As I prepare to drift off to sleep at night my bedside radio is tuned to BBC R4. After the midnight news comes the regular soothing sequence of Book of the Week, then Sailing By, then the shipping forecast… I’m usually deep in slumber by now.
Except when I am jerked awake by an interesting or unusual pronunciation. It happened twice last night.
The current Book of the Week is The Hemlock Cup, written and read by Bettany Hughes. It is a historical account of Socrates’s life in ancient Athens. Last night we heard how the philosopher, carrying out his citizen’s duty as a hoplite in the Athenian army, fought at the battle of Potidaea (Ancient Greek Ποτίδαια). Ms Hughes pronounced this name, several times, as ˌpɒtɪˈdeɪə.
But when I was at school it was ˌpɒtɪˈdiːə. Agh! the creeping non-classical-Greek, non-classical-Latin, non-English rendering of Greek αι, Latin ae as eɪ instead of classical aɪ or English post-Great-Vowel-Shift iː again! We’re used to this in vertebrae by now, but how far is it going to go? Are we going to start calling Caesar ˈseɪzə? Bettany Hughes is a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, part of the University of London, and well known as a historian, author and broadcaster. How does she pronounce Aegean, Aesop, Mycenae, Thermopylae? I only ask.
OK, non-classical words are different: Disraeli, Gaelic, maelstrom have eɪ.
I’ll keep the second sleep-inhibiting shock for tomorrow.