Lesson α': The Alphabet

The Standard Alphabet

The first step is to begin to read the Greek alphabet. It will be necessary to train your perception to recognize the letters automatically, as you do with the Latin alphabet. This is facilitated by simultaneous use of vision, hearing, and muscular activity. The letters should be sounded out in your head as you look at them, and you should write them constantly, recalling the sound as you do so. Alphabetic writing, as we do in English and Greek, is strongly tied to speech. Greek writing is completely phonetic, unlike English, and this will be found a help. Nevertheless, it will require about a year's practice before you can read the Greek letters with ease. Do not despair; only time and practice can give you the skill, and it will invariably come.

Alphabetic writing began with the Egyptians, whose writing was phonetic. The Phoenicians adopted the Egyptian writing and modified it to suit their Semitic language. As in Egypt, vowel sounds were not represented, since the consonants suggested some word that was known in the spoken tongue (like 'm dg s nmd spt'). Greeks took over the Phoenician symbols, and made them represent Greek sounds, vowels as well as consonants. All this required a thousand years or so, and there were many local variations.

The Greek alphabet reached its definitive form in 5th-century BC Athens, when some letters were dropped, others added, and still others written in new ways, in a thorough standardization of the alphabet. The ways of writing the letters changed gradually. At first, what we call capital letters were used. Then, to facilitate rapid writing with a pen on parchment, these letters were modified into a minuscule form. With the introduction of printing, fonts were designed based on the minuscule letters, and this is the basis for the letters used today in Greek. The capital letters were retained for emphasis, as in Latin. In our style, we use capital letters only for proper nouns, and for the first letter in a paragraph. Sentences begin with the usual small letters. There is no connected script for Greek even today, such as we use in English, but simply rapid ways of writing the minuscule characters.

The Latin alphabet was created from the early Greek alphabet by taking over those letters representing sounds common in the two languages, and adapting the others for Latin sounds that did not occur in Greek. Some of the Greek letters adopted were later dropped in Greek. For example, the digamma, representing a sound that did not occur in Latin, became the letter F, for an unvoiced labiodental sound that Greek did not have. The koppa, representing a guttural sound Latin did not have, became the Q. B represented the voiced labiodental sound in Greek (English v), but Latin used it for the voiced labial sound (English b). This B-V uncertainty was a feature of later Latin, as it yet is in modern Spanish, where vino is pronounced bino. The Latin alphabet was established before the Greek alphabet was regularized in Athens. All this is only so that you recognize the close relation of the two alphabets, and some of the reasons for the differences.

Greek was the international language of the classical world, and a standard Greek, called the koine, 'common', was understood by all educated people, who continued to use their local languages, such as Latin. This standard Greek was well-established by the first century AD, and is the language of Euclid.

You will have to decide on some pronunciation of the Greek letters for your own use. Greek is a living language, and has a modern pronunciation that has evolved from older ones. It would not be satisfactory for you to use this modern pronunciation with Euclid, since it tends to make different spellings sound the same, which will not help you to distinguish words. On the other hand, the accepted 'academic' pronunciation is artificial and strange. Whatever they say, it is impossible to determine how Greek sounded in ancient times, or even in the 1st century AD, and even then there was no one way of pronouncing it, as shown by the many dialect variations in spelling. Since you are not going to speak Greek to another person, it does not matter if you create your own dialect, so long as it is consistent and reasonable. I will say what I do myself, and you may follow, or do something else. It will make no difference. You must, however, do something!

Let us now go through the 24 letters of the standard Greek alphabet, and show their forms and discuss their pronunciations. Each letter has a traditional name, given in italics below.

Α, α: alpha, the vowel a. It can be long, as in father, or short, as in bat.

Β, β: beta, pronounce as v or, if you must, b. I have found no evidence that it was ever pronounced as b in ancient Greek, but they say it was.

Γ, γ: gamma, g, always hard (g, never j). In modern Greek, it has become very soft, so that γι would be pronounced yi. In Latin, it evolved into a k sound, and so c (an archaic way of writing γ) got this sound, and Latin dropped the κ in most words. Two gammas together, γγ, are pronounced ng, as in sing.

