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How do you pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo's last name? Historical Greek Phonology & the Greek Freak

It is not very often that my field, historical Greek phonology, and modern sports culture cross paths. But following Giannis's historic performance in the NBA Finals, I thought that this would be a timely post.

It is no surprise that a name like Giannis Antetokounmpo would be difficult to pronounce by many commentators in the sports world. Look no further than here for a few examples of some 🤦‍♂️ pronunciations of the name:

While Giannis tends to be quite gracious about mispronunciations of his name, the Finals MVP and his heritage are worthy of the respect shown by putting in a little effort to learn about his name. I hope to do that (and a bit more) in this blog post. Here, I'm going to take you through a bit of a lesson in historical Greek phonology to explain not just the pronunciation of Giannis's name, but also why it is spelled the way that it is and how it came to be spelled that way.

How do we pronounce the name Antetokounmpo?

Image by Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Giannis Antetokounmpo, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Although Giannis was born in Athens, Greece, he is of Nigerian descent. Both his parents are from Nigeria; his mother is Igbo and his father Yoruba (see here). His last name is thus Yoruba and means 'the crown came from over the sea'. In Yoruba, the name comes from the root Adé tọ òkun bọ' (see here) and is pronounced like ah-de-toh-koon-boh (but note that the koon syllable can actually just be koo with a nasalized vowel).

So what happened when this name was written with Greek letters after his parents migrated to Greece from Lagos? Well, to answer this, we need to have a little lesson in historical Greek phonology and scribal practices.

There are two particular phenomena in the history of the Greek language that we need to understand to explain the spelling of adetokunbo in Greek: (i) the change of stop consonants to fricatives and (ii) nasal weakening.

In its earliest days, the Greek letters β γ δ were pronounced more or less just like the English letters b g d. However, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, these sounds started to become "fricativized". This basically means that instead of pronouncing them by stopping the airflow in your mouth as "b" "g" "d", they came to be pronounced by letting air flow through a gap in the mouth as "v" "ɣ" "ð": "v" like English "vote", "ɣ" as in the word "ugh", and "ð" as in the English word "the". After this change, which was more or less complete by the 4th c. CE, Greek had no single letter to represent the sounds "b", "g", or "d" any more.

So how could Greek signify a "b" "g" or "d" sound after these letters changed? Well, to answer that question, we need to turn to the second phenomenon, namely, the weakening of nasal consonants.

A nasal consonant is basically one that you pronounce by letting some air flow through your nose. In English, this means the sounds "m" and "n", and Greek has the sounds μ (m) and ν (n) as well.

Now in ancient Greek, in certain contexts, the nasals μ (m) and ν (n) started to undergo weakening. This could happen at the end of the word or in the middle of a word before a stop consonant like π (p), κ (k), τ (t).

Basically what this means, is that in a word like πέντε, which was originally pronounced as pente in Classical Greek, the ν (n) would gradually start to fall out so that you wouldn't always pronounce the ν in the word anymore. Now when this happened, the nasal "n" didn't just fall out without a trace. It left behind a bit of a remnant. It might have made the vowel before the "n" a bit nasal sounding, so instead of pronouncing the beginning of the word as pe, you pronounced it as [pẽ̞] (i.e., with a nasally "e"). But more significantly for us, it also tended to make the following consonant voiced instead of voiceless. What does that mean? Well, if you say certain sounds while touching your neck at the place of your vocal chords, you can feel if they vibrate or not. For example, if you say "t" "t" "t", you don't feel your vocal chords vibrate, but if you say "d" "d" "d", you do. The same holds for "p" "p" "p", with no vibration, and "b" "b" "b" with vibration.

So in a word like πέντε (pente) [pe̞nte̞], the weakening of the nasal could lead to the dropping out of the "n" sound and/or the change of the "t" to a "d" sound: i.e., pe(n)de. And we indeed find an ancient inscription in which the word πέντε is instead spelled as πέδε (4th c. BCE Asia Minor). To this day, the word πέντε is pronounced in Greek as pe(n)de.

And this phenomenon did not just happen with ν (n) and τ (t), but also with other sequence of nasals and stops, like μ (m) and π (p), so that a word like πέμπω pempo, originally [pe̞mpɔː] could be pronounced as pe(m)bo [pe̞(m)bo̞], at least by some speakers.

Now remember what we said earlier about Greek not having any single letters to represent the sounds "b" "g" "d" after Greek β γ δ shifted to the fricatives "v" "ɣ" "ð"? Well, thanks to the weakening of the nasal consonants, there were now two-letter sequences that could (at least theoretically) be used to represent the stop sounds. And that's exactly what happened. Over time, eventually the sequence ντ could be used to represent the sound "d" if it was needed in spelling a foreign word and the sequence μπ could be used to represent the sound "b" if it was needed in spelling a foreign word.

