To C or Not To See?
The quandary of ancient pronunciations in a modern world
Let's not get too comfortable with me posting here on Substack so quickly after the first post. I don't envision posting super frequently, but only when we have announcements to make or an idea strikes me that seems suited to this particular format. But lo and behold, I got one of those ideas today. So here we go.
When pronouncing names and words from ancient Greek or Roman, should we be using a hard C or a soft C? For example: Should it be “Massadonian” or “Makedonian” when we discuss the ancient people that Alexander the Great ruled over? Or should it be “Ciththian” or “Skythian” (for the tribal people called “Scythian” in it's most popular written form)? Some time ago I made the decision to go with the hard K much of the time (when it doesn't cause confusion). Some people don't care for it, and I don't blame them at all.
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Some people think it is a blatant mistake and that I just don't know the right way to pronounce the word(s). Given that I am no language expert (heck I am not even a language novice) I don't blame them for thinking that either. Anyone who learns primarily from books is going to deal with the pronunciation problem at some point. Thankfully these days the Internet is somewhat more helpful than when we started podcasting in terms of giving us audio pronunciations to sample to help us (although these can be dodgy too). But the hard C soft C question for ancient Greek and Latin is an altogether different debate.
Like most of you I learned that in English you pronounce words like Macedonian with a soft C. That's how I grew up. When I began wargaming at about 12 years old there were lots of conversations with older folk who knew much more about ancient Greek and Latin and the debate would arise over gaming tables. Still, I don't remember many people actually using the hard C sounds. But sometime in the 1980s and 1990s all of a sudden a few books here and there started to just take a stand and not leave the pronunciation to chance...they actually threw the letter K in there and let the chips fall where they may. I occasionally started seeing words like “Makedonian” and “Skythian” in some of my history or history-related books. And so the linguistic Rubicon had been crossed and the pronunciation die been cast.
I should stress that the VAST majority of works still follow the traditional English form for words like Macedonian or Scythian. Any rebel pronunciations are the distinct minority. But let me make the case for why I went that route personally.
First, let's point out that it's not uncommon for peoples to have names in their own language for other peoples who use a different name for themselves. Germany is, well, “Germany” to English speakers (and Allemagne to French speakers) but of course it is Deutschland to Germans. Should we all change the way we say the name of that nation? I think not. I don't think that messes us up too much. But the hard C soft C issue doesn't just change the sound of a name or place here or there, it changes ALL of them. When you look at a language that used the K (or hard C) sound routinely and then today substitute the soft C sound in all (or most) of those cases you start a cascading domino effect that distorts everything. It also makes things like etymology much more complicated for the laypeople (such as myself).
For example: Many know that the words Kaiser (a term used for German emperors) and Czar (the Russian Imperial title) both stem from the word Caesar. But it's not that apparent by looking at them. If, however, you pronounce Caesar with the hard C instead of the soft one the etymology isn't just clear, it's crystal clear. In the case of the word “Kaiser” it is almost identical. All of a sudden I imagine the early 20th Century Germans calling their ruler “Caesar”, which seems a weird twist to me, and yet it isn't a weird twist...it's what they were actually doing. There's historical clarity-related value in that it seems to me.
And while no one knows exactly why Macedonia has the name it does, the legendary/mythical figure often tied to the name is a son of Zeus named Makedon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makedon_(mythology). Must we also change the name of Zeus' children when speaking English? But if we DON'T, isn't it weird to call Zeus' kid Makedon but the supposed people connected to the god “Massedonians”?(this is what I mean about the cascading domino effect of the sound/pronunciation alterations).
Another argument for why anyone would want to change a convention that has been a part of the English language for many years is that it takes us farther away from what those words really sounded like to the people who coined them. Not just in the past, but even today. They don't say “Massedonia” in Greece or the Balkans today. It is pronounced with the hard C. Just as it formerly was. Alexander wouldn't recognize the Massedonia pronunciation. Virtually no one in the ancient world who knew of the existence of that polity would recognize it either. If you use the hard C you are in line with the ancients....use the soft C and we are another step removed from them. Again, there seems value to me in preserving the links that we can to the past where we can.
Then there's the way it sounds to the ear. Modern Latin for example, softens much of the ancient version of the tongue (again, often by softening the C). Today's ecclesiastical-style Latin for example is considered a much more mellifluous-sounding language than the harsher version the ancient Romans likely spoke. But when you hear how that earlier version sounded (or a modern attempt to recreate how it might have sounded would be a better way to phrase it) it sounds like the language of a strong, aggressive people who conquered tons of other places (“creating a wasteland and calling it peace” as it was said). Here's a clip from a TV show where they are attempting (so I am told) to use the version of the language more like the Roman Empire would have spoken it. It sounds like a tongue spoken by people who create wastelands and call it peace.
The real problem for me as a podcaster comes more with the personal names than referring to Macedonians as Makedonians or Scythians as Skythians. If people know what I mean when I use the hard C and just think I am making an error, that's one thing. But if I am actively confusing them, then that's another. If I start saying “Keyzer” instead of Caesar or “Kikero” instead of Cicero, then people get lost and can't follow what we are talking about. So that's where I draw the line. But we should remember that many of the words we have for classical world ancient peoples are the Greek and Roman words for them.The Scythians probably didn't call themselves that. So we are already one degree removed from the real name of that tribal steppe people. If we then alter the Greek name for them we add another degree of separation. With each degree we lose something. At least that's how it seems to me. (But my wife says that I can be an infuriating purist, so perhaps factor that into things).
Now I made this my personal choice a while ago...but what to say in a podcast? And how to be consistent if you've already said it one way? Or to be consistent if you are choosing to be a pronunciation rebel when you say “Makedonian” but still call Kikero Cicero? Clearly there may be a price to pay here in linguistic consistency if one wants to have “Alexander of Makedonia” sound closer to the way it did when Alexander lived. I am curious how the audience feels.
On another note, I received an email from a listener asking if this substack sign up is free. It IS free. The plan wasn't to write pieces like the one you just read, but to have the equivalent of a direct line to you for announcements (new show drops, new merch available, personal appearances happening, etc). If I DO find myself writing pieces like the above often enough to think it would be justifiable to monetize this substack thing, we might consider that. But since the most important role this is to play for us is as a communication tool between you and me, I want to make sure we don't lose a lot of you if we flip the monetization switch someday. I am a substack newbie, but I believe they allow for a sort of two-tiered system where we can keep communicating the way we need to with the free users even if we someday charge for the longer content-type material (as opposed to the announcement type posts).
I promise to keep you all in the loop. The bottom line for us is the more of you that sign up for this the better this does what we hoped it would do for us. So I don't want to do anything that might inhibit that aspect of the substack service. We need to be able to reach you when we have something to tell you...and that's the most valuable part. So, thanks for signing up for this. We hope to make it worth your while.
And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Now clearly we already DO change the name of the Greek mythological Gods. They've already been anglicized when we say them. This would add yet another degree of separation from the original though.
Also, one of the advantages of this substack over the podcast is the ease in making corrections or adding clarifications. Based on what feedback we get from this post we just may do that. Let’s not fear the corrections! It’s a feature not a bug. And I am not an expert, so this will be a useful tool for us.