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Accents in Greek routinely become a source of frustration for both students and teachers. Some teachers abandon them entirely, while others are left on the defensive against the charge that the benefits of mastering accents do not merit the effort required. Dodging accents, however, deprives students of valuable information when the accent is critical to identifying a word and in general promotes the counterproductive perception of Greek as maddeningly complex and arbitrary. The impasse is ironic, insofar as the purpose of writing the accents in the first place was not to confuse readers but to assist them (in contrast to writing systems without a written marker for the accent, where speakers have to process rules or memorize patterns in order to say the accent correctly).

This paper offers a fresh way to present accents in Greek. Most of this overview can and should be taught when students are first learning Greek words and can serve as continual reference to refresh and review principles as necessary. It begins with the simple observation that Greek has one type accent (not three, as textbooks routinely present them, confusing the single accent with the three accent marks used to designate it in different environments). It eschews the technical vocabulary that names words according to the accent mark and its placement (oxytone, etc):

  • Most words in Greek have a single accent, a raised tone on a single, short vowel sound.
  • The acute accent marks the single short vowel sound with the accent.
    • The acute accent on a long vowel sound means the accent is spoken on the second half (mora) of the long sound: ÏŽ = οÏŒ
  • If the accent falls on first half (mora) of a long vowel sound, then the second half has a falling tone. The combination is designated with the “circumflex” (“~”): όὸ è ῶ, όὺ è οῦ
  • When the acute accent at the end of a word is diminished or negated by the next word, the mark is inverted to the grave accent: τÏŒ è τὸ δῶρον
  • Placing the accent:
    • On most Greek words, the “recessive” rule determines the placement of the accent:
      • If the last syllable contains a single short vowel, the accent “recedes” two syllables: δίδοτε. It recedes only to the last mora of this syllable, so the accent appears as an acute (“/”): δοÏŒδεκα è δÏŽδεκα
      • But if the word has only two syllables and the last syllable of the word contains a single short vowel, the accent can recede to the first mora of a long vowel sound: δÏŒορον è δῶρον
      • If the last syllable contains a long vowel sound, the accent “recedes” only one syllable: διδÏŒτω. It can recede only to the second mora of this syllable, so the accent always appears as an acute (“/”): παραδοÏŒσω è παραδÏŽσω
    • Some nouns, adjectives and pronouns accent case endings or the final mora of their stem.
    • Conjunctions and prepositions normally accent their final syllables: á¼€λλά, περί.
    • Proclitics act like prefixes and so rarely bear an accent. Enclitics act like suffixes and generate an accent only if too many unaccented syllables would result otherwise: ἄνθρωπÏŒς-ἐστιν, á¼€νθρÏŽπων-τινῶν

Construed in this way, the majority of words in a typical passage of Greek follow the rule of recessive accent, and the most common exceptions (conjunctions and prepositions) have an even simpler rule. Most nouns and adjectives effectively follow a “recessive” pattern, and exceptions are easier to explain than the rule of “persistence,” which has little explanatory power in general and none at all for many shifts in accent placement (e.g., μήτηρ, μητρÏŒς, μητρί, μητέρα). Where students need to acquire more precise rules, they will have a clearer, more logical structure within which to process details, a principle which makes for a better pedagogy of Greek overall.