THE GREEK ALPHABET AND PRONUNCIATION

Greek 101, Fall 2008
Brian Lanter, T.A.
THE GREEK ALPHABET AND PRONUNCIATION
Derivation. The Greek alphabet is the precursor of every European alphabet now in use
(even for non-Indo-European languages), and several no longer used, including Runic, Gothic
and Glagolitic. The precursor of the Greek alphabet was Phoenician script (consonants only),
which was based on a north Semitic linear script. Linear script for writing Semitic languages,
composed of simple shapes, lines and squiggles as opposed to Sumerian cuneiform (used also by
the Indo-European Hittites) or Egyptian hieroglyphics, had appeared in the Middle East by the
Late Bronze Age (before 1200 BCE). Outside of Europe, various Indo-Iranian languages also
have alphabets based on a north Semitic script. Modern Persian, for instance, is written with
Arabic letters, derived from Aramaic, the most important north Semitic script. The precursor of
the various Indic alphabets is the Brāhmī alphabet, whose precursor was also north Semitic.
Greek speakers – we don't know which – having abandoned (or perhaps, if they were
invaders, never having learned) the ill-adapted Mycenaean Linear B syllabary, derived a new
alphabet somewhere around 800 BCE from a Phoenician model. The Greeks and Indians both
(independently, as far as we know) adapted the Semitic consonantal system into a system of
vowels and consonants. The Greeks simply took the names and forms of some Semitic
consonants with no Greek counterparts and started using them as vowels. The Greeks also
invented four characters – F X Y W – for non-Semitic phonemes, which they tacked onto the end
of the new alphabet. The order of the borrowed letters through "T" (tau) was essentially the
same as the Phoenician, but we do not know how that order originally arose. Likewise the
names of the borrowed letters were based on the Phoenician names, slightly changed to
accommodate Greek phonology. Our shorter English letter names are based on Latin names
which were based on Etruscan names. Some of the Semitic-derived shapes which lacked
bilateral symmetry (like K) got rotated on their vertical axes when the Greeks changed from
writing mainly right-to-left (the Semitic way) to writing mainly left-to-right.
The tables on the following two pages (from Hans Jensen, Sign, Symbol and Script, 1969)
show the derivation of the precursors of the classical Ionic alphabet of Miletus which Athens
adopted in 403 BCE (shortly after losing the war), and of the classical Latin alphabet. Regional
variations between eastern and western Greek alphabets, transmitted to the Romans through the
Etruscans, resulted in some of the otherwise puzzling differences between the Latin alphabet,
which with two later additions (J and W) is our own, and the Ionic alphabet, which eventually
became standard for all Greeks. See the comments below on each letter for some fascinating
details on how we got all our letters in their present order.
Typography. The ancient Greeks wrote and carved only the forms which we now call
capital letters, and not always very neatly, as you can see by looking at the inscriptions on some
vases. Greek monumental (carved stone) inscription style tended to be very plain, with constant
line width and slight or no serifs, compared to typical Roman monumental lettering, which
tended to have varying line width and pronounced serifs. In the first typographical font shown
below (SPIonic) the style of the capital letters is more like ancient Greek monumental style,
without serifs. In the second font shown below (Times New Roman), the style of the capital
letters is heavily influenced by Roman monumental style, with serifs. The letters V, J and `
(named digamma, qoppa and sampi), shown shaded, were not present in the standard IonianAttic alphabet by 403 BCE, but were still used as numerals. Western Greeks kept V and J, which
passed into the Etruscan alphabet and thence into the Latin alphabet as our letters F and Q.
A B G D E V Z H Q I K L M N C O P J R S T U F X Y W `
Α Β Γ Δ Ε ú Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π û Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω ü
The lower case letters ("minuscule" script) were developed around the 9th century CE by the
Byzantines for handwriting. By convention, modern publishers (starting in Renaissance Italy)
mostly use the lower case medieval Byzantine script, with capital letters to indicate proper
names and chapter or section beginnings. In modern typography, the lower case forms parallel
the aesthetic differences of the capital letters in their respective fonts. For assistance in forming
the lower case letters, see the handwriting guide from your instructor.
