The Greek Alphabet Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Greek Alphabet

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An illustration depicting letters in the Greek alphabet.

The Greek alphabet is used throughout Greece and in the Greek part of Cyprus. If you are going to these regions, it is worth learning the alphabet, if only to read the signs over shops.

The letters of the Greek alphabet are also used as handy symbols by mathematicians and scientists. These people pronounce the names of the letters quite differently from Greek people, being loosely based on the pronunciation of classical Greek.

Some History

The Greek alphabet was developed in about 1000 BC. It was a modification of Northern Semitic, an alphabet from which Hebrew is also derived. The Semitic languages (which include Hebrew and Arabic) have a lot of consonantal sounds, while vowels are relatively unimportant. As a result, their alphabet had no symbols for vowels. The Greeks changed the alphabet; consonantal signs which represented sounds not present in Greek were re-used for vowel sounds. Greek thus became the first alphabet in the world with signs for both vowels and consonants.

At the start, the direction of writing was from right to left, but the early Greeks adopted an unusual practice of writing every second row in the opposite direction. This was called boustrophedon, literally meaning 'as the ox turns' because it resembled the way an ox ploughs a field. There is a very good example of this in the Greek city of Gortys in Crete, where the laws of the city were carved on a wall in boustrophedon style and are still there for all to see. Around 500 BC, the practice changed to writing from left to right, and this continues to the present day.

The Roman alphabet used for Western European languages, the Cyrillic alphabet used for Eastern European languages and even the Scandinavian Runic alphabet are all directly descended from the Greek alphabet, so it certainly was the parent of all modern European alphabets. The word alphabet itself comes from the names of the first two Greek letters, Alpha and Beta.

The Alphabet

There are 24 letters in the alphabet. They can be capitals or lower case. In addition, one of the lower case letters, the sigma, has two different forms.

ΑΒΓΔΕΖΗΘΙΚΛΜΝΞΟΠΡΣΤΥΦΧΨΩ
αβγδεζηθικλμνξοπρστυφχψω
                 ς      

The table shows the Modern Greek pronunciation. A separate column shows the Ancient Greek pronunciation if it was different. Pay particular attention to B, H, P, X and Y. They look the same as letters in the Roman alphabet we're all familiar with, but in Modern Greek they are pronounced very differently.

CapitalLower
Case
Name in
English
Name as
Pronounced
in Greek
Modern PronunciationAncient Pronunciation
Ααalphaalfaa as in bath 
Ββbetaveetavb
ΓγgammaghammaBefore A or O, this is a sound that does not occur in English, like a soft g, the voiced version of the kh below. Before E, I or Y it is pronounced y as in yet.g
Δδdeltadheltadh represents the voiced th sound in this and thatd
Εεepsilonepsilone as in pet 
Ζζzetazeetazdz
Ηηetaeetaee as in feetay as in day
Θθthetatheetath unvoiced as in thin and thanks 
Ιιiotayottaee as in feet; like y in yes when before voweli as in fit
Κκkappakappak 
Λλlambdalamdhal 
Μμmumeem 
Ννnuneen 
Ξξxikseeks as x in fox, never as x in xylophone 
Οοomicronomicrono as in got 
Ππpipeep 
Ρρrhoror trilled as in Spanish or Italian 
Σσ or ςsigmasighmas unvoiced as in sauce, not vase. The first lower-case form is for the start or the middle of words, the second for the last letter of words. 
Ττtautaft 
Υυupsiloneepsilonee as in feetslender u as in French tu or German fünf
Φφphifeef 
Χχchikheekh represents ch sound in Scottish word loch 
Ψψpsipseeps as in copse. The p is pronounced even at the start of words. 
Ωωomegaomeghao as in goto as in pole

Combinations of Letters

Some letters are pronounced differently when they appear in combination with other letters.

ΑΙe as in pet
ΕΙee
ΟΙee
ΑΥaf or av (depending on next letter)
ΕΥef or ev (depending on next letter)
ΟΥoo as in moon
ΜΠb at start of word, mb in middle of word
ΝΤd at start of word, nd in middle of word
ΓΚg as in go at start of word, ng in middle of word
ΓΓng as in singer

An exception to these is that if the first vowel of any of these two-vowel combinations has an accent mark on it, or if the second vowel has two dots over it, the two vowels are treated separately, and not combined as in the table. Thus for example κομπολóι (worry beads) is pronounced 'kombol-oh-ee'.

Accents

Greek is a strongly stressed language, even more so than English. The stress is very important, so it is normally marked with an accent over the vowel. Ancient Greek used three different accents, while Modern Greek uses only one.

Breathing Marks

In Ancient Greek, words starting with a vowel or an r had a special sign called a breathing mark. This looked like an apostrophe and was positioned over the first letter, although printers often put it in front of the first letter. A right-facing mark (like a backwards 9) was called a 'rough breathing mark' and indicated that there was a 'h' sound before the vowel. A left-facing mark (like a 9) was called a 'smooth breathing mark' and indicated that there was no 'h' sound.

In Modern Greek, the 'h' sound is no longer pronounced at the start of any word, but the breathing marks were still used for historical reasons until about 1970, when they were officially dropped from the language.

Iota Subscripts

In Ancient Greek, in some cases when iota appeared after another vowel (a diphthong), it was written using a special little iota under the vowel instead. This was called an iota subscript. These do not occur in Modern Greek.


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