Ancient Greek/Alphabet

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The Greek alphabet, adopted in Attica in 403 B.C., contained 24 letters, and survives to this day, although, as is natural with most languages, the sounds of the letters have changed. While the Greeks themselves throughout the classical period wrote only in capitals, and without punctuation, this wikibook will use the current convention - that is, to use lower case letters where appropriate, to include accents and other diacritical marks, and to mark punctuation.

Graphemes[edit | edit source]

Greek Letter Name English Name IPA English
Homeric Classical
Α α ἄλφα alpha [a, aː] a1 (father)
Β β βῆτα beta [b] b (bet)
Γ γ γάμμα gamma [g, ŋ] g (get);
ng (king) wherever it precedes γ, κ, ξ, or χ2
Δ δ δέλτα delta [d] d (dog)
Ε ε εἶ, later ἔψῑλόν epsilon [e] ai6 (bait)
Ζ ζ ζῆτα zeta [zd] [zd] zd3 (wisdom)
Η η ἦτα eta [ε:] ai6 (hair)
Θ θ θῆτα theta [tʰ] t!4 (top)
Ι ι ἰῶτα iota [i, iː] ĭ1 (hit), ee (seem)
Κ κ κάππα kappa [k] k (scoop)
Λ λ λάβδα lambda [l] l (lame)
Μ μ μῦ mu [m] m (mile)
Ν ν νῦ nu [n] n (no)
Ξ ξ ξεῖ, later ξῖ xi [ks] x3 (axe)
Ο ο οὖ, ὄ, later ὂμῑκρόν omicron [o] ō6 (boat)
Π π πεῖ pi [p] p (spot)
Ρ ρ ῥῶ rho [r] r ('Scottish' r)
Σ σ ς5 σίγμα sigma [s] s (sit)
Τ τ ταῦ tau [t] t (stop)
Υ υ ὗ, later ὒψῑλόν upsilon [u, uː] [y, yː] u7 (unicorn)
Φ φ φεῖ, later φῖ phi [pʰ] p!4 (tophat)
Χ χ χεῖ, later χῖ chi [kʰ] c!4 (coop)
Ψ ψ ψεῖ, later ψῖ psi [ps] ps3 (apse)
Ω ω ὦ, later ὦμέγα omega [ɔː] [oː] aw6 (law)
1. the letters ι, α, and υ can represent short and long vowels.
2. This is called a gamma nasal. (e.g. αγγελος)
3. the letters ξ, ζ, and ψ all represent double consonant sounds (ks, zd, ps).
4. While many pronounce these characters according to the English sounds "th" (as in thin) and "ph" (as in photo) and the Scottish "ch" (as in loch), scholars suggest that this is not the correct ancient pronunciation. Evidence for this comes to us from Coptic, a language once spoken in Egypt. Coptic, unlike Greek, has a letter that corresponds to the English letter "H", which is ϩ or hori (Greek only has the rough breathing mark). When one word ends with either τ, π, or κ, and the word directly following begins with ϩ , the last letter of the first word will often contract with the first letter of the second word, resulting in θ, φ, and χ, respectively (e.g. πετ ϩοογ >> πεθοογ). While this affected the spelling it did not affect pronunciation, resulting in two pronounced sounds (t-h, p-h, k-h). The following "H" sound is called aspiration.
5. the letter σ is written ς at the end of words, e.g. βασις (but ΒΑΣΙΣ). This form is called sigma lunate, because it looks like a crescent moon.
6. Due to changes in the English language over time, the terms "long" and "short" are confusing here. The Greek letters epsilon and omicron were short and contrasted with the long eta and omega. In English, the "long" ā sound in "bait" is actually short when compared to the word "bayed." Similarly, the "short" ĕ sound of "bed" is long when compared to the word "bet." (It's the following consonant that determines the length in English.) In Ancient Greek, short epsilon had the sound of ā in "bait," while long eta had the sound of ĕ in "bed." The story is similar for omicron and omega (but because of variation in the way English is pronounced, it is not easy to find example words). The most important thing to remember, though, is that epsilon and omicron are short, whereas eta and omega are long.
7. Like u in French or ü in German. Can be pronounced by pronouncing ee while pursing the lips as if for the oo in "food."

Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

It is difficult, but not impossible, to reconstruct the pronunciation of an ancient language. Through various methods, particularly by comparison with other languages, and observation of sounds that are confused, we can form good estimates. However, please note that scholars do not agree on the pronunciation of Ancient Greek. The following pronunciation guide is simply one reconstruction. If you ever take a formal class in Ancient Greek, you may find that your professor or teacher pronounces the words differently depending upon the reconstructed model which they learned in school.

Also, just as English pronunciation has changed over time and is different in different regions of the English speaking world, Ancient Greek pronunciation was dependent both on era and dialect. Many dialectical changes are reflected in the spelling of words (so it is not necessary to explain those here), however, it is important to note that there are differences between the pronunciation of Homeric Greek and Classical Greek.

In addition to the table above, some particular points need to be raised over pronunciation.

