More pronunciation (was: RE: First names (real ones!)(long))

Philip.Belben at Philip.Belben at
Wed Jan 19 12:47:19 EST 2000

>    Nat said:
>> "note that modern Greek pronunciation is different from Classical.  Zeta
>> (today pronounced like English Z), was pronounced as Zd, more or less. How
>> do they know? THose ancient Greek tape recordings von daniken found... I
>> don't know, but that's what my Greek prof told me..."
>    from von daniken's forthcoming "Tape Recordings of the Gods"  ;)
>    For no reason at all, just to share - my friends who have taken
> latin have said that they were told "v" was actually pronounced "w."   I
> just can't get past the idea of Julius Caesar saying "Weni Widi Wici."
> It's really hard to imagine those super tough legions all talking like the
> priest in The Princess Bride.  Hard to imagine, but worthwhile for the
> giggle factor.  Also weird to imagine that he was actually Yulius Kaysar,
> although Kaysar does sound more splendid and barbaric to me - probably it's
> some sort of linguistic ethnocentricity on my part.

My topic drift alarm has just gone off, but I'll ignore it.

I had a very good friend at college - we've rather lost touch now, unfortunately
- who was studying "modern and mediaeval languages", and I remember a
conversation on this very point.

Quite often you get documents in one language refering to things going on
elsewhere, and containing names from another language.  Since the sounds of the
various languages change at different times, you can often trace sound changes
by the way writers in other languages render the words.

So for example, the reason they know that the classical Latin V was closer to W
than to a modern English V is that it consistently goes into Greek represented
by OU (omicron + upsilon for the pedantic).

I'm not so sure about the zeta - in Latin it was traditionally represented by Z
and they probably wouldn't have changed that whatever it did.  After all, phi
was always transliterated by PH - heck, it still is - even though the sound went
to F quite early on. (In pre-classical Greek they think it really was a P sound
followed by an H sound)

I am currently reading a book which (among other things) talks about the way
they trace the pronunciation of ancient Chinese - since Chinese script is not
designed to represent sounds [1], it has to be done almost entirely through
tracing contacts with neighbouring languages.  However, the lack of phonetic
representation in the script has helped, since at several points in the last
2000 years one Chinese scholar or another has compiled a list of what characters
rhyme with what other characters...

[1] In theory, each Chinese character represents a word - although in modern
Chinese, many new words are two or more characters - usually by a simple
pictogram, or occasionally by an ideogram.  Some words, however, defy
representation in this manner, and characters are borrowed from words with the
same sound.  To distinguish the two meanings, either or both characters have an
extra bit - usually originally a whole character - added, representing some sort
of clue to the meaning.  For example, if the new character is for a type of tree
or an object made of wood, it might have the tree symbol attached to it.  Thus
an awful lot of Chinese characters have a semantic part and a phonetic part.
This helps trace word origins, but can be confusing if the pronunciations drift

To bring this back on topic, I think of Chinese characters as rather like 39th
century universal symbols - especially in the way that you can put two
characters together and get a completely different word (old + old = an Age of
the World, etc.).  However the thought of a script like Chinese, with the
additional feature that a grammatical gender is encoded in the script, I find
rather horrifying (as no doubt did Vivian).

Philip (hoping he's not overparticipating again)

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