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U+0343 Combining Greek Koronis [ ̓]; U+1FBD Greek Koronis [᾽]

The Coronis is a diacritic that looks like a smooth breathing, never looks like anything but a smooth breathing (except when it looks like a rough breathing), and can be regarded as a special variant of the smooth breathing. Unicode decomposes U+0343 canonically to U+0313 Combining Comma Above, the smooth breathing. This means that as far as it is concerned, the coronis and the smooth breathing are identical. As we will see, this is correct: while there is a semantic distinction between the two, it is entirely predictable, and Greek typography has never been concerned with distinguishing it anyway.

1. Crasis

The coronis is the Byzantine device for notating a phonological process in Ancient Greek called crasis, whereby the vowel at the end of a word and the vowel at the beginning of the next word were merged together into a third, new vowel or diphthong. For instance,

Crasis was primarily a phenomenon of the spoken language, so it is most frequent in those works whose language was closest to the spoken language: the orators, and the dialogue in drama. Because crasis did not survive into later Greek, its use was something of a shibboleth of 'good Greek' by post-classical authors, but its use became quite formulaic and restricted. Even in Classical Greek, it is characteristic only of phonologically light words, such as articles and conjunctions.

The Ancients rarely marked the ends of words, so they would have no problem writing the instances of crasis above as ΤΟΥΝΟΜΑ, ΕΓΩΙΔΑ, ΤΑΝΔΡΟΣ, ΚΑΓΩ, ΠΡΟΥΧΩΝ. If you are writing words separately though, as the Byzantines did, crasis is a problem: you can't break a word like τουνομα up into το and ονομα. If you have the somewhat more frequent phenomenon of elision, whereby one vowel simply dropped off, then you can apply the apostrophe:

But a spelling like τ' οὔνομα or τού 'νομα would be nonsensical here: neither οὔνομα nor τού are real words, and they don't make it clear that this is crasis rather than elision.

The solution the Byzantines put in place was to appeal to the fact that every Greek word starting with a vowel or diphthong—including those undergoing crasis—has a breathing at that start. If we write the two words that have undergone crasis as one string, τούνομα, we have no hint that this is underlyingly two words. But if we keep the second word's breathing where it would have gone, we have our hint: a breathing mark, in the middle of a word where it isn't supposed to be, indicates that this used to be the beginning of a new word:

And that's all the coronis is. A visual reminder of a breathing mark that is underlyingly there, as the beginning of a new word, but on the surface has been effaced through crasis. Since it is a visual reminder of a breathing mark, it behaves in the way a breathing mark behaves; as you can see in τοὔνομα, ἐγδα and προὔχων, it interacts with other Greek diacritics in the way a breathing mark normally does. So it is typographically identical to a breathing mark, and always has been.

Moreover, though it is semantically distinct from a breathing mark (marking crasis rather than the beginning of a word), its location is entirely predictable:

So the coronis is a misplaced breathing mark, and its location is predictable: there is no need to have a distinct codepoint for it.

In papyrology, coronis—literally 'hook'—refers to a dingbat used to mark the end of a chapter or poem. Much bigger than a breathing mark, and unrelated to it.

2. The Preempted Coronis

The rule I've just stated—a coronis is a breathing mark after a consonant—may look suspicious to you. Didn't crasis also happen where the first word had no consonant—so that the resultant word does not have a consonant before the coronis? To clarify: in κγώ, we know that the mark is a coronis, because it is preceded by a kappa: the first word started with a kappa. But what if the first word did not have a consonant at all; the rule "coronis after a consonant" would not stand.

In fact, there are lots of crases where the first word has no consonant: they include the exclamation ὦ ôː 'Oh', and the articles, ὁ ἡ οἱ αἱ ho, heː, hoi, hai. (Remember, in Ancient Greek, h doesn't count as a consonant.) So:

So how are these crases written in Greek orthography? Exactly as they are pronounced:

Coronis? What coronis? In all these cases, the coronis (reminding you that there used to be a breathing on the second word) has nowhere to go—because the breathing mark of the first word, obligatory on any Greek string starting with a vowel, is still there. One alpha isn't big enough for both a rough breathing and a coronis; there can be only one. And the rough breathing has a more important job to do than the coronis: it tells you that 'the man', haːnéːr, was pronounced differently than just 'man', anéːr. So there is no coronis in this case, and the rule "coronis after consonant" stands.

The downside to this notation is that you have to know Greek to know that there has been crasis here: you have to know that 'man' doesn't normally take a rough breathing, so that h must belong to an article; or that háteros, the older form of héteros, was kept around for crases ('the others' should have been hoúteroi, cf. houmoí); or that initial hoː- is going to turn up whenever a dramatic character gets worked up. This is none too pleasant, and it's not surprising that the article-based crases, at least, weren't as popular with later atticists.

If the crasis gives rise to an initial diphthong, but the word to the left of the crasis is a single vowel, then you can have both words' breathing marks appear: ὁ ὀλύμπιος ho + olýmpios > houlýmpios "the Olympian" is normally written οὑλύμπιος, but has also been written (quite rarely) as ὁὐλύμπιος.

