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The Look of Greek

Now that we know how Greek sounds, let us see what it looks like. The center stage belongs to the Greek alphabet, but special marks also have walk-on parts.


The modern Greek alphabet shares the same origin with the various modern Latin-based alphabets: the Greek alphabets of the 1st millennium BC.


The Greek alphabets have a history of about 3000 years. The Latin alphabet, variations of which are used by most European languages today, is essentially an evolution (if not a copy) of the Western Greek alphabet, while the modern Greek alphabet is essentially the (eastern) Ionic alphabet, which has been (relatively rapidly) established as the only Greek alphabet in the later half of the first millennium BC. The correspondence between the early Latin alphabet and the Greek alphabet is striking:

LatinNote that this is the Pre-Classic Latin alphabet; Y and Z were introduced from Greek in classical times; J and U/W are fairly recent additions as variants of I and V respectively; X and Ξ should be in the same column, since they are the two variations of the same letter, but I kept them separate, in order to retain the alphabets' original order, since X had been, for some reason, moved to the end of the Latin alphabet. A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X
Greek Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω

Differences in form (denoted, e.g., C-Γ) are mainly due to the different variants used by the Western and Eastern Greek alphabets.The only exception might be G, which most likely developed from C, but took the position of Greek Ζ. F and Q were also of some (often limited) use in writing Greek, but were not included in the standardised Ionic alphabet that prevailed. Greek Θ, Φ, Ψ, Ω were of no use to the Romans and never made their way into the Latin alphabet; Greek Χ, having been introduced as a variant of Ξ and being useless to Latin in its Greek value, was essentially also excluded.

These early alphabets included only capital letters. Later innovations augmented the set of Greek visual markings with prosodic (accents, breathings, etc)All prosodic marks but the acute were abandoned (at least in official documents) by 1982. and punctuation (comma, colon, etc) marks in the last centuries BC and with lower-case letters at the turn of the first (to second) millennium AD.


The letters of the Greek alphabet are presented in their upper- and lower-case variants in the following table.

Upper Lower Name ALPAG
Α α άλφα *álfa*
Β β βήτα *víta*
Γ γ γάμμα *γáma*
Δ δ δέλτα *δélta*
Ε ε έψιλον *épsilon*
Ζ ζ ζήτα *zíta*
Η η ήτα *íta*
Θ θ θήτα *θíta*
Ι ι (γ)ιώτα *γóta*
Κ κ κάππα *kápa*
Λ λ λάμδα *lámδa*
Μ μ μυ *mí*
Ν ν νυ *ní*
Ξ ξ ξι *ksí*
Ο ο όμικρον *ómikron*
Π π πι *pí*
Ρ ρ ρω *ró*
Σ σ, ςς is the word-final version of σ; that is, when the last letter of a word, σ is written as ς (same pronunciation, different shape). σίγμα *síγma*
Τ τ ταυ *táf*
Υ υ ύψιλον *ípsilon*
Φ φ φι *fí*
Χ χ χι *χí*
Ψ ψ ψι *psí*
Ω ω ωμέγα *oméγa*
Handwriting for Greek Letters

On the right, I have included a rough guide about "how to write the Greek letters", which I prepared long time ago in response to a request from one of the visitors of the old site. It reflects the way that I write the Greek letters, which, of course, is neither the only nor "the right" way; the solid curves are to be drawn first and then the dashed and dotted ones.


I have realised that some are hesitant to learn Greek, because they are daunted by the prospect of having to learn "a new alphabet". While this might be the case for, e.g., Arabic, Armenian, Hindi or the Far-East languages, the Greek (like the Cyrillic) alphabet is not entirely alien to a user of any of the variations of the Latin alphabet. Of the 24 capital Greek letters, 14 (Α, Β, Ε, Ζ, Η, Ι, Κ, Μ, Ν, Ο, Ρ, Τ, Υ, Χ) are to be found (in the same form, but not necessary the same "value") in the Latin alphabets and only 10 (Γ, Δ, Θ, Λ, Ξ, Π, Σ, Φ, Ψ, Ω) are "new". Even though all lower-case letters (save for ο) are different from any Latin lower-case letter, at least those that have taken math or physics courses must be acquainted with most of them.

Special Marks


Like English, the first letter of a word that starts a sentence or of a proper name is capitalised. Thus, "Το επώνυμο τού δάσκαλου είναι Κανλής|The family name of the teacher is Kanlis".


In Greek, a word's stressed syllable (always one of the last three) is denoted by a small vertical or oblique (tilted to the right) line over (if lower-case) or to the left of (if capitalised) the syllable's vowel, much like Spanish.The difference is that Spanish only marks stress that does not fall on the penult|second last syllable. This "small line" is called "οξεία"(=*oksía*) or simply "τόνος"(=*tónos*) and is usually rendered in English as acute or accent, respectively.There used to be two more kinds of accent, the "περισπωμένη"(=*perispoméni*) or circumflex and the "βαρεία"(=*varía*) or grave, but they (together with the smooth and rough breathings or "ψιλή"=(*psilí*) and "δασεία"=(*δasía*), respectively) were abolished from the official orthography in 1982. The accent is only placed over lower-case vowels (e.g., μάθημα|lesson) or next to the capitalised first vowel of a word (e.g., Άγγελος|Angelos); when the syllable's vowel is rendered as a "diphthong", namely a vowel digraph, the accent is placed over the diphthong's second vowel, e.g., ωραία|beautiful (f.)=*oréa*. When writing in All Caps, the customary practice is (unlike Spanish) not to mark the accent, e.g., ΑΓΓΕΛΟΣ ΚΑΝΛΗΣ|ANGELOS KANLIS. It is also possible that a word receives two accents (of equal stress), its original accent on the antepenult|ante penultimate, last but two, third last syllable and a second one on the ultima|last syllable, e.g., ο άγγελός μου|my angel, but only when it is followed by an (unstressed) enclitic.

