The Spoken Word

One of the things that Gordon Fee put a lot of emphasis on was reading the scriptures out loud, a book at a time. He asked us to read 1 Corinthians out loud to ourselves at the beginning of the course. He talked about the fact that all reading in antiquity was reading out loud – that is the way life was. Silent reading developed much later. He deplores the near tragedy of silent reading and the fact that we teach children to read silently.

It’s true that in the early grades now we do not encourage silent reading. Teachers label the reading time with a variety of terms such as “Noisy reading”, “Buddy reading” “Paired reading” and so on. Eventually it will become “Quiet reading”. Note that this is not the same as “round robin reading”. It is usually a child centred (oh that word) activity where children read or reread their favourite books alone or together while the teacher uses the time to read with one on one with a student who needs more individual attention.

The flip side of reading the scriptures out loud is listening to the them being read or recited. At one of the chapel services at Regent recently I heard Jeromy Acton perform several passages from the Gospels as a monologue. It was a stunning performance, beautifully expressed with gestures and actions which set the scene as he successfully imaged the presence of several characters in the story through hand and body movements.

To assist you in hearing the word Iyov has posted a list of audio resources for listening to the scriptures. Lingamish suggests that one of the Greek recordings is “iconoclastic”. I have no idea what he is referring to. However, one reading sounds like English. You get the feeling that if you could identify a word or two it would make some sense in English. The other Greek audio file is read in a modern Greek accent, quickly and fluently. I did need to turn the volume up to hear it properly.

I definitely prefer the modern Greek accent. When I first started classical Greek classes the only other student was a Greek boy whose parents had encouraged him to learn some of the classical language. So that is the way I first heard Greek – with the modern accent. Some people don’t like it because it doesn’t distinguish all the different vowels. However, that goes a long way to explaining some of the variants in the manuscripts.

Update: I highly recommend that you read this information about modern pronunciation of Greek. In fact, I find the arguments for using a modern pronunciation convincing and I am reproducing them here.

    1.) First of all, no one knows how ancient Greek was pronounced. Therefore, modern Greek pronunciation is every bit as valid a choice for a pronunciation convention as any other.

    2.) That having been said, modern Greeks themselves read the classics using modern Greek pronunciation. (Who, then, are we to argue with such an overwhelming and practical recommendation – by the Greeks themselves!) They win the vote on this issue by qualified millions.

    3.) Modern Greek pronunciation is REAL as opposed to theoretical.

    4.) Thus, it SOUNDS far better and far more FLUID than the theoretical and stilted pronunciation conventions commonly used in classical academia. (Real language doesn’t sound like that.)

    5.) Classical academia is generally not concerned with the art of vocal reading of Greek, regardless of favored pronunciation conventions. So one rarely, if ever, actually hears it read. (This fact, by the way, makes the choice of a pronunciation convention a de facto non-issue, depite the arguments.)

    6.) The Bible highly recommends (commands!) vocal reading of its contents. (Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2; Acts 13:15; 1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3) With this in mind, if one would like to learn the art, a fluid pronunciation convention is a welcome asset to the endeavor. (And the Bible an excellent platform on which to begin.)

    7.) For those who would argue that modern Greek does not make fine phonetic distinctions which facilitate the learning of correct orthography, e.g., omicron/omega; iotacistic melding of eta, upsilon, iota and various diphthongs, etc… one must remember that NO natural language voluntarily subjects itself to the straight-jacket of logical consistency for the benefit of learners. (Compare the ridiculous orthographic inconsistencies of English, which, by the way, did not appear to hinder its development and ascent to the unassailable position of planet Earth’s virtual lingua franca…)

    8.) An application of the modern greek pronunciation convention in this issue lays a fine foundation for a rewarding adjunct study of the language of MODERN GREEK! Such is certainly a worthy endeavor because modern Greek is a world-class language with a tremendous legacy, having SURVIVED the merciless vagaries of linguistic evolution-and-devolution, which have obliterated virtually ALL of its great historical language contemporaries. Where are they…?! And yet, Greek remains and thrives…(however, see discussion of Oldest Language at this website.)

    FINALLY, an added FREEBEE which lends subtle security to your personal choice of a pronunciation convention…regardless of which one it may be:

    Most likely, no one will ever know or care which convention you’ve chosen – because, most likely, no one will ever ask you to read Greek aloud! It will, therefore, most likely, never be an issue…unless it’s selected from a tattered hat as a subject for academic debate. (And the debate, of course, will NOT occur in Greek! NOR will it occur in Greece!)

