How to pronounce Theta and Phi

βῆ δ᾽ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης

He went in silence along the shore of the loud-sounding sea

Homer Iliad 1.33

How should we pronounce Theta and Phi?

At school I was taught to pronounce Theta as “th” in theology and Phi as the “ph” in philosophy or equivalent to “f”. I have been to a few Greek plays in the last few years done in the original Greek where the actors have pronounce Theta as “t” – that is no different from Tau –  and Phi as “p” – that is no different from “Pi”. I assume that this is what is now being taught in schools and universities.

I have been looking at some modern guides to classical Greek pronunciation and here are some typical guidelines

http://www.greek-language.com/Alphabet.html

Theta

Classical – aspirated t as in top, but not as in stop

Tau

Classical – unaspirated t as in stop, but not like the t in top

Phi

Classical – aspirated p as in pot, but not unaspirated p as in spot

Pi

Classical -unaspirated p as in sap, not aspirated p as in pan

Now this doesn’t work for me at all because as far as I am aware I pronounce the “t” in top the same as I pronounce the “t” in stop, and I pronounce the “p” in pot the same as I pronounce the “p” in spot.  I might be saying them differently but it is not a difference that my ear is attuned to hear. Even if I could hear the difference I am not sure I could say the pi in  πότε (when) any different from the “p” in pot.

Given that I and I suspect a large number of other people cannot make this distinction, is it better to revert to the old way and pronounce theta as “th” and phi as “f”? This has the advantage of making them different from tau and pi which is hugely in their favour but of course has the disadvantage that that is not how they were pronounced in classical Greek. My chosen method of arbitration is to look a line of poetry and see which pronunciation has the better poetic effect.

(βῆ δ᾽ ἀκέων ) παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης:

He went in silence along the shore of the loud-sounding sea

Homer Iliad 1.33

Here the poet is imitating the sound of the waves breaking against the shore and it could be pronounced in one of these two ways

Para thina poluphloisboio thalasses

Para tina poluplosboio talasses

Now my contention is that the first is better because without the “th”s and “ph”s you get less foam and a rather tinny sounding sea. However I have to admit that perhaps with the phi pronounced as “p” the wave sounds a bit more forceful. So even with me the jury is out. I only wish I could pronounce them properly because then it would be an even better sea.

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