Getting to Grips with Greek – Part I: Achieving the Alphabet

Reading time: 10 minutes

Since antiquity, the Ancient Greek language has held a certain prestige that extends far beyond its autochthonous corner of the Mediterranean. Its influence has been multi-faceted; Greek vocabulary today turns up in so many different spheres of so many different languages, such as in terminology for medicine, for chemistry, for engineering, for maths, and so on. All this is in part due to the Romans, whose zeal for all things Hellenic helped the Greek tongue to become one of two major languages of their empire, and this cemented the importance of Greek for later medieval and then early-modern European societies.

People today come to learn Ancient Greek for various reasons. They may be history enthusiasts or grammar lovers; they may want to read and translate Biblical texts, or to explore Greek poetry and drama, or to understand medical terminology better. My own motivation was the ongoing attempt to make myself into something resembling a philologist; along with Latin and Sanskrit, Ancient Greek occupies a privileged position within the field of Indo-European linguistics as one of the ‘big three’ that are very old, have huge corpora of data, and have driven the field forward.

If you’re considering it, whatever your motivation, I absolutely encourage you to learn some Ancient Greek! It’s a rewarding challenge, and offers knowledge and skills that come in useful in surprising ways – including but by no means limited to etymology trivia for dinner parties and pub quizzes. It can introduce important grammatical concepts, like its cases for nouns and tenses for verbs. It opens up more than a thousand years of history, starting with the early language (c. 1500 BC) of the Linear B texts and ending with the Greek of the medieval era, though there’s no hard line of demarcation, and thus a grounding in Ancient Greek can be enormously helpful for learning the modern language too.

Papyrus from Egypt from c. 350 BC, containing the text of The Persae by the Greek musician and poet, Timotheus of Miletus. It’s possibly the oldest Greek papyrus text!

For this month’s blog post(s), I’d like to offer some thoughts for a beginner just getting started in Ancient Greek. Think of these as my tips and tricks from historical linguistics, some of which occurred to and helped me while I myself was first learning the language. People standing on the start-line of a Hellenic adventure are therefore this post’s target audience, but I hope as always that it has a more general appeal and relevance, with some linguistic titbits for everyone!

To keep things manageable, I’m dividing this into multiple posts. This first one takes a look at the wonderful world of the Greek alphabet.

Part I: Achieving the Alphabet

The Greek alphabet, in its modern and standardised state. From here.

Unsurprisingly, Ancient Greek is usually written in the Greek alphabet, and has been since at least the 9th century BC. It took much of the system from the Phoenicians, and later passed it on to the ancient languages of Italy, most notably Latin. This means that the Greek alphabet has much in common with the Latin letters that English, French, German, Welsh, Hungarian and Czech now use too, but they’re far from identical. If you’re used to the Latin, the first two Greek letters, Α and Β, are familiar enough, but things are already drifting off by the time you reach Γ.

The Greek alphabet may therefore be an off-putting obstacle to diving into the language. While transliterated resources are available, there’s really no way around learning it. How then can you make the alphabet more manageable? Here are three tips from a historical-linguistic angle that could help speed up the process.

Tip 1: learn about the individual letters – their names, their positions in the order, and their counterparts in related alphabets

Rather than taking the letters at face value, look at them in more detail. What are their counterparts in the alphabets derived from or related to the Greek, such as the Latin or the Cyrillic scripts, which you may already know? Don’t approach the Greek alphabet as an object in the abstract, without any familiar friends. The fact that alphabets, like languages, can be related is helpful, making Greek letters more readily usable!

Greek gamma (Γ), for example, corresponds to both C and G in the Latin alphabet. C maintains its third position, but not its sound in Latin; this is due to the influence of the Etruscan language, through which the alphabet was transmitted. G on the other hand is like Γ in its pronunciation, but stands in seventh position. This is because Latin neither wanted nor needed to continue the Greek letter zeta (Ζ), and this left the alphabet’s seventh position vacant; Latin gave it to the new letter G, created by adding one line to C. Greek meanwhile did and still does need zeta, and has left it where it is, although zeta has been bumped up to sixth place through the disappearance of the letter digamma (Ϝ). This disappearance occurred after the alphabet had arrived in Rome, so digamma survives as the sixth Latin letter, F. Moreover, Greek rho (Ρ) really does correspond to Latin R; Latin simply switched to a version with an extra leg in Old Latin times to distinguish R from the similar (but not identical) Latin P.

