Ancient and modern

It’s time to settle the Great Omicron Question

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

Time to settle the Great Omicron Question. First, there is no word omikron (and no c) in ancient Greek. Second, the classical Greek (5th-4th centuries BC) name for omicron was an accented ou. In the 2nd century AD it was replaced by the name o mikron(‘little/short o’), when Greece was under Roman rule.

So how did Greeks pronounce o mikron? The little o was pronounced short, as in ‘lot’. The letter i(iôta, whence our ‘jot’) was pronounced either long (as in ‘purine’) or short (as in ‘tin’). In the case of mikron, it was pronounced long. The rwas lightly trilled. Finally, the last o was stressed. So o mikronwas pronounced ‘o meekrrón’.

So much for replicating ancient Greek. But our language is English, and in English ‘o’ can be pronounced short ‘o’ or ‘uh’, or long ‘oh’. Likewise, ‘i’ can be pronounced as in ‘hit’, ‘me’ or ‘my’. The question then becomes: is there an accepted standard (i.e. conventional) English pronunciation? It does not seem that there is. Result: perm any three from ‘o/oh/uh-mi/mee/my-cro/cruh-n’, adding the appropriate English stress accent.

Whatever your choice, this passion for ‘correctness’ of language is truly Greek. Indeed, as early as the 4th century BC the elites wanted to protect the ‘purity’ of classical Greek against time’s shocks. To maintain links to the past, by the 2nd century AD it became cultural death not to know the ‘correct’ word for e.g. ‘breadbox’, and a social distinction between ‘low’ (demotic) and ‘pure’ Greek had emerged (the doctor Galen wrote a 48-book dictionary on the subject). For 1,700 years, ‘low’ and ‘pure’ Greek battled it out.

But Greek independence in the 19th century turned the issue political: what should the language of the new state be? In 1901 a Greek newspaper published extracts from the Bible in demotic, causing violent protests and deaths. In 1903 Aeschylus’s Oresteiawas produced in demotic, adding accusations of treason to that of atheism. But the trend towards demotic was clear, and in 1976 it became the official Greek language. The main threat now? English, of course.

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