The most obvious omission to strike the eye [in his book] is the disappearance of accents. We are indebted to D. F. Hudson’s Teach Yourself New Testament Greek for pioneering this revolution. The accentual tradition is so deeply rooted in the minds of classical scholars and of reputable publishers that the sight of a naked unaccented text seems almost indecent. Yet from the point of view of academic integrity, the case against their use is overwhelming. The oldest literary texts regularly using accents of any sort date from the first century B.C. The early uncial manuscripts of the New Testament had no accents at all. The accentual system now in use dates only from the ninth century A.D.
It is not suggested that the modern editor should slavishly copy first-century practices. By all means let us use every possible device that will make the text easier and pleasanter to read; but the accentual system is emphatically not such a device. Accurate accentuation is in fact difficult. Most good scholars will admit that they sometimes have to look their accents up. To learn them properly consumes a great deal of time and effort with no corresponding reward in the understanding of the language. When ingrained prejudice has been overcome, the clear unaccented text becomes very pleasant to the eye.
In Hellenistic Greek the value of accents is confined to the distinguishing of pairs of words otherwise the same. In this whole book it means only four groups of words; EI) and EI=); the indefinite and interrogative pronouns; parts of the article and the relative pronoun; and parts of the present and future indicative active of liquid verbs. I have adopted the practice of retaining the circumflex in MENW=, -EI=S, -EI=, -OU=SIN and in EI=); of always using a grave accent for the relatives (\H, (\O, O(\I, and A(\I, and an acute for the first syllable of the interrogative pronoun (TI/S, TI/NA, etc.). These forms are then at once self-explanatory, and the complications of enclitics are avoided. All other accents have been omitted.
I should dearly love to take the reform one stage further, by the omission of the useless smooth breathing. Judging by the criterion of antiquity, breathings have no right to inclusion. Judged by the criterion of utility, ) should be used as an indication of elision or crasis, and nothing else, and the rough breathing would then stand out clearly as the equivalent of h. The fear that examinees might be penalised for the omission of the smooth breathing has alone deterred me from trying to effect this reform. I should like to know if other examiners would support this proposal. — J. W. Wenham, Elements of New Testament Greek, pp. vii-viii.
As someone fairly new to Greek, I don’t quite know how to look at this. If the accents really are largely useless, why have them? But is it as simple as this?
At the moment I’m working on software to automatically look up Greek words. In the inscription we were looking at yesterday, the words mostly are found in the dictionaries, including Ares; but not “Aphrodite”. I don’t really believe that the goddess isn’t in the dictionary. Rather, I suspect, that some faulty accentuation means that X\ is not equalling X, or the like. Most bits of code that I have seen for use with ancient Greek involve reams of code to try to overcome this sort of thing; all more or less inept.
Perhaps when I am searching for a word, I should first strip off all its accents, and all smooth breathings except one at the end of a word — e.g. A)LL) would become ALL) — and search using that? Would I get a load of spurious matches?
And why do we have this complicated thing, if it is such a burden? Is perhaps the accentuation thing just a bit of snobbery? A way to keep the hoi polloi out? No doubt there is snobbery around, as in all things to do with men and their deeds. But is that all there is? Or is there more to it than this?