The Sound of Greek Poetry

This is a recitation of Book Six of the Iliad in the original language, beginning at line 237.

Ancient Greek and Latin poetry was based on vowel quantity, which is the literal length of time it takes to pronounce a syllable. This is hard for English speakers to pick up on- we’re used to stress, not length, being relevant, as in the difference between “content” and content,” and the sentences “I didn’t take the money” and “I didn’t take the money.” 

English does have vowel length, though. You can hear it in the difference between the “i” in “big” and the same sound in “little.” We spend a little more time on the first “i” than the second. That’s vowel quantity, and even though we hardly hear it, it’s more obvious in Greek and Latin.

Poetry based on quantity sounds slightly different from English poetry. Because there are two vowel lengths, it sound like a piece of music with two notes. That doesn’t really do it justice, does it? Anyway, the basic line of Classical verse (almost) always ends the same way, with a dactyl (long-short-short) followed by a spondee (long-long), which sounds like “dum diddy dum dum,” or, in a Latin classroom, “shave and a haircut.”

The result is that lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey end with a kind of tonal rhyme. You get that “shave and a haircut” sound at the end of every one. You can hear it in the video, if you listen well.