Saturday, April 01, 2006

New Zealand Phonetics and Ancient Greek

I never noticed before I started watching Peter Jackson’s King Kong Production Diaries (plus the post-production diaries on the special edition 2-disk movie DVD:) just how interesting their pronunciation of the open mid front vowel as in “bed” and “hair” (in British and American English, represented with the IPA symbol [ɛ]. The New Zealand pronunciation has raised the vowels to such an extent that to my ears at least they almost make those words sound like “bead” and “here” (in IPA, [i:]).

Now, in linguists’ reconstruction of the pronunciation of Classical Greek (what is sometimes referred to dismissively, in a straw-man fashion, as “Erasmian” pronunciation by some polemicists who prefer to believe that modern Greek — uniquely amongst all the world’s languages, I might add — has failed to change in pronunciation over the past 2500 years, even though Erasmus has nothing whatsoever to do with modern linguistics), the letter Eta (Η, η) was pronounced like an open mid front vowel of long duration: i.e. just like the sound in the word “hair” or “there” (without the “r” sound that Americans put on the end of it, of course — the British pronunciation would work better), or like vowel in the French word “même”: in IPA, [ɛ:]. In Modern Greek, this letter (like an awful lot of vowels and dipthlongs) is now pronounced like the “i” in Machine (and in fact this is why Russians write that sound with the cyrillic letter и, which is simply a stylization of eta).

The Erasmian pronunciation, by the way, held that eta was, as in the reconstructed Latin pronunciation, a close mid front vowel, like in (roughly) English “day”, and that is how many Classicists who are not trained in linguistics still pronounce it. This reconstruction was due to the simple fact that longer vowels are usually more close than shorter vowels: Latin short “e” is assumed to be like the “e” in bed [ɛ], and the long one like “day” [e:]. Further research convinced linguists, however, that even though eta is a longer vowel than epsilon, it is still more open, counterintuive though that may be, so eta is [ɛ:] and epsilon is [e] — i.e. a short, close sound as in French été.

Although I am convinced by the arguments regarding the reconstructed pronunciation of eta, I always did find it somewhat more difficult to imagine how such an open vowel could be raised all the way to [i]. The Erasmian sound of [e:] seemed more likely to be raised that far, especially since epsilon was more close than eta, and yet it was not raised (if anything, it was lowered).

But the New Zealanders have provided me with proof that it is quite possible for speakers of a language to selectively raise a mid front vowel all the way to a high front vowel. How about that!

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