The main UK commercial TV station, ITV, is currently in the midst of a major weekly costume drama series, Downton Abbey, set in the England of a hundred years ago.
In this week’s episode the upper-class family who live in the big house, after the death of the heir in the Titanic disaster, are struggling with the fact that the new heir to the property, a rather distant relative, seems be insufferably upper-middle class. Not quite one of us. The chap prefers to dress himself instead of using the services of his valet! Doesn’t hunt! Clearly a bounder.
One of the devices the playwright (Julian Fellowes) deploys to let the family demonstrate its upper-class values is having them discuss Greek mythology over the dinner table. (But the new master passes the test, by being able to join in intelligently.)
Without exception the actors pronounce Perseus as ˈpɜːsiəs and Cepheus as ˈsiːfiəs. I can’t help feeling that this is wrong for the period. Even when I did classics at school half a century later they were without hesitation ˈpɜːsjuːs and ˈsiːfjuːs. The same applies to all other Greek names in -ευς -eus: Zeus, Theseus, Aegeus. Historically, I think, this is because this ending was monosyllabic in Greek, with a diphthong, rather than a disyllabic with a vowel sequence. To compose Greek verse (as we did at school) it is extremely important to know the exact number of syllables in every word, so you had to get this right.
Today’s actors, for all their other undoubted skills in reproducing the upper-class speech of a century ago, never had to compose Greek verse and do not know this; and no one has told them.
Footnote: in Greek, Perseus appears not only as Περσεύς (two syllables) but also as Περσέας Perséas (three syllables). I don’t know why English chose the former variant as the source of the name; but in any case it’s irrelevant to the mores of the upper class in 1912.