It’s one of the minor regrets of my life, like piano lessons, that my parents didn’t give me a clip around the lug and force me to do Greek. They sort of pressured me into Latin, so why not go the whole hog? But of course Latin was an altogether simpler equation in those days: No Latin equalled no university. The fact that the Latin requirement was removed a couple of years before I left school (just like National Service) didn’t save me from having to prepare to meet its demands. And of course, I am quite glad I went through it — which is more than I’d say of my proto-military training. But Greek has always been an exotic mystery to me. I did study Russian for a few years, and of course the Cyrillic letters are tantalizingly reminiscent of Greek.

School Latin teachers would disagree about what Latin sounded like: was it “weni, widi, wici”, or “veni, vidi, vici”? Authoritative decisions couldn’t be achieved by asking a native speaker — we’d long ago gotten rid of all of them. Learned tomes have been written on the subject, and I’m not sure whether we have made any final decisions yet. And nobody ever seemed able to read Greek or Latin at anything resembling a normal reading pace. My memory is of Classics colleagues getting through their texts at snail’s pace, dictionary open beside them. They never seemed to be able to match the reading experience that we can have when reading a modern language. I wonder if that had any connection to the difficulties of knowing exactly what it all sounded like.

The sound of Greek is even more remote than Latin. Daniel Mendelsohn, unfailingly interesting, has written in the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog about what Sappho’s poetry might have sounded like. He even includes an audio clip of Professor Stephen Daitz’s reading of her one complete surviving poem. Mendelsohn’s analogy with Chinese, where pitch carries meaning, does help one imagine what Greek might have sounded like. But it’s still difficult for English-speakers, used to stress not pitch as a differentiator, to grasp this fully. We are not even very good at recognizing that we raise the pitch at the end of a question. In writing or type, indications of pitch variations are hard to make clear: we are so used to seeing acute, grave and circumflex indicating stress or pronunciation. I find the Wikipedia articles (and there are several: see below) completely bewildering.

Whatever it may have sounded like, we do from time to time need to be able to set Greek into type. Trivially you can go to System Preferences and activate a Greek keyboard on your computer. Judging from an aesthetic point of view the one on the Mac looks quite nice. But there is of course more to it than that. Hart’s Rules, the Bible of Oxford composition, has 5½ pages of instructions for setting Greek and Latin. (The fact that they have 14½ pages on French alone, does however lend this some perspective.) Of course there is nothing like the variety of typefaces available for Classical Greek as for regular text. The earliest Greek types were simple, upright designs. Aldus Manutius introduced a new sloped style based on the cursive used in Venice by Greek speakers around 1495. This font incorporated the ligatures which had evolved over the centuries as abbreviations in manuscript writing, and this type style became the norm in Europe till the mid-18th century. John1PorsonThe big shake-up came about with the introduction of Porsonic types, based on the hand writing of Richard Porson, most respected Classical scholar of his day. He was a Fellow of Trinity College and Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University. Typefoundry, always authoritative on type history, has a good piece on Porson’s Greek with illustrations. The adoption of the Porson-based type ended the use of ligatures and simplified some of the letterforms. Porson-based types are still used in Britain and America, though Europe has tended to follow styles developed by Bodoni and Didot.

Wikipedia’s Ancient Greek Accent makes the mind spin, especially if you link on to Greek diacritics, Greek ligatures and Ancient Greek phonology. Colvinism has a decent “Brief History of Greek Printing and Scripts” even if he does describe Porson as an Oxford classicist.

 

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