Greek Punctuation and Syllabification

Punctuation

CharacterEnglishGreek
θεός,commacomma
θεός.periodperiod
θεός·period above the linesemicolon
θεός;semicolonquestion mark

[The form of a Greek question is not necessarily different from a statement; the punctuation and context are your main clues.]

Diacritical Marks

1. Diaeresis. This has already been explained earlier.

2. Apostrophe. When a preposition ends with a vowel and the next word begins with a vowel, the final vowel of the first word drops out. [Prepositions will be discussed in chapter 8. They are little words such as "in" and "over" that describe the relationship between two items.] This is called elision. It is marked by an apostrophe, which is placed where the vowel was dropped (e.g., ἀπὸ ἐμοῦ becomes ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ). This is similar to the English contraction (e.g., "can't").

3. Accents. Almost every Greek word has an accent mark. [ Some words appear to have two accents. There are certain words that lose their accent to the following word ("proclitic") or the preceding word ("enclitic"), and you end up with a double accent on one word and no accent on the other.] It is placed over a vowel and shows which syllable receives the accent. Originally the accent was a pitch accent: the voice rose, dropped, or rose and dropped on the accented syllable. Eventually it became a stress accent as we have in English.

In English we use "stress" accents. This means that when we come to the syllable that receives the accent, we put a little more stress on the pronunciation of that syllable. But in Classical Greek, the accent originally was pitch, not stress. The voice rises or falls a little when the accented syllable is pronounced. Most teachers allow their students to use a stress accent when pronouncing Greek because the music pitch accent is difficult. By the time of Koine Greek, the accent may have been stress.

There is an interesting story about a cannibal tribe that killed the first two missionary couples who came to them. They had tried to learn their language, but could not. The third brave couple started experiencing the same problems with the language as had the two previous couples until the wife, who had been a music major in college, recognized that the tribe had a very developed set of pitch accents that were essential in understanding the language. When they recognized that the accents were pitch and not stress, they were able to see the significance these accents played in that language and finally translated the Bible into that musically-minded language. Luckily for us, while Greek accents were pitch, they are not that important. Most teachers are satisfied with students simply placing stress on the accented syllable.

  • The acute accent shows that the pitch originally went up a little on the accented syllable (αἰτέω).
  • The grave accent shows that the voice originally dropped a little on the accented syllable (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος).
  • The circumflex accent shows that the voice rose and then dropped a little on the accented syllable (ἁγνῶς).

Notice how the shape of the accent gives a clue as to the direction of the pitch.

The question then becomes, when do you use which accent? Opinions vary from viewing the rules of accent placement as essential to being totally unnecessary. Since the biblical manuscripts never had them originally, and since in our opinion they unnecessarily burden the beginning student, this text ignores the rules of accent placement).

However, this does not mean that accents are worthless and should be ignored. Far from it. Accents serve us very well in three areas.

  • Pronunciation. If all the students in the class accent any syllable they wish, it can become very difficult to talk to each other. Consistently placing the stress on the accented syllable creates a desirable and necessary uniformity.
  • Memorization. If you do not force yourself to say a word the same way every time, vocabulary memorization becomes very difficult. Imagine trying to memorize the word κοινονία if you could not decide which syllable to accent. Try pronouncing "κοι νο νι α" four times, each time accenting a different syllable. See why consistency is desirable?
  • Identification. There are a few words that are identical except for their accents. τίς can mean "who?" and τις can mean "someone." There are also a few verbal forms where knowing the accent is helpful. We will point out these words and forms as we meet them. However, just remember that accents were not part of the original text and are open to interpretation.

Syllabification

Just as it is important to learn how to pronounce the letters correctly, it is also important to pronounce the words correctly. But in order to pronounce a Greek word you must be able to break it down into its syllables. This is called "syllabification," and there are two ways you can learn it.

The first is to recognize that Greek words syllabify in basically the same manner as English words do. Therefore, if you "go with your feelings," you will syllabify Greek words almost automatically. If you practice reading 1 John 1, included in the exercises of this chapter, syllabification should not be a problem. I have read it for you on the online class on chapter 4. The second way is to learn some basic syllabification rules.

It is essential that you master the process of syllabification, otherwise you will never be able to pronounce the words consistently, and you will have trouble memorizing them and communicating with your class mates.

1. There is one vowel (or diphthong) per syllable.

ἀ κη κό α μεν
μαρ τυ ροῦ μεν

Therefore, there are as many syllables as there are vowels/diphthongs.

2. A single consonant by itself (not a cluster [A consonant cluster is two or more consonants in a row.]) goes with the following vowel.

ἑ ω ρά κα μεν
ἐ θε α σά με θα

If the consonant is the final letter in the word, it will go with the preceding vowel.

3. Two consecutive vowels that do not form a diphthong are divided.

ἐ θε α σά με θα

4. A consonant cluster that can not be pronounced together is divided, and the first consonant goes with the preceding vowel. [One way to check whether a consonant cluster can be pronounced together is to see whether those consonants ever begin a word. For example, you know that the cluster στ can be pronounced together because there is a word σταυρόω. Although the lexicon may not show all the possible clusters, it will show you many of them.]

ἔμ προ σθεν
ἀρ χῆς

5. A consonant cluster that can be pronounced together goes with the following vowel.

Χρι στός
γρα φή

This includes a consonant cluster formed with μ or ν.

ἔ θνε σιν
πνεῦ μα

6. Double consonants are divided. [ A "double consonant" is when the same consonant occurs twice in a row.]

ἀ παγ γέλ λο μεν
παρ ρη σί α

7. Compound words are divided where joined. [ Compound words are words made up of two distinct words. Of course, right now you cannot tell what is a compound word because you do not know any of the words.]

ἀντι χριστός
ἐκ βάλλω

Summary

  1. A period above the line is a Greek semi-colon (literally, half a colon), and an English semi-colon is a Greek question mark.
  2. There are three accents. You do not have to know why they occur where they do, but pay attention to them as you pronounce the word.
  3. Greek syllabification basically follows English syllabification. Listen to your teacher pronounce the words and it will quickly become automatic.