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Pronouncing Ancient Greek for English Speakers
This is a guide to the pronunciation of Ancient Greek, as spoken before 330 BC. Ancient Greek was the language spoken during the 'Classical Era' in Athens, Sparta and the other cities of Greece. In around 330 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East and Persia and set up a Greek-speaking Empire. A new version of Greek known as Koinë, with a different pronunciation, started to be spoken throughout the Greek world, so this guide should not be used for anything after that date.
In general, the pronunciation of Ancient Greek is simpler than that of Modern Greek. This may be because some of it is a matter of a modern convention, since we don't know exactly what way it was spoken.
The first step is to transliterate the Greek alphabet into Roman spelling. There's a standard method of doing this which is accepted by just about everybody:
|Greek Letter||Roman Letter|
|Σ, σ, ς||s|
- γ before γ, κ, ξ or χ becomes n.
- υ after α, ε or ο becomes u.
Ignore all accents except the rough breathing mark which looks like a backwards apostrophe or a small raised c. Treat this as an h. If it is before or above a vowel, write an h before the vowel. If it is before or above a ρ, write it as rh. The rough breathing mark does not occur before any other consonants.
Don't confuse the rough breathing mark with the smooth breathing mark which looks like an apostrophe. This is silent and should be ignored.
The second step is pronunciation.
Most of the consonants are pronounced exactly as in English, but note the following:
The g is always hard as in garden, never soft as in cage.
s is pronounced unvoiced as in 'hiss', except before b, g, d or m, where it is pronounced voiced as in 'wise'.
z is pronounced zd.
x is pronounced ks even at the start of a word.
r is rolled/trilled as in Spanish or Italian.
ps is pronounced as two sounds even at the start of a word.
In the aspirated consonants th, ph, ch and rh, ignore the h, as it is very difficult for an English speaker to even hear the 'h' sound, never mind say it. The ch should be pronounced the same as a k.
The pronunciation of the vowels is as follows:
- a as in father
- e as in get
- ê as the 'a' in gate
- i as in ski
- o as in or
- ô as aw in saw
- y is treated as a vowel here. It should be pronounced as the letter u in French, or the letter ü in German. Form your mouth to say the letter e, but without changing the shape of your mouth, say an 'oo' sound.
- ai as in aisle
- ei as in vein
- oi as in oil
- au as ow in cow
- eu as e of get followed by oo
- ou as in soup
Ω ξειν, αγγελλειν Λακεδαιμονιοις ‘οτι τηιδε
κειμεθα, τοις κεινων ‘ρημασι πειθομενοι.
Ô xein angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti têide
keimetha, tois keinôn rhêmasi peithomenoi.
Oh ksayn angellayn Lah-ked-ime-oh-nee-oyss hotee tay-eedeh
kaymetha, toyss kayn-oh-n ray-mah-see pay-thom-en-oy.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
This is the epitaph inscribed on the grave of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. It was composed by the poet Simonides (c556 - 468 BC).
Τα τω αυτω ισα και αλληλοις εστιν ισα.
Ta tô auto isa kai allêlois estin isa.
Tah toh owtoh eessa kigh allay-loyss esteen eessa.
Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.
This is Euclid's 'Common Notion 1', from his great work of mathematics, Elements.
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