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Arguments in favor of the polytonic system

Table of Contents

Introduction: The monotonic system, a problem which is simple and multiple

The controversy between polytonic and monotonic system seems to belong to that special category of controversies involving strong and unexpected passions. There are other fields with controversies: art, esthetics, pedagogics, how to raise your children, politics, fashion... Sometimes one may even wonder why one should write down the history of such a controversy. It is obviously impossible to formulate a widely acceptable answer, since the dialog is usually around apparencies, what seems to be and not what is, it concerns the opinion on the issue of accents and not the issue itself: opinion supersedes science in many cases, ambiguity is more important than meaning, faith replaces proof. Sometimes there is fear, the primal fear of ignorance, or simply of social image (in general, we all show that we know our language less well when we write it in the polytonic system). This fear re-establishes the system of values which is the subconscious fundament of our positive or negative opinions.

On this Web site, the reader will find elements allowing him/her to enrich his/her own version of history, or at least to refute the one we suggest, since this Web site has a single well-defined intention.

But the reality of the controversy between polytonic and monotonic seems to be not only complex but complicated. The difference between complex and complicated lies in the fact that facing the latter one does know neither its exact dimensions, nor its exact quality, and one can not even be certain about the way it functions. When we try to classify the arguments of both sides, to be able to construct a lattice of evaluation of each argument in its own domain, we remain on the level of an initial question, since we ignore the dimensions of the problem and their relationships: how do we evaluate, for example,

Information contained in accents and breathings

Writing is a communication system where the writer is sender and the reader the receiver. Information transmitted through this system is not simply the graphical representation of spoken word like, for example, IPA alphabet, but contains etymological, morphological, syntactical and other elements. By writing "rotótoápiro" we have the exact phonetic representation of the sentence ρωτῶ τὸ ἄπειρο but we need much more time to decode it. The graphical form ρωτῶ τὸ ἄπειρο contains much more information than "rotótoápiro" and this information consists of blancs between words (words which are pronounced as if they were connected), the choice of letters (ω instead of ο, ει instead of ι, etc. which are pronounced the same), accents and breathings. This information is absolutely necessary for understanding the meaning, only in a few rare cases. In all other cases the information contained in the spoken word is sufficient. But this doesn't mean that this information is unnecessary: it serves as a "deconding optimizer"; without it we would read more slowely and with more difficulty. The (horrible) form ρωτώ το άπειρο lays inbetween the two ones above. Monotonic system is a diminution of the information that the sender includes in the message. This makes life easier for the sender, but more difficult for the receiver. And this is very bad strategy since a printed message has often a single author and millions of readers, many times for years, or even centuries, later.

One can ask the question of how decoding works: is it possible that the receiver constantly thinks of grammar rules so that he interpets the circumflex accent of ρωτῶ as the first person of the singular of a verb (contrarely to words like Ἐρατώ, Πεζώ, εὐρώ)? Of course not. The brain stores optical patterns in memory and uses them automatically when deconding, in the same way we will recognize somebody we know at the first look, without having to observe him carefully. By this way we accelerate the reading of text. These optical patterns are absent from the monotonic system which reduces everything: σε ρωτώ, Ερατώ, πόσα ευρώ χρωστώ; instead of σὲ ρωτῶ, Ἐρατώ, πόσα εὐρὼ χρωστῶ;

A fundamental question of information theory is how to find the ideal amount of information the sender has to supply to optimize decoding by the receiver. In the case of writing, however, this optimal equilibrium is the result of evolution. This is what happened with accents and breathings, which are the final step of Greek writing evolution after 17 centuries of use, variations, experiments and trials. This natural equilibrium was blown away through the monotonic system “for the sake of progress”, based on the totally erroneous assertion that writing is nothing more than graphical representation of spoken word, and henceforth whatever is not “phonetic” is automatically useless. One of the usual arguments of monotonists is that “in French accents are useful because accented vowels are pronounced differently, and this doesn't happen in Greek”. Well understood, French accents are of a different type than Greek ones, but it is a fact that both in Greek and in French, accents (“diacritics”) are also useful to the reader for recognizing words, as well as their morphology and syntax.

Historical continuity

Accents and breathings have introduced in a time where pronounciation of Greek language had changed and linguists of that time wanted to keep a written trace of the original pronounciation. In previous times, the final Ω of the verb ΕΡΩΤΩ was pronounced differently than the one of the name ΕΡΑΤΩ. To make that difference visible, inventors of accents wrote ῶ in the first case and ώ or ὼ in the second. As for the rough breathing, it was originally a letter which was pronounced more-or-less like the German h (and was written Η). When this letter was not pronounced anymore, people started to use the rough accent as a more discrete way to indicate the lack of a letter Η. Inventing the smooth accent was a clever move: if there was only the rough one, it would be like granting too much importance to the missing letter Η; by having the symmetry smooth/rough, the eye always sees a breathing and henceforth recognizes wether the word starts by a vowel or a diphthong, and, at the same time but in a more discrete way, it distinguishes words which originally started by Η from those that did not.