These conventions eventually became regularised so that in Greek today, a foreign "d" sound is normally spelled with ντ (nt) and a foreign "b" sound is normally spelled with μπ (mp). You can see this quite clearly in the spelling of a name like "David Beckham", which is spelled in Greek as Ντέιβιντ Μπέκαμ, the English-letter equivalent of which would be Nteivint Mpekam. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with David Beckham's name coming into English via its Greek spelling, or the football announcers would have been talking about "nteivint" running around the pitch!

So what does this mean for the Greek freak?

Well, given the fact that his Yoruba name has two stop sounds "d" and "b", each of these had to be represented in Greek with a two-letter sequence. So the "d" in "ade" was written with an ντ (nt) in Greek (αντε = ante) and the "b" in "kunbo" was written with an μπ (mp) in Greek (κουνμπο = kounmpo).

When you look at it like that, the Greek spelling is actually a direct transliteration of the Yoruba name "adetokunbo" → αντετοκουνμπο (antetokounmpo) according to normal Greek spelling conventions.

Now, linguistically, this just explains the history and the spelling. Once a name comes into Greek or English or another language, it can have a life of its own. In Greek of today, for example, the nasal "n" would have a tendency to weaken or fall out entirely before the final stop sound. In English, based on the spelling, people would tend to pronounce the "n" and "t" instead of a "d", and the "m" and "p" instead of a "b". Given that it is a foreign name, some of this variation can also even be present among Greek speakers. Even within Greek, note that the sequence ντ exhibits some variation, it can be pronounced as "nd" (in slower speech or in certain contexts or among certain speakers) or even as a simple "d" (in certain contexts, among certain speakers, etc.). For example, the Greek word for goodbye, adio, is spelled in Greek as αντίο (antio). Indeed, if you listen to Greek commentators pronounce αντετοκουνμπο, not all do it the same way. Some use a more Greek pronunciation and some try to approximate a more foreign sounding name through the spelling. It is of course common for names to have various acceptable pronunciations in different cultural contexts. Giannis himself seems to be flexible in this respect when describing how to pronounce his name:

Where does the name Giannis come from?

Although it is undoubtedly the last name that gives people most trouble, the first name also deserves a few comments. After all, we are not used to a word initial g being pronounced more like a y. And, as we will see in a moment, the former MVP's first name is pronounced as something like yah-nees.

The name Giannis is actually the Greek version of the name John. The name John and Giannis both go back to the Hebrew name yoħanan or yoħanna (note that the ħ symbol is pronounced as a guttural in the throat). So how did yoħanan eventually become Giannis?

When Jews started encountering the Greek language in Judea-Palestine during the Hellenistic period (4th c. BCE‒1st c. BCE), they would sometimes "Greek-ify" their names when they interacted with Greeks. In the case of the name yoħanan or yoħanna, this meant getting rid of the guttural sound and adding a Greek ending -es. The result was the following transformation: yoħanan/yoħanna became ἰωάννης (in English letters: ioannes). Over time, two developments occurred. First, the Greek letter η, which originally sounded like "ey" in English hey (but without the "y"), came to be pronounced like "ee" as in English see. Second, the "o" near the beginning of the name dropped out. This resulted in a pronunciation like yah-nees.

Now all that remains is to explain why the name is spelled with a "gi" at the beginning rather than a "y"...

Already in Koine Greek—meaning Greek that was spoken from around the 4th c. BCE to the 4th c. CE—something was happening to the letter/consonant gamma γ, which often corresponds to English "g". Although Greek gamma γ originally sounded like English "g", it started to get a bit rumbly—or in linguistic terms "fricative"—during the Hellenistic period. This means that it started to sound like the following:

And before certain vowels, notably the "ee" sound, Greek gamma γ started to sound a bit more like English "y", but still with a bit of a rumble (or "frication") to it:

We know that this happened already in ancient Greek because we find some "misspellings" in ancient inscriptions like ιη "ie" for the word γη "ge".

This whole linguistic process is called palatalization and it happens a lot in Greek throughout its history, not just with gamma γ but with kappa κ and chi χ and other letters as well.

In any case, an interesting thing happened as a result of this change. Because Greek has no "y" sound, just the vowel iota ι, which is pronounced like English "ee", the sequence gamma-iota γι, which would be transliterated in English as "gi", eventually came to be used to transcribe a "y" sound in other languages. But note that in Greek gamma-iota γι is not quite "y" but "y" with a little bit of a rumble, also known as a voiced palatal fricative ([ʝ] in official linguistic notation). It is also true that in native Greek words a word-initial iota ι before another vowel eventually came to be pronounced as this rumbly "y" as well. That's why ancient Greek has a word like ιατρος iatros for doctor, but Modern Greek spells it as γιατρος giatros.

The same thing happened with the name Giannis. In Ancient Greek, you just spelled it with an iota ι. In Modern Greek, in order to clearly represent the rumbly "y" sound, the sequence gamma-iota γι is used.

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This interesting research into ancient Greek phonology gives light on the sound of Giannis Antetokounmpo's name, revealing the linguistic alterations that happened when his Yoruba name was transliterated into Greek. Understanding these language differences deepens our appreciation for both the player's history and the complexity of cross-cultural communication in sports. geometry dash

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