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Theta and Phi

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Theta and Phi

Postby Joseph » Tue Sep 04, 2012 5:32 am

Mastronarde's says that these letters were originally pronounced as aspirated variants of tau and pi, but then recommends one pronounce them like th and f noises anyway. As a new Greek learner, should I take this advice? I must admit, it's a lot easier to pronounce them as he recommends, but the last thing I want is to make a pronunciation shift later after having memorized a large quantity of words. How do you personally pronounce these letters?

My main learning goals lie in reading prose if that is relevant to anyone's advice.
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby spiphany » Fri Sep 14, 2012 3:17 pm

Up to you.

The fricative ("th" and "f") pronunciations are traditional in English-language Greek classrooms. In other words, if you're ever reading ancient Greek in a classroom setting, you probably won't cause any misunderstandings if you use this pronunciation.
There is also the advantage (at least for native English speakers) that it's easier to hear the difference between th and t than the difference between aspirated and unaspirated t, because we don't make this distinction in English. English words derived from Greek also generally use this pronunciation, so there may be some advantage in making it easier to recognize cognates.

Reasons why you might want to use the aspirated/unaspirated forms: because you want to get a better sense of what ancient Greek might actually have sounded like. It _is_ possible to learn to hear the differences, so ease in memorization isn't an absolute criteria here. Because you intend to be using your ancient Greek in a community where the standard pronunciation is aspirated/unaspirated. Because you want to better understand the sound changes that occur in some words in ancient Greek (the aspirated vs. unaspirated t or p are phonetically more closely related than t or p and the corresponding fricatives th and f, so using the traditional pronunciation might obscure this relationship).

What do I personally do? A mix.
I learned Greek using the pronunciation traditional in English-language classrooms. However, I also did Greek in Germany, where there's a different traditional pronunciation (using aspirated and unaspirated t in part because German doesn't have a th sound). And I got interested in the reconstructed pronunciation, so I've been gradually trying to train myself to use the aspirated forms along with various other features that are not part of the schoolroom pronunciation.
So you see, there's no absolute answer to this.
IPHIGENIE: Kann uns zum Vaterland die Fremde werden?
ARKAS: Und dir ist fremd das Vaterland geworden.
IPHIGENIE: Das ist's, warum mein blutend Herz nicht heilt.
(Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris)
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby Zetes » Wed Jul 10, 2013 8:00 pm

I've been reading some posts about pronunciation, and while it's neither entirely possible nor vitally important to reconstruct the ancient pronunciation exactly, I'd like to try and get it at least approximately right. As a native speaker of English I find making the distinction between the pairs tau/theta, pi/phi and kappa/chi almost impossible :? . I'd like to ask if anyone can describe how to pronounce the unaspirated consonants properly. Meantime it's at least a consolation to know that spelling mistakes in old writings show that even Greeks sometimes had trouble with recognising aspiration, or lack of it.
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Jul 10, 2013 9:56 pm

To console you, even professional Anglophone Greek scholars find it hard. I have a recent CD recording of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, which uses reconstructed pronunciation. It does a relatively good job otherwise, but apparently does no distinction between unaspirated and aspirated stops (ie pi/phi, tau/theta, kappa/khi). As I'm not an Anglophone, this particular difficulty isn't difficult at all for me, so to my ears it sounds really horrible.

What could you do? Take French p, t, k as a model, as in French those sounds are never aspirated. You'll probably find a model on how to pronounce those French sounds with a little internet search. Or think about a French guy who has a really strong accent - imitate his p, t, k!
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby Zetes » Thu Jul 11, 2013 8:50 pm

Thanks for your advice. In fact I did 5 years of French at school, was top of my class in that subject, but I always found the French sound system a huge problem, and understand almost nothing said in French :oops: . I can try deaspirating, like isolating the p in "spring", and I might improve with practice.
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby daivid » Sat Jul 13, 2013 11:49 am

Joseph wrote:
My main learning goals lie in reading prose if that is relevant to anyone's advice.

I can see if you are reading poetry as poetry then how it really sounded like is very important.

For prose, I would say, what is important is to have a pronunciation that represents the letters (or to be more precise the graphemes) as written. When I started learning Greek I was thinking that as I only intended to read Greek, writing Greek was irrelevant. I now believe that unless you produce Greek (ie writing and speaking Greek) it is far harder to really learn Greek. If you don't pronounce the words with a pronunciation that is a representation of the written language it becomes very hard to spell correctly when you come to write the language.

If it is easy for you to pronounce phi as an aspirated p by all means do so. If not, a distinct "f" is far better choice than a pronouncing the language in a way that confuses phi and pi.
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Re: Theta and Phi

Postby Qimmik » Sat Jul 13, 2013 4:23 pm

If you don't pronounce the words with a pronunciation that is a representation of the written language it becomes very hard to spell correctly when you come to write the language.

This is true if you merge phonemes that are graphically distinct. In the case of the unaspirated versus aspirated plosives p/ph, t/th and k/kh, however, if you shift shift the distinguishing feature across the board to plosive vs. fricative p/f, t/Eng. unvoiced th, k/German ch (as happened in colloquial Greek by the 1st c. CE), you shouldn't have any problem remembering the spelling.
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