Just sounding it out? Greek and Latin from speech to page

How accurately do the writing systems of Latin and Greek represent the sound systems of Latin and Greek?

Throughout history speech has always been the primary form of language and therefore writing has always had to follow speech in the way that it changed and adapted. Speech always changed first then after a brief delay, the way that people write down this change also morphed. This delay goes some way into accounting for the discrepancies that one may see when they look at the spelling of a word and then hear it pronounced at the end result is quite unexpected: take the name “Mainwaring” or the place “Masham”. Neither of these two words are pronounced how one would expect them to be because the pronunciation may have remained the same throughout but the way that the language has been written down has changed in the meantime, causing this abnormality in the language. Latin and Greek are no different to this, language is ever trying to simplify in order for communication to be quicker and more efficient, another factor affecting the possible differences between writing and sound systems in Latin and Greek.

One must first consider what exactly is involved in the representation of speech within writing. Early writing systems involved using pictures or pictograms of the actual word that had to be communicated. One obvious problem with this system was that it could and would get incredibly complex as society developed and more and more objects that needed to be communicated. Another problem with this system is that it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between two or more every similarly represented words. Furthermore, by using simple pictures as an alphabet or writing system, is that while it makes the communication of improper nouns relatively simple, when one is attempting to talk about proper nouns or verbs, the system has to be modified quite significantly.  Additionally, while a picture may tell the reader exactly what the text is talking about it provides essentially no information into how that word is pronounced. As a result, with development of society, this becomes an increasingly less efficient way of communicating.

Another possible way of representing a sound system in writing is by putting down every sound that there is in a particular word. This would be an accurate system because whenever someone would look at the spelling of a word, they would know exactly how to pronounce that word without any debate or uncertainty. However, there are many possibilities of inflection of each sound, depending on geographical and social differences, as a result, there would be some dispute as to whether or not a word was actually pronounced how it was spelt by one person, or whether there was more than one option. Especially considering that speech came before writing, this could pose some problems with dialects. Finally, representing every single sound in a word and in a language is extremely inefficient considering that there are very similar sounds which would not change the meaning of the word at all.

Therefore, it is clear that an ideal writing system which represents the accompanying sound system is one which represents only these very similar sounds but which while phonetically different, we do treat them as the same. The technical name for such a group is a phoneme, which is defined as a set of different sounds that a given language has taken as being swappable between them. What is important to remember that just because two sounds are part of one phoneme in one language, it does not axiomatically mean that this is the same case in another language. The parts or sounds which make up a specific phoneme are called allophones, so it can be said that two sounds are both allophones of the same phoneme. This writing method is very efficient because it parcels out sounds into effective small chunks, out of which most words can be easily formed and widely recognised as being a specific pronunciation in speech.  While there are some exceptions and small problems with this method, it is able to simplify communication significantly.

The Greek alphabet displays some characteristics of an effective writing system because it accurately  represents certain features of the Greek sound system. The first of these is the difference between a short epsilon and a longer eta. Both of which equate to the modern letter ‘e’, however their length is very important in differentiating between various tense  endings. They could be considered interchangeable by modern and ancient standards because in Ionic Greek, the combination of epsilon-iota, is often changed to eta-iota (In the RGDA the word Πλειον would have been changed to πληιον  if being written in Ionic Greek, which would have made more sense, considering that the latter is the language of historiography, of which the RGDA is an example). This would suggest that in fact it was possible to exchange these two letters in speech due to pronunciation not being so similar after all. This is further compounded by the fact that in Latin, the alphabet does not distinguish between a long and short ‘e’, and represent s them in writing exactly the same. However, while the alphabet does not directly show a difference between the two, in writing prose, there is a difference because a long ‘e’ is demarcated by a dash placed above the letter itself. However, in the RGDA, these elongating marks are not present. For example, there is no visible difference between the e in fuerunt and the one in triumphale, although the former should be long, and the latter should be short. This would suggest that Latin was not consistent in its marking of the lengthening and shortening of vowels. As a result, the use of a long and short e in both Latin and Greek is clear that it was used in writing but not consistently, therefore it is possible that it was the same case for when in speech.