3. The Rough Coronis

There is one way in which the coronis does not slavishly follow the breathing mark it is standing in for. So far we have seen crases where the second word has a smooth breathing. When the second word has a rough breathing, the h remains in place; if there is a preceding consonant, it is usually t or k, which the h ends up converting to th or kh (as you might expect):

So the crasis is happening as normal, and the h is swapped in front of the resulting vowel/diphthong. In conventional Greek orthography, these crases are written with the normal smooth breathing mark as the coronis—although the original breathing mark of the second word was rough:

There are two catches here. First, in the very frequent cases of a t or k being involved, there is an orthographic indication of the erstwhile h there: the fact that you now have a theta or chi materialise. To keep a rough breathing in place there would be, in effect, to write the h twice: θἠμέρᾳ corresponds to theːméraːi, while θμέρᾳ would correspond to thheːméraːi. So replacing the erstwhile rough breathing with a smooth in that context makes phonological sense. (I am discounting the cases with no preceding consonant, as we have just seen they don't have a coronis at all.)

The second is that philologists often enough put a rough breathing there anyway. The following counts of instances in the TLG corpus are indicative:

Smooth coronis Rough coronis
χὠς 19 χὡς 6
χὠ 236 χὡ 43
θἀμαρτάνειν 2 θἁμαρτάνειν 1
χἄτεροι 3 χἅτεροι 4
χοὖτος 14 χοὗτος 4
θοἰμάτιον 118 θοἱμάτιον 6

While most instances treat the coronis as a fixed crasis marker, whatever the original second word breathing might have been, a minority preserve that marker, making the coronis wholly dependent on the original breathing. One might note that the redundancy of a rough coronis after an aspirated consonant contributes to the use of a smooth coronis in those contexts; where an aspirated consonant is not involved, it appears philologists are readier to use the rough coronis. (Thus, Aristophanes Frogs 169 mèː heúroː > m[h]eúroː 'lest I find' is written as μηρω.)

This undermines the notion that the coronis is a sign distinct from the breathing mark: its distribution is in predictable complementary distribution to that of the breathing mark, and its form as smooth or rough is not necessarily independent of the original mark on the second word.

The reason for Unicode not to grant the coronis an underlyingly distinct codepoint was a blanket agnosticism about diacritics. Diacritics have very different semantics from language to language, and rather than encode each variation in meaning, Unicode has elected to simply encode the shape: if two diacritics from whatever languages look identical, they are deemed to be identical. This runs roughshod over any semantic distinction between breathing marks and coronis; but as I believe I have shown, that distinction survives its elimination as a distinct codepoint anyway.

4. The Modern Coronis

Standard Modern Greek has elision in profusion, especially in the spoken language; it does not have crasis, however, in that two vowels in the modern language don't merge together to give a third (with one exception mentioned below). Instead, there is a detailed rule of precedence saying which of the two vowels gets to survive, according to their height and stress, which George Hatzidakis formulated in the 1890s.

But Greek orthography is bound by tradition, and even when people were writing Modern Greek, they were reluctant to admit that the rules of the language had really changed. So if the elision in the Modern Greek they were writing involved a clitic, a phonologically light word—the kind of word that in Classical Greek would trigger crasis—they wrote it as if it was a crasis:

In a concession to common sense, these pseudo-crases weren't accented as if they were Ancient Greek: they usually featured only acutes, whereas some of the examples above would 'properly' require circumflexes.

These coronides are breathing marks, and so they don't sit comfortably with the monotonic system. They had already been rejected in the polytonic system of writing the modern language, in favour of the apostrophe and analysis as elision, by Manolis Triantafyllidis, who codified Demotic Greek grammar in 1941. So the coronis is no longer in productive use in Greek, though it was still abundantly used in the 1960s, and use doubtless continues among traditionalists to this day.

One will also see instances with neither apostrophe nor coronis, but the entire compound written as an uninterrupted word: σούλεγε, τάδα. This is not correct by the norms of the written language, but it happens anyway.

5. The Dialectal Coronis

Since there is no crasis in Standard Modern Greek, there is no ambiguity about where one word ends and where the other begins, and everything can be handled with apostrophes: either one vowel goes or the other.

That is so for the standard language; but as Nicholas Andriotis expounds in a 1960 paper, just about every Modern Greek dialect does have a new crasis, unrelated to those of Ancient Greek: u + e > o. The phenomenon is widespread enough that it was routinely seen in Modern Greek texts before the Modern Athenian standard was established as the norm; and because Modern Greek literature spent a long time taking rural, 'unsullied' Greek as its model, it persisted for a while after that, too. With this phenomenon, we have:

As with the Ancient crasis, it is awkward to impose a word break here, and split the word as σό 'λεγα or σ' όλεγα. With the monotonic system and its abandonment of the coronis, however, this becomes a necessity; and the former breaking up (which at least leaves the verb alone) is seen on older texts transported to the monotonic.

Nick Nicholas, opoudjis [AT] optusnet . com . au
Created: 2003-07-16; Last revision: 2008-05-05