5 December 2020

For Classicists only

Like the youngest columnist in Private Eye, I am Extremely Angry. 


For some years now, I have been distracted by the way people on TV and Radio pronounce names like Odysseus which end in -eus. (And their habit is even followed by professional Classicists).

They make the final syllable into two syllables. Thus, confronted by Odysseus, they pronounce him odd-iss-ee-uss (instead of odd-iss-ewss). (The only exception appears to be Zeus: I have never heard him called Zee-uss ... I wonder why not).

Finally, something snapped within me. I'd better chexk, I thought, that what I have always assumed to be the 'correct' pronunciation is not just some idiosyncrasy of my own. 

So I settled down with the Metamorphoses. Entering it by means of the Index nominum, I checked the nominative forms of a gaggle of such names. Perseus, Neleus, Prometheus ... there are dozens of them. I knew, of course, that in the accusative, genitive, dative, the final syllable divides up, but I was confining myself to the nominative because it is the nominative form of Greek and Latin proper names which is  taken over into English. 

No; this was not my personal idiosyncrasy: the metre reveals that Perseus was always per-sewss, two syllables, never per-see-uss. What I had picked up from my schoolmasters ... and the way it was pronounced in my undergraduate days sixty years ago ... was correct (this also applies, incidentally, to the vocative).

I quick foray into Flaccus and Maro confirmed matters. From Maro I moved up the River Mincio to that most exquisite of all lakes, to Catullus and to Pietro Bembo, his Eminence, the Great Humanist, the Poet of Lake Garda, friend of Reginald Pole (who got his cardinal's hat on the same day and, while in flight from Tudor's assassins, also sojourned by Lake Garda). 

But, of course, these names are really Greek. So I ended up checking through Homer. Here again, -eus is just one syllable.

I have read my 'Allen' and I am aware that a diphthong is two vowel sounds which the ancients ran together; but, surely, they did not pronounce them as two distinct syllables. Otherwise, they would hardly have scanned them as one united sound. Or am I philologically naive?

Here is what I would like to know: when did the modern pronunciation of the diphthong -eu- as two separate syllables arise?

My own current provisional theory is something that I have mentioned before: the consequences of semi-clerks being more familiar with words as phenomena upon a page than as something one hears or utters. I could go on to make elderly remarks about the disintegration of the beautiful old concept of the Respublica litterarum.


Currently, our new up-to-the-minute hurricanes are named from the Greek Alphabet. We've recently had ETA. But the Weatherfloosies pronounced it ETTA, with a short E. Di Immortales! The letter was only invented, to supplement Epsilon, because the need was felt for a letter specifically meaning long E rather than short E. When we get to the end of the alphabet, we shall, I'm sure, have to listen to the sisterhood prosing on about Hurricane o-MEEE-ga. (And what will they make of the Hebrew Alphabet?)

I bet the Plague would have been sussed by now if we had enjoyed the services of those superb physicians Sir Lambda Munu and Sir Omicron Pi (or, for that matter, Dame Rho Sigma).

But instead ... they give us Mr Hancock, who isn't in the Greek Alphabet. Every time he appears on screen, I hear in my mind's ear the special music in the early St Trinian's films which signals the approach of the spiv Harry (George Cole).


Scribe said...

Dear Father, I think the problem arises from the virtual disappearance of Greek from most state schools. Confronted with names like Perseus, most people assume that they must be Latin, and pronounce them accordingly. When I was at my grammar school in Liverpool (1946-54), we had occasional visits from a prominent Greek businessman, who would enthral us by declaiming passages in Greek from the Iliad, with all the names, of course, correctly pronounced. That's how I learned the difference of pronunciation between Greek and Latin names - at the age of twelve. My school was set in the midst of what would now be condescendingly called a 'working class' area. There were three sixth form divisions: Classics, Modern and Science. The boys in Sixth Classics studied Latin, Greek and Ancient history, and a good number of them went on to read Greats. The fevered vision of 'comprehension' destroyed those schools for ever.

Sue Sims said...

