Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog

Pronouncing Greek correctly in ancient Campania

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Part of a broken Oscan inscription from Abella (modern day Avella), perhaps from around 100 BC, recording building work ordered by a magistrate (some words are restored; the reading and translation are based on Imagines Italicae, ed. M. Crawford, 2011, p.895):

… íním segúnú perisstyleís … íním batrúm tavffud … ísídum prúfatted (Abella 3)

… and the statues of the peristyle … and a base of tufa … the same person passed (them) as completed

This inscription includes two words borrowed from Greek: peristyleis ‘of the peristyle’ and batrúm ‘base’. There’s nothing particularly strange about this: Oscan borrowed a number of words from Greek, especially those referring to architectural features. But there are a couple of unusual features. Firstly, the Oscan alphabet doesn’t have the letter y, or the sound that it represented in Greek (a high front rounded vowel, the same sound that’s represented by ü in German), so by using it here the writer seems to be emphasising that the vowel should be pronounced as in Greek. Secondly, Oscan introduced an extra vowel between certain combinations of two consonants, including –tr-, so we would expect batrúm to be written batúrúm. The lack of this additional vowel again suggests that the writer is showing that he knows how to pronounce Greek. Oddly, though, a trick has been missed here: the original Greek word is bathron, and there are plenty of other examples of the –th– being spelled like that in Oscan inscriptions. It’s possible that this could simply be a mistake (leaving out the h); or perhaps, despite the ostentatious display of correct pronunciation, the writer’s Greek was not as good as he thought it was!

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