  • Normally, γ is pronounced with a 'hard' g sound. However, before κ, χ, γ, it is pronounced as a nasal [ŋ].
  • ι is normally a separate vowel. However, in certain circumstances, it is possible to pronounce it as a semivowel [j] (like English y). Generally, the effect is the same.

Diphthongs[edit | edit source]

IPA English
Homeric Classical
αι [ai] eye
[aːi] [aː]
ει [eː, ei] [eː] hay
[εːi] [εː] hay/hair
οι [οi] boy
[oːi] [ɔː]
αυ [au] loud
ευ [eu]
ηυ [εːu]
ου [oː, ou] [oː] soon

Notice the short line under the long vowels α, η, ω in three instances: this is the iota subscript. It indicates that there was originally an iota after the vowel, i.e. ῳ = ωι. Some texts simply print an iota after the vowel: this is known as an iota adscript, and some texts mix the two, using a subscript with lowercase letters, and an adscript for capitals (Ωιομην for ῳομην). By Classical times, these had become monophthongs (one vowel sound) equivalent to their non-iotized counterparts, and can simply be pronounced as such. Note that when alpha takes the iota subscript, one can infer that the alpha was originally long, whereas the diphthong αι is formed from short alpha.

Aspirates[edit | edit source]

The letters θ, φ, χ are not fricatives: they are not the same as the sounds th, f, ch in thin, foot, and loch (although these are the sounds they have become in Modern Greek). These letters have hard sounds, but are pronounced with an exhalation, like an h sound. Listen hard to your voice when you pronounce the examples above: you'll find that there is a difference between the p in pot and in spot. Don't worry if you have too much difficulty making this distinction; many teachers and students prefer to use the fricative versions (th, f, kh) so that they are easier to distinguish for speakers and listeners.

Diacritical Marks[edit | edit source]

You will notice that many Greek letters have marks over them, and you will likely recognise the more common accents from other languages. In Greek, the accent does not mark stress (as in Spanish) or a change in vowel quality (as in French), but the pitch. Do not worry about remembering accents to begin with - it is quite possible to have a degree in Classics with only the vaguest knowledge of accents.

Greek has three accents: the acute or oxytone accent, written ´, and indicating a rise in pitch, the grave accent, `, indicating either a fall in pitch or a normal pitch (no one knows for sure), and a circumflex, or a perispomenon, ῀, which indicates a rise, followed by a fall. In some texts this appears as a rounded carat, like the sign ^, in others, like a tilde, ~. Accents only appear on vowels. If a diphthong is accented, the accent appears on the second character.

The diaeresis, ¨, is not strictly an accent, nor is it an umlaut, as used in German. It is mainly found on iotas to indicate that the letter should be pronounced separately from the vowel before it. For example, Verdi's opera Aïda is not pronounced 'eye-da', but 'a-yee-da'. Likewise, whereas αι is a diphthong, αϊ is two separate vowels.

More important than accents are the breathing marks. Breathings normally occur only at the beginning of a word, though they will, at times, be present in the middle - where two words have been joined together. Greek has two types of breathing, the smooth breathing, ᾿, and the rough breathing, ῾. Unlike accents, these are quite important, and you should try to learn them. A word that begins with a rough breathing on a vowel should be pronounced with an 'h'. So the Greek word ὅρος, meaning 'boundary', should be read 'horos', while ὄρος, a mountain, should be read 'oros'. Be careful never to confuse breathings with quotation marks or accents; when you write or quote Greek, the breathings should look like half-rings to clearly distinguish them from other marks. When rho occurs at the beginning of a word, it too takes a rough breathing mark and is transliterated rh, whereas when two rhos occur consecutively, the first takes a smooth breathing and the second a rough, although these breathing marks are not always indicated. Whenever upsilon occurs at the beginning of a word, it takes a rough breathing, except in the name of the letter itself. As with accent marks, breathing marks are written on the second of the two characters of a diphthong. Accents and breathings are usually written to the left of capital letters: Ἇ for ἇ.

Vowel length[edit | edit source]

In Ancient Greek, vowels may be long or short. The vowels ε and ο are always short, whereas η and ω are always long. The vowels α, ι, and υ, on the other hand, may be either short or long. It is often taught in grade school that, e.g., the "a" in "rat" is short, whereas the "a" in "rate" is long. This is not at all like vowel length in Ancient Greek. In Ancient Greek, a long vowel is literally "longer" than a short vowel, that is, its sound lasts for twice as long as the sound of a short vowel. Originally, this was the only difference between short and long vowels, but as the language evolved, the short and long vowels began to differ not only in quantity (length) but also in quality (kind).

It is not always possible to tell whether an alpha, iota, or upsilon is short or long. In dictionaries and textbooks, as here, long alphas, iotas, and upsilons are marked with a macron (¯), whereas short vowels are usually unmarked, but occasionally marked with a breve (˘). If an alpha, iota, or upsilon takes a circumflex, one may conclude that it is definitely long (see the following section), so it is not marked with a macron. If an alpha, iota, or upsilon takes an acute or a grave and it is long, there are typographic difficulties and thus it might not carry a macron even though it is supposed to (although one might occasionally see an attempt, e.g., ἀγορᾱ́, which might not render correctly in your browser).

