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Hellenistic Greek
© 2008, 2015, 2020

Lesson 1: The Alphabet (Lower Case Letters)

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The Lesson at a Glance

Recognize

You will learn to recognize the lower case Greek letters.

Pronounce

You will begin the process of learning to pronounce Greek words.

Write

You will learn to write the lower case letters of the Greek alphabet.

Pronunciation and Recognition

This lesson introduces you to most of the sounds and letters necessary to read Hellenistic Greek. Only the lower case letters are included in the chart below. The upper case (capital) letters will be introduced in the next lesson.

In the table below three pronunciation systems are shown. The first is the pronunciation used by Modern Greek speakers. The second is the pronunciation of Greek in the late Hellenistic Period, the time of the birth of early Christianity. The third is the artificial (“Erasmian”) pronunciation still used in some Biblical Greek classes.

In class you should repeat the sound associated with each letter following the example of your instructor.

The Lower Case Greek Letters, Their Names and Pronunciations

Lower Case Letter Name Pronunciation
Modern Koine Erasmian

α

ἄλφα Alpha

/a:/ as in “father”

/a:/ as in “father”

/a:/ as in “father” or sometimes /æ/ as cat

β

βῆτα Beta

/v/ as in “vat”

v as in "vote" (but more like Spanish b/v in vaca and bote)

/b/ as in “bat”

γ

γάμμα Gamma

/g/ as in “go” but /y/ as in “yet” before /i/ or /e/ sounds

Softer than the g in "get", more like Spanish g in lago
but y as in "yet" before iota and epsilon.

n /ŋ/ as in "sing or " before γ, κ, ξ, or χ.

/g/ as in “go”

δ

δέλτα Delta

/ð/ (th) as in “then” but not /θ/ as in “thin” (Contrast below.)

th as in then (but not thin. Contrast theta (θ) below.

/d/ as in “dog”

ε

ἒψιλόν E-psilon

/e/ as in “set”

e as in set

/e/ as in “set”

ζ

ζῆτα Zeta

/z/ as in “daze”

z as in zoo

/z/ as in “daze”

η

ῆτα Eta

/i/ as in “machine” and "seen"

/e/ like the first part of the a in late

// as in “daze” and "weight"

θ

θέτα Theta

/θ/ as in “thin” but not /ð/ as in “then” (Contrast δ above.)

th as in thin, but not in then. Contrast delta (δ) above.

/θ/ as in “thin” but not /ð/ as in “then”

ι

ἰῶτα Iota

/i/ as in “machine” and "seen"

ee (/i/) as in meet,
or y as in yet

/i/ as in “machine” (long) or /ɪ/ as in “fit” (short)

κ

κάππα Kappa

/k/ as in “kitchen”

unaspirated ck as in nickle,
but not aspirated k as in kite.

/k/ as in “kitchen”

λ

λάμβδα Lambda

/l/ as in “little”

l as in light

/l/ as in “little”

μ

μῦ Mu

/m/ as in “me”

m as in mouse

/m/ as in “me”

ν

νῦ Nu

/n/ as in “knee”

n as in nose

/n/ as in “knee”

ξ ξεῖ Xi /ks/ as in kicks or x as in ax

ks as in kicks
x as in ax

/ks/ as in kicks or x as in ax

ὂμικρόν O-micron

/o/ as in “tote” or “boat”

o as in tote or boat

/ɒ/ as in “not” or “cot”

π

πεῖ Pi

/p/ as in “pan”

unaspirated /p/ as in span,
not aspirated /pʰ/ as in pan

/p/ as in “pan”

ρ

ῥῶ Rho

/R/ more like the Spanish trilled r than English r.

a trilled /r/ like Spanish r, not like English r

/r/ as in read.

σ, ς

σῖγμα Sigma

/s/ as in “sister”

/s/ as in sister,
but z as in zoo before beta (β), gamma (γ), delta (δ), and mu (μ)

/s/ as in “sister”

τ

ταῦ Tau

unaspirated /t/ as in “stop” (but unlike “top”)

unaspirated /t/
as in stop,
but not like the /tʰ/ in top

/t/ as in stop or top

υ

ὒψιλόν U-psilon

/y/ like German ü

similar to German ü /y/

/y/ like German ü, or sometimes /u/ as in “rule” or even /ʊ/ as in “hook”

φ

φεῖ Phi

/f/ as in “fan” or “phone”

/f/ as in fan or phone

/f/ as in fan or phone

χ

χεῖ Chi

/χ/ Not found in English (unless you pronounce the ch in "loch" like some Canadians do!). Much like Spanish “j

Not found in English, like Spanish j

/χ/ Not found in English. Much like Spanish “j

ψ

ψεῖ Psi

/ps/ as in “lips

ps as in lips

/ps/ as in “lips

ω

ὦμέγα O-mega

/o/ as in “tote”

o as in tote or boat

/o/ as in “tote”

Forms of Sigma

Notice that there are two forms of lower case sigma. One (ς) is used only as the final letter in a word and is thus called “final sigma.” The other (σ) may be used anywhere else. Some examples are: σῶμα (body), ἐκκλησία (church), ἥλιος (sun).