We can also interrogate the letters’ names. Many of the Greek names go back to Phoenician, and so may be preserved in other Semitic languages like Hebrew or Arabic; lambda (Λ) for instance still sounds like Hebrew lamed and Arabic lām. Moreover, as is well known, omicron and omega (Ο and Ω) have names that literally mean ‘O little’ and ‘O big’, since in ancient pronunciation, they stood for a short and a long O-type vowel. Greek developed omega out of omicron, and it placed the new letter at the end of the alphabet. There omega remains, and it belongs to those letters after tau (Τ), itself originally the last, that were created within Greek, not borrowed. They’re known as the supplemental letters. Another of these is chi (Χ), which you may learn is not pronounced like Latin X, despite the similarity of their shapes. This is true for so much of Ancient Greek and for our modern editions of it, but dig deeper; the cluster of sounds /ks/, as in English necks or six, was indeed an alternative pronunciation of chi, specifically in western Greek writing, which is how Latin X has it too.

All of this is to say that there is so much method in the madness, and learning about the letters may help you to use them more efficiently. While a fuller treatment by me of all their connections and history will have to wait until another blog post, I can recommend Wikipedia, which has articles dedicated to each letter, such as this one for mu (Μ), which will give you its history, its relatives and also its variant shapes; the letters haven’t always looked the way they do, and the intermediate shapes can help to reveal how one letter in one alphabet gradually became another.

A fourth-century BC kylix (drinking cup) from Boeotia, displaying two abecedaria – full renditions of the alphabet. The set of letters includes digamma (Ϝ) in sixth position before zeta (Ζ). Image from here.

Tip 2: don’t forget the capital letters!

Modern Greek distinguishes between lower- and upper-case letters, namely αβγ vs. ΑΒΓ. This system works essentially like that in English or French, and it’s also employed in modern editions of Ancient Greek texts. I’m not against this, but it is anachronistic, since Ancient Greek did not have the same distinction. What we now think of as the upper case is the older of the two, and it’s these shapes that are much closer to what Greek originally took from Phoenician. This early stage can be called ‘epigraphic’ writing, as it’s used in the ancient inscriptions that survive and is well suited to be carved in stone, what with its straight lines and sharp angles.

The story of lower-case letters starts with the increase in papyrus and ink as common writing materials, the hard lines of the capitals giving way to more curvy uncials, and to cursive writing that flowed better across the page. From this developed ‘miniscule’ letters, and thus the lower case. With all this in mind, the modern pairs of upper and lower-case make more sense; lower-case ξ (xi) resembles capital Ξ, only with its three lines joined up, while ζ (zeta) takes the edge off capital Ζ, and a shorter ι (iota) is quicker to write than upper-case Ι. It was later during the medieval period that the older capital letters began to reappear alongside the cursive minuscule ones for various purposes, producing something not a million miles away from the two-case system of Greek writing today.

But why do I mention all this? I do so because the modern editions you’ll encounter in your learning will mostly use lower-case letters; these are a few steps removed from the old epigraphic letters of ancient times, and are therefore further removed in their appearance from the Latin alphabet that also descends from those early letters. Since what you will spend the most time with is the lower case, Greek writing may give the impression of being more different than it really is!

Reminding yourself of the upper-case letters can help. Take a word like δαίμων or τυραννία. Capitalise these, and they read ΔΑΙΜΩΝ and ΤΥΡΑΝΝΙΑ, Now some of the letters look more like their familiar Latin counterparts, and the words as a whole like their English descendants, demon and tyranny. My point is that capital letters can bring some welcome familiarity if you’re used to a Latin-based alphabet; it may even help to convert a mixed text into all-caps.

An altar from the second century AD found at Ephesus, with a bilingual inscription in Latin and Greek. It’s written in the nice capitals of the epigraphic style, and it commemorates Earinus, a clerk, the word for which had been borrowed from Latin into Greek. It can be seen as TABULA[RIUS] (second line) and TABLARIOS (seventh), the first three letters being identical in form. Image from here.

