A Little Learning


Until the end of the 19th Century, when, in Britain at least, we began to have universal education, most people, however intelligent they were, didn’t have access to as much knowledge as we have today. The ‘educated’ classes tended still to learn Latin, and in many cases Greek, to a reasonable level (whether they retained what they were taught is a separate matter). Consequently, the only people who would get to pronounce Latin and Greek names would have an inkling of the standard way of doing it, using the traditional English pronunciation. In the book (and films of the book) “Goodbye Mr Chips”, old Mr Chips bemoans the replacement of the traditional pronunciation of Latin with the reconstructed Classical pronunciation because, as he puts it, it was easy to teach VICISSIM as ‘vie-SISS-im’, but caused nothing but hilarity in class if you were compelled to teach ‘we-KISS-im’.

Now we all know so much more, and we know – or think we know – how to pronounce Latin and Greek. Even those of us – the majority – who have never learned either of the Classical languages at school. But we don’t. Returning to my last post, on Palmyra, we can see that this Classical name for the place in Syria was obviously to be stressed on the second syllable, pronounced like the word ‘mire’, because “that’s the way you pronounce a long ‘y'”. Any other way would have been thought pretentious. The Arabic name is totally unrelated to it, so the Arabic pronunciation is irrelevant.

A similar misapplication of ‘rules’ of Classical pronunciation is applied to the port of Athens in Greece: Piraeus. This is the only spelling ever seen in English, and the traditional pronunciation is ‘pie-REE-us’ (think -AE as in Caesar – even today no one talks about a SAY-zar salad). Most people now seem to call it ‘pi-RAY -us’. This is neither good traditional English, nor good Greek – the Greek pronunciation is ‘piREFs’; so making -ae- represent the ‘ay’ diphthong is not even a spelling pronunciation. The only justification I can think of is the Roman Catholic, Italianate, pronunciation of Latin, which most British choirs use for singing Latin texts. When the word ‘caeli’ appears, it is pronounced ‘CHAY-li’. Most words borrowed from Latin with -AE- that have become English, such as paediatrician, are so well established with ‘ee’ that the American spelling has dropped the -a- altogether.

A little learning …


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