“Hoi Polloi”

Hoi PolloiAs a native Greek speaker, the words in English that give me most trouble—especially when I find myself at various conferences or lectures in North America that involve, in some way or another, the use of Ancient Greek—is the pronunciation of those words. I admit that I can’t resist the temptation of correction for example whenever I hear Thucydides (pronounced: Thu-si-di-dees) instead of Θουκυδίδης (pronounced: Thu-ky-theē-thees). But once I found myself in an awkward position where context made the text if not unrecognizable but certainly irrelevant.

In 2009 I was at the SBL (Society of Biblical Studies) conference which was held in New Orleans. One day, after attending various panels and while we were walking back to the hotel from the convention centre, and amidst discussions on the study of religion, Russell McCutcheon pointed at a store’s sign and invited me to read it. Without much ado I read it out loud “hoi polloi” (pronounced: hoy-po-loy) and, as it made no sense to me I asked him what it meant. But before I even got an answer back, and knowing that the pointing was likely for a good reason, I looked again at the sign and said: “Oh wait! That is Greek!?!” and laughed, I suppose, out of embarrassment for not being able to “see” the sign as Greek (οι πολλοί). What’s even more interesting is that, upon first seeing it, I didn’t even read it as I “should” have, as we would in Greece, that is, “ee polleē.”

But why did I laugh and why I did feel embarrassed? Because, I think, we have well been taught that the meanings of signs (whether they are texts, monuments, etc.) are universal and transcend time and space; instead, as this little example demonstrates, the familiar very easily became strange when the context (i.e., English writing, English pronunciation, a store’s sign in a US city, etc.) made it unexpected and undecipherable. I couldn’t “see” the sign as Greek even though I always “see” the Greek origins of English words. And yeah yeah, I’m no better than Mr Portokalos — a main character in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” who can easily tell you that the root of any word is Greek.

Thinking in retrospect about this incident, though, I’d say that in New Orleans I experienced first hand that meaning is in the eye of the beholder, that it is in the agent working within structures (i.e., grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.), making the world meaningful according to her positionality. So, too, our pronunciations or even the usage of words are contingent and relative to the world we happen to inhabit at a specific time and place. Much like the categories scholars employ to study various phenomena which are, as J. Z. Smith famously said of “religion,” of their own making, and which allow them to make sense of their worlds in the here and now.

And although I have many times been teased that there is indeed a “proper” pronunciation of Ancient Greek (that Modern Greek apparently lacks), the above example makes me even more suspicious and not easily convinced that there is indeed such a “proper” pronunciation. For the question now is who has the power and authority to portray a pronunciation as the “proper” one (that is, who has the authority to do the policing) and towards what ends, when it comes to a language whose users are long gone and therefore don’t have a say in the matter. Though I’m not suggesting that anyone can freely pronounce as one wishes, for that will likely lead to a new Babel, but I am suggesting that the rules we employ, concerning how a language is pronounced are contingent, found in the present, and serve very practical purposes.

So now we can understand why learned speacialists who are non-Greek say Koine (pronounced: Koy-nay) for the form of Greek used in the New Testament instead of, as we would say here, i.e., in Greece, Κοινή (pronounced: Kee-neē).

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