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Ancient Greek accent

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Ancient Greek accent

In Ancient Greek, accent varies from word to word, but there are rules of accent determining where it can fall and what type it can be. The rules depend on the length of the vowel in the last syllable and in the syllable being accented.

In Ancient Greek one syllable of a word was normally accented. Unlike Modern Greek, this was a pitch accent, meaning that the accented syllable was pronounced at a higher pitch than the other syllables; Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the interval was approximately that of a fifth in music. In standard polytonic orthography (invented in the Hellenistic age, but not adopted universally until Byzantine times), the acute accent (ὀξεῖα) is used to indicate a simple accented syllable. In long vowels and diphthongs the accent could fall on either half (or mora) of the syllable: if it fell on the first mora, so that the syllable had a high tone followed by a low tone, it is indicated in polytonic orthography by the circumflex (περισπωμένη): /ée/ = , but /eé/ = ή.

The accent can only fall on one of the last three syllables of a word, and if the last syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong, it can only fall on one of the last two syllables. The circumflex can only fall on the last two syllables, and only if that syllable contains a long vowel or diphthong. An acute accent on a final syllable (except before a pause or an enclitic word) is regularly replaced in the orthography by a grave accent (βαρεῖα): this may indicate a lowering of tone, but the evidence from ancient authors is unclear on this point.

If the penultimate syllable is accented, it normally has the circumflex if it contains a long vowel or diphthong and the last syllable contains a short vowel, otherwise it has the acute. An accented final syllable can have either the acute (or grave) or the circumflex.

In some inflected forms, final αι and οι are treated as if they were short vowels (or, rather, combinations of a short vowel and a semivowel glide).


The mora is a unit of vowel length. Short vowels have one mora, and long vowels and diphthongs have two morae.

  • short:
    • ᾰ, ε, ῐ, ο, ῠ (sometimes αι, οι)
  • long:
    • simple vowels:
      • ᾱ, η, ῑ, ω, ῡ
    • diphthongs:
      • in ι:
        • ει, υι; ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ (sometimes αι, οι)
      • in υ:
        • αυ, ευ, ου; ᾱυ, ηυ, ωυ


Only the three syllables at the end of the word can be accented. They are called the ultima ("last"), penult ("almost last"), and antepenult ("before the almost last").[1]

Length of accented vowel

The length of a vowel determines what type of accent it can take. The acute is placed on short and long vowels, but the circumflex only on long vowels or diphthongs.


The grave accent indicates no accent or low pitch. In modern convention, it is used only to replace an acute at the end of a word (except before a pause), but it was once written on all unaccented vowels. Like the acute, it falls on both short and long vowels.


The acute indicates a vowel accented on its last mora. On a short vowel, it represents one accented mora; on a long vowel or diphthong, it represents one unaccented and one accented mora.
1 2
short vowel ´
long vowel ` ´


The circumflex can only fall on long vowels or diphthongs, because it is a compound accent. It is formed from one accented and one unaccented mora, in that order.
1 2
long vowel ´ `

Length of ultima

The accent in recessively accented words naturally falls back toward the beginning of the word. The length of the vowel in the ultima determines how far it can fall. When the ultima is short, accent can fall back to the antepenult; when the ultima is long, accent can only fall on the penult (Exception to this rule are those triple-stems that initially had a long penult and a short ultima but underwent quantitative metathesis, e. g. πίστις, πίστηος > πίστεως and πόλις, πόληος, πόλεως).

Short ultima

When the vowel in the ultima is short, accent is placed on the antepenult or (if the word is two syllables) the penult. The penult takes a circumflex if its vowel is long, and an acute if it is short.

  • with antepenult:
    • ἄνθρωπος
  • without antepenult:
    • δῶρον (long penult)
    • πάθος (short penult)

Long ultima

When the vowel in the ultima is long, accent is forced forward to the penult. The type of accent is an acute, never a circumflex, no matter what the length of the penult.

  • long penult:
    • ἀνθρώπου
    • δώρου
  • short penult:
    • πάθους


This rule has a simpler summary: the morae between the accented mora and the last mora cannot belong to different syllables.[2] This is best shown by placing words (here, σῶμα, σώματος, σωμάτων, φῶς) in a table, with consonants and morae of vowels divided into individual cells.
rest C V C V C
s ó o m a
so ó m a t o s
soom á t o o n
ph ó o s

See also


  1. ^ Accent Marks and Rules
  2. ^ Paul Kiparsky. The Inflectional Accent in Indo-European. Language, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 794-849. Linguistic Society of America.

External Resources

A Comprehensive Bibliography of Hellenistic Greek Linguistics

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