The Greek Alphabet

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The Greek Alphabet

  1. 1. The Alphabet (Click on the name of the letter to hear the pronunciation in Modern Greek) Letter Name & Sound Modern Greek pronunciation Classic Greek Pronunciation (Attic) 1 Alpha [a], as in "father". Same like [a] in Spanish and Italian. Phonetically, this sound is: open, central, and unrounded. As in Modern Greek 2 Beta [v], as in "vet". [b], as in "bet". Evidence 3 Gamma [gh], a sound that does not exist in English. If followed by the sound [u] then it sounds almost like the initial sound in "woman", but with the back of the tongue touching more to the back (soft) palate. To pronounce [gha], try to isolate "w" from "what" without rounding your lips, and then say [a]. In Castilian Spanish this sound exists in "amiga". Same is true for [gho]: try eliminating the [u] sound from "water". (C. Spanish: "amigo".) On the other hand, due to a phonetic phenomenon called palatalization, [ghe] sounds like "ye" in "yes", and [ghi] sounds like "yi" in "yield". Phonetically, gamma is a voiced velar fricative. (Its palatalized version is a voiced palatal fricative.) [g], as in "got". Evidence 4 Delta [th], as in "this". [d], as in "do". Evidence 5 Epsilon [e] as in "pet", except that the [e] in "pet" (and in most other English words) is lax, while in Greek it is tense. As in Modern Greek 6 Zeta [z], as in "zone". Actually, the remark for sigma (see below) applies to zeta as well (it is shifted a bit towards [Z], as in "pleasure"). [zd], as in "Mazda". Evidence 7 Eta [i], as in "meet", but shorter, not so long. This is one of the three [i] in the Greek alphabet; they all have identical pronunciation. The reason for this redundancy has to do with Classic Greek, where they were not redundant. long open mid-[e], as in French "κtre". Evidence 8 Theta [th], as in "think". [th ], as in "top", but more aspirated. Evidence 9 Iota [i], exactly like eta (see above). The name of the letter is pronounced "yota" in Modern Greek. (the reason for the y-sound in front of the letter's name is purely phonetical). As in Modern Greek 10 Kappa [k], as in "pack". Notice that in English [k] is aspirated if it is at the beginning of a word; Greek makes no such distinction. When followed by the vowel [e] it is pronounced nearly as in "kettle", while when followed by [i] it is pronounced nearly as in "kill". For the exact pronunciation in the last two cases, please check the page on palatalization. Phonetically, it is an unvoiced velar plosive. (Its palatalized version is an unvoiced palatal plosive.) As in Modern Greek 11 Lambda [l] as in "lap". When followed by the vowed [i] it becomes palatalized, turning to a sound that does As in Modern Greek
  2. 2. not exist in English (check the page on palatalization). The name of the letter is pronounced "lamtha" ([b] is eliminated because it is difficult to pronounce it between [m] and [th]). 12 Mu [m], as in "map". Notice that the name of the letter is pronounced "mi" (mee), not "mew" as in American English. As in Modern Greek 13 Nu [n], as in "noble". When followed by the vowed [i] it becomes palatalized, turning to a sound that does not exist in English (but exists in Spanish; check the page on palatalization). Notice that the name of the letter is pronounced "ni" (nee), not "new" as in American English. As in Modern Greek 14 Ksi [ks] as in "fox". Contrary to the English "x", the letter ksi does not change pronunciation in the beginning of a word (it does not become a [z]; Greeks have no trouble starting a word with [k]+[s]). As in Modern Greek 15 Omicron [o] as in "hop", except that the [o] in "hop" (and in most other English words) is lax, while in Greek it is tense. Same like [o] in "got" the way it is pronounced in British English. As in Modern Greek 16 Pi [p], as in "top". Notice that in English [p] is aspirated if it is at the beginning of a word; Greek makes no such distinction. As in Modern Greek 17 Rho [rh], a sound that does not exist in English (but exists in Scottish). Sounds very much like the Italian, or Russian [r], or the Spanish trill [r]. Phonetically, it is an alveolar, voiced trill. Probably as in Modern Greek 18 Sigma [s], as is "sit". Actually, if you listen carefully to native Greek speakers, it sounds a bit between [s] and [sh] (probably because there is no [sh] in Greek, so the sound is somewhat shifted in the phonological space). However, it is much closer to [s], rather than [sh], and every Greek speaker would swear they pronounce it exactly like the English [s], unless forced to admit the difference by looking at spectrograms. Notice that the second way of writing the lower case sigma is used exclusively when the letter appears at the end of a word (there is only one capital form); this rule has no exceptions. Probably as in Modern Greek 19 Tau [t], as in "pot". Notice that in English [t] is aspirated if it is at the beginning of a word; Greek makes no such distinction. As in Modern Greek 20 Upsilon [i], exactly like eta and iota (see above). The name of the letter is pronounced [ipsilon] (ee-psee-lon), not "yupsilon" as it is called in American English. Rounded [i], as in French "une". Evidence 21 Phi [f] as in "fat". [ph ], as in "pit", but more aspirated. Evidence 22 Chi [ch], a sound that does not exist in English (but exists in Scottish, as in "loch"). When followed by the vowel [e] it is pronounced nearly as in Spanish "general", while when followed by [i] it turns to a sound that I have not encountered yet in any other language. For the exact pronunciation in the last two cases, please check the page on palatalization. Phonetically, it is an unvoiced velar fricative. (Its palatalized version is an unvoiced palatal fricative.) [kh ], as in "cut", but more aspirated. Evidence 23 Psi [ps] as in "lopsided". Contrary to English, the sound of the letter does not change in the beginning of As in Modern Greek
