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The spiritus lenis (Latin for "smooth breathing"; Ancient Greek ψιλὸν πνεῦμα psilòn pneûma) is a diacritical mark used in the polytonic orthography. In ancient Greek, it indicates the lack of initial aspiration, or the absence of the voiceless glottal fricative (/h/) from the beginning of a word. Some authorities have interpreted it as representing a glottal stop, but a final vowel at the end of a word is regularly elided (shortened) where the following word starts with a vowel. Spiritus lenis would not happen if the second word began with a glottal stop (or any form of stop consonant). In his Vox Graeca, W. Sidney Allen accordingly regards the glottal stop interpretation as "highly improbable".[1]

The spiritus lenis ( ᾿ ) is written as on top of, or to the left of, an initial vowel (the second vowel of a pair comprising a diphthong), and also in certain editions on the first of a pair of rhos. It did not occur on an initial upsilon.

The spiritus lenis was kept in the traditional polytonic orthography even after the /h/ sound had disappeared from the language in Hellenistic times. It has been dropped in the modern monotonic orthography.

The origin of the sign is thought to be the right-hand half–  ┤  –of the letter H, which was used in some Greek dialects as an [h] while in others it was used for the vowel eta. In medieval and modern script, it takes the form of a closing half moon (reverse C) or a closing single quotation mark:

  • ἀ - ἐ - ἠ - ἰ - ὀ - ὐ - ῤ - ὠ
  • Ἀ - Ἐ - Ἠ - Ἰ - Ὀ - Ὠ

Psila pneumata were also used in the early Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets when writing the Old Church Slavonic language. Today it is used in Church Slavonic according to a simple rule: if a word starts with a vowel, the vowel has a psili over it. From the Russian writing system, it was eliminated by Peter the Great during his alphabet and font-style reform (1707). All other Cyrillic-based modern writing systems are based on the Petrine script, so they have never had the psili.

In Unicode, the code points assigned to the spiritus lenis are U+0313 ( ◌̓ ) named “COMBINING COMMA ABOVE” for Greek and U+0486 ( ◌҆ ) named “COMBINING CYRILLIC PSILI PNEUMATA” for Cyrillic. The pair of space + spiritus lenis is U+1FBF ( ᾿ ), named “GREEK PSILI”.

See also


  1. ^ W. Sidney Allen (1968-74). Vox Graeca: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Greek. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20626-X.  


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