In general, monosyllabic|consisting of only one syllable words receive no marking for stress (i.e., no accent), the reason being (I guess) that there is no ambiguity about which syllable will receive the stress. This approach, however, overlooks the very important fact that not all monosyllabic words are (un)stressed: some words, like articles, pronouns, prepositions, etc are pronounced with no stress at all (essentially functioning as pro- or enclitics). To compensate for that, the accentuation rules allow limited use of the accent on monosyllabic words, but only to avoid confusion (cf. Spanish "que|that"[SPA] and "¿qué?|what?"[SPA]). A non-exhaustive list of pairs of accented and non-accented (otherwise identically-spelled) monosyllabic words is provided herein below:

Accented ALPAG Meaning Unaccented ALPAG Meaning
ή *í* or (coor. conjunction) η *i* the (fem. def. article, nominative singular, e.g., "the lady is classy")
πώς; *pós* how? (inter. adverb) πως *pos* that (sub. conjunction, e.g., "I know that he did it")
πού; *pú* where? (inter. adverb) που *pu* who, that, which (rel. pronoun, e.g., "The man who talked to me")
{μού} *mu* [to] me (pers. pronoun) μου *mu* my (poss. pronoun)
{σού} *su* [to] thee (pers. pronoun) σου *mu* thy (poss. pronoun)
{τού} *tu* [to] him/it (pers. pronoun) του *tu* his/its (poss. pronoun)
{τής} *tis* [to] her (pers. pronoun) της *tis* her (poss. pronoun)
{μάς} *mas* [to] us (pers. pronoun) μας *mas* our (poss. pronoun)
{σάς} *sas* [to] you (pers. pronoun) σας *sas* your (poss. pronoun)
{τούς} *tus* [to] them (pers. pronoun) τους *tus* their (poss. pronoun)

The first three words on the left are the only recognised "exceptions" to the rule that monosyllabic words are not accented; as can be seen, the words that receive the acute are indeed stressed in speech. The pronunciation of the remaining seven is identical to that of their unaccented counterparts (i.e., unstressed)  and they are not consistently accented (hence the {braces}) unless the ambiguity as to which of the two kinds of pronouns they represent cannot be resolved otherwise (e.g., from syntax or context). Further complicated rules that govern the not-always-rational (cf. PETR99) Greek accentuation system will not be presented here.


As will be seen later, there are a few pairs of vowels (termed vowel digraphs), which are normally pronounced as a single vowel, e.g., αι=*e*. In some cases though, the two vowels must be pronounced separately and this is denoted by placing a horizontal double dot (called διαλυτικά=*διαlitiká* in Greek and diaeresis in English) over the second vowel of the pair (cf. "naïve"). Thus, e.g., Καϊμάν|Caiman [crocodile], Cayman [islands](=*kaimán* or, rarely, *kaimán*), which without diaeresis (Καιμάν) would be pronounced *kemán*. Diaeresis can be combined with accent, if the second vowel is stressed, e.g. Ναΐτες|Templars(=*naítes*); if the first vowel is stressed, there is no need for diaeresis, as this is already an indication that the first vowel should not be combined with the second, e.g., Μάικλ|Michael(=*máikl* or even *máikl*, but not *mékl*).

Decimal Point

An anomaly in Greek orthography is the use of a comma (,) to distinguish a particular pair of words, specifically ό,τι|whatever (relative pronoun)(=*óti*) and ότι|that (subordinating conjunction)(=*oti*). This comma is a relic of a Hellenistic practice to indicate in scriptio continua two words that are not to be read as one (cf. SIAM88, §2,698, with a typical example being "ΕΠΙ,ΣΚΟΠΩΙ"="ἐπί σκοπῷ|in hopes of" vs "ΕΠΙΣΚΟΠΩΙ"="ἐπισκόπῳ|to the overseer(?)") and is named υποδιαστολή, which denotes (and is otherwise used as) the... (continental-European) decimal point! It could have easily been avoided if the accentuation rules were more reasonable (cf. PETR99, §4.1.1), but we have to live with it and learn to spell "ό,τι" with a comma to distinguish it from "ότι".


Another relic of Hellenistic orthography is the hyphen, which used to be named "ὑφέν"=*ifén* (hence the English name) and to denote the exact opposite of the decimal point mentioned above, namely that the letters on either side thereof belonged to the same word (cf. SIAM88, §2,697). It later took the shape of a dash or minus sign (-) and, under the name "ἑνωτικόν|joining", was indicating that the word continues on the next line (much like in... Eng-
lish). It is now referred to merely as "παύλα|dash"(=*pávla*) and is also used for joining words that build a single concept when a compound word cannot be otherwise formed, e.g., άνθρωπος-αράχνη|spiderman, as well as for separating the syllables in syllabification, e.g., πα-τά-τα|po-ta-to(=*pa-tá-ta*).


In normal speech, some (weak?) sounds are omitted or (in linguistic terms) elided, e.g., "he's", "can't", "rock 'n' roll". As is evident from these English examples, a special mark (' or ’) replaces the omitted letter(s). The same mark is also used in Greek for the same purpose (thus, απ' εδώ=*ap eδó* stands for από εδώ|from here, this way=*apo eδó* after elision of the first word's last vowel). Its name is απόστροφος(=*apóstrofos*), but, due to an unfortunate choice of spelling, its English name is apostrophe (which is a transliteration of αποστροφή|repugnance!).


Greek employs (more or less) the same punctuation marks as English to indicate aspects of speech that cannot be expressed with letters. The most common punctuation marks in Greek are


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