Why do we write accents on our ancient Greek?

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?

21 thoughts on “Why do we write accents on our ancient Greek?”

  1. There is more to accents than what the author claims, that is to say, there are more words that are distinguished only by the accents. However, the author makes a good point. Editors may also be at fault for incorrectly accenting a text, which would mean that accents could potentially be misleading, rather than just complicated.

    However, looking up a word may be even more difficult without accents. For example, try looking up the word: ἡὼ

    Yes, that is a word. And it drove me crazy until I found it here


    According to the LSJ the word can begin with an alpha, eta, or episilon depending on the dialect! Without the accents I would have had less surety that I had indeed found the correct word and not some strange crasis of a relative pronoun or definite article.

    I’m sure others know much more about this than I though.

    With your greek program, it would be lovely if one could feed in several pages of text and have a vocabulary list made up which I could keep docked on one side of the computer screen. Or instead perhaps have a large block of text that allowed me to just hover my mouse over a greek word and have its definition and conjugation/declension appear in another window.

    I look forward to trying out your program.

  2. I sometimes use Kalos for morphological analysis (kalos-software dot com). It works on Ἀφροδείτης, however one has to take into account that the “correct” genitive sing fem. would be Ἀφροδίτης without the ε. I could be mistaken, but the combined εί is to show that the long vowel ί is meant. The same is known in Latin, e.g. inscriptions reading DEIVVS instead of DIVVS, or on coins: “Ides of March” as EID(ibus) MAR(tiis).

    PS: Which software do you use?

  3. By the way, Kalos analysis also works on ἡὼ: “substantive ἠώς, accusative feminine singular / the morning red, daybreak, dawn”.

  4. Hans: yes, Kalos is great! The interface isn’t quite what I want, tho. I wish there was some way to call the “engine” from another programme. I did contact the developer, but he said he was not likely to enhance it much more.

    I’m developing my own bit of code, which I shall call “QuickGreek.” It’s designed to make it easier to work on sentences, rather than just look up individual words. The trick is how stuff is laid out.

    Tom: the code already allows you to hover over the word and get the parts of speech, a dictionary entry, etc in another window.

    I didn’t quite understand your other suggestion, and I’d like to; user interface is everything. So say I paste in the text of John 1:1 — in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God… etc. I process each Greek word, and get the English, the part of speech, etc. Then what? How do you want to see this? What would be in this new window?

  5. The plan to translate whole sentences sounds interesting. But then the computer would actually interpret the source for the reader. Many words have various meanings. Since you mention John 1:1, one could also apply the alternative classical translations (most of them majority translations) and render ἀρχή as “dominion”, “office”, “magistrate”, “imperium” and λόγος as “right of speech”, “resolution”, “command” etc.. Then John 1:1 is suddenly a political discussion about offices of power. How does the program know, which interpretation is correct?

  6. Some words that are only a distinguished by their accents are:


    And I am sure a number of verbs, not just the liquid future forms, but I do not have a list. Personally I ignore all accents unless I encounter a word that is ambiguous, and then I pay a lot of attention to it.

    In terms of the vocabulary list; I meant that if I have a large Greek text in let’s say Microsoft word, it would be nice if I could to send it through a program that would take each word and find the definitions and conjugations/declensions of every word. The program would then spit out each word with its possible definitions and conjugations/declensions in the same order that they appear in the text. So that I would have a nice vocabulary list to reference when translating. So for example

    εν αρχη ην ο λογος. (John 1:1)

    Would come out looking like:

    εν= in, on-Preposition, indeclinable

    αρχη= beginning, power, authority-Noun Nominative Singular Fem

    Λογος= Word, principle, thought-Noun Nominative singular Masc

    Only the definitions could be far longer and the parsing of the word could contain many different possibilities. Perhaps the user could also provide a filter so that any word that is used X amount of times in the text will not be processed to avoid the annoying repition of και or other similar words.

    This feature would be nice because it would allow me to get a better handle on what is going on in the greek sentence by piecing it together myself.

    I would like this feature because I still translate on paper because I frequently do not have access to a computer. I could print out the list and use it to translate by hand.

  7. Accents first appeared in the 2nd century BC, invented by Dionysius Thrax to help students read Homer and other such writers who used words that had fallen into disuse and the students didn’t know how to pronounce them. Originaly they showed prosodiac intonation, when Greek became a dynamically toned language (ca 1st century AD) they became a historical artifact before they became universally accepted in the 9th century! Since in Greece the Erasmus accent has never and will never become accepted and we read all accents dynamically they did help in the rare cases of homonymic words but were mostly kept in Greek due to archaism. The use of accents along with the use of Ancient/Archaic rather than spoken Greek as the official language of all Greek states before 1977 are the reason why παιδευω means both educate and torture.

    Accents and breathings, though they had long lost any real practical use except to denote the accented syllable (and then again both perispomene and okseia were long read the same) were used to accent even modern Greek until they were abolished in 1982 by the socialist goverment and replaced by the simple accent.

