The following post originally came from Appendix §30 of Fredrick J. Long, Koine Greek Grammar (Wilmore, KY: GlossaHouse, 2015) and was written by alumni member T. Michael W. Halcomb, Ph.D.

In the same way that it is in our best interest to learn the grammatical and syntactical ins and outs of Koine Greek, as this book has helped us do, it is to our benefit to have some understanding of the issues surrounding the matter of pronunciation. Because the majority of English-Greek grammar books employ the so-called Erasmian Pronunciation (I say “so-called” because Erasmus himself did not adopt it), and because professors have been using such textbooks for the last several hundred years, the overwhelming majority of students have accepted this framework without much question. Indeed, many have been taught that recovering any semblance of how Koine originally sounded is beyond possibility. Such a claim, however, simply misses the mark.

The reality is that we can know how Koine sounded. There are a number of resources readily available and at our disposal that can assist us in this regard. Before I mention just a couple of those, however, it will be helpful to understand a bit about the context out of which “Erasmian” took root and grew. For me this historical data is important and should not be divorced from discussions about whether Erasmian should continue to be used. At the same time it is not the “nail in the coffin,” so to speak, or the strongest bit of information we have to move away from Erasmian to the Koine Era Pronunciation (KEP).

With regard to context, the 1400s-1600s A.D. in Europe are worthy of note, especially the locales of Greece and England. Given that I cannot provide an in-depth discussion of every significant event or person worthy of mention here, I must be selective. I want to draw our attention first, then, to the fact that in the years preceding the 1400s French and Latin were prominent across Europe but French was the language of power, politics, and social prestige. There came a shift around the 1500s, however, when French began to be replaced by English.

While there were many dialects of English a standard began to emerge as it was developed at the behest of royalty. The chancery (the chapel of the king) consisted of scribes and writers who worked at creating an English standard among themselves. Eventually this standard began to proliferate as it was used increasingly outside of the chancery. As English replaced French as the norm and as the chancery’s English standard gained momentum, other institutions, especially the academy, began to take note and follow suit. These changes happened quite organically and, relatively speaking, over a period of hundreds of years.

This move toward an English standard also played a role in what is known as The Great Vowel Shift.[1] I cannot explain the shift here at length but it is worth pointing out that basically the vowels a, e, i, o, and u, along with ai, all shifted and took on a different sound. The influence of this change is hard to overestimate because even today’s English remains directly affected by it. As it was occurring across the late 1400s to mid 1600s those living at the time were also dramatically affected by it. We need to realize that Erasmus himself lived during this period, a period when matters pertaining French, Latin, and English, especially the latter, were very socially and politically charged. The pronunciation of English was at the forefront of many debates and discussions.

But this brings us to another matter, namely, the pronunciation of Greek. Following the Turkish invasion and conquering of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire in 1453 A.D., for the first time a sharp distinction was beginning to be made between Ancient Greek and Modern Greek. Prior to this point no one had ever really differentiated the two in such a substantive way and in such an aggressive historical manner. In the minds of many, the political misfortunes of the Greeks confirmed that they were weak and intellectually backward; this caused non-Greeks to despise them and avoid their language. This also caused Greeks to strive to “maintain their ethnic identity,” which led them to turn in upon themselves, “jealously preserving their language and culture.” As one author says, “The use of the Modern Greek pronunciation for the ancient language was only part of this larger phenomenon.”[2] Thus, for the Greeks, the pronunciation of the language was a matter of national pride.

Yet, here, for the first time, Ancient Greek—and for our purposes, Koine Greek—was essentially declared dead. What had existed unbroken for thousands of years despite its various permutations and changes was now considered deceased. But the question must be asked: Who declared it a dead language? And the follow-up question: Why? We cannot necessarily pin the event of rendering Koine a dead language on one person. But when we look to figures such as the Spanish humanist Antonio Nebrija, who asserted that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin had ran their courses, and who spoke of “national awakening in all parts of the West,” we learn that he may have been an early catalyst for changing the pronunciation of Greek.

Nebrija knew Erasmus and, in fact, Erasmus may have first heard of the non-historical pronunciation from Nebrija. It should be pointed out here that Erasmus himself never adopted what later became known as the “Erasmian Pronunciation.” In fact, Erasmus held to a Modern Greek pronunciation. What happened was that Erasmus wrote a fable about a lion and a bear using different Greek pronunciations, one which was based on Modern Greek and the other which was based on English, and this tale became widely popular.

As matters of language change were on the rise and as Greeks were ousted from their academic teaching posts in ancient literature departments and replaced by non-native Greek speakers, as the historian and grammarian A.N. Jannaris notes, “The first act … was to do away with the traditional pronunciation—which reflects perhaps the least changed part of the language—and then to declare Greek a dead tongue.”[3] Many jumped on the bandwagon with this thinking. Then, with enough academic elites and social powerhouses on board, the new English-based pronunciation began to spread quickly.

