Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton

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Greek words which differ only in tone

Someone asked recently on how to tell when to use which letter for the sounds o, i, or s in Greek.

User elgrecovero gave a good answer (as always!) and mentioned that while reading Greek is usually unambiguous, writing is complicated since the spelling follows etymology and so it’s not, in general, predictable how to spell a given word—you’d have to know how it was pronounced in Ancient Greek.

And that made me think about reading Greek and the fact that they’re kind enough to mark the stressed syllable on all words of more than one syllable (very useful given that the position of the stress is, in general, unpredictable! Russian should take a leaf out of Greek’s book!).

And that made me wonder whether there are words that differ only in the position of the stressed syllable.

I was reminded of three incidents from my mission:

  • An elder translating “ο ναός είναι ένας ιερός χώρος” (the temple is a holy place) as “the temple is a holy dance” (as if it had been “ιερός χορός”). I wonder whether the fact that the elder was French had something to do with the mistranslation, since French stereotypically have problems with the position of stress.
  • An elder translating “Η Ελλάδα έχει πενήντα ένα νομούς” as “Greece has fifty-one laws” (as if spelled νόμους) rather than “Greece has fifty-one nomes” (no longer true since 2010, I just found!). Here, the elder was German; I suppose the mistranslation here was due to the fact that νομός is not really an every-day word, at least not for a missionary. (Possibly also the fact that he went on to be a judge, so he was into law :D)
  • I hearing “Ο Έλληνας είναι δύσκολος να πειστεί” (Greeks are difficult to convince) and not understanding the last word but thinking it had something to do with πίστη (faith).

So of those, one (νόμος/νομός) is a perfect example since the vowels are not only pronounced identically but also spelled identically, while the other two have identical pronunciation but not identical spelling.

I had a look to see whether I could find a list (googling for “λέξεις που διαφορούν μόνο κατά τον τονισμό”, then—thank you, Google’s suggestion!—“λέξεις που διαφέρουν μόνο κατά τον τονισμό”), but didn’t find anything offhand, except for one place which offered χώρος/χορός (place/dance), κάλλος/καλός (beauty/good), and φιστίκια/φιστικιά (pistachios/pistachio tree). The last of which is again a good example. (Though the words are related, so it’s more like English pérfect/perféct, présent/presént, etc. than like really different words as in the νόμος/νομός case.)

Tags: greek
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