What is an accent?

We get the word accent from from Latin accentus < adcanō (cf. Greek προσῳδία). English doesn’t typically mark stress with accents, but we do use stress (contrast the pronunciation of the words “photograph” and “photography”). If we were to mark our stress with accents, we would call them stress accents.

Ancient Greek initially used pitch accents (rising and falling pitch; compare tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese). By ~400 AD, however, Greek shifted into using stress accents, just like we have in English. Since a) English speakers have a very hard time with anything involving pitch differentiation since we have none of it in English and b) scholars don’t even know exactly how the Greek pitch accents sounded anyhow, everyone nowadays uses stress accents when pronouncing ancient Greek.

Writing accents in Greek

There was a writing convention for accents by c. 200 BC, but the one in widespread use in the present day dates back to c. 800s AD. Here’s the basics:

  • Accents are written on vowels. For digraphs and diphthongs, they are written on the the second vowel (just like breathings).
  • There are three types of accent in ancient Greek, which initially corresponded to changes in pitch:
    • ´ acute: rise in pitch
    • ` grave: ? (originally: lower pitch)
    • ˆ ˜ circumflex: rise and lower quickly
    • A circumflex can only appear on long vowels (ᾱ, η, ῑ, ῡ, ω), digraphs, or diphthongs
  • When word-initial and sharing space with a breathing, the accent is always written to the right of the breathing (acute/grave; compare ἄνθρωπος) or on top of the breathing (circumflex; compare οἶκος).

When to use a grave accent in place of an acute accent

Accents that are not on the last syllable cannot be grave.

An acute accent on the last syllable will become a grave accent when:

  1. It is followed by word and
  2. There is no intervening punctuation

Thus, for example, we would have

  • … καλὸς ἀγρός … (no intervening punctuation)
  • … καλός. ἀγρός … (intervening punctuation)

Of course, since it is Greek we are talking about here, there are exceptions. Thankfully, they are pretty easy to remember

  • Enclitics (which we will get to below) are an exception: we have καλός ἐστι(ν) rather than καλὸς ἐστι(ν).
  • Interrogative pronouns are an exception: we would write “why is he working?” in Greek as τί πονεῖ rather than τὶ πονεῖ.

How do you know where the accent on a word goes?

Accents for substantives (nouns, adjectives, etc.) are persistent: they stay in the same place. You do have to memorize this initial place, however… and unfortunately there are no good rules to predict it. Some words also change the location of their accent in different forms based on the rule of contonation, which we will go over below. For example:

  • οἶκος → οἴκου
  • ἄνθρωπος → ἀνθρώπου

Accents for verbs always go as far back as possible (i.e., on the earliest syllable they can). Verbs are thus said to have “recessive” accents. This too is determined by the rule of contonation, as we shall see. For example:

  • συλλαμβάνω but συλλάμβανε

Contract verbs appear to violate this pattern, but when you consider how they came to be, they actually do not. Vowel contraction in Greek is complex, and not the focus of this page.

  • πονέει (πονέεὶ) → πονεῖ

Finally, enclitics and proclitics, certain classes of words in Greek, have nonstandard behavior with regards to accents. We will handle them separately below.

Pitch accents and contonation

Recall, the Greek accents were at one time pitch accents. The concept of contonation is as follows: an unaccented vowel following an acute (rising pitch) was historically pronounced with lower pitch to pull the pitch back to neutral, but all other unaccented vowels retain the pitch (are themselves pitch neutral). If you think of plotting the frequency of speech on the y-axis of a graph, the concept of contonation is essentially that speech will always readjust back to zero. Circumflex vowels, since the pitch rises and falls all in one syllable, do not need falling pitch on the syllable following them to keep the net pitch neutral.

Hereafter, ↑ signifies rising pitch, ↓ signifies falling pitch, and − signifies neutral pitch (as found on non-accented vowels not following an acute accent).

Here are a couple of basic examples:

↑   ↓ −
−  ↑


The word mora (pl. morae) comes from Latin mora (“delay”), and basically represents a unit of time. In terms of contonation, neutral vowels can either represent one mora or two morae, depending on their length:

  • short vowels = 1 mora (sign: “−”)
    • “standard”
  • longs (ᾱ, η, ῑ, ῡ, ω, digraphs, diphthongs) = 2 morae (sign: “=”)
    • Exception: final -αι, -οι (verb or substantive) = 1 mora

The rule of contonation

The rule of contonation is simply stated as follows: “no word may have more than one neutral mora before its end.” For example:

      − = ↑ ↓ −
yes: Δικαιόπολις
      − ↑ ↓ − −
no:  Δικαίοπολις
     ↑↓ −
yes: οἶκος
      ↑↓ =
no:   οἶκου

Scholars call the last syllable of Greek words the ultima, the second-to-last the penult, and the third to last the antepenult.

