If you ever intend to read Greek outside the world of nicely-edited standardized texts—I’m talking manuscripts, facsimiles, papyri, inscriptions, or even printed texts which have not been scrubbed clean of “offensive errors of spelling”—you need to learn to read by ear.

In putting off at least one week further tying up my on-going series on periphrasis (now way off schedule and over budget) I wanted to muse a little on the value of learning to read Greek “by ear.”

Pronunciation Matters (pun intended)

When first learning Koine Greek I learned the so-called Erasmian pronunciation. This is the pronunciation which, in some variation or other, dominates Greek as studied for biblical studies in much of the world, despite the knowledge that it does not correspond to how Koine Greek was ever pronounced. After a few years I made the switch to a so-called Reconstructed Koine pronunciation—one that is modeled largely on trying to capture the phonemic distinctions made in Koine Greek.


That’s right, you read phonemic, which is different from, but related to, phonetic. Phonemic refers to meaningful sound differences in a language. A phoneme is a unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another in a particular language. The best way to see this is a few examples. In standard English (at least American English), there is no difference in how these words are pronounced:

  • to
  • too
  • two

They are all spelled different, but these spellings are learned gestures to the history of English writing (or not learned, as if often the case), and do not reflect the sounds of these words at all. In terms of phonemes, these three words are identical. They are distinguished in usage by context and syntax, not by sound.

By contrast, the following words show phonemic distinctions:

  • hot
  • hat
  • hut
  • hit

These words are “spelled like the sound” and the sounds make a meaningful distinction between the different words.

Phonemes and Greek Pronunciation

In short, Erasmian pronunciation, at least when used for Koine Greek, makes phonemic distinctions that did not exist anymore, much like trying to give a distinct pronunciation to to, too, and two. This is helpful if you need to read or speak words out loud for someone else to transcribe, but otherwise there is no obvious benefit to such an approach. Look-alike and sound-alike words, while obnoxious to learners in the early stages, are common in languages the world-over. The pronunciation system I use for Koine Greek aims to respect the phonemic distinctions used in Koine Greek as recoverable through widely attested spelling variations which give solid evidence about which letters and combinations of letters represented which sounds. On top of this, my dabbling in Modern Greek has sharpened my reading senses for instances of itacism.

Reading by ear

Back to “reading by ear.” This morning I was reading in the so-called Second Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, a curious little work attributed to John Chrysostom for some reason or other which both escapes me and does not particularly interest me at this point in time.[i]

This text is chock full of what can only be called flagrant violations of the spelling norms passed on from Greek Antiquity. To call them errors, though, is to adopt a view of Greek spelling which the transcribers of these texts may or may not have shared. When you read the texts “by ear” instead of “by eye” the errors don’t exist at all.

Check out this nice set:

ηπε μει (v. 11) – cold

υπε μοι (v. 1) – warmer

ειπε μοι (v. 13) – correct!

All these spellings are the same words “tell me”, only spelled “correctly” in v. 13. To the writer, these spellings all represent the same sounds due to itacism: υ, η, ει, οι = ι (the “ee” sound like in “feet”). Since his quill lacked a spell-checker set to standardized Classical Greek spellings, none of these spellings came across as “wrong” at the time.

Or consider this clause:

ἐὰν τὴς τὰς ἓξ ἡμέρας ἀναπαύση τὸν κάματον αὐτοῦ…

This clause is nonsense as written. If the accents in the text are in one of the manuscripts which this text is based on, then the scribe spelled τής “wrong” but accented it kind of correctly. The word is τις, the indefinite pronoun and the subject of this sentence, but here spelled as if a feminine genitive singular article, though without the characteristic circumflex accent. The clause reads:

If someone stops his work during the six days (of the week)…

Again, the key here is that η = ι when it comes to the way they sound for whoever wrote and/or copied this manuscript. Remembering to spell the indefinite pronoun τις, as opposed to της, τεις, τοις, or τυς (all of which make the same sound) is a matter of wrote memorization, much like remembering how to spell to, two, or too in a given sentence. These spelling “errors” only exist for the eye. When you get used to reading with the ear you can breeze through such a clause and put the pieces together as they fall into place (or at least you can put the pieces of the clause together after you crashed into incomprehension and they went flying everywhere).

Second Apocryphal Apocalypse of John is a study in spelling “violations”. I submit that reading texts like this one, where things are spelled grossly different than expected, is a great test of your mastery of Greek syntax as you have to impose order on the text which the visual cues deny you. Comfortable recognizing participles as ending with ων, well what will you do when they look like this, προσελθόν, τημόν? But I digress…

Final Thoughts

Learning to read by the sound of Greek opens up the world of manuscripts and less-polished (or less-corrected) texts such as this one. Whenever you look behind the curtain of the nice polished, published, standardized texts which we usually read, you find a teaming world of chaotic non-standardization which others have imposed order on. Arming yourself with a better appreciation of the way Greek words would have sounded (or at least which letters and groups of letters would have sounded the same to people using the language) is a practical step in freeing you from the need for standardized texts and enabling you to wander in the world of papyri, manuscripts (even really well-done manuscripts like Codex Vaticanus have spelling “infelicities” in them), and more. Adding a little Modern Greek on the side will further help this cause.

[i] The text of this work is published, along with a French translation, in Nau, François. “Une deuxième Apocalypse apocryphe grecque de S. Jean.” RB NS 11.2 (1914): 209–21 (editio princeps of B based on Paris, gr. 947). This is available for free reading on JSTOR, if you have an account. If interested, other literature on this work can be found on the website linked above.