hearing is deft and has the ability to separate different frequency sounds from different sources efficiently. It would seem to handle richer inputs than possible with the eye.

On the other hand, reading from paper is visual perception from the retina through a pathway which is so closely associated with the brain that anatomists consider the optic nerve, as it emerges from he retina, to be an extended part of the brain itself. Our optic sense is our best and most immediate pathway to the world, involving over eighty percent of our perception. Our sight can handle color, it has both a generalized field perception like those of all mammals, but it also has a point at the fovea through which we can view minute objects with great precision. It is this specialized foveal vision which we use for our reading of small characters on a written page, a function which seems specific to human beings and the mark of our human development over the eons.

When I read a page of text, I can perform various functions which I could not handle with a spoken train of words. I can stop on any word and think about it. I can go back and look over what I have been examining and see if it all fits together. I can remember the shape and meaning of a word seen in another book, I can mentally connect it with this text and now memorizing it I can add a bit of richness to my reading vocabulary. In a sense I am separate and even independent from the text as an automatic driving force. I set the pace and am not a passive receptor as I would be on a movie or TV show.

The difference between auditory and optical reading becomes clear in a college poetry class. Students after hearing a well done reading of a poem, will often ask the instructor if they can see the text. Asked why, they say they think they can understand it better. It is interesting that they are asking to see the word, not to hear it read again aloud. This is part of our use of the written word, it seems that after all, here as elsewhere seeing is believing.

When the Greek Alexandrian librarians put together their extensive canon of Greek literature, they were certainly planning it for optical reading. The readers may have had to intone words and phrases, even listening to their own voice to understand the sense. But this was an inter-stage between the oral and visual reading techniques, and as time progressed, it would be silent optical reading which would survive. Written material was growing more extensive, and more concentration on the exact wording was required. There quickly developed a class of language scholars, of text critics and manuscript evaluators, founding the base of what we consider modern scholarship. The Greeks were the Western leaders in this direction and we, now far along that highway, are the inheritors.


On Reading Homer Today

I:          We now have options in the way we decide to approach our reading of the ancient Homeric Epic text. We can read a translation right through and get most of the storyline in mind, while remembering certain passages which have a mystical beauty of seascape or evoke a theic apparition clothed in imagination. The best college student reading would be like this, a sustained effort to read right on through without taking notes for questions on the inevitable quiz. The reading of books is primarily a matter of pleasure, but when it is confined by details or the identification of trick lines, it becomes crabbed and tight-assed, losing the spirit of what should be friendly and comfortable reading. One might call this the pure Literary Approach.

II:          But there are students in college and many older people outside who are now undertaking a study of the Greek language and there is no better entry portal than Homer. He is interesting as a story, not written as a guessing game for a quiz, and a good linguistic entry into the complexities of the Greek language. But Greek is still taught in an outmoded and non-linguistic manner, students are still told to memorize paradigms and parse each text word into it grammatical possibilities, while translating exciting Greek into pedestrian English as an exercise and proof of purchase. Many are daunted and leave off their Greek, for those who stick with it there is a transition to a slow and cautious reading knowledge, which will take two years before becoming in any sense easy and natural. At that point survivors have the choice of reading the Homer in Greek although at a snail's pace. But it is the authentic Greek at least! This is a second way in the door.

III:          Combining the comfortable and pleasurable reading of a good translation, for which I prefer the translations of Lattimore by far, with a basic if slow reading ability in the Greek of the Epic language, a literary reader can do what I do many mornings. He can read English until he wants to touch the original language, and then switch books. Of course this is easy for me since I have been a teacher of the classical languages over a long career. But with an appreciation of good English wording coupled with two years of serious Greek language study, anyone should get in the door. From then on it is all picking up speed from practice, and since this is a pleasing process it can go on as a lifetime interest. After Homer why not look into Sophocles, or some Plato as the master of prose-poetry? There is much more on the shelf!

IV:          But then why not read the Greek aloud as an interesting suggestion from the Oral Poetry movement? It is exciting to think of yourself as a bard or guslar in some distant place, strumming a detuned guitar idly while intoning the Homeric Muse. But there are problems and here are just a few:

a) Do you understand that you must "sing" (aiedein) the verse, not speak it in your conversational manner?

b) To sing you must study the diacritics on each Greek word, and understand what is a sliding fifth, a melisma and disband the meaningless grave.

c)What is authentic pronunciation of a long dead language? Nobody really knows and the best bet is to follow the vowel and consonant usage of whatever language or dialect you speak. Trying to follow some misunderstood information from the IPA will put you into a no-man's land where nobody will understand you at all. However you speak Homer aloud, it will probably have to be for yourself, not a matter of communication. Verbum Sap Sat.

d)If you want to add a "lyre" accompaniment, you will have to do some deep research into the remnants of ancient Greek music, with little chance of coming up with a good musical line to score. Plucking non-diatonic notes on your guitar, while singing in a mock Near Eastern mode with voice pitches sounding like Chinese, you will certainly produce something novel. But beyond novelty, it may be so outré: that it is considered unacceptable to all.

e) Final suggestion: Try everything of the above, experimenting shows that your mind is questing and alive, and if the results seems cumbersome to do and frightening to be heard, that should be understood as part of the experimental process, which is always good.

f) One more thought: When done with all this, do some reading in the Odyssey of Lattimore, and if you have even a little Greek pick up the OCT text to see how close and faithful this translator actually, is, while remembering that later you can throw the English into the fire and become a genuine reader of the Homeric Epics in their original format. Maybe better read silently at the start, rather than intone the pitches with a great voice and scare the cat right out of the house.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College