    Thus, no one can justifiably hassle you about the pronunciation convention you choose! Simply choose one, apply it consistently and you will fare well! And for the reasons stated above, if you choose the MODERN Greek convention, you will fare weller (!)

I find it very sad that we are not used to hearing Greek read out loud. For me, the greatest advantage is that if I speak to a person of Greek nationality now using a few Greek words, they usually recognize that those words are, in fact, Greek. If we all agreed to use the modern Greek pronunciation then I think we would be more inclined to read Greek out loud and share it more fluently. It’s too bad that there is so little pulling together on this.

12 thoughts on “The Spoken Word

  1. Jack M. says:

    That is great!
    I’ve been studying/meditating on
    Revelation– it’s wonderful to hear it in Greek. And certainly modern Greek must be closer to Koine than American-accented academic Greek….
    How about the Tanach—?
    Is there a site for these scriptures in Hebrew as well?

  2. Kenny says:

    I must object to the unqualified claim that “no one knows how ancient Greek was pronounced” and that this means that modern pronunciation is just as good as ancient. The correct claim is that no one knows exactly how ancient Greek was pronounced, but we can nevertheless be nearly certain that our reconstruction is closer to the original than modern Greek is. The reason is that we have used a method in historical linguistics called comparative reconstruction. We know that comparative reconstruction works because there are cases where we are able to apply the process and make a reconstruction that can be verified by other means. For instance, we have writings of a lot of Latin grammarians to verify that the language was spelled almost perfectly phonetically (the grammarians note the peculiarities) and the resulting pronunciation matches what happens if you take the Romance languages and try to reconstruct “proto-Romance” from them. Similarly, we have very detailed discussions of the pronunciation of the Vedas in ancient Indian literature because their correct pronunciation was apparently of religious importance. We can match our reconstruction of Sanskrit with their descriptions, which are actually quite detailed about the use of the vocal apparatus to form the sound. We can do the same with ancient Chinese where we have rhyming dictionaries used by poets to make comparison with.

    There are some gray areas. For instance, linguists have thought for a long time that the letter zeta represented either the sond ‘dz’ or ‘zd’ (it has to be a double consonant for some reason to do with poetic meter), but now many think it is ‘st’ as a result of a method called “out-group analysis” which involves the comparison of languages with “cousins” on their family tree (the hypothesis that zeta is ‘st’ makes the word ‘nest’ work properly in the total history of the Indo-European family, or so I’m told).

    Point 2 is irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned. Points 3 and 4, however, are well taken. These are certainly matters for consideration. Point 5 is only partially correct. Classicists are very concerned, at least, with the pronunciation of Homer and have worked hard to reproduce it. However, it is very difficult for us because we are almost certain that it had a pitch accent, which is why the Hellenistic scribes invented three different accent marks. Of course, Homer is some 700 or 800 years before the NT, but treatments of the history of the Greek language do treat its development through that period. These are, however, linguists and not classicists. The classicists stop listening at some point in this discussions.

    Point 6 is well taken as well.

    Point 7, I think, misunderstands the complaint. For instance, my intro Greek professor insisted on pronouncing iota subscripts even though expert opinion is that they were not pronounced in classical Greek (and he did not disagree with this opinion). This was simply because to US, ancient Greek exists primarily as a written language, and when we talk about it we are doing so with the understanding of it as a written language. The phonology has become subservient to the orthography, which is (supposed to be) the opposite of the case in living languages. This kind of argument depends, of course, on assumptions about the purpose of pronouncing ancient Greek which you, I take it, will wish to challenge.

    I think point 8 may be a little misguided, because I think there are dialects of Italian (especially on Sardinia, if I remember correctly) which are at least as close to Latin as modern Greek is to ancient. Nevertheless, I think there is value in the study of modern Greek, if for no other reason than because Greek, in all its forms, is a great language!

    Your final point may, however, be the most important of them all 🙂

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    You are right and we have had this conversation before. Thanks for repeating all the details which I was too lazy to get into.

    Given that there are only two different audio files for the Greek NT I prefer the one with the modern pronunciation because he is a guy with a sexy voice. It’s about that complicated. I really don’t mind what anyone else prefers.

