Recently, I have started composing in Koine Greek again (it gets markedly easier every time I come back to it). A very practical issue confronts one who wishes to write in any period of Greek prior to the monotonic modern type: accents. We can take them basically for granted when reading Greek texts, as someone else has gone through the text and put them in for us. Occasionally we may quibble with the editor over their choice of this accent or that when it changes the word, but mostly they are just there as useful information to use for those who know how (or are just ignored by the group, much larger I suspect, who knows not much at all about them). But, when we write for ourselves, no one accents the text for us. Thus, we either write them for ourselves or resort to writing unaccented text, which is not wrong, but the text looks surprisingly naked without accents. John A. L. Lee’s book Basic of Greek Accents: Eight Lessons with Exercises is a great introduction or refresher on accents for those who, like me, were never taught accenting in any systematic fashion while learning Greek and have had to go it alone in learning them.
A digression on Accents
Of course, accents were not written, at least thoroughly and consistently, in the Classical or Hellenistic times. Thus, a purist might argue that writing non-accented Greek is actually more authentic (but by that argument we would also have to write primarily in uncial script as well, it seems). However, as Lee notes,
Accents are an integral part of the Greek writing system inherited from antiquity.Basic of Greek Accents, 5
They tell us a bunch of information about the history of Greek and patterns in the language which we would otherwise be left to make guesses on. So, knowing accents is helpful for a variety of reasons, not just for writing.
On the learning of accents
Lee’s book meets a very practical need:
The aim of this book is strictly practical: to teach the basics of Greek accentuation to anyone who has already learnt some Greek but who, for whatever reason, has an unsure grasp of Greek accents or no grasp at all.Basics of Greek Accents, 7
It is not a book engaging with theoretical or historical discussions, neither is it a reference work for all the details of accents. Those works already exist for those who have the inclination to read them. It is a book for learning the basics. When writing Greek, one rarely need know more than the basics of accenting, so this book serves me as a handy reference for a quick question as well. If the extent of the instruction on accents you were given while learning was their names (who knows exactly how to pronounce “grave,” anyway?), that a few words can be distinguished by accents (like ὁ, the article, and ὅ the relative pronoun), and that sometimes they help distinguish subjunctive verbs, then this is the book for you! The basics of accenting are not hard, and this book can quickly take you through them, if not to mastery, at least to awareness.
I was fortunate to receive a free copy from my advisor and, now that I am composing Greek again, I regularly have cause to reach for it and check on exactly how this or that feature of accenting works. There are really three main features of the work that I like.
First, it is neither intimidating nor boring. Accenting is not, for most, an inherently exciting topic. This book is short and simple.
Second, it is easy to navigate. Rather than looking through long tables and charts, following lists of rules, or seeing the overwhelming number of possible exceptions, things are pretty straightforward and pretty easy to find.
Third, it has practice exercises with an answer key. When I was teaching myself accents I would have to track down a non-accented Greek NT and write in the accents. Having some non-accented text to practice on is a great help. Most people are not seeking to become experts at accents—thus the need to be able to accurately accent an entire chapter of text is probably not high on your or my priority list—but to have a better idea of how they function and what they are used for. This book is just what the doctor ordered for that.
The bottom line
If you want to either learn for the first time or relearn the basics of accents, this book is probably one of the nicest ways to do that. All the basics are here and well covered, along with many non-basic points. For someone who composes in Greek, this book serves as a ready reference. Knowing the basics of accenting is, I’ve found, remarkably useful in many ways that are diffuse and hard to describe. I appreciate and have found true Lee’s following statement:
No one can master Greek accents in eight lessons. In fact, a lifetime hardly suffices. But reasonable competence and confidence can be quickly acquired. Accents are not nearly as hard as they seem, and putting off learning them only makes them harder. There is also satisfaction to be gained from meeting the challenge they offer. They can even be fun.Basics of Greek Accents, 10.