Greek

The Greek Alphabet

Greek CharacterNameEnglish equivalentPronunciation
Α αalphaashort as in bat / long as in father
Β βbetabb
Γ γgammaghard, as in gone
Δ δdeltadd
Ε εepsiloneshort, as in get
Ζ ζzetaz, sdsd, as in wisdom
Η ηetaēlong, as in hair
Θ θthetatht with a breath, as in ant-hill*
Ι ιiotaishort as in bit / long as in police
Κ κkappakk
Λ λlambdall
Μ μmumm
Ν νnunn
Ξ ξxixks
Ο οomicronoas in got
Π πpipp
Ρ ρrhor / rh (at start of word)rolled r
Σ σ / ςsigmass
Τ τtautt
Υ υupsilonuShort as French tu, long as in French sur
Φ φphiphp with a breath, as in uphold
Χ χchichk with a breath, as in pack-horse
Ψ ψpsipsAs in lapse
Ω ωomegaōas in saw

Vowels

There are seven vowels (α ε η ι ο υ ω) rather than the five in English, because Greek uses different symbols for short and long e (epsilon and eta) and for long and short o (omicron and omega). The other vowels can be short or long. Macrons (ᾱ, ῑ, ῡ) are sometimes used to aid pronunciation but should not be confused with accents (ά, ὰ, ᾶ).

Breathings

A rough breathing – – indicates an English ‘h’. A smooth breathing – – means there is no ‘h’ sound. All vowels have a breathing when starting a word; upsilon always has a rough breathing. The consonant rho has a rough breathing at the start of a word. Breathings are written above lower case letters, and before upper case letters (e.g. ἁ, ἀ, Ἁ, Ἀ). The breathing must always be marked on a word, as it is part of its spelling.

Combinations of sounds

αι = high;  αυ = how; ει = weigh;οι = boy; ου = boo; in the combination ευ, pronounce each separately. Breathings are put over the second letter in a combination of two vowels at the start of a word.

If iota is combined with a long α or a η or ω, it is often written underneath (iota subscript): ᾳ ῃ ῳ. Whether it was pronounced separately in Classical times is disputed, but in practice it is helpful to sound it slightly to differentiate it from both a long vowel without an iota subscript and a diphthong with iota. The iota subscript must always be marked on a word, as it is part of its spelling. γκ, γμ, γξ and γχ are sounded as ng.

Writing the Greek alphabet

Each letter is written separately; they are not joined in a cursive script. When typing Greek, do not put it into italics.

Be careful to differentiate between letters that can be confused if written carelessly: e.g. zeta and xi, nu and upsilon. Beware also of letters that look like English letters but are pronounced differently from the English letters they resemble: e.g. gamma, eta, nu, rho and omega.

Capital letters are used only for proper names, and not to begin a sentence as in English. Punctuation is mostly similar to English, with a couple of notable differences: the symbol that in English we use as a semicolon is used in Greek texts as a question mark; a single dot level with the top of a letter is used as a semicolon (e.g. ναί· ὁρῶ ἔγωγε.).

Accents

Ancient Greek is written with accents (´,`,῀). Accents can only be placed on vowels, and generally a word will have only one accent. Rules govern which type of accent goes where on a word, and the accent on a word can change type or position (e.g. when the word is conjugated or declined). It is good to get in the habit of writing accents on Greek words as soon as possible (e.g. in your vocabulary lists), and to emphasise the syllable with the accent when reading Greek aloud.

Writing Greek: transliteration

Transliteration means re-writing a word in a different script from that used by the language the word is from. It’s useful practice to transliterate Greek words into the English alphabet and vice versa, as it helps you to learn the Greek alphabet. Many English words are borrowed from Greek and simply written in the English alphabet when we use them.

Exercise 1: Transliterating from the Greek into the English alphabet

Use the Greek alphabet handout to help you transliterate the following into the English alphabet.

NB Both types of Greek e (Ε ε and Η η) are written as e, and both types of Greek o (Ο ο and Ω ω) are written as o. Κκ can be transliterated into English either as c or as k. Υ υis usually transliterated into English as y when not part of a diphthong. –ος generally becomes -us in proper names. You do not need to transliterate a smooth breathing ( ᾽ ) but should transliterate a rough breathing ( ῾ ) as h.

1. ἰδεα7. ὁριζων
2. κινημα8. μητροπολις
3. χαρακτηρ9. Ἑρμης
4. χαος10. Θησευς
5. διαγνωσις11. Ἑκτωρ
6. διπλωμα12. ἀντιθεσις

Exercise 2: Transliterating from English into Greek

Transliterate the following into the Greek alphabet. Do not worry about accents, but remember to put on breathings:

1. drama7. dogma (short 0)
2. basis8. hydra
3. asthma9. paralysis
4. crisis10. Hippias
5. nectar (short e)11. Pythagoras (short o)
6. parenthesis12. Olympia (short o)