a
b
g
d
e
z
h
q
i
k
l
m
n
c
o
p
r
s
t
u
f
x
y
w
α
β
γ
δ
ε
ζ
η
θ
ι
κ
λ
μ
ν
ξ
ο
π
ρ
σ
τ
υ
φ
χ
ψ
ω
Pronunciation. Ancient Greek language now consists of a flat visual medium, namely
Linear B and alphabetic writing. This presents a problem because we are accustomed to learn
language through speech first, regarding writing (at least when we are young) as a representation
of spoken language. Among human languages by which parents first communicate to hearing
children (as opposed, for instance, to secret codes, machine languages or human-machine
interface languages), speech always precedes writing in the learning process. Although it would
be possible to learn ancient Greek as a visual code language, never pronouncing it, there are
some very good reasons to attempt pronunciation:
•
it's easier to learn with sound – just try memorizing large matrices of visual symbol
combinations (such as writing or musical notation) with no sound attached;
•
since Greek speech preceded Greek writing, making sense out of ancient Greek spelling
often requires reconstructing their phonetics and phonology;
•
we need to communicate ancient Greek words to each other in class; and
•
it's fun to at least imagine how they sounded.
4
The sound of language was very important to the ancient Greeks, who wrote prose for reading
out loud and poetry for reciting or singing out loud. Silent reading did not become a common
practice until at least the Byzantine period, maybe not until well into the Middle Ages.
WARNING: PHONETIC AND PHONOLOGICAL DATA
ABOUT ANCIENT GREEK ARE INHERENTLY SPECULATIVE
As it happens, we have a lot of evidence about the phonetics and phonology of ancient
Greek. We have fragments of commentary on phonology from the 5th century BCE on, detailed
intellectual discussions of Greek language starting with Plato's Cratylus, systematic analyses
from Hellenistic, Roman period and Byzantine grammarians and commentary from Latin
authors. Ancient Greek words were transliterated into ancient Latin, Persian, Armenian,
Egyptian, Sanskrit, etc., and vice versa. Ancient spelling is a reflection (not always direct, of
course) of ancient pronunciation. Modern linguistics has established a lot of credibility in being
able to analyze the course of phonetic changes, especially in a continuously attested language
like Greek. Tradition also plays some role, but this is as unreliable in linguistics as in history.
"There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic,
religious or political datum."1
For this class, you must pick a system for pronouncing ancient Greek.2 The textbook
presents both Attic and koine (see below) pronunciations. I require only that you use
pronunciations with some scholarly justification for any period before the Byzantine Age, the
start of which is dated anywhere from Constantine's establishment of his capital at Byzantium in
330 CE to the end of Justinian's reign in 565 CE. By the time of Justinian, Greek pronunciation
had changed enough that poets could not write in the classical meters without deliberate
archaizing, and scholars had to rename some letters to avoid confusion. Since pronunciation
changes over long periods at different rates in different places, this gives you a lot of freedom.
My own preference is to attempt to pronounce Homer and the classical poets with classical Attic
pronunciation, and revert to mostly koine, the more commonly taught pronunciation, for prose in
general and poets of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods (see the second paragraph following for
definitions of these terms). To some extent, I choose the pronunciation (usually older) which
helps me with spelling.
If our lack of precise knowledge about pronunciation causes you anxiety, remember that
Greek, like English, had several dialects which differed noticeably (we now notice mainly the
1
M. I. Finley, Ancient History: Evidence and Models. New York, Viking Penguin Inc., 1985,
p. 17.
2
In modern Greece, most people and even many scholars (somewhat to our amazement) use
modern pronunciation for ancient Greek. In the rest of Europe, the use of reconstructed ancient
pronunciation dates back at least as far as the 1528 treatise by Erasmus, De recta Latini et
Graeci sermonis pronuntiatione (On the proper pronunciation of Latin and Greek speech).
5
spelling differences) and yet were mutually intelligible. Dorians often used Α [Y] where Attic
used Η [e+]. The Ionians and Lesbians didn't use initial aspiration [h], much like Cockneys in
English – but when Eliza Doolittle says that in " 'artford, 'arrisford and 'ampshire, 'urricanes
'ardly 'appen," it takes only a moment of adjustment to understand her. Think about Ross Perot
saying "there is no doubt in my mind." His long "i" [æ:] in "my" and "mind" is quite a different
phoneme from the long "i" diphthong [aNi] of most non-Southern American dialects, yet is
perfectly intelligible to native speakers of English. So even if we don't know the exact qualities
of ancient Greek vowels, we can come close enough to feel we have some idea of the sound of
ancient Greek.