  3. 3. a word (it doesn't become a [s]; Greeks have no trouble starting a word with [p]+[s]). For example, in the word psychologia (psychology) the initial [p] sound is not omitted. However, do not put any aspiration between [p] and [s] when pronouncing this letter. 24 Omega [o], exactly like omicron. (Once again, the reason for the redundancy lies in Classic Greek.) Long open mid-back [o], as in "law". Evidence Phonology and Orthography Oops! Twenty-four letters only? Surely some sounds must be missing? That's correct. There are sounds common in other languages that do not exist in Greek. Such sounds are all the postalveolar fricatives and postalveolar affricates ([sh] as in "shop", [Z] as in "pleasure", [ch] as in "church", and [dZ] as in "job"). So what do Greeks do when they want to pronounce foreign words with these sounds? If they are not trained to pronounce correctly, they simply transform these postalveolar sounds to their corresponding alveolar ones: [sh] [s], [Z] [z], [ch] [ts], [dZ] [dz]. Ask a Greek to pronounce "fish 'n chips" next time you want to have some linguistic fun. And what about other very common sounds, like [b], [d], [g], etc.? These seem to be missing from the alphabet, too! Are they also missing from the repertoire of the sounds of the language? No! These are existent as sounds in the language. It is just that there are no single letters to denote them. When Greeks want to write those sounds they write them as two-letter combinations: [b] is written as mp (mu + pi), [d] as nt (nu + tau), and [g] as gk (gamma + kappa), or as gg (double gamma), depending on the vowel that follows. Why all this trouble? Remember, as explained in the introductory paragraph on this page, the sounds [b], [d], and [g] used to exist in Classic Greek. Later, probably shortly after the time the New Testament was written in the so-called koine (common) Greek, these three sounds had shifted in pronunciation to the corresponding "soft" ones ([v], [th], and [gh]). This left a void in the phonological space. Words that contained combinations like "mp" and "nt" started being pronounced as [mb] and [nd], respectively. So the "plosive" sounds were re-introduced, but pairs of letters were used now to denote them. What exactly happened to the sound [g] is not clear to me. In fact, I am kind of suspicious to the Erasmian view (that gamma was pronounced as [g] in Classic times), because the combination gk (gamma + kappa) was already existent (for example, αναγκαζω: I force; ογκος: volume) and was pronounced as [ng] (as in "fungus"). Why would Greeks choose to write the sound [g] in "αναγκαζω" as gk, since it would be perfectly readable and predictable to write it as ng (nu + gamma)? In other words, if gamma was [g], why not "ανανγαζω" and "ονγος"? In fact, in the Erasmian interpretation, letter-combinations like "gk" would be quite hard to pronounce (try it!). The only reasonable explanation that comes to my mind is that gamma was already pronounced as in later times ([gh]), so the sound [g] (as in "got") needed some way of written expression, hence, gk. However, it should be noted that there is certain evidence in favor of the Erasmian view(2) . There is one more sound in the language which is absent from the alphabet: it is the "ingma", the last consonant in "king". (This consonant rarely ever has the honor to be denoted by a single letter in the alphabet of any language!) This sound is very rare in Greek, and when it appears (as in "αγχος": anxiety; "ελεγχος": checking) it is denoted by the combination gamma + chi, with the gamma pronounced as ingma.
  4. 4. All of the above plus much more, including the pervasive phenomenon of palatalization, can be found in this page on the details of Modern Greek pronunciation, which includes sound samples with the author's voice for all of the presented examples. You may also find useful this page, showing the sounds of Modern Greek against all possible sounds of any language in the world. The tables for consonants and vowels in that page are very familiar to linguists, but you don't need to be a linguist to understand it. What about vowels? Is there any similarity with the English vowels, or with those of any other language? Vowels in Greek are easy. That is, if you are not a native speaker of English! That's because English is a very rich language in terms of vowel sounds. Still, it almost lacks completely the Greek vowels. The latter are more like the vowels of Italian, Spanish, or Japanese: they are the five sounds [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u]. Now, there are three letters for [i] in the alphabet (eta, iota, and upsilon), pronounced identically, and two letters for [o] (omicron and omega), also pronounced identically. For the sound [u] (as in "loot") the combination ou (omicron + upsilon) is used. Here are two good rules of thumb for native English speakers: 1. Greek vowels never sound like glides. That is, English speakers tend to pronounce Greek [e] almost always as [ei ] (as in "bay", "buffet", "claim", etc.), a phenomenon known as gliding. That's wrong! Try to avoid adding the sound [i] at the end just stay with [e] (almost like "bet", but notice, that [e] in "bet" is lax; whenever the tense [e] is pronounced in English, it glides and sounds like [ei ]). The same is true for [o]: Avoid pronouncing it as [ow ] (as in "rope", "bone"); just stay with [o], as in "awe", "law", etc., but make it a bit shorter (and don't open your mouth as much as is required by "awe"; that's suitable for the Classic omega; Modern Greek [o] is a bit more closed). 2. If you know Spanish, or Italian, or Japanese(3) , there is a one-to-one correspondence between the five vowel sounds in these languages and Greek. Trust your knowledge then, and use it.

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