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Hellenistic Greek © 2009
Lesson 3: Diacritics

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The Lesson at a Glance

Accents

In this lesson you will learn to recognize three marks that appear above vowels in Hellenistic Greek to indicate that they should be stressed.

Breathing Marks

You will also learn to distinguish two marks that appear above a vowel at the beginning of a word to indicate whether or not that vowel should be aspirated.

The verb εἰμί

You will learn to recognize the present tense forms of the verb εἰμί (“I am”).

Vocabulary: Present Tense Forms of the Verb εἰμί

The numbers in the left column in the table below indicate the number of times each form appears in the New Testament. The verb εἰμί in all of its forms, only some of which are presented in this lesson, appears 2462 times.

Frequency Greek Word English Gloss

142

εἰμί

I am

98

εἶ

You are (when "you" refers to only one person)

966

ἐστι(ν)

He is, she is, OR it is (The ν at the end of ἐστιν is optional.)

55

ἐσμέν

We are

101

ἐστέ

You are (when "you" refers to more than one person)

170

εἰσί(ν)

They are (The ν at the end of εἰσίν is optional.)

Grammatical Discussion

Breathing Marks

A vowel at the beginning of a word is always written with a breathing mark (rough: ἁ ; or smooth: ἀ). The breathing mark is written above the vowel if it is lower case, but before it if it is upper case: ἀνά ("up"), but Ἀνά. The rough breathing mark resembles a miniature open parenthesis "(", and the smooth breathing mark resembles a miniature closing parenthesis ")".

Originally the rough breathing mark indicated that an aspiration (a sound like the English "h" in “house”) preceded the vowel. The smooth breathing mark indicated the absence of such aspiration. In Modern Greek these marks make no difference in pronunciation. If you are studying Greek in a classroom setting, ask your instructor whether breathing marks will affect pronunciation in your class.

In a few cases the breathing mark helps distinguish between similarly spelled words. For example, ἦν means “was,” but ἥν means “which.” For this reason you should learn the breathing mark with each word that begins with a vowel, even if it will not affect pronunciation in your class.

Placement of Breathing Marks with Diphthongs

If a word begins with a diphthong (two vowels pronounced as one), the breathing mark is placed above the second letter.

Greek Word

English Gloss

οὐ

not

εἰμί

I am

Accent Marks

Almost all Greek words are written with one and only one accent mark. The three accent marks available in Greek were used originally to indicate variations in pitch. These three marks are called acute (τόν), grave (τὸ), and circumflex (τῶν). By the time of the New Testament, though, these pitch variations had begun to be replaced by simple stress accent. Since our focus in this course is Hellenistic Greek rather than Classical Greek, all three accent marks will simply indicate that stress should be placed on the syllable over which they occur. That is, the syllable with the accent mark should be pronounced slightly louder than the other syllables.

Greek Word Pronunciation

εἰμί

Pronounced with stress on the second syllable

αὐτῶν

Pronounced with stress on the second syllable

εἶπεν

Pronounced with stress on the first syllable

Placement of the Accent Marks: The Basic Rules

The acute accent may be placed over any of the last three syllables of a word as long as the last syllable has a short vowel.

ἀπόστολος

παιδίον

ἀδελφός

If the last syllable has a long vowel, however, the acute accent may appear only over one of the last two syllables, never over the third from last.

θαλάσσης

Σολομών

The circumflex accent may appear over either of the last two syllables if the final syllable is short. If the last syllable has a long vowel, however, the circumflex may only appear over the final syllable.

Παῦλος

γραμματεῖς

The grave accent may appear only over the last syllable. It is used as a replacement for the acute when it appears on the last syllable and the word is immediately followed by another word without any intervening punctuation. Contrast the name Solomon (Σολομών) in the following two examples.

Ὄνομα αὐτῷ Σολομών.

His name is Solomon.

Σολομὼν εἰκοδόμησεν αὐτῷ οἶκον.

Solomon built him a house.

In the first example, the name Solomon is followed by a period. In the second it is followed by another word, with no punctuation between them, so the accute accent on Σολομών changes to grave: Σολομὼν.

Recessive Accent for Verbs

When you begin to learn the forms of verbs other than εἰμί, you will see that verb accents are recessive. That is, they appear as far from the end of the word as the general principles stated above will allow.

ᾑρέτισα
(ᾑ·ρέ·τι·σα)

"I chose"

This verb form ends with a short α, so the farthest the accent can be placed from the end is the third-to-last syllable.

αἱρετίζω
(αἱ·ρε·τί·ζω)

"I choose"

This form of the same verb ends with a long vowel (ω), so the accent cannot be on the third syllable from the end. It is, therefore, placed on the second from the end.

Accents for Nouns and Adjectives

Accents for nouns and adjectives are not recessive.

Whenever you learn a new noun or adjective, you must always learn the placement of its accent. While these words change form depending on their function in a sentence, the accent will remain on the same syllable as long as the general principles stated above allow.

βιβλίον

book

When it is used as the subject or direct object of a sentence, this word has a short vowel (ο) in its final syllable, yet its accent is on the next-to-last syllable, not the third-from-last

βιβλίῳ

book

When used in other ways, it can end in a long vowel (the diphthong ῳ), but its accent remains in the same place.

Enclitics

A few words in Greek are enclitic. That is, they are pronounced as if they were a part of the word that precedes them. The verb form ἐστι(ν) is such an enclitic word. When an enclitic has only one or two syllables it will often be written without an accent mark, and the accent mark that belongs to it will appear over the word before it. In the phrase ὑποπόδιὸν ἐστιν (Matthew 5:35), for example, the word ὑποπόδιον (footstool) is written with two accent marks because, in addition to it’s own accent, it bears the accent for ἐστιν (it is).

Exercises

Exercise 1: Locating Accent Marks

Click here to practice locating Greek accent marks.

Click here for more practice locating Greek accent marks.

Exercise 2: εἰμί

Click here to practice recognizing forms of the verb εἰμί.

Exercise 3: Breathing Marks

Click here to practice recognizing the Greek breathing marks.