Ancient Greek accent

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Ancient Greek had a pitch accent. One of the final three syllables of an Ancient Greek word carried an accent. Each syllable contains a vowel with one or two vocalic morae, and one mora in a word was accented; the accented mora was pronounced at a higher pitch than other morae. Two-mora syllables could have rising or falling pitch patterns or normal pitch; one-mora syllables could have high or normal pitch. Rules restricted where an accented mora could appear, but within those restrictions, accent was free: it could appear in different positions in a given word. Usually a word's accent was either recessive, or as close to the beginning of the word as restrictions would allow, or it was placed on the last syllable, the ultima; but in some cases the second syllable from the end was accented even when accent rules allowed the third syllable from the end to be accented.



The rules of accent are based on the concept of mora. In the context of Ancient Greek accent, a mora is a measurement of vowel length. A short vowel has one mora, and a long vowel has two morae. A diphthong usually counts as a long vowel and has two morae, but at the end of a word the diphthongs αι and οι can sometimes count as one mora. In most noun or verb endings they have one mora, but two morae in the optative and locative.[1] Here are the main categories of vowels, first in Greek, then in IPA, and finally in IPA with each mora written as a separate vowel letter:

  •   ο /o/: short vowel with one mora — equivalent to /o/
  •   -οι /oi̯/: diphthong with one mora — equivalent to /o(i)/ (the parenthesis indicates that the /i/ doesn't count as a second mora)
  •   ω /ɔː/: long vowel with two morae — equivalent to /ɔ͜ɔ/
  •   οι /oi̯/: diphthong with two morae — equivalent to /o͜i/


Only last three syllables in an Ancient Greek word can be accented. The very last syllable is called the ultima, the next-to-last is called the penult, and the third syllable from the end is called antepenult.

Accent diacritics

Standard polytonic orthography was created in the Hellenistic period to represent the pitch accent. There are three accents: acute (´), grave (`), and circumflex accent ().[2] These four terms are based on Latin loan-translations of the Greek terms. Latin accentus corresponds to Greek προσῳδία "song sung to instrumental music, pitch variation in voice"[3] (the word from which English prosody comes), acūtus to ὀξεῖα "sharp" or "shrill",[4] gravis to βαρεῖα "heavy" or "deep",[5] and circumflexus to περισπωμένη "pulled around" or "bent".[6] The Greek terms for the accents are nominalized feminine adjectives originally modifying the feminine noun προσῳδία and agreeing with it in gender.

Words for accent placement

Words can be named by where their accent is placed and what type it is:

Placement of accent
Antepenult Penult Ultima
Circumflex properispomenon perispomenon
Acute proparoxytone paroxytone oxytone
None barytone

Pitch contours

In Ancient Greek, one mora in a word was accented. A mora was accented by being pronounced at a higher pitch than other morae. A vowel of one mora could have accent or no accent; a vowel of two morae could have accent on its first mora, last mora, or be unaccented. These possibilities translate to two possible pitch patterns on a one-mora vowel, and three on a two-mora vowel. These pitch patterns are shown below in the International Phonetic Alphabet. High pitch is marked with an acute accent.

  1. /ó o/
    /ó(i) o(i)/
  2. /ɔ́͜ɔ ɔ͜ɔ́ ɔ͜ɔ/
    /ó͜i o͜í o͜i/

The pitch patterns on a two-mora vowel formed tone contours. A two-mora vowel with high pitch on the first mora had a falling (high–low) pitch pattern, and one with high pitch on the second mora had a rising (low–high) pitch pattern.[7] These are can be represented using the circumflex and caron respectively. The pitch patterns represented by the circumflex and acute on a two-mora vowel can also be transcribed using symbols for tone contours, although this article uses the moraic transcription above:

  • /ɔ́͜ɔ/ is equivalent to /ɔ̂͜ɔ/, /ɔ̂ː/
  • /ɔ͜ɔ́/ ώ is equivalent to /ɔ̌͜ɔ/, /ɔ̌ː/

Acute, grave, and circumflex could be placed on two-mora vowels, whereas only acute and grave could be placed on one-mora vowels.[2] The accent marks are placed on the second vowel letter of a diphthong.[8]

ό ο
-οί -οὶ -οι
ώ ω
οῖ οί οὶ οι

These accent marks corresponded to the variations of pitch listed above. On a one-mora vowel, acute indicates high pitch. On a two-mora vowel, the circumflex indicates high pitch on the first mora and the acute indicates high pitch on the second mora. On either one-mora or two-mora vowels, grave accent indicated normal pitch.

      ό /ó/       ὸ, ο /o/
-οί /ó(i)/ -οὶ -οι /o(i)/
/ɔ́͜ɔ/ ώ /ɔ͜ɔ́/ ὼ, ω /ɔ͜ɔ/
οῖ /ó͜i/ οί /o͜í/ οὶ, οι /o͜i/

The grave accent represents lower pitch than the acute accent, but more precisely it simply represents lack of high pitch, or normal pitch.[9] In some Ancient Greek texts it was written on all unaccented morae.[10]

  • πὰγκρὰτής /pan.kra.tɛ͜ɛ́s/ "almighty"

The original shape of the circumflex accent came from a combination of the acute and grave accents,[11] although in some fonts the Greek circumflex has the shape of a tilde.