Well, I'm 68, so go back a fair way, and have always pronounced the -eus names as disyllables - in fact, till reading your post, I didn't realise there was any other way of pronouncing them! (Though you're quite correct - Zeus is always monosyllabic (/zju:s/ in IPA).

You're almost certainly correct in assuming that it's because we follow the spelling. In linguistics, there's actually a term for this: it's called (I hope you're sitting down, so the shock won't affect you too badly), 'spelling pronunciation'. The growth in general literacy means that words such as forehead, waistcoat and mushroom have changed their pronunciation (though I bet most readers of this blog still say 'forred', the second syllable being a schwa) - and I'm willing to bet that the same thing happened with those -eus names. I acquired my knowledge of classical heroes via Kingsley's The Heroes, which someone gave me when I was about seven, and, as noted, never knew any better.

OreamnosAmericanus said...

I have studied both Latin and Greek, in that order, and would never dare call myself a classicist but I have a thought.

If most students of the Classics begin, as I have, with Latin, where -eus is double syllabled, as in Deus, might this habit not have migrated into the way they pronounce the language of the Hellenes?

frjustin said...

It is gratifying to note that the ancients are not the only ones who run the two vowel sounds in the diphthong -eu- together and do not pronounce them as two distinct syllables. In Portuguese, the word for God, "Deus", is just one syllable, and foreigners are immediately recognized when they attempt to give it two syllables.

In Romanian, the word for God is also "Deus", but I do not know how it is pronounced.

Jhayes said...

Two syllables for "-eus" in Odysseus seems to be the accepted pronounciation in English these days. Here's a collection of recordings of twenty scholars and Oxbridge students speaking of Odyddeus.


William said...

By one of those strange coincidences, it was only yesterday that I became aware of this variation in pronunciation, when for some reason I looked at the Wikipedia article on Theseus. There, the pronunciation is given as follows:
UK: /ˈθiːsjuːs/, US: /ˈθiːsiəs/
that is to say, the pronunciation which you deprecate is stated as being specifically a US variant.

So it would be tidy and convenient to explain its rise as being due to American influence (though that wouldn’t account for how it arose over there). But I’m not wholly satisfied by that explanation. After all, when using the name in English, I think that, despite being firmly cispontine, and despite being a classicist, I have always used the “ee-uss” pronunciation, and I don’t think I‘ve ever until now realised, or noticed, that there are those who don’t. Of course I know that ευ is a diphthong, but when reading it in Greek I would no more think of pronouncing it as /juː/ (yoo) than as /i.ə/ (ee-uh), but rather /ɛ͡ʊ/ (as in Welsh “dewch i mewn”). Likewise the initial theta would be not a fricative but an aspirated plosive, and the eta like a long ε, not a long ι. (All of this is of course as per Allen.) So in the name “Theseus”, the only elements which would be pronounced the same in English and in Greek would be the two “s”s! I suppose the moral is that when pronouncing a foreign name out of the context of its language, one adapts the sounds to approximate to the phonology of one’s own language (though there are also other factors at play here, specifically the changes which occurred in Greek during the Byzantine period). English does not have a phonemic distinction between aspirated and unaspirated plosives, nor does it have the vowels /ɛː/ or /ɛ͡ʊ/, so it is hardly surprising that those elements’ pronunciation changes. What is a little surprising, I grant – but not wholly without parallel – is that such a change should affect the prosody.

William said...

As to item (2): this isn’t helped by the fact that most hymnals translate the relevant line of Corde natus as “He is Alpha and Omega”, where (as sung) the stress falls very heavily on the e of “Omega”. The EH tradition does a better job, putting “Alpha” and “Omega” into separate couplets, with the stress in the correct place.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Scribe

As a mere paedagogue, I would have an interest in the kiddies' pronunciation being such as to assist, not to sabotage, their task of learning how to scan.

Zephyrinus said...

Dear Fr. Hunwicke. This Article concurs with the BBC's lamentable pronunciation of anything other than “Yoof Talk. Innit ?”

