Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Asper spiritus

Rough breathing. δασὺ πνεῦμα. Spiritus asper. Whatever you like. It's all the same.

Sometimes I get down on Ancient Greek grammarians when compared to their Indian counterparts. After all, how am I supposed to take the Greek descriptions of the language seriously when they didn't know the proper difference between voiced and voiceless consonants. (/p/ and /b/ are the same except /p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced.)

On the other hand, they did get something quite right. Instead of inflicting a separate letter for /h/ like the Romans, they gave us the rough breathing because /h/ isn't a real consonant.

Wait. /h/ isn't a consonant?

Isn't /h/ called a glottal fricative on the IPA chart? Well…yeah…it is. We call it a fricative, even though we know better. The wikipedia article addresses the concerns well enough for my purposes. If you're all tl, dr on the wiki link the argument is this: the /h/ sound is produced at the glottis which is where the sound is made but there is no constriction of the vocal tract as with other fricatives like /s/ or /z/. It's all free flow. (Wait. It's a vowel?)

Anyway. The Greeks get it right with the breathing mark.The Romans screw it up. They promote /h/ to full blown consonant with its own letter—and then to keep things simple it later marks aspiriation. After all, "ph" represents /ph/ and not /f/.

(And yes, I'm aware of the development of the breathing marks out of actual letters. I'm just trying to give some credit to the Ancient Greeks for hitting on something kind of odd.)