The beginning and ending dates of named historical periods are conventional but
somewhat variable and depend on the field of study. Historians of art, literature, politics, etc.
don't always use the same name with the same dates. On the pronunciation chart provided, the
term "classical" refers to the period between the Greek defeat of the second Persian invasion in
479 BCE and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. The term "koine" (from h9 koinh_
dia&lektoj) means the "common" dialect, based on the Attic-Ionic dialect, which began to
cohere and change after Philip II of Macedon ended southern Greek independence, and when the
conquests and colonizing of Alexander and his successors made Greek the universal language of
commerce, learning and government in the Eastern Mediterranean. Koine is the Greek of the
"Hellenistic" age, which in political terms was the period from the death of Alexander until the
Roman reduction of Greece proper (completed in 146 BCE with the dissolution of the Achaean
League and the sack of Corinth) and of the Hellenized east (completed in the 1st century BCE).
The division between dates BCE and dates CE has no linguistic significance whatsoever. Koine
continued to change in the Roman, or Imperial, period. Many Greek writers in the 1st and 2nd
centuries CE (the "Second Sophistic"), such as Plutarch and Lucian, imitated the classical Attic
dialect. But the comedies of Menander, the Septuagint and the New Testament, the histories of
Polybius and Diodorus Siculus, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, etc., were written in koine.
Atticism has remained a powerful pressure on the Greek language, especially written expression,
through the present day.
The following pronunciation charts and descriptions of individual letters use these symbols:
[ ] brackets surround International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols, which stand for
actual sounds. See the IPA chart on the following page.
/ / slash marks enclose phonemes which cannot be pronounced in isolation (this is a
linguistic convention). See the text description for English equivalents.
+ long mark indicates a sound of relatively long duration (not a different vowel sound) .
h
superscript indicates aspiration of the preceding plosive ("plosive" = "stop").
N ligature under two letters indicates they are pronounced together with no gap.
6 means "becomes," in this case indicating that the change took place over a substantial
period, or at an undetermined time.
6
THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET (revised to 1993, updated 1996)
CONSONANTS (PULMONIC)
Bilabial Labiodental Dental
Alveolar Post alveolar Retroflex
p b
m
õ
Plosive
Nasal
Trill
Tap or Flap
Fricative
Lateral
fricative
Approximant
Lateral
approximant
t d
µ
n
r
|
F B f v T D s z S Z
Ò L
√
®
l
Palatal
Velar
Uvular
Pharyngeal
Glottal
Ê ∂ c Ô k g q G
/
=
≠
N
–
R
«
ß Ω ç J x V X Â © ? h H
’

j
¥
˜
K
Where symbols appear in pairs, the one to the right represents a voiced consonant. Shaded areas denote articulations judged impossible.
Clicks
>
ù
!
¯
≤
VOWELS
Bilabial
Dental
(Post)alveolar
Palatoalveolar
Alveolar lateral
∫
Î
ú
ƒ
Ï
Bilabial
Dental/alveolar
Palatal
Velar
Uvular
Front
Ejectives
Voiced implosives
’
p’
t’
k’
s’
Close
Examples:
i
Central
y
Bilabial
Close-mid
Dental/alveolar
Velar
Open-mid
Alveolar fricative
OTHER SYMBOLS
∑ Voiceless labial-velar fricative Ç Û Alveolo-palatal fricatives
w Voiced labial-velar approximant » Alveolar lateral flap
Á Voiced labial-palatal approximant
Simultaneous S and x
Ì Voiceless epiglottal fricative
Affricates and double articulations
¿ Voiced epiglottal fricative
can be represented by two symbols
joined by a tie bar if necessary.
÷ Epiglottal plosive
Open
3
Ó
7
¶
™
2
·
+
`
8
±
n9 d9
Voiced
s3 t 3
Aspirated
tÓ dÓ
More rounded O7
Less rounded
O¶
Advanced
u™
Retracted
e2
Centralized
e·
Mid-centralized e+
Syllabic
n`
Non-syllabic
e8
Rhoticity
´± a±
ª
e ∏
´
E { ‰
å
œ
a ”
"
Æ
…
Ú
(
kp ts
N(
bª aª 1 Dental
t 1 d1
Creaky voiced
b0 a0 ¡ Apical
t ¡ d¡
Linguolabial
t £ d£ 4 Laminal
t 4 d4
Labialized
tW dW ) Nasalized
e)
Palatalized
t∆ d∆ ˆ Nasal release
dˆ
Velarized
t◊ d◊ ¬ Lateral release d¬
Pharyngealized t≥ d≥
} No audible release d}
Velarized or pharyngealized :
Raised
e6 ( ®6 = voiced alveolar fricative)
Lowered
e§ ( B§ = voiced bilabial approximant)
Advanced Tongue Root
e5
Retracted Tongue Root
e∞
Breathy voiced
0
£
W
∆
◊
≥
ù
6
§
5
∞
U
¨ u
Ø o
ø O
A Å
SUPRASEGMENTALS
Diacritics may be placed above a symbol with a descender, e.g.