By using accents and breathings for more than 20 centuries, Greeks have transported across time the pronounciation of ancient Greek. These signs are a bridge connecting us with a distant past. A past which happens to be quite glorious, at least that's what the West believes. The current Greek citizen may not be directly interested in that past, since difficulties of everyday life are certainly more important for him. But we do not have the right, by ignorance or laziness or political misorientation, to deprive future generations from this bridge connecting them with the past.

When Kemal Atatürk has replaced the Arabic alphabet of Turkish language by the Latin one, he wanted to interrupt the historical and cultural relation of modern Turkey with Islam and the Ottoman empire. Is there a need for modern Greece to be separated from its literary tradition?

And let us not forget that linguists of 200 BC where not more romantic, idealistic or patriot than the modern ones. If they kept a trace of the old pronounciation by the invention of accents and breathings this was because this information was highly useful for the understanding of the written word. This fact remained valid for 20 centuries and is still valid today. Accents and breathings are as useful today as they were when invented.

Respect towards great writers

Greek language has evolved under the genius and creativity of great writers, poets, teachers. Nobody doubts about the value of men like Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, Kazantzakis. But nowadays Greeks consciously prefer to ignore that these people, and so many more, have been in favour of accents and breathings. Can it be that these people were geniuses with respect to literature and poetry, and at the same time, more ignorant and irresponsable than the average current Greek, with respect to language? Is it that we praise them when it is to our advantage and ignore them otherwise? The opinion of a great artist of language, shouldn't be more important than the one of a politician or of a merchant of print?

Word composition

Greek language has always used the method of word composition to express, in a brief and precise way, complex notions and concepts. Thanks to the rough breathing, the writer of Greek knew whether or not the consonant of the first component had to be changed: ἐφάμιλλος but ἐπακριβής, καθημερινὴ but κατήχηση. The disappearance of the rough breathing will have at least two consequences for the author of monotonic Greek: (a) the attitude which consists of avoiding to create composite words, (b) the erroneous composition of words (like πενταήμερη instead of πενθήμερη, while one still says δεκαπενθήμερη...). In both cases the result will be serious impoverishment of the language. Besides that, those who do not learn the rough accent will not be able to recognize composite words as such: how can such a person identift the word ἐφάμιλλη as been composed by the particle ἐπὶ and the noun ἅμιλλα? By depriving the Greek from the possibility of finding the etymological roots of words we end up with the unfortunately more and more widespread opinion, that language is the object of study of specialists only, and that the average Greek does not need to know anything more than a minimum vocabulary which allows him to communicate in everyday life, and no more than that. By moving away the average Greek from the understanding of mechanisms of his language we diminuish the chances of survival of this language in front of practically and quantitatively stronger languages.

Quality of life

Because of stress and complexity of modern life we tend more and more to care only about the strict necessary for survival. Nevertheless it is a vital need for us to seek for a quality of life that counterbalances the stress of everyday life. Be it in the food we eat, in the place we live and work, in our clothing, in our entertainment, in the people we deal with, we seek the better. Polytonic system offers this kind of quality of life, on the level of language. In an era where everything has to be fast and efficient, using the, at first sight useless, accents and breathings is a break, a small amount of imaginative creativity that makes more human and less machines. The few moments we will, for example, need to find out if a word takes a rough accent, whether looking in a dictionary or asking some other person, will transport us from the direct present to the diachronicity of our language. And diachronicity is the key to pshychical equilibrium of the current man who has to fight with the ever growing mondialization, the vertiginous evolution of technologies, the merciless mass communication media, etc. The merchants of hapiness and of solutions to identity crisis sell us sophrologies, biological food, ecological ways of life and new age technologies, for us to find the wishful (and well-paid) pshychical balance. However, the care of language which we speak and write is equally well—or even better—medicine, totally free of charge and without secondary effects. And this happens because the way we perceive the world around us is tightly connected with the language in which think and which we speak and write. The poorer, confused and incongruous our language is, the poorer, confused and incongruous is our life. By making our language more beautiful, accents and breathings make our life more beautiful.

Two (wanted or unwanted?) misunderstandings

Πρώτη παρεξήγηση: τί ἐννοοῦμε ὅταν λέμε «τόνος»;

Ἔτσι ὀνομάζεται ἡ φωνητικὴ ἐνέργεια τοῦ νὰ τονίζει κανεὶς (εἴτε μέσω ἀλλαγῆς ὕψους, εἴτε μέσῳ ἀλλαγῆς ἔντασης τοῦ ἤχου) τὸν προφορικὸ λόγο· ἀλλὰ ἔτσι ὀνομάζουμε ἐπίσης τὸ γραπτὸ σημάδι ποὺ βάζουμε πάνω (ἢ δίπλα) στὰ φωνήεντα. Οἱ μονοτονιστὲς ἠθελημένα καλλιεργοῦν τὴν σύγχυση μεταξὺ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐννοιῶν λέγοντας ὅτι ἀφοῦ δὲν ὑπάρχει πλέον τὸ πρῶτο, δὲν χρειάζεται νὰ ὑπάρχει οὔτε τὸ δεύτερο. Λάθος: οἱ τόνοι ὡς γραφικὰ σημεῖα ναὶ μὲν ξεκίνησαν ὡς ἀναπαράσταση τῆς φωνητικῆς ἐνέργειας, ἀλλὰ σήμερα πλέον φέρουν ἄλλου τύπου πληροφορία: οἱ τόνοι μεταφέρουν πληροφορία μορφολογική (ἡ λέξη «τὰ ὡραῖα» παίρνει περισπωμένη ἑνῷ «ἡ ὡραία» παίρνει ὀξεία).

