Greek Accents
a guide to fluent reading

  1. Those little marks on vowels tell us something about speech, about pronunciation, not grammar.
  2. Emphasis or Stress versus Pitch

    In most spoken words one syllable stands out from the rest. We then speak of stress or emphasis, i.e. the marked syllable is pronounced more forcefully, louder, pushing the others into the background, so to speak:
    I preSÉNT you with a PRÉsent (3 different ways we use to indicate, in writing, where the stress/emphasis falls in speech: acute accent, uppercase or underline)

    In ancient Greek there are 2 trends:
    • one group says, written accents denote stress
    • the other group says: no, no, it's pitch, i.e. a rising and falling of the voice.
    I think both are right, because a syllable that is said on a different note from all others around it, obviously stands out and is therefore, automatically, pronounced, be it ever so slightly, with more force.
    And if pitch were of no interest, why bother with 3 different accents, each showing distinct movement.

Since those little marks on vowels are supposed to help us with pronunciation, what do they actually tell us? I'll choose the o-mega on purpose to show that even a basically long sound can carry all 3 accents and has its pronunciation (but not its value) affected - or rather - indicated by the written marker
  • ώ   acute accent, basic sound-value is unaffected, and, as the marker itself indicates: tone of voice goes up, rises
  • ὼ   grave accent, sound is still long, as before, but, just look at it (and think of a grave): voice goes down, on a falling note
  • ῶ   circumflex, voice melodiously (hm!, in theory at least) falling and rising. And the sound has to be drawn-out, to give the voice time to / up and \ down, or \ down and / up, whichever.

    The    ͂ circumflex sign I find misleading, the ~ sign used in some books seems much more appropriate. On the strenghth of question words like
    ποῦ; Where (is)?
    ποῖ;  Where = In what direction?
    πῶς;  How?
    Try saying, in English, in a really questioning, unbelieving, wondering voice:
    You're going WHERE?
    You're marrying WHOM?
    You'll notice that the tone goes up at the end. First down, then up, not the reverse, no matter how hard you try to make it go down.
    How would the ancient Greeks have managed to do it differently from everybody else, when even the Chinese do exactly like we do:
    All question words end on a high note, short words end on an acute rise, long ones sing, low then high.
Right, so how do we know what to do with our voice?
Just look at the printed text and follow directions.
And if there is no printed text, how do we know what the directions should be?
When we learn new words, we have to learn not only the meaning, but also the pronunciation (complete with stress or pitch). As in every other language, including our own.
Fine. But why does that stress/pitch change all the time in Greek?
In the word-lists, dictionaries, lexica, practically all entries fall into one of the following 5 patterns
  • voice rising   1. acute / on the last syllable (ultima) ἀγρός, σκηνή
    voice rising   2. acute / on the last but one (penult) φίλος, κώμη
    voice rising   3. acute / on the syllable before the last but one (= antepenult):
    voice rising   voice rising   φιλάνθρωπος, μάχαιρα
  • melodiouse  4. circumflex on ultima: Περικλῆς, νοῦς
    voice rising   5. circumflex on penult: δοῦλος (slave), σφαῖρα (sphere, i.e. ball)
So what happens to those various patterns in speech, according to the (morphological) forms taken within a given context, with a given meaning?
  • / acute on the last syllable, while its basic pronunciation value (long or short) isn't affected, changes to \ grave, i.e. our voice is supposed to go down on this last syllable (instead of rising) when followed by another word. Why?
    Flow of language of course. Try saying:
    ὁ μικρός ἀγρός καλός ἐστιν.
    with your voice rising on all 3 acute accents.
    Sounds like machine gun fire, doesn't it?
    Now say it as:
    ὁ μικρὸς ἀγρὸς καλός .
    Sounds much better, or at least it should. Much more fluent, with words combining, running into each other to form a meaningful AND nice-sounding utterance.
    I introduced ἐστιν (he, she, it is) on purpose, to show why I said: practically all words/entries. Some words, like articles and one-syllabled prepositions are neutral in tone and therefore, to show that neutrality, don't carry accents. Others sometimes do, sometimes don't, according to where they are placed. These words don't have any stress or pitch of their own if they can lean on the word preceding them. That is why they are called enclitics (from ἐν on, and κλίνω to lean on, incline, decline, recline, ἡ κλίνη = a bed, something to re-cline on). They are weak little things, and as such don't count as real words in pronunciation but are, if possible, glossed over. And for that reason acute / on a last syllable (of any word, even another enclitic) does not change to \ grave when followed by an enclitic.
    You'll get much more grief from these lovely enclitics later on in your study. For the moment, just remember that in speech, like in real life, there are weaklings that cling to mother's apron strings.
  • But why does acute / all of a sudden, in some cases, change to ~ ?
    When it becomes long! Or better, when it is drawn out. By nature ω or η are always long (except that, in the case of ω , there are a couple of exceptions) and an acute / accent in this case means: don't draw this syllable out, singing it, just make your voice go up.
    Which forms become drawn out and sing? If you are comfortable with the declension of the articles, then you should have learnt it already:
    nominative ὁ, ἡ, οἱ, αἱare obviously not drawn-out, otherwise they would have to give us warning in writing: no circumflex, no sing-song. Which means nominative forms do not end in circumflex. The nominative does not sing. Except in very rare cases (νοῦς, πλοῦς, κανοῦν which are actually contractions of paroxytona (words accented acutely on the syllable before last)
    Neuter nominative and accusative τό, τά , masculine and feminine τούς, τάς show us quite clearly that those endings are acutely rising, not melodiously drawn-out, so it stands to reason that the oxytona (nouns and adjectives of 1st and 2nd declension, accented on the last syllable) should also indicate rising pitch.
    And genitive and dative, both singular and plural, having melodious articles, will have equally melodious perispomena (nouns and adjectives carrying a circumflex on the final syllable). ἀγρός