In practice, alpha, iota, and upsilon are usually short in the word stems of Classical Greek (although the same might not be true of all Ancient Greek dialects); most long alphas in Classical Greek occur in grammatical endings, which makes it easier for the learner to remember which vowels are short and which are long. Developing a habit of pronouncing Ancient Greek words, in reading and in memorization, with full attention to vowel length, will aid the learner in remembering vowel length as well.

Accents and Morae[edit | edit source]

Ancient Greek was a language that distinguished between long and short syllables. Recall that the letters omicron and epsilon always denote short vowels for the purposes of accentuation (length can be determined differently for the sake of meter). Alpha, iota, and upsilon (α, ι, υ) can denote either short or long. but the letters eta and omega are always long, and all the diphthongs (αι, οι, ει, υι, αυ, ευ, ου) and vowels with an iota subscript (ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ) are long, except that αι and οι are usually short at the end of a word (exceptions will be noted). αι and οι are long when (1) they are not at the end of a word, (2) they end a verb in the optative mood, (3) they end noun in the locative, e.g οἴκοι (4) they end certain adverbs, e.g. αἰαῖ.

The basic unit of meter is a mora. The difference between long and short vowel is the number of morae (singular: mora) it contains. A short vowel counts as one mora, and a long vowel counts as two.

Rules for Accentuation[edit | edit source]

  1. Almost every Ancient Greek word has an accent, and the accent will always fall on one of the last three syllables.[1] Examples: ποταμός (river; accent on the ultima), ἵππος (horse; accent on the penult) ἰπποπόταμος (hippopotamus; accent on the antepenult).[2]
  2. The rules for accents vary based on the type of word being accented, e.g. nouns and verbs[3] are accented differently.
Recessive Accents (Verbs)[edit | edit source]
  1. Most verbs have recessive accents (they go as close to the beginning of the word as possible), except infinitives and participles (which have persistent accents) and forms of a few verbs like εἰμί which have enclitic forms.
  2. Recessive accents always appear over the antepenult or penult. They appear over the antepenult if the last syllable is short, and over the penult if the last syllable is long.
  3. In the optative, αι and οι are long at the end of a word
  4. Contract Verbs (and other contract words) have accents that reflect the uncontracted form of the words
    • If the accented syllable is not the one that contracts, there is no effect on the accent.
    • If the accented vowel is the first of the two vowels that contract, the resulting vowel will have a circumflex
    • If the accented vowel is the second vowel in the contracted pair, it will have an acute accent.
  5. Consider the example of παιδευσαι: παίδευσαι 2nd person singular aorist middle imperative, (αι is short) παιδεύσαι 2nd person singular aorist active optative (αι is long), παιδεῦσαι aorist active infinitive (accent is persistent).
Persistent Accents (Nouns and Adjectives)[edit | edit source]

1. Nouns by default have persistent accent: that is to say, the accent (whichever it is) remains, as the same accent, on the same syllable (given by the principal parts of the noun) regardless of the declensional endings it might take on, unless prohibited by a rule of accentuation.

Accent Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

  1. When a short vowel takes the acute accent, its pitch is rising. When a long vowel takes the acute, its second mora has a rising pitch. The mora immediately following has a falling pitch, even if it is on the next word.
  2. A circumflex can occur only over a long vowel. It indicates that the first mora has a rising pitch and the second a falling pitch. It is only allowed to occur on the last two syllables.
  3. The pronunciation of the grave accent is not precisely known. An acute accent on the last syllable (the ultima) changes into a grave unless the word stands last in its clause. The grave does not occur under any other circumstances. Example: ὁρ-ῶ αὐ-τό, but αὐ-τὸ ὁ-ρῶ.
  4. If the last syllable is long, the accent will not fall on the third last syllable (the antepenult). (This rule has exceptions, but don't worry about them right now.)
  5. If the second last syllable (the penult) is long and it takes the accent:
The accent will be an acute if and only if the ultima is long. Examples: βαί-νω, σῴ-ζω
The accent will be a circumflex if and only if the ultima is short. Examples: βαῖ-νε, σῷ-ζε

Punctuation[edit | edit source]

Ancient Greek is generally punctuated in texts for the reader's convenience. Full stops and commas are used in roughly the same way as English. However, there is no exclamation mark, and the Greek question mark is used—it looks like a semicolon ( ; ). Instead of colons and semicolons, Greek texts have a raised dot ( · ).

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Words that do not have accents are called enclitics. These tend to be small particles. They are also explained below.
  2. Betts, Gavin and Alan Henry. Teach Yourself Ancient Greek. Ontario, Canada: McGraw-Hill, 2009. p.5
  3. The notes on recessive accents are taken from Platonic Psychology summarized from Eleanor Dickey's unpublished Greek Prose Composition

External Resources[edit | edit source]