The rule of contonation limits Greek accentuation to the following cases (these tables are completely exhaustive):

(here, short = short vowel, and long = long vowel or diphthong or digraph, except word-final -αι and -οι):


antepenult penult ultima example
acute short or long short ἄνθρωπος
acute long καθίζει
acute short πόνος
acute καλός


antepenult penult ultima example
circumflex (long) πονεῖ
circumflex (long) short σῖτος


  • clitics < κλίνω (“I lean”), “leaners”
  • two types:
    • enclitics < ἐγκλίνω (“I lean upon”), “lean upon” previous word
    • proclitics < προκλίνω (“I lean forward”), “lean forward” on next word
  • unaccented
    • quickly pronounced together
    • in effect, form one word
    • cf. Latin -que, -ve, -ne (Greek: usually written separately)


  • “forward-leaners”
    • ὁ ἄνθρωπος as if: ὁάνθρωπος
  • no effect on accent
    • ὁ οἶκος, never ὅ οικος
  • accent when followed by enclitic
    • ὅ τε οἶκος
  • only 10:
    • definite article w/o τ-: ὁ, ἡ, οἱ, αἱ
    • some prepositions: εἰς, ἐν, ἐκ/ἐξ
    • others: οὐ/οὐκ/οὐχ, εἰ, ὡς


  • Two kinds

    • one syllable, no accent (e.g., τε)
    • two syllables, accent on ultima (e.g., ἐστί(ν))
  • When a word is followed by an enclitic word, there are two possibilities:

    • The enclitic is used as listed in vocabulary, with an accent if applicable (τε, ἐστί(ν))
    • The enclitic “drops” accent (ἐστι(ν))
    • The previous word may gain an acute accent on its ultima (a second accent on the word)
    • We always assume the first case (no changes) unless…

Previous word: acute on antepenult

In this case

  • enclitic has no accent

  • previous word gets additional acute on last vowel

  • preserves rule of contonation

ἄνθρωπός τε is pronounced as if

↑   ↓ ↑  ↓       ↑   ↓ −  −
ἄνθρωπόστε  not  ἄνθρωποστε

ἄνθρωπός ἐστι is pronounced as if

↑   ↓ ↑ ↓  −       ↑   ↓ − −  −
ἄνθρωπόσεστι  not  ἄνθρωποσεστι

Previous word: circumflex on penult

In this case:

  • enclitic has no accent
  • previous word gets additional acute on last vowel
  • preserves rule of contonation

οἶκός τε is pronounced as if

↑↓ ↑  ↓       ↑↓ −  −
οἶκόστε  not  οἶκοστε

οἶκός ἐστι is pronounced as if

↑↓ ↑ ↓  −       ↑↓ − −  −
οἶκόσεστι  not  οἶκοσεστι

Previous word: acute on ultima

In this case:

  • enclitic has no accent
  • acute stays (no grave – lo longer end of word)
  • preserves rule of contonation

καλός τε (not καλὸς τε) is pronounced as if

 − ↑  ↓

καλός ἐστι (not καλὸς ἐστι ) is pronounced as if

 − ↑ ↓  −

Previous word: circumflex on ultima

In this case:

  • enclitic has no accent
  • multi-syllable enclitics violate the rule of contonation!

καλῶν τε is pronounced as if

 − ↑↓ −

In violation of the rule of contonation, καλῶν ἐστι is pronounced as if

  − ↑↓−  −

Recall, the rule of contonation states that no word may have more than one neutral mora before the end of the word, but here we have two. You just have to memorize this case.

Chains of enclitics

  • You can have more than one enclitic in a row.
  • “cascade”
    • disyllabic keeps accent
    • monosyllabic gets acute accent
    • last enclitic no accent
  • Example
    • καλός + ἐστί + τε + ποτέ → καλός ἐστί τέ ποτε

Accents really do matter!

  • Example 1:
    • ἐστί(ν) (enclitic): linking verb or intransitive
    • ὁ πόνος χαλεπός ἐστιν. “The work is difficult.”
    • ἔστι(ν) (not enclitic): stresses existence, fact; intransitive
    • ἔστι πόνος χαλεπός. “There is/exists difficult labor.”
  • Example 2:
    • τις (enclitic) functions as Greek’s indefinite pronoun
    • τίς (not enclitic; accent on first syllabic for multisyllabic forms like τίνα) functions as Greek’s interrogative pronoun.