  4. Kenny says:

    Well, as I said, your final point carries the day, so if you prefer the sexy voice (which is probably enhanced by the influence of points 3 and 4, since our reconstructions are probably still somewhat choppy, having no native speaker to compare to) you are certainly welcome to it!

  5. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    Really what I meant to say is that there isn’t much choice in audio files, so it’s not worth worrying about. I don’t have a strong feeling about how it “should” be done.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    One of the things that Gordon Fee put a lot of emphasis on was reading the scriptures out loud . . . He talked about the fact that all reading in antiquity was reading out loud – that is the way life was. Silent reading developed much later. He deplores the near tragedy of silent reading and the fact that we teach children to read silently.

    Rhetorician Richard Leo Enos has the same emphasis. He notes that, to today, the orality tie to literacy is so deep that throat surgeons will often advise patients, post-operation, to refrain from reading during recovery lest they vocalize while trying to read silently. But I wonder (as I read / write in silence). Many, such as Father Walter Ong, Eric A. Havelock, and George A. Kennedy, have researched and written on Orality and Literacy as The Transition from Orality to Literacy as technically “letteraturizzazione.” Now try to read that last word aloud.

    So I wonder aloud. . . things like, Why do my teenagers prefer “texting” on their cell phones? Why does one of my colleagues, a self-identified synesthete (i.e., one with synesthesia), why does she see text as color or in color and not hear sound in color? Why didn’t the Bible originally get recorded orally? But how much more interpretation, good interpretation, is allowed by reading text silently and rereading it in different ways orally?

    I love listening to “The Bible Experience,” but if that was all I had (and no text) would I get all of the visual emphases that writing evokes (such as does the more-than-oral word plays of the handwriting starting מְנֵא מְנֵ in the 5th chapter of Daniel and that 19th verse of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which the presumably-dictating author is forced to “show his hand” while he simultaneously / willingly / symbolically acts as if signing a contract perhaps with his own wrists chained)? And why did Jesus write in silence to silence the accusers of the woman caught in adultery? Thank God for orality but also for (silent) text.

  7. lingamish says:

    For some of us, learning is impossible unless our lips are moving and our ears are engaged! So I think listening to Greek is a great idea. Why not a dramatized Greek version? Or the Jesus film in Koine?

  8. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    These are really good thoughts. Why don’t we use audio for Greek more. Unlike Hebrew, the tradition of reading in Greek has not been kept alive.

    Latin stepped in and filled the function of the sacred language. In fact, both Latin and Hebrew jockeyed for ideological dominance, leaving Greek, although predominant in shaping philosophy, in an ill-defined space as a langauge. Hebrew was the “original tongue” chronologically, and Latin functioned as the universal language of communication in Europe.

    By the time the Indo-European hypothesis gained popularity Greek was a language on par with Sanskrit. So Greek never really had the chance to play the role of sacred language outside of the Byzantine environment.

    About orality and literacy, it is fun to remember that 20 – 30 years ago it was believed that electronic media would bring in an age of the oral. That the global village would be based on oral communication. The preference of text media over aural/oral was never imagined.

    Even now we always get it wrong. Look at the unpredicted drop in watching TV as people turn to the internet. And text is asynchronous, how can orality compete with that?

    But still, orality is primary, it precedes, it is natural and literacy is not, so there must be something to meditate there.

  9. Peter Kirk says:

    Unlike Hebrew, the tradition of reading in Greek has not been kept alive.

    This, and much of your last comment, seems to ignore the continuing liturgical use of Greek in the Greek Orthodox Church. Yes, you mention “the Byzantine environment” but its traditions did not come to an end in 1453.

    I don’t know much about the continuing reading tradition in Greek Orthodox churches. Is the pronunciation entirely “modern”? But we should bear in mind that the continuing Hebrew reading tradition is also in varieties of modern Hebrew rather than in anything like real ancient Hebrew. So is there any real difference between Greek and Hebrew here?

  10. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    This is a good point. I think any pronunciation which has been kept alive is good. What I can’t stand it a pronunciation that has been learned out of a book.

    The main difference is in intonation. Greek tends more towards being syllable-timed and English stress-timed, so the clash can be quite painful to the ears. I don’t really care what century the pronunciation comes from as long as the intonation sounds authentic.

    I have never heard liturgical Greek. Maybe I should see if it is still being read in some of the Greek orthodox churches here. It must be. I am simply ignorant of this.

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