Voiceless
IY
e P
(
9
È Ë
Where symbols appear in pairs, the one
to the right represents a rounded vowel.
Í
DIACRITICS
Back
ò
CONSONANTS (NON-PULMONIC)
Primary stress
Secondary stress
ÆfoUn´"tIS´n
*
ù
≤
.
≈
e _
e!
[email protected]
e~
e—
Õ
õ
e…
eÚ
e*
Long
Half-long
Extra-short
Minor (foot) group
Major (intonation) group
Syllable break
®i.œkt
Linking (absence of a break)
TONES AND WORD ACCENTS
LEVEL
CONTOUR
Extra
Rising
or
& or
high
â
ê
î
ô
û
High
Mid
Low
Extra
low
Downstep
Upstep
e
e$
e%
eÞ
e&
ã
Ã
ä
ë
ü
ï
ñ$
Falling
High
rising
Low
rising
Risingfalling
Global rise
Global fall
NAMES AND SOUNDS OF GREEK LETTERS
modern
typographical
forms
classical name
A a
a!lfa
B b
post-classical
name
(if different)
Byzantine
pronunciation
(if different)
Modern Greek
pronunciation
[Y] or [Y+]
[Y]
[a]
bh=ta
[b]
[v]
[v]
Gg
ga&mma
[g]
[p]
[p]
Dd
de/lta
[d]
[ð]
[ð]
Ee
ei], e1
e2 yilo/n
[e]
[e]
[e]
V
Vau=
di/gamma
[w]
Zz
zh=ta
[zNd] ÷ [z]
[z]
Hh
h]ta
[h] or [e+]
[e+]
[i]
[i]
Qq
qh=ta
[th]
[th] ÷ [›]
[›]
[›]
Ii
iw~ta
[i] [i+]
[i]
[i]
Kk
ka&ppa
[k]
[k]
Ll
la&bda
[l]
[l]
Mm
mu=
[m]
[m]
Nn
nu=
[n]
[n]
Cc
cei=
ci=
[khNs]
[kNs]
Oo
ou1, o1
o2 mikro/n
[o]
[]] or [o]*
Pp
pei=
pi=
[p]
[p]
la&mbda
classical
pronunciation
8
koine
pronunciation
(if different)
[e] ÷ [e]
[z]
NAMES AND SOUNDS OF GREEK LETTERS
modern
typographical
forms
post-classical
name
(if different)
classical name
J
ko/ppa
[k]
-
Rr
r(o
[r] or [r;]
[r]
Ss
si/gma
[s] or [z]
[s]
Tt
tau=
[t]
[t]
Uu
u3
u2 yilo/n
[y] or [y+]
[y] ÷ [i]
[i]
[i]
Ff
fei=
fi=
[ph]
[ph] ÷ [f]
[f]
[f]
Xx
xei=
xi=
[kh]
[kh] ÷ [x]
[x]
[x] [ç]
Yy
yei=
yi=
[phNs]
Ww
w}
[email protected] me/ga
[]+]
`
sa&n
sa&mpi
[s]
classical
pronunciation
koine
pronunciation
(if different)
Byzantine
pronunciation
(if different)
Modern Greek
pronunciation
[pNs]
[]+] ÷ [o+]
[o]
[]] or [o]*
*Both of these IPA
transcriptions
appear in Oxford
publications.
9
GREEK DIPHTHONGS & DIGRAPHS
diphthong:
classical
pronunciation
koine
pronunciation
Byzantine
pronunciation
Modern greek
pronunciation
ai
[aNi]
[aNi] ÷ [e:]
[e]
[e]
long ai
[a:Ni]
[a:]
[e]
-
au
[aNu]
[aNu] ÷ [av]
[av]
[av] [af]
ei
[e]
[e] ÷ [i