Δ, δ: delta, d. In modern Greek, like th in this.

Ε, ε: epsilon, or 'plain e'. A short e.

Ζ, ζ: zeta, z. Academics argue whether it was pronounced zd or dz, but this is pointless. Just say z, as modern Greeks do.

Η, η: eta, a long e (ay). The letter H was transferred to this sound by the Athenians. Latin kept the original.

Θ, θ: theta, th as in thin is good enough. Originally, it was almost surely a breathed t, a tuh sound.

Ι, ι: iota, the vowel i. It can be long, as in machine, or short, as in bit.

Κ, κ: kappa, k.

Λ, λ: lambda, l.

Μ, μ: mu, m. Should be moo, but mew is usual.

Ν, ν: nu, n. Noo is usual, oddly enough.

Ξ, ξ: xi, ks, a double letter, k + s. Did not exist when Latin adopted the X.

Ο, ο: omicron, 'small (or short) o'. As in rot.

Π, π: pi, p. Should be pee, but pie is usual.

Ρ, ρ: rho, r. Trill it if you like.

Σ, σ, s: sigma, s. Not as a z, except in modern Greek before e or i. In old scripts, written as C. At the ends of words, has the form s.

Τ, τ: tau, t. The alphabet of the Phoenicians ended here. All following letters were specially created for Greek.

Υ, υ: upsilon, 'plain u', pronounced ü. Became Y when later taken over into the Latin alphabet.

Φ, φ: phi, f. Should be fee, but usually it is fie. In archaic Greek, it was puh, but later the Latin f was adopted.

Χ, χ: chi, ch as in loch or ach, never as in chap. Say kye, but key is better. Used by Latin for ks, X, since Latin has few guttural sounds.

Ψ, ψ: psi, ps, a double letter, p + s.

Ω, ω: omega, 'big O', a long o as in rote.

Vowel Combinations

When a vowel is followed by ι or υ, the result is usually a new sound, called a diphthong, which is strictly a blending of two sounds, but sometimes is actually a new pure sound. These diphthongs are:

αι: eye

ει: ay

οι: oy

υι: oui

αυ: ow

ου: oo (a pure sound)

ευ: ehf, perhaps eh-oo

ηυ: ayf, perhaps ay-oo

In pronouncing the first four, there should be some lip or tongue motion as in a true diphthong. I have suggested a modern Greek pronunciation for the last two, since the alternative seems very clumsy in certain words. The Royal Army pronunciation of lieutenant (leftenant) is an example of the sound.

When the ι or υ precedes a following vowel, the two vowels are pronounced separately, and do not form a diphthong. In other vowel combinations, the vowels are pronounced separately.

Greek has steadily reduced the number of vowel sounds until modern Greek has only five. Only the last three of the diphthongs remain. Whenever vowels come together, there is a tendency to meld them together in speech and simplify the sound, a process called contraction, very active in Athenian (Attic) Greek. Since Greek is written phonetically, this is reflected in the spelling, and gives much difficulty to the learner as words are mangled and not easily recognized. For example, ε + ω = ω, or ε + ο = ου. More on this later; this is just to put you on your guard.

Accents, Breathings and Punctuation

Greek words are always accompanied by small marks called accents and breathings, as well as apostrophes, that give pronunciation clues. You will not have to learn when and how to use them, only to recognize them when they occur. The breathing is a little comma that appears above and before an initial vowel or a ρ to show whether its sound should start with an h. If the tail of the comma is to the right, the word begins with an h-sound, or rough breathing. If the tail is to the left, there is no h-sound, which is called a smooth breathing. These signs replaced the H in early Greek, which could then be used for the new letter η. All initial ρs have rough breathing. In Latin or English, as in Greek, an H-sound can only appear before a vowel or an r, you may observe.

