BMCR 2004.04.10

A New Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek

, A new short guide to the accentuation of ancient Greek. BCP advanced language series. London: Bristol Classical, 2003. 215 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853995991. £12.99.

This useful little book in the BCP Advanced Language Series — mostly reprints or updates of standard works on Greek and Latin grammar — is essentially a revision of Postgate’s 1926 volume,1 although it has been substantially reworked as well as updated and given new emphasis on the practicalities of accentuation. Probert (henceforth P.) explains the aims of this work in a preface. This is not designed as a textbook for beginners who are able to learn accents from the start (which P. acknowledges is by far the preferable way to learn about Greek accentuation, rather than having to tack it onto existing knowledge of the language later), but for intermediate or advanced students of the language who have not previously been encouraged to pay attention to accents (x-xi). It is worth explaining for readers in the rest of the world who are used to learning and indeed teaching accents more systematically, that the common practice in Britain has been to neglect this basic aspect of the language in elementary classes (some departments apparently even have the bizarre policy of forbidding any mention of accentuation in beginners’ language classes at all). The preface also contains the obligatory list of (very sensible) reasons why Greek accentuation should be studied in the first place (xiii-xiv).

Throughout the chapters on the various aspects of accentuation are scattered exercises to help test what is being learnt: such exercises are an aid both to memorising the rules and individual accents and to reinforcing the new rules that are being introduced. There are also cumulative exercises covering all aspects of accentuation. P. is keen to point out that this volume should be seen as a textbook, to be worked through rather than merely read or kept for reference (xi). The rest of the book is then divided into chapters (which will be summarised below) and short numbered sections — 319 sections in the first 168 pages (the remainder of the pages are devoted to answers to the exercises, and indices).

The system of sections is similar to Postgate’s, at first glance, but comparing the numbering soon reveals how different in structure and content these two books are. P.’s is a truly a new work, much more useful and friendly for students, and without Postgate’s bizarre afterword which begins by proclaiming the uselessness for most students of learning accents. (Luckily the English no longer pronounce Greek as if it were Latin.) The new structure sometimes requires repetition of rules and points, but this is helpful for those who may not be reading the book cover to cover, for example, skipping some chapters on familiar rules.

The first chapter is an introductory discussion of the theory, history and transmission of the Greek accents as we now use them, including ancient testimonia and explanations of accent; the Hellenistic development of the written accent to reflect the spoken language; the meaning and pronunciation of accents; and some discussion of the sources for our understanding of the ancient accent, including fragments of ancient Greek music.

Next follow the technical chapters, beginning with the basic information needed to work with Greek accentuation, including discussion of vowel quantity and syllabic weight; poetic meter; limitations on the position of accent; recessive accentuation; contraction, elision and crasis. Next the accentuation of verbs is discussed, both recessive finite forms and infinitives and participles. Then the rules for the accentuation of nouns and adjectives are discussed in some detail: first the general rules and patterns, then the rules for accenting base forms of simplex nouns and adjectives and finally some notes on the accentuation of compounds, proper names, pronouns, and indeclinables. It is these rules for the accentuation of base forms that makes this book more useful than the brief notes on accent rules offered by most beginning Greek textbooks, which offer little help with the learning of base forms of persistently accented words.

Finally there is a chapter on the thorny rules for accentuation of proclitics and enclitics, which to most undergraduates seem so much worse than they are. Here again P.’s approach is very businesslike, and neither simplifies nor complicates the issues unnecessarily. The chapters are followed by an appendix on the main differences in accentuation in Greek dialects other than the Koine (including Attic and Homeric). The books rounds off with answers to the exercises and three indices.

For anyone who owns or uses Postgate and is wondering whether this is just an updated version that can be safely ignored or a substantially new work with real improvements and value both for students and as a reference work, the answer is clearly the latter. Anyone who learned Greek without accents, or who has students who have difficulty with accentuation, should use this volume.


1. J.P. Postgate, A Short Guide to the Accentuation of Ancient Greek. University Press of Liverpool. 1924.