Koine Greek/1. Alphabet, Pronunciation, and Punctuation

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Koine Greek can be pronounced acceptably using Classical Greek or Modern Greek pronunciations.[citation needed]

Classical Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

Alphabet[edit | edit source]

Greek Letter Name English Name IPA English
Homeric Classical
Α α ἄλφα alpha [a] [ɑ] a1 (father)
Β β βῆτα Veta [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 ἔ ψῑλόν epsilon [e] [é] ai (hair)
Ζ ζ ζῆτα zeta [dʲ, gʲ] [zd] zd3 (wisdom)
Η η ἦτα eta [ɑ:] [ε:] ě (pet)
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 lamtha [l] l (lame)
Μ μ μῦ mi [m] m (mile)
Ν ν νῦ ni [n] n (no)
Ξ ξ ξῖ xi [kʰs] x3 (axe)
Ο ο ὂ μῑκρόν omicron [o] ō (boat)
Π π πῖ pi [p] p (spot)
Ρ ρ ῥῶ rho [r] r ('Scottish' r)
Σ σ ς5 σίγμα sigma [s] s (sit)
Τ τ ταῦ taf [t] t (stop)
Υ υ ὒ ψῑλόν upsilon [u] [y] u6 (unicorn)
Φ φ φῖ phi [pʰ] p!4 (tophat)
Χ χ χῖ chi [kʰ] c!4 (coop)
Ψ ψ ψῖ psi [pʰs] ps3 (apse)
Ω ω ὦ μέγα omega [oː] [ɔː] aw (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 this) and "ph" (as in photo), scholars suggest that this is not the correct ancient pronunciation. This is due to a contraction that occurs in Coptic, a language closely related to Greek. 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, see the section on Aspirates below.
5. the letter σ is written ς at the end of words, e.g. βασις (but ΒΑΣΙΣ). In some texts, the letter is written like an English c (this form is called lunate).
6. 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."

Breathing Marks[edit | edit source]

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 often 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.

Diphthongs[edit | edit source]

IPA English
Homeric Classical
αι [ai] eye
[a:i] [ɑ:]
ει [ei] [e:] hay
[a:i] [ε:] hay/hair
οι [οi] boy
[o:i] [ɔ:]
αυ [aʊ] [ɑʊ] loud
ευ [eʊ] [ju:] you
ηυ [ɑ:ʊ] [ε:ʊ]
ου [u:] [ο:] 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.

Diaeresis[edit | edit source]

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.

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.

Modern Greek Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

The Modern Greek pronunciation is preferred within Greece and Cyprus and by the Orthodox Church. It differs from the classical pronunciation in that 'γ' is like a 'y' preceding 'ε', 'η', 'ι'. 'ω' and 'ο' are pronounced the same, as are 'η' and 'ι', 'χ' is pronounced like 'ch' or similar to a Spanish 'jota' (hijo), 'β' is pronounced [v], δ is pronounced like 'th' in the word 'this', π becomes 'b' following a nasal, with the nasal frequently not being pronounced (especially at the beginning of words). The diphthongs 'ει' 'οι' and 'υι' are pronounced like 'i', and αι is pronounced like 'ε'. The 'υ' in the diphthongs αυ, ευ, ηυ is pronounced as [v] except before unvoiced consonants and at the end of the word, when it is pronounced [f]. In Modern Greek pronunciation, all accents are treated like acute accents (similar to how Katharevousa Greek was pronounced). Aspirates are not pronounced.

Punctuation[edit | edit source]

A section of the Codex Alexandrinus containing Luke 12:54–13:4.

The comma (,) and full-stop (.) are used as in English. The colon or semicolon is a point above the line (·). The Greek question mark (;) looks like the English semicolon.

Inverted commas are often used to denote speech. Capital letters are used at the beginning of paragraphs, sentences (depending on publisher), proper names, and the beginning of quotations.

In actual Greek texts from the era when Koine Greek was used as a day-to-day language, Greek was usually written with no punctuation. The words ran together completely, with no spacing or markup. Accents, breathing marks, spaces, and other punctuation are added at a much later time, making texts easier to read.

Many of the earliest partial manuscripts of the New Testament do have punctuation. Due to the high cost of the factors of input (ink, paper), punctuation was quickly excluded, to be re-included later by textual scholars (not unlike the adding of vowel-markers to the Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic texts by the Masoretes).