Accents are of three kinds, as shown in the Figure. The basic one is the acute accent ('), which turns into the grave accent (`) on the last syllable of a word when there is a following word. The combination of the two is the circumflex accent (^), which appears only over a long vowel in one of the last two syllables, but not before a syllble with a long vowel. The acute accent can appear over any of the final three syllables of a word if the final syllable is short, but only over one of the last two if the final syllable is long. Do not worry about these rules, just note them as you come across them. The syllable with the accent should be given a stress accent as in English, although originally the accents gave pitch information. You will find some words with two accents, and some with none, but do not worry. There are common small words, called enclitics, that have no accents of their own, since they are pronounced as parts of neighbouring words, but extra accents are added according to certain rules when there would otherwise be too many syllables in a row without an accent. Accents sometimes distinguish between words of the same spelling but different meaning, as well as give clues to grammatical form.

Accents and breathings are placed above a small letter, the breathing coming first. They are placed in front of a capital letter, and on the second letter of a diphthong. Accents and breathings occur only on vowels, except for the rough breathing that accompanies an initial ρ. Remember that a Greek word can be accented only on one of the last three syllables, and only on one of the last two if the final vowel is long.

Apostrophe means 'taken away' and one is used when a vowel is removed before a following vowel for euphony. There was a progressive tendency in Greek to simplify a group of vowels when they happened to come together in the process of word formation, usually to make them one long vowel instead of several short ones. This tendency, called contraction, makes things very hard for students, as we have already noted. Consonants also tend to change when certain combinations come together, such as κ + σ = ξ. A Greek word can end only in a vowel or the consonants λ, μ, ν, ρ or σ. Some words add a ν at the end if they come at the end of a sentence, or the next word begins with a vowel. This is shown in vocabularies as (-ν). All of these changes are for the sake of pronunciation, since written Greek records the actual sounds as closely as possible (whether we know what they were or not).

There is one syllable per vowel or diphthong in a Greek word. Any consonants or combination of consonants that can begin a Greek word begins a syllable. A syllable ends with the vowel, or with one of the consonants that can end a Greek word.

Punctuation in Greek texts includes the . and , used as in English, but a dot above the line replaces the : or ;, while ; is the question mark. The initial letter in a sentence is not capitalized. The initial letter of proper names is capitalized. The punctuation is that used in later manuscripts, not in ancient times. Every time a manuscript was copied, it was copied using the latest conventions. We do not know accurately how older manuscripts looked, only what we find in monumental inscriptions.

Old Letters and Numbers

The letters of the alphabet are used to represent ordinal numbers in Greek, with α = 1, β = 2, and so on, up to θ = 9, including a strange letter for 6, the stigma, which originally represented s + t, but was dropped in the reform of the alphabet. Archaic letters retained as numbers are shown in the Figure. After 9, ι = 10, κ = 20, and so on. 34 is λδ'. Note the apostrophe to indicate that the letters represent a number. These are the numbers used to number chapters in a book, or propositions, or similar series. Large numbers were expressed in multiples of 10,000, a myriad. These numbers are unadapted to calculations, and were not used for this purpose. The Figure shows some Greek numbers, and the archaic letters that were used to express some of them.

Roman numerals were adapted for abacus calculation (a fact not widely appreciated). There were similar Greek numbers, but they fell into disuse. Since such numbers were used in the world of commerce, finance and industry, they were not deemed genteel enough for literary works. The ancient Greeks generally despised people who worked and traded, and at times even those who thought, regarding war and conquest as the noble occupation.

Scientific calculations were carried out using sexagesimal numbers and a positional notation (even including a zero, another fact not widely appreciated). There is no need for a zero when working with an abacus; it is a column with no counters elevated, and represents itself very well.


  1. Memorize the alphabet by writing it down repeatedly. It is good to memorize it in order, since dictionaries are organized this way. I do not generally recommend memorization, but this is an exception. Be able to say off the alphabet rapidly, using the conventional names of the letters.
  2. Pronounce and write the following words, noting accents and breathings, until you can do it well. Divide the words into syllables. Look up the words in a Greek lexicon, if you have one. I have chosen the forms that appear in the dictionary entries. Many of the words will be instantly recognizable.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 9 September 2000
Last revised 15 June 2002