How to pronounce the C

Jim McKenney
Mon, 29 Mar 2004 14:46:14 PST
Leo Martin wrote":
In passing, Greek also lacks the H letter. The H sound is only heard at 
the start of a word, and is indicated by an inverted comma placed before 
the letter and at the top of the letter.

I beg to differ. It's true that Geek had no letter for H, and as Leo says
the H was indicated by a symbol like our comma ( but it was not inverted;
when written like our comma, it indicated a lack of the H sound; when
written as a mirror image of that, it indicated the H sound). 

I think Leo has some orthographic conventions confused with the sounds of
the actual words. It's true that the sign for the H sound was written only
at the beginning of words, and generally only with initial vowels and the
Greek letter  transliterated as R. In other words, the sign of H typically
does not appear within a word or at the end of a word. Those are
orthographic conventions.

The actual sounds of the words are a different matter. Leo wrote "The H
sound is only heard at the start of a word" and this is simply not true -
and it's easily demonstrated why this is not true. Greek, unlike English,
has a set of parallel un-aspirated and aspirated consonants. Thus, for the
Greek letter transliterated as T (which is an un-aspirated consonant),
there is the corresponding aspirated consonant transliterated TH. Ditto for

At this point, if you want to understand this issue, you'll have to forget
your fraternity and mathematics Greek; the pronunciations which prevail for
the Greek letters in English are very misleading. 

The main point to remember in following this topic is to remember that
Greek had different letters for the aspirated and un-aspirated consonants
(many of the modern Indo-European languages of India preserve such a
distinction; western languages for the most part ignore it, i.e. have lost

In Greek words, when compounds are formed, and the first part of the
compound ends in an un-aspirated consonant and the next part of the
compound begins with a rough breathing (the H sound), the un-aspirated
consonant changes to the corresponding aspirated consonant. And in
changing, it in effect inserts its H sound into the middle of the word. 

Thus for words which show this change from the unaspirated to the aspirated
form of the consonant, the proof is there in black and white: the Greek
letter tau changes to theta, for instance. 

You'll have a hard time convincing me that the H sound was not preserved
even when there are no consonant changes to prove it. For instance, I
pronounce the generic name Arisaema for jack-in-the-pulpit (in rough
phonetic terms) ah- rees - high'- mah because it is derived from the Greek
words for ram, aris, and blood, haima (haima is my uconventional
translitteration; I'm using it to preserve the sound; it's typically
written in its Latin form, haema, incidentally also pronounced high'-ma).

When Leo says "But, if you pronounce genera according to the ancient Greek
and Latin, anybody in the plant world will look at you in puzzlement." I
agree wholeheartedly that that is generally true, sad but true. 

I don't hesitate to use the so-called reformed academic pronunciations.
Yes, it can be momentarily confusing; but then again, so can using the
"correct" botanical name. And we have all learned to live with that handicap. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, zone 7, where I'm high over the emergence of
Arisaema onoticum. 


More information about the pbs mailing list