Diphthongs and Digraphs

Several common combinations of two vowel letters have traditionally been called diphthongs. By the Hellenistic period, they were no longer pronounced as true diphthongs, however (two vowel sounds slurred together into one continuous, yet shifting sound). Several would more properly be called “digraphs” (two letters used together to represent a single sound). Others represent the combination of one vowel sound with a consonantal sound. In this course we will use the traditional terminology, calling these groups of letters diphthongs.

The traditional diphthongs are as follows.

Representing a single vowel sound in the Hellenistic Period:

Letter Pair Pronunciation Greek Example
Modern Erasmian

αι

/e/ as in “bet”

// as in aisle

αἰτέω (request, demand)

ει

/i/ as in machine

//as in eight

εἰρήνη (peace)

οι

/i/ as in machine

// as in oil

οἶκος (house, home)

ου

/u/ as in “boot” or “soup”

/u/ as in “boot” or “soup”

οὐρανός (heaven, sky)

Representing a semivowel plus a vowel in the Hellenistic Period:

Letter Pair Pronunciation Greek Example
Modern Erasmian

υι

/yε/ as in yet

/uɪ/ as in suite

υἱός (child, descendant, son)

Representing a vowel sound plus a consonantal sound in the Hellenistic Period:

Letter Pair Pronunciation Greek Example
Modern Erasmian

αυ

/av/ as in “of” before s, voiced consonants (b,g,d,z,l,m,n,r), or any vowel; /af/ as in “prof” (short for “professor”) before all other letters

/au/ as in "out" or "house"

αὐτός (he, she, it)

ευ

/ev/ as in “ever” or /ef/ as in “effort” following the same rule as for αυ

/ɪu/ as in feud

εὐθύς (immediately)

Diaeresis. A diaeresis (¨) is placed over the second letter of a pair of vowels which would otherwise form a diphthong to indicate that they do not form a diphthong and are to be pronounced individually. Example: Ἠσαΐας (Isaiah).

Double Consonants. Several combinations of two consonant letters are worth special attention. These are as follows:

Letter Pair Pronunciation Greek Example
Modern Erasmian

γγ

/ŋ/ as in “anger” or “sing

/ŋ/ as in “anger” or “sing

ἄγγελος (angel) is pronounced as angelos.

γκ

/ŋk/ as in “ink

/ŋk/ as in “ink

ἀγκάλη (arm) is pronouned ankali.

γχ

χ/ Not found in English. You may substitute /ŋk/ as “ink” or “anchor”

χ/ Not found in English. You may substitute /ŋk/ as “ink” or “anchor”

ἐγχρίω (I annoint) may be pronounced enkrio.

μπ

/mb/ in the middle of words. /b/ elsewhere

/mp/ (no change from the separate letters)

πέμπω (I send) is pronounce pembo in Modern Greek, but pempo in the Erasmian system.

ντ

/nd/ in the middle of words. /d/ elsewhere

/nt/ (no change from the separate letters

Ἀντιπας (Antipas) is pronounced andipas in Modern Greek, but antipas in the Erasmian system.

Tips for Learning the Alphabet.

Learn to pronounce the name of each letter. In pronouncing the name you also say the sound the letter represents.

A few lower case Greek letters look like, but are not pronounced like some English letters. These should be learned carefully to avoid confusion. They are:

Learn these letters especially well.

Some other letters resemble English letters and are pronounced similarly to their English counterparts. α, ε, κ, ο, and τ, for example, should pose few problems.

The rest of the letters, while not causing special confusion, must simply be memorized. λ, μ, ξ, π, φ, and ψ bear no particular resemblance to English letters. Look at each one and pronounce it several times. Learn the name for each letter.

Exercises

Exercise 1.1

Look at a few Greek words and guess at their meanings. You may be surprised at how well you do!

Exercise 1.2

The words in the following exercise may be entirely unfamiliar to you, but in each case we have an English word that is derived from that Greek word.

Writing the Greek Alphabet

Write the Alphabet

Look at the letters on the left. Note the relationship of each one to the solid line below it and the dotted line above. Some letters extend below the solid line. While most lower-case letters fit neatly between the solid line and the dotted line, some extend above the dotted line. A few letters both extend below the solid line and above the dotted line.

Click on the image of the alphabet to the left to print a practice page. You should be able to write all but three of them with a single continuous stroke. The three that require two strokes are τ, χ, and ψ.

If you are learning Greek in a classroom setting, your instructor may ask to see your work. Write as neatly as you can.