CHS 2020 Fall Fellows:
Dieter Gunkel

Tonal Ochlophobia in Greek: Evidence from the Musical Documents

As a linguist and philologist, I am interested in the accentuation of ancient Greek. I think of the accentuation of the language as a window that provides a view on a variety of things, including the linguistic evolution of Greek, the inner workings of its grammar, and the sound of the language and its verbal art.

The documents of ancient Greek vocal music constitute one important source of information about the accentuation of the language. In non-strophic compositions such as the Delphic Hymns, which were performed at Delphi in 127 BCE, we can see that the melody of the music moves up and down in a way that respects the accentuation of the words. For instance, the accented syllable of the word is set to the highest note; and syllables bearing a circumflex accent are often set to two notes, the first of which is higher. The fact that the musical melody frequently falls over the circumflected syllable provides corroborating evidence that the circumflex marked a high-low falling pitch accent.

Careful study of the relationship between the musical melody and the text allows us to reconstruct not only the phonetic nature of the accents, but also the pitch movement of speech more generally, e.g. the way that pitch falls after an accent and rises again to the following accent. I am particularly interested in what I will refer to as “troughs,” i.e. low points in the melody that presumably reflect low points in the pitch movement of speech. Their position seems to indicate the presence of low boundary tones, phonological elements that demarcate phrases. (In case they sound like hocus pocus to you, don’t worry: boundary tones are well-established, everyday elements in the field of phonology.) Those boundary tones would in turn help explain some quirky characteristics of Greek accentuation via a phenomenon known as tonal crowding avoidance (whence “tonal ochlophobia” in the project title), especially grave accents and circumflex accents on penultimate syllables.

The CHS fellowship, for which I am very grateful, will allow me to complete three overlapping phases of the project. The first is to inform myself about ancient Greek music and the musical documents, about which I know relatively little. The second is to construct an electronic corpus of musical documents that I will eventually make available online. The third is to use that corpus to study the position of the troughs relative to the preceding accent, the following accent, and the boundaries between words and phrases.

Dieter Gunkel

Dieter Gunkel is an Assistant Professor of Historical Linguistics in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Richmond. He holds a Ph.D. in Indo-European Linguistics from UCLA (2010), and worked as an Akademischer Rat at the University of Munich (2010–2017) before moving to Richmond. His research interests include the historical linguistics of Greek and Vedic Sanskrit, the accentuation of ancient Greek, the restoration of the Rigveda to its earliest form, and the nature of the poetic meters of Tocharian.