Tip 3: use the script for your own language(s)!

My third tip is very general and really applies to all writing systems. It’s tried and tested language-learning advice: simply put, use the alphabet. This is something you can do with all writing systems and orthographies for new languages, even if it’s a script you already know well (such as trying to spell French with the sounds and rules of German letters). I recommend doing so for purposes that matter only to you: shopping lists, reminders to yourself, casual notes, that sort of thing. If you usually write such things in English, why not switch the script and try writing English in Greek letters? This might sting the eyes of a proud Greek or devoted classicist, but it is useful. For example:

  • μιλκ
  • ἐγγς
  • βανανας
  • βρεδ

This isn’t perfect or ‘correct’ by anyone’s standards, but doing so will get you thinking about how the alphabet works, and what it can and can’t do. For instance, “ἐγγς” (eggs) in my shopping list above is a very literal rendition, matching one Greek to one Latin letter. While successful to that end, we should pause to think about how Greek would really spell the sequence of sounds in eggs. A double gamma would be read instead as the two sounds /ŋɡ/ (as in English linger), which has a nasal quality that we don’t want in our spelling of eggs. Perhaps just ἐγς? Yet this has a sigma that usually stands for the sibilant sound /s/ (as in soup), whereas eggs has a more zed-y final sound. In technical terms, it’s voiced, not voiceless. How about ἐγζ then, with a zeta? Perhaps? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter; you still know what it says, and it’s got you thinking about Greek letters in depth.

If you don’t have any notes to jot down, personal names are good for this, such as your own or loved-ones’. How would I spell my name? Δαννι? Or Δανι? A double nu feels unnecessary. And how would I represent the diphthong vowel in my surname, Bate? Modern English spelling relies on the final and unpronounced E to signify the intended sound of the A, in contrast with the vowel in bat, but this is specific to English, and Greek would not like such a use of a letter. I would go with the spelling Βειτ.

The crux of the matter is that different alphabets suit different languages. Greek had no compunctions about maintaining the letters and spelling practices of Phoenician exactly as they were, squeezing Greek into a Phoenician mould. Instead, it was creative, losing some letters, repurposing some and adding others to convey the many sounds of the language. Greek even developed five vowel letters (alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron and upsilon) out of what were originally letters for consonants in Phoenician; hence, Greek Α, Ε, Ι, Ο and Υ correspond to the Hebrew letters א‎, ה‎, י‎, ע‎ and ו‎.

As a result, the Greek alphabet works for Greek very well. But for English? Not so well. For example, if we wanted to give the shopping list a title, how would we convey the /ʃ/ consonant of shopping? Ancient Greek didn’t have the sound, so didn’t need to dedicate a letter to it. I reckon Greek would have approximated it instead with sigma.

The main point I’d like to make here is that you can learn much about a language and its associated alphabet through these kinds of mismatches. It’s by using the Greek alphabet for your own language that you’ll encounter them, while of course becoming even better acquainted in general with Greek spelling and what it can do.

The gravestone of Primitiva and her nephew Euphrenon, with two images of menorahs. Found in Rome. Image from here.

That’s all for now. I do hope it’s interesting and useful for someone out there! In Part II (yet to be written) I would next like to share some thoughts about the genres of Ancient Greek I personally recommend for a beginner. I’ll get round to posting them soon.

(To be continued)

References and Further Reading

  • Astoreca, N. E. (2021). Early Greek Alphabetic Writing: A Linguistic Approach. Oxbow Books.
  • Fischer, S. R. (2001). A History of Writing. Reaktion Books.
  • Kirchhoff, A. (1877). Studien zur Geschichte des griechischen Alphabets. Berlin.
  • Thompson, E. M. (1912). An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Cambridge University Press.

Featured image of an inscribed Greek poem to Osiris by Damaios of Thessaloniki from c. 120 BC, from here.

One thought on “Getting to Grips with Greek – Part I: Achieving the Alphabet

  1. The easiest way to learn the alphabet is to spend some days in Greece. I remember I was like 10 years old and after a week I could pronounce Greek words both in classical and modern style. You usually see mainly capital letters around, so lower scale letters were harder to learn.
    Once learned the Georgian letters the same way but I don’t remember them anymore.


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