Sunday, 8 March 2009

reflexes of Greek ου

I realize that in my discussion of Utopia I didn’t make my reasoning altogether clear (as Jack Windsor Lewis complains in his own blog). I said
Etymologically, More built his word from the Greek οὐ ū ‘not’ plus τόπ(ος) tóp(os) ‘place’ (as in topic, isotope).
but then continued
Theoretically it ought to be pronounced with uː
— without explaining why.
My thinking was that the Greek vowel ου ū normally maps onto English , as in the word acoustic, which is from Greek ἀκουστικός akūstikós (ἀκούω akūō ‘I hear’) and gives English əˈkuːstɪk, not *əˈkjuːstɪk.
I realize now, though, that there are a number of other Greek words with ου ū in which this vowel is indeed mapped onto juː, among them Muse (Greek Μοῦσα Mūsa). In Uranus (Greek Οὐρανός Uranos) the following r diphthongizes the vowel to jʊə or reduced ju; in Luke Λοῦκας and anacoluthon ἀνακόλουθον the yod is dropped because of the preceding liquid.
So it is actually acoustic that is the odd man out. As the OED comments,
The reg. Eng. representative of the Gr. would be acustic
in which case I suppose we would pronounce it with a yod. (Actually, in the 1930s the BBC Pronunciation Advisory Council was debating whether to recommend the pron əˈkaʊstɪk, still recorded in the 1963 EPD.)
Likewise, in French it would regularly have been acustique, with y, rather than acoustique with u.
There is another Greek ου word which behaves very strangely in English, namely nous (Greek νοῦς nūs), which we in Britain pronounce naʊs, though the Americans say nuːs.
_ _ _
I shall now stop posting to the old site: future blog entries will appear only here. You will see above that I have now discovered how to force my choice of font for the phonetic symbols here, just as on the old site.
I will continue to post new entries between 21:00 and midnight each Sunday to Thursday, as before; but since the date is inserted automatically by blogspot they will no longer be postdated to the following day.


  1. Perhaps the reason that "acoustic" and "nous" use "ou" is that they are, rather uniquely, in situations where a simple "u" would likely be reinterpreted as representing English /V/. In "Luke", "Muse" or "Uranus" it's clear that the vowel is /u:/ or /U@(`)/, but if an English speaker were to see "acustic" or "nus", they might be liable think of them as /@"kVstIk/ and /"nVs/.

  2. In medicine the terminology is more correct:

    Dystopie: Fehllagerung; das Vorkommen von Organen an ungewöhnlichen Stellen.

    Gegensatz: Eutopie: normale Lage von Organen.

    If your organs are at the right spot, it is a eutopia. If the are on the wrong spot, it is a dystopia.

    Now the question: If they are not there at all, is it then a utopia?

  3. Don't remember if it was Fowler (or Amis?), but somebody mentioned acoustic actually used to have -aʊ-.

    The writing would be explained by a loan from French, or, as maybe with nous, by a late, learned loan.

  4. I had somehow thought that the [naUs] pronunciation was restricted to the sense 'cleverness', which does not exist in AmE, and that philosophers spoke of [nus] everywhere. But perhaps not.

    In any case, I suspect the [ju] pronunciation of Greek [u] is confined to Greek words that came into English through Latin directly or indirectly.

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