    There are a large number of words that are differentiated only by the accents and breathings, especially when the difference is between the nominative and the accusative so a comprehensive list gets very long. The main reason accents are being kept is historical: ancient Greek is written with accents or not at all

  8. Hans: you’re absolutely right. This sort of problem really makes it impossible for me to create a sentence translator. When I was working on QuickLatin, I started with amo, amas, amat; the first three words we learn in Latin. I was somewhat dispirited to learn that amas was not merely a verb, pres. ind. act. 2nd person sing., but also the accusative plural of “water bucket”! I think that we have to let the user sort this out, at the moment.

    But what we can do, is simplify the process of laboriously looking up each word. Take each word in turn, spit out some kind of meaning, allow the user to hover over the Greek and get all the possible meanings, and do his own syntax-assembling. It’s not ideal; but for someone accustomed to Latin, it will give them the ability to read quite a bit of Greek.

    Tom: I understand. That’s an interesting suggestion, and I will look at making this feature available. The opportunity to print it out, for work off-line, seems like a good one.

    ikkoki: what is the Erasmus accent?

  9. The great Dutch hellenist and humanist Erasmus suggested in the 15th century that the proper accent to read ancient Greek was not the Byzantine accent eg in reading β like english v (as in victory) but in a heavier way, for example reading β as b. Similarly that the accents should be read musically and not dynamically, that breathing should be read and not ignored, the subscripts should be read and not ignored and stuff like that. Erasmus never proposed that this accent should replace the Byzantine accent but some British scholars of the time did and indeed in European and American Universities it is used in reading and teaching ancient Greek. In Greece it never was adopted, if something is written in Greek letters it is always read the same way which of course leads to funny results at times. The fact that exactly the many accents and breathing had become irrelevant and trouble is the reason they were eventually abolished but in the West the artificial Erasmus accent is used because they become relevant when teaching ancient Greek. When we write accents in ancient greek we used a set of rules to put them but we do not read differently the words. With the Erasmus accent they do

  10. I first learnt Greek self-taught from Mounce, and was persuaded by him that accents were largely negligible, especially for NT Greek. I’ve since repented. Sure, there are some important words that are confused without accents, but I think the main reasons for me are twofold:

    1) Despite their late addition, they reflect, at least for classical Greek and earlier, tonal features that Greek scholars weren’t interested in losing, even if they were no longer pronouncing them.
    2) In that vein, accents when learnt well, connect one more strongly to the long tradition of Greek language and literature.

    Thirdly, in my various quests for communicative Greek, accents serve a very important pronunciation feature.

    So, I’m all for keeping them, and would rather students came to terms with them at the start.

  11. I tend to pay a lot of attention of breathings and iota subscripts, because these actually add an extra letter to the word. Circumflex accents can be very useful. But I usually ignore acute or grave accents, partly because the accent moves according to which form of the word is being used and sometimes, where it comes in the sentence (I think – I’m a little hazy on it). So when I revise Greek myself, I only include breathings, circumflex accents and iota subscripts – I find it much easier to read this way, as I’m not thrown by the word I’m looking for having, for example, an acute accent in the dictionary but a grave accent in the text.

  12. The subscript and the breathing are read only by those that use the Erasmus accent. In the Byzantine accent they are totally ignored and only used as a spelling peculiarity. The daseia breathing was abolished already by the 2nd century BC, the subscription took a little longer but by the time of St. Constantine they were all gone, only to return with Erasmus and in the West.

  13. “There is more to accents than what the author claims, that is to say, there are more words that are distinguished only by the accents.” Like eis (one) vs eis (into) which you can distinguish anyway with common sense and context? I don’t get what the point of accents is either, except to make it harder to type/publish/parse Greek texts.

  14. I’m interested in type-setting a reader’s New Testament (with glosses in the margin), and I’m trying to decide on the accentuation system:

    · Traditional?
    · Monotonic (with iota subscripts)?
    · No accents, except for subscripts and disambiguation?

    I’d like to see what other people find easiest to read.

  15. If just to save yourself time and spare your eyes, I’d say go with No accents, except for subscripts and disambiguation. But I’m no big reader of Greek so my opinion counts for nothing. I think most wannabe Greek scholars have an obsession with full accenting (even though I think they understand the meaning of accents even less than people with no knowledge of Greek). The accents seems to be a pride thing to them.

  16. What I’ve decided is this:

    · Use iota subscripts, disambiguation, and enclitics

    · Use a single (monotonic) accent for the words that are glossed in the margin, so the reader knows what syllable to stress. Words that occur 50 or more times should be familiar to the reader and need not be marked—unless possibly the stress is changed (εχω vs εχέτω, ανθρωπος vs ανθρώπου). But probably I won’t mark these anyway. What do you think?

    · Use full polytonic accenting for forms of the verb ειναι (to be). I’m not sure about this, but the verb is so irregular that it would be helpful for the reader to see at a glance (1) that the verb is a form of ειναι and (2) the exact accents in case they want to look it up. In addition, many forms of ειναι are spelt the same as other words (ω, η, ην, ει).

    I’ll do a test run of this on a chapter to see if it’s easy to read. Too many accents distract me, but too few and I don’t always know what syllable to stress. I think this is a good enough compromise.

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