Psapfo, Latinization, and voiceless bilabial fricative f

from Willis Barnstone’s translation of Sappho’s poems, a footnote on the intricacies of the pronunciation of her name.

I leave the hardest part of this essay to a footnote, still pondering on phi and eta, whether Greek phi = English ph or f, and whether Greek eta = e or i, and a few other enigma. My reasonable premise is that a literary translation is not a chart for imitating ancient phonemes. While it is fun to have an approximate knowledge of ancient Greek phonology, such knowledge is marginal in our pact with the original poet to be a poet in English faithful to song.

McCulloh correctly notes that the phi in ancient Greek was not a voiceless bilabial fricative f but an aspirated plosive p, like the p in pot.

Our traditional preference for the Latin ph misleads us as a good emissary for a Greek utterance. Roman Latin construed the double consonant ph to represent the Greek aspirated p. It worked until approximately the fourth century b.c.e., when the aspirated Greek p evolved into a fricative f. In Latin the ph evolved into a fricative f, which is how it remains today. In English the initial ph reveals only that etymologically the word came to us through Latin from Greek, a nice trophy, but offering just f. No more.

How can we hear an ancient Greek voice, since for most of us Latin ph fails? No way. English is not Greek. In modern tongues and by international phonetic convention, phi is not a plosive p but the voiceless bilabial fricative f. Hence, when the English name is not too sacred to change, I like to render phi as f rather than the Latin ph, keeping us close to Greek and escaping a Latin presence.

To be loyal to an ancient aspirated phi we should write pilosopy. Then, then initial p would be a plosive p and a bit closer to the classical and archaic phi. No one offers this nutty solution. Latin tongues don’t bother. Spanish gives us filosophia. Why are we loyal to a sign that no longer signifies an original sound in Greek? The strong tradition of shuffling Greek words through an adoptive Latin gives us Alcaeus, not Alkaios, for Sappho’s contemporary poet friend in Lesbos. I find the preponderance and authority of Latinization tough to swallow. As Greece becomes a vivid entity, it is easy to switch to Alkaios. Plato remains Plato, not Platon, the “broad-shouldered.” And when writing about Sappho, it is Sappho. But in her poems, she is Psapfo and, for all the reasons given above, not the mixed signal of Psappho.


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