In Latin, the nasalisation of vowels preceding specific consonants is another factor which explores the relationship between written and spoken systems of communication. One clear omission from the Latin written system is the nasalisation of a vowel which precedes a non final ‘m’, that is an ‘m’ which does not occupy the final position in a word. When one looks at the RGDA, and at all the words which contain a non final, vowel and m combination, it is impossible to recognise that it was in fact nasalised, thus producing a different sound than the one which is actually depicted in the writing itself, thus showing the inaccuracy of the Latin writing system. It is impossible to recognise from words such as Romani, fluminis, empto  that the vowel in each case is nasalised by lowering the velum. The change in sound that would be present in speech is not demonstrated by the writing. Another common nasalisation is that which was present before, when an ‘n’ is inserted in some cases between a vowel and a consonant. One example is the previous spelling of consul which was cosol, the first ‘o’ would have been nasalised. While it is not clear when the nasalisation was lost in speech, it is clear that it was present within the language, therefore once again, as in the RGDA (such as consilio, consularem, consulibus), the Latin as it is written down, is not accurately representing the spoken system. Similarly, before a final m, the vowel that is immediately before the m gets shortened, but on inscriptions such as the RGDA, there is no evidence that this was faithfully reproduced in writing. In fact, with so many words ending in, am, um and em, there is no clear marking of a shortening before the final m. This could be because this was such a common occurrence in colloquial and spoken Latin, that it was no longer necessary to mark out this particular feature of the relationship between spoken and written systems in Latin.

Once again in Greek, there seems to be a difference between the aspirated consonants phi and theta and their equivalent unaspirated consonants, pi and tau. The fact that the Greek alphabet has a difference in symbols would suggest that it considered them different phonemes  and therefore must have had different sounds and different meanings. This can be seen in the RGDA because it instead of πραγματα, there had been written φραγματα, the sentence would not have made sense, because the latter  is not a word in the Greek language. This supports the idea that the Greek writing system did in fact accurately portray the Greek sound system. However, when one looks at Ionic Greek, one sees that phi often turns into pi and theta turns into tau. For example, αφικνεομαι would become απικνεομαι in Herodotus; and αυθις becomes αυτις in the Ionic dialect. While it is understood that Ionic dialect is always unaspirated, it does suggest that the pronunciation in Greek between the two forms of the same letter was not as obvious and clear cut as it may seem to a modern scholar. As a result, the previously hypothesised faithfulness to the spoken system of Greek may be overestimated. The evidence for this must be looked at from a Latin point of view. This is because the Latin language only has unaspirated versions of phi and theta, those are t and p. There is no contrast between the aspirated and unaspirated versions of these letters therefore it must be taken that there was no significance confusion between the two, meaning that speakers of Latin would not have found it difficult to distinguish what should have been aspirated and what left alone. This would explain why there is no clear dichotomy in the writing system. One clear example of this is the word for triumph which in Latin is triumphis whereas the Greek spells it θριαμβοις. This highlights just how more versatile the Latin written system was compared to its spoken system, without having the translation into Latin, a modern reader would not have been able to distinguish the pronunciation of this word from a word like tribuniciam  which has an unaspirated t sound.

It is clear that like all writing systems, the ones of Latin and Greek do have their advantages and disadvantages and rules that they follow along with their exceptions. However, Greek seems to represent its spoken system of communication much more accurately than Latin does. This is because it has divided its up its alphabet in order to represent a greater amount of phonemes which are represented in its speech, which is accentuated by the use of aspirated consonants. Latin on the other hand, while accepting that it does have aspirated consonants in speech, as well as nasalisation and shortening of vowels, does not acknowledge them in the writing itself. Therefore, it is less accurate, nonetheless, one must take into consideration that the Latin speakers may and would have known exactly when each of the features of the language mentioned would have occurred.

3 thoughts on “Just sounding it out? Greek and Latin from speech to page

  1. Pingback: Just sounding it out? Greek and Latin from speech to page | Classics for Everyone | Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception

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