What did short monophthongal epsilon and omicron sound like in 5th Century BC Attic Greek?

One extrapolation is Modern Greek, which (as Rich Alderson’s answer says) has them as short mid-high tense: [e̞ o̞].

Sidney Allen’s Vox Graeca is the authoritative work in English on Ancient Greek pronunciation and the evidence we have for it, and it treats short mid-high tense as the default assumption. It rejects the notion that they were close mid [e o], because that would have likely clashed with the newly monophthongised <ei> <ou>, which were pronounced [eː oː]. He concedes that <ei> [eː], which historically reflected Homeric <ee>, was the long version of /e/;

But phonetically Attic ε probably lies midway between classical η [ɛː] and ει [eː], and there seems nothing to be gained by setting it in a special relationship with either.

I must say that I don’t find this argument convincing, but I do agree that mid-high is the null hypothesis.

Allen thinks the fact that Latin ĭ was often transliterated as Greek ε indicates not that Greek ε sounded like an “i”, but that Latin ĭ sounded like an “e” (“peculiarly open”—which I’ll translate into IPA as [ɪ]—”and so as near to Greek ε as to ι”. Ditto Greek ο used for Latin ŭ (presumably closer to [ʊ]).

The fact that Greek o transliterated the ŭ of other languages, e.g. Persian and Sanskrit (Mardonius, Greek <Mardonios>, was Old Persian Marduniya), indicates to him that the alternative υ was not by then [u] at all but [y]. Greeks at this point are likely asking “then why didn’t they use ου?! <Mardounios>” Because ου was a long vowel (Mardūnios); and back in Classical times, the difference between short and long vowels was extremely important.

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