Believe it or not, there are some strong opinions on how to pronounce Koine Greek, a language that has been dead for over seventeen-hundred years. For example, Constantine Campbell, in his recent book Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) (see reviews of this book here), devotes an entire chapter on pronunciation. He notes that while some think it is irrelevant, others argue that care for pronunciation respects Koine Greek as a real (and living) language—although it is certainly not a living language, as much as students of Koine want to revive it. Campbell argues that pronunciation does matter, because of the reason stated above (that it respects Greek as a real language), although he admits that compared to other issues in Greek studies it does not have the same relative importance. The purpose of this post is not to interact with Campbell, but I use him as a starting point to discuss the “controversies” surrounding Koine pronunciation.
While I agree that Koine Greek should be respected as a real language that was spoken in the Hellenistic period (roughly 300 BC – AD 300) and that most agree that the original pronunciation is almost unrecoverable, I think the whole discussion is really unnecessary. For example, in Spanish, the word yo (parallel to I in English) is pronounced by Mexicans as yo, but Argentinians pronounce it sho. Which one is correct?
In spite of the irrelevance of Koine Greek pronunciation, I give several thoughts that should be considered.
First, even in modern languages, there are several different ways to pronounce words, as in the example above. In English alone, there are a variety of pronunciations, not to mention accents. You have American English—wait, American Englishes, including Southern American English (and actually a variety of Southern accents), East Coast/New York English, Mid-West English, and so on. While I’ve never lived in the UK, I know that there are also a variety of British English pronunciations, even a variety of English, Scottish, and Irish accents—Australian Englishes, Canadian Englishes, South African Englishes… and so on and so forth. In a single English language, the lingua franca of today, there are so many different pronunciations! Given that, to say that Koine Greek had a single, correct pronunciation is erroneous. It is more likely that there were a variety of pronunciations and accents: Palestinian Koine (or Koines), Alexandrian or Egyptian Koine, Asia Minor Koine, Roman Koine, etc.
Check out this YouTube clip of one person providing 21 different pronunciations of the same statement.
Just to exacerbate the point, I’m from Southern California, so apparently I have a generic American accent, which is not too different from a generic Canadian accent. But I’ve noticed that certain words are pronounced differently between the two countries. For example, I pronounce lever with both short-e sounds, while many Canadians pronounce it leever. Of course, there is the about versus aboot stereotype. I pronounce it pahsta while many Canadians pronounce it paasta (short-a sound as in apple). Another one just for fun: I pronounce been as bin while many Canadians pronounce it with the long-e sound. Ok seriously, last one: Canadians have been making fun of me for pronouncing roof like good or foot; they pronounce it like cool.
Second, while the study of Koine Greek pronunciation may be an interesting pursuit, for those interested primarily in reading and interpreting the Greek New Testament—as a pastor, professor, or even a layperson, without an unlimited amount of time and energy—you have to ask yourself how to maximize your time in learning Greek. There has recently been a lot of time and energy spent in determining what “the” original pronunciation was. As my first point shows, there was no “one” pronunciation. I might guess that some first-century people pronounced δικαιοσύνη differently from each other based on locale and other language proficiencies.
Third, I’ve had some great conversations with a friend and colleague, Chris Stevens, on this matter, and both of us agree that treating Koine Greek not as a code to be translated into English but as a distinct language should be considered in pronunciation, whatever that pronunciation system should be.
Finally, I think that for those interested in being proficient in Koine Greek, the matter is really what type of pronunciation helps us best obtain that proficiency.
The strength of the Erasmian pronunciation is that pronunciations of vowels and consonants are generally distinguishable from each other, so it is helpful pedagogically. The weakness is that it often results in pronouncing Greek with some sort of English language accent. Koine Greek may become some sort of code then, rather than a real language that was spoken in the past.
The strength of using modern Greek pronunciation is that it is being used today for modern Greek and sounds like a real language (despite many Greeks today not being able to read the Greek New Testament—I asked a church member who was Greek one time to read it, and he stumbled through it!). The weakness, especially for language acquisition and learning purposes, is that in modern Greek, a majority of the vowels, including diphthongs, sound the same (most of them like an English long-e sound), so it is definitely not helpful for a beginning student of Greek.
There are other pronunciation suggestions out there, as well.
If there were a number of different pronunciations of Koine Greek during the time in which it was still alive, then perhaps we can add several more different pronunciations for our purposes. As long as it is intelligible, helps in learning the language, and sounds like some sort of real language, any pronunciation seems acceptable.
Personally, I combine Erasmian vowel pronunciations, because they are distinguishable from one another, with modern Greek consonant pronunciations, because the consonant pronunciations aid in sounding like a real language. I admit, the result is mostly Erasmian.
But for some reason, I also put a Spanish accent to it, probably because Spanish is my third language. But I justify it, because the Spanish b sounds like something between an English b and v, just like in modern Greek. My pronunciation is intelligible, pedagogically effective, and sounds like a real language.
— David I. Yoon