Δεύτερη παρεξήγηση: γιατί πρέπει ὅλες οἱ γλῶσσες νὰ λειτουργοῦν μὲ τὸν ἴδιο τρόπο;

Τὸ μονοτονικὸ στηρίζεται στὴν (ἐσφαλμένη) ἄποψη ὅτι πρέπει σὲ ὅλες τὶς γλῶσσες (γαλλική, γερμανική, βιετναμεζική, κ.λπ.) τὰ διακριτικὰ σημεῖα νὰ λειτουργοῦν μὲ τὸν ἴδιο τρόπο, δηλαδὴ ὁ ρόλος τους νὰ εἶναι καθαρὰ φωνητικός.

Στὰ γερμανικὰ ὑπάρχει μόνο ἕνα διακριτικὸ σημεῖο (τὸ Umlaut) ποὺ ἔχει τὴν μορφὴ τῶν δικῶν μας διαλυτικῶν. Ἡ λειτουργία του εἶναι καθαρὰ φωνητική (τὸ a ἀπὸ α γίνεται ε, κ.λπ.). Στὰ γαλλικὰ ἔχουμε δύο διαφορετικὲς προσεγγίσεις: ὅσον ἀφορᾶ τὸ γράμμα e οἱ τρεῖς «τόνοι» é, è, ê ἀντιστοιχοῦν σὲ διαφορετικὰ φωνήματα· ἀλλὰ ὅσον ἀφορᾶ στὰ γράμματα a καὶ u, ἡ διαφορὰ μεταξὺ a/â u/û εἶναι φωνητικὴ ἐνῷ μεταξὺ a/à καὶ u/ù εἶναι μορφολογικὴ (a = γʹ ἑνικὸ τοῦ ρήματος avoir, à = πρόθεση «εἰς», ou = «ἢ», où = «ποῦ», «ὅπου»). Στὶς γλῶσσες τῆς κεντρικῆς Εὐρώπης, οἱ τόνοι χρησιμοποιοῦνται τόσο στὰ φωνήεντα ὅσο καὶ στὰ σύμφωνα καὶ διαφοροποιοῦν τὰ φωνήματα. Στὰ βιετναμεζικά, ὅπως καὶ στὰ κινεζικὰ πινγίν, οἱ πέντε τόνοι ἀντιστοιχοῦν σὲ πέντε μελωδικὰ μοτίβα. Αὐτὰ συμβαίνουν στὶς ἄλλες γλῶσσες.

Ἡ δική μας γλώσσα ὅμως λειτουργεῖ διαφορετικά. Στὴν ἑλληνικὴ τὰ μὲν πνεύματα μεταφέρουν πληροφορία ἐτυμολογικῆς φύσεως (ὁ «ἐπίτιμος» παίρνει ψιλὴ γιατὶ τὸ ἔψιλον ἀνήκει στὴν πρόθεση «ἐπὶ» ἐνῷ ὁ «ἑπόμενος» παίρνει δασεία γιατὶ προέρχεται ἀπὸ τὸ ρῆμα «ἕπομαι»), οἱ δὲ τόνοι μεταφέρουν πληροφορία μορφολογικὴ ὅπως εἴπαμε παραπάνω. Μπορεῖ λοιπὸν τὰ σημάδια αὐτὰ νὰ μὴν ἀλλάζουν τὴν προφορά, ἀλλὰ λειτουργοῦν μὲ ἄλλον τρόπο καὶ ἡ πληροφορία ποὺ μεταφέρουν εἶναι ἄλλης φύσεως.

Writing foreign words and names in Greek

This argument is only indirectly connected to the polytonic system: there is a very nice practice of writing foreign words in Greek, where one sees whether a vowel is long or short. Typical examples: Σαίξπηρ (= Shakespeare, where both αι and η are long) and τέννις (= tennis, where both ε and ι are short). By writing Γκαῖτε (= Goethe) the Greek reader undestands that the first syllable is long and the second short. This is, in some sense, a revival of the ancient Greek phenomenon of long and short syllables, applied to a very practical reason: indicating the pronounciation of words in languages that still have short and long vowels. In many cases Greek diphthongs have survived in foreign languages: Βολταῖρος and Μποντελαὶρ are written with αι because in nowadays French the ai of Voltaire and Baudelaire shows that the syllable is long. Monotonists, of course, avoid long and short syllables like hell and this is why they request we write Σέξπιρ, Βολτέρος, Μποντελὲρ. It is highly ironic that the Greek diphthong αι has survived in the names of these two big French authors and that modern Greeks now throw it away...

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