Friedrich Blass, a professor and author living in the 1800s, who, even in his time referred to the Greeks of his day as half-barbarians and their pronunciation as barbaric,[4] along with numerous other leading thinkers such as Martin Luther, “Philipp Melanchthon, Johann Sturm, and their many associates and followers,” had “adopted Erasmus’ teaching methods and textbooks as the basis of their educational reforms.”[5] To be sure, Erasmus talked about pronunciation in some of his works, especially the aforementioned fable. This led people to believe that he himself was an advocate of the pronunciation that became attached to his name.

These circumstances reveal that the socio-political climate of the day was ripe for the proliferation of the Erasmian pronunciation. Thus, there was not simply one person responsible for the so-called death of Koine, but rather many in the academy. Declaring Greek dead was a socio-political move; indeed, it allowed the academy to drive a wedge between Ancient and Modern Greek. In doing so, the academics could refer to Ancient Greek as “their Greek,” while the Modern Greeks could deal with Modern Greek. This division––a false historical dichotomy between Ancient and Modern Greek––has persisted even until today in the academy; the main progenitors of it have been Western colleges, universities, and seminaries.

In my opinion, it would not only be a just act but also a historically responsible one to move away from Erasmian to the KEP. And in spite of the oft-heard claim that we cannot know it, we surely can, as I have suggested already. One of the main ways that we can recover the KEP is by comparing “orthographical substitutions,” that is, spelling interchanges between documents containing the same text or the same words across different documents. I prefer to call these spelling differences “interchanges” rather than “mistakes” or “errors” as some like Bart Ehrman do, because they were in fact not errors. To arrive at such a conclusion one must force modern expectations about reading and writing back on to ancient authors and scribes. Before the rise of modernism, what was written (literary works, letters, documents, etc.) was meant to be read aloud and were composed for the ear. Thus, as long as what was on the page produced the proper sounds and words when spoken, it was considered good, acceptable, and meaningful.

To use a very simple example from English, we might say that when spoken aloud, the word “meen” in the statement “The boy is meen” produces the correct sound to hearers, although it is (mis)spelled “meen” rather than our modern standard of “mean”; yet “meen” would nonetheless have been understood by hearers. In fact, if one were to write an entire lecture with words whose spellings were considered atypical, the audience would likely never know about the spelling interchanges. The only way they would know is to look at the manuscript. If they were to view the manuscript, they would then see the non-standard spellings rather than the well-known standard spellings. If listeners were to do this, they would realize that in English “ee” and “ea” make the same sound and are, to the ear, completely interchangeable. This is actually one way that we can go about figuring out how Koine sounded, too. If we compare how words were spelled in ancient writings to a more common standard spelling, we can recover which letters sounded alike or different. For instance, one ancient work spells the number three as τρις. When we compare this with the standard spelling τρεις, we learn that Koine ι and ει were often interchanged and thus sounded (nearly) exactly alike.

In addition to comparing non-standard spellings with standard spellings, we can often just compare words across a single document. For instance, in Papyrus 66 the scribe used both τρις and τρεις; even though they are spelled differently in the document, they made the same sound when read aloud and were thus considered good and acceptable. Beyond this type of analysis, many other ways to recover the KEP exist: We can read, for example, ancient texts that talked about pronunciation; we can look for rhyme and assonance in poetry (this gives us clues as to which letters and syllables sounded alike); we can use tools from the field of historical phonology/linguistics to help chart both synchronic and diachronic sound change.

At the end of the day, it is simply erroneous to claim that we cannot know how Koine sounded. The bald claim that such a task is beyond recovery, finally needs to be put to rest. As scholars, researchers, teachers, and learners, our role should not be to regurgitate statements we may have read or heard along the way without checking to see whether or not they can be substantiated. Instead, if we are in the business of teaching truth and doing so in a true manner, then we will let the evidence lead us. I am convinced with regard to the pronunciation of Koine that such evidence abounds; for this reason I have left Erasmian behind and embraced the KEP.

                [1] For an accessible discussion of this see Seth Lerer, The History of the English Language, 2nd ed. (Springfield, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2008), 37-45.

                [2] T. Michael W. Halcomb, “Never Trust A Greek…Professor: Revisiting the Question of How Koine Was Pronounced,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, Knoxville, Tenn., 14 March 2014.

                [3] A.N. Jannaris, An Historical Greek Grammar Chiefly of the Attic Dialect As Written and Spoken From Classical Antiquity Down to the Present Time: Founded Upon Ancient Texts, Inscriptions, Papyri and Present Popular Greek (London: Macmillan and Co., 1897), viii.

                [4] Attributed to F. Blass in Chrys C. Caragounis, “The Error of Erasmus and Un-Greek Pronunciations of Greek,” Filología Neotestmentaria 8 (1995), endnote #12. I was unable to gain access to the cited source firsthand.

                [5] Judith R. Henderson, “Erasmian Ciceronians: Reformation Teachers of Letter-Writing,” Rhetorica 10/3 (Summer, 1992): 274.

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