I recently heard one BBC Meeja Chappess pronounce the Welsh Town, Llanelli, as “LANELLY” !!!

PM said...

The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, having started out as a tearaway modernist in the 1960s, made a similar point about music in his final years. Having taught working-class boys in a state school in Lancashire finding Palestrina motets in the early 1960s, he bridled at politically correct suggestions that this was an elitist art form.

Grant Milburn said...

I was first introduced to Odysseus at the age of eight years through the retelling of Barbara Leonie Picard, and learnt to say his name with four syllables. Some years later I graduated to Rieu's translation of the Odyssey and learnt with dismay from his introduction that I had been pronouncing the name all wrong: it had three syllables. But by then the habit was ingrained and I couldn't change it. I consoled myself with the thought that when using classical names in English, you could get away with a lot-after all, we pronounced Cicero, Caesar and Virgil in a way that no ancient Roman would recognise.

Later still I taugh myself a modicum of Homeric Greek and found that I had no trouble pronouncing and scanning the name correctly in the context of the Greek. I tested myself just now, looking up the opening lines of the Odyssey in Greek at the Perseus website. (I gotta stop saying Per-see-uss if I can. Per-sewss, Per-sewss, Per-sewss. Think of Doctor Seuss.) I looked for Odysseus in the nominative and found him at the very end of line 57. A tripping lines of dactyls representing the blandishments of Calypso fall heavily onto a final spondee containing two-thirds of the sorrowful Odysseus, who here has quite clearly no more than three syllables.

I also say o-MEE-ga all wrong thanks to a hymn we used to sing in school with the apparent lyric: Alpha and Omega now let the organ thunder. Not knowing much about the Book of Revelation at the time, I envisioned Alpha and Omega as a pair of over-enthusiastic organists.

wonastow said...

.... but why do people rhyme "Deity" with "laity"?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Because they've done a bit of Latin ... just as people who've done a bit of German (or Greek) say trowmata instead of trawmata.

Scribe said...

This has been a most enjoyable thread. We happy few... Why do some clever fellows pronounce "Munich" as though it's a German word? Why do we now miss off the final "s" from Marseilles and Lyons? (It started when we pretended to be Europeans). And why...

Oliver Nicholson said...

An extreme case of a little Latin being a dangerous thing is the pronunciation of "via" as "weir".

wonastow said...

But Pope Benedict says "Dee-us" and "Cree-do".

Grant Milburn said...

I get irritated by people who pronounce Samoa as Se-MOW-a rather than SAA-mo-a, but I see that Wikipedia gives the former pronunciation as the anglicized pronunciation of the nation. So I have to accept that, just as one accepts that it is standard to say PArriss in English but ParEE in French.

Joshua said...

My knowledge of the Greek myths being drawn from happy childhood days reading retellings thereof in my primary school library, I never guessed that Perseus was disyllabic.

This evening I read the famous poetical essay about death by Beilby Porteus - two syllables?

PM said...

I suspect that the theory of Latin contamination is correct, given that more people know Latin (though sadly their number is declining) than Greek. I am one of them, with passable Latin for someone who read history, but only a smattering of Greek - a deficiency which I hope to remedy at some stage.

Classical languages are under siege from both sides: the utilitarian Philistines who are taking over what passes for conservative politics, and the woke left who denounce the classics as elitist, imperialist etc etc.

To return to pronunciation, how far does one go in anglicising or in resisting it? I am yet to meet an English speaker, classicist or not, who calls Cicero Kickero.

Grant Milburn said...

'And Yeshua said "Render unto Kaisar that which is Kaisar's.' I suppose one can get too pedantic. I myself am very inconsistent in this respect: I say SAA-mo-a and carefully pronounce the 'okina in Hawai'i, but otherwise accept numerous anglicized pronunciations.

Grant Milburn said...

You can pick up a lot of mispronunciation if you are a bookish introvert who prefers reading to conversing. I myself only learnt the correct pronunciation of 'egregious' from Captain Jack Sparrow. If a pirate has standards, so must we.