  • πάὶς > παῖς

Rules relating to ultima

A further set of rules restricts where the circumflex and acute are placed. Even though the falling and rising tone contours could be pronounced on any long vowel, and the high pitch on any short vowel, they do not appear in all positions in a word. The length of the ultima determines where these accents can be placed on the antepenult and penult. In words with a one-mora vowel in the ultima, one set of rules applies, and another set of rules applies to words with a two-mora vowel in the ultima.

If the ultima is short, accent can be on the last three syllables: the antepenult, penult, or ultima. When the antepenult is accented, it must have an acute whether it is long or short. When the penult is accented, it must have an acute if it is short, but a circumflex if it is long.

  • ἄνθρωπος, ἄνθρωποι /án.tʰrɔ͜ɔ.pos/, /án.tʰrɔ͜ɔ.poi̯/ "person" (nominative singular, nominative plural)
  • ἀλήθεια, ἀλήθειαι /a.lɛ͜ɛ́.tʰe͜e.a/, /a.lɛ͜ɛ́.tʰe̯͜/ "truth" (nominative singular, nominative plural)
  • σημεῖον /sɛ͜ɛ.mé͜e.on/ "sign" (nominative singular)
  • λόγος /ló.gos/ "reason" (nominative singular)
  • ῥῆτορ, ῥήτορος /r̥ɛ́͜ɛ.tor/, /r̥ɛ͜ɛ́.to.ros/ "speaker" (vocative singular, genitive singular)

If the ultima is long, accent can be on one of the last two syllables: the penult or ultima. The penult must have an acute accent, not a circumflex. When a one-mora vowel in the ultima changes to a two-mora vowel, or an ending adds a syllable, the accent moves forward in the word.

  • ἀνθρώπου /an.tʰrɔ͜ɔ́.po͜o/ (genitive singular)
  • ἀληθείας /a.lɛ͜ɛ.tʰe͜é.a͜as/ (genitive singular)
  • σημείου /sɛ͜ɛ.me͜é.o͜o/ (genitive singular)
  • λόγου /ló.go͜o/ (genitive singular)
  • ῥήτωρ, ῥητόρων /r̥ɛ͜ɛ́.tɔ͜ɔr/, /r̥ɛ͜ɛ.tó.rɔ͜ɔn/ (nominative singular, genitive plural)

Summary of ultima rule

These rules can be derived from a single rule: the morae between the accented mora and the last mora cannot belong to different syllables. This rule is shown below by placing the IPA transcription of a word in a table. Here the accented mora and the final mora are placed in two different columns, and the middle morae between the two are placed in the column between them. Syllables before the accent are irrelevant to the rule.[12]

Incorrectly accented forms are marked with an asterisk (*). The middle morae between the accented mora and last mora, marked with dagger (†), belong to two different syllables, or there are no middle morae. Both of these conditions cause the accent placement to be incorrect.

before accent
words ἀλήθεια a ɛ́ tʰee a
ῥῆτορ r̥ɛ́ ɛ tor
σημεῖον sɛ͜ɛ e on
λόγος gos
ἀνθρώπου an tʰrɔ ɔ́ po o
σημείου sɛ͜ɛ me é o o
*ἀλῆθεια a lɛ́ ɛ.tʰe͜e† a
*δῆμου dɛ́ ɛ.mo† o
*ἄνθρωπου án tʰrɔ͜ɔ.po† o
*δήμος ɛ́ mos


There are a few exceptions to the ultima length rule.

Certain nouns have an accent on the antepenult due to quantitative metathesis and other forms may have a similar accent due to analogy. πόλεως has an accent on the antepenult, since it derives from πόληος /pó.lɛ͜ɛ.os/ (a form used in Ionic), in which the ultima is short, and the accent of the genitive plural follows it.[13][14]

  • πόλεως, πόλεων /pó.le.ɔ͜ɔs/, /pó.le.ɔ͜ɔn/ "city-state" (genitive singular and plural)
    not *πολέως, *πολέων /po.lé.ɔ͜ɔs/, /po.lé.ɔ͜ɔn/)

Certain words derive from the combination of a word with an enclitic. The accent remains as it would be if the enclitic were still a separate word.[15]

  • ὥστε /hɔ͜ɔ́.ste/ "so that", from ὡς /hɔ͜ɔs/ "as" with the enclitic -τε /te/
    not *ὧστε /hɔ́͜ɔ.ste/

Rule relating to grave accent

A final rule relates to the grave. An acute at the end of a word was replaced by a grave when another normally accented word followed. The acute accent represents high pitch on the last mora of a two-mora vowel or the only mora of a one-mora vowel, and the grave indicates normal pitch, so the grave accent rule means that high pitch on the last mora of a word was usually lost (changed to ordinary pitch). A final circumflex represents high pitch on the next-to-last mora, so it remains unchanged.[10]

  • τὸν ἄνδρα /to.n án.dra/ "the man" (accusative singular)
    not *τόν ἄνδρα /tó.n ándra/
  • τῷ ἀνδρί /tɔ́͜ɔi̯ an.drí/ (dative singular)
    not *τῲ ἀνδρί /tɔ͜ɔi̯ an.drí/

The acute remains unchanged when it comes before an enclitic, a period, a colon, or sometimes a comma. Also, the acutes on τίς, τί "who, what" always remain unchanged.

  • ἀγαθόν τε καλόν τε /agatʰón te kalón te/ "goodness and beauty"
    not *ἀγαθὸν τε καλὸν τε /agatʰon te kalon te/

Accent of parts of speech

Recessive accent

In most verbs and compound nouns, accent is recessive, meaning it moves as far back towards the beginning of the word as allowed by the length of the ultima.[16][17] Thus, verbs of three or more syllables often have an acute accent on the penult or antepenult. Contracted verbs are apparent exceptions — their accent was recessive before contraction took place — and some other true exceptions are enclitic verbs and some second-person singular imperatives.[18]

  • λαμβάνω, λαμβανέτω, ἔλαβον, ἐλάβομεν /lam.bá.nɔ͜ɔ/, /é.tɔ͜ɔ/, /é.la.bon/, /e.lá "I take, let him take, I took, we took"
  • ποιῶ, τιμᾷ, δηλοῦσι /po͜i.ɔ́͜ɔ/, /ti͜i.má͜ai̯, /dɛ͜ɛ.ló͜ "I make, he honors, they show"
    contracted from ποιέω, τιμάει, δηλόουσι /po͜i.é.ɔ͜ɔ/, /ti͜i.má.e͜e/, /dɛ͜ɛ.ló.o͜
  • λαβέ /labé/ "take!" (second person singular)
  • φημί, εἰμί /pʰɛ͜ɛ.mí/, /e͜e.mí/ "I say, I am" (enclitics)

Nominal accent

Some nouns have recessive accent, others have an accent on the ultima. (There are only a few nouns where the accent is neither of these.) When the noun is changed to the accusative, genitive or dative case or to the plural, the accent usually remains in the same place as it was in the nominative singular, unless the length of the ultima or the addition of another syllable forces it to move. For example:

  • ἀλήθεια, ἀληθείας /a.lɛ͜ɛ́.tʰe͜e.a/, /a.lɛ͜ɛ.tʰe͜é.a͜as/ "truth" (nominative singular, genitive singular; recessive accent)
  • θεός, θεοῦ "god" /tʰe.ós/, /tʰe.ó͜o/ (ultima accent)

There are few nouns, however, where the accent moves to the ultima in the genitive and dative, as in the following example:

  • πούς acc. πόδα, gen. ποδός "foot" /po͜ós/, /póda/, /podós/ (ultima accent)

See Ancient Greek nouns: accent.

The numbers one (εἷς, ἑνός, fem. μία, μιᾶς), two (δύο, δυοῖν), and three (τρεῖς, τριῶν) also follow this shifting accent rule.

Comparison with Latin

Latin accent differed from Greek in several ways. Unlike Ancient Greek, Latin had a stress accent. This is suggested by the fact that the placement of accent in Latin depended on consonants as well as vowels. A rule for accent placement depending not only on vowels, which can carry pitch, but also on consonants, most of which cannot carry pitch, suggests a stress accent.[19]

The placement of Latin accent largely depended on weight or length of the penult. If the penult was heavy, it was accented; if it was light, it was not. A penult qualified as heavy either if it had a long vowel or diphthong or if it ended in a consonant. Thus the Latin rules of accent differed in two ways: accent depends on the penult, not the ultima; and accent depends on syllable weight rather than simply vowel length.[20]

In Greek terms, Latin accent was typically "recessive", meaning that it was usually on the antepenult or penult. There are exceptions in cases of vowel contraction and attachment of an enclitic.[21]

See also



  1. Smyth 1920, §169: short -αι and -οι
  2. 2.0 2.1 Smyth 1920, §149: the three accent marks
  3. προσῳδία. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  4. ὀξύς2 in Liddell and Scott
  5. βαρύς in Liddell and Scott
  6. περισπάω in Liddell and Scott
  7. Kiparsky 1973, p. 796
  8. Smyth 1920, §152: placement of accent diacritics
  9. Allen 1987, p. 118
  10. 10.0 10.1 Smyth 1920, §154, 155: grave accent
  11. Smyth 1920, §156: form and development of the circumflex
  12. Kiparsky 1973, pp. 797, 798
  13. Smyth 1920, §163: accent on the antepenult
  14. Smyth 1920, §271: accent of third-declension nouns with stems in and
  15. Smyth 1920, §186: compounds formed from enclitics
  16. Smyth 1920, §159: recessive accent
  17. Smyth 1920, §178: recessive accent in compound words
  18. Smyth 1920, §423, 424: recessive accent in verbs; exceptions
  19. Allen 1978, pp. 85, 86
  20. Allen 1978, p. 83
  21. Allen 1978, pp. 87, 88


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  • Allen, W. Sidney (1978) [1965]. Vox Latina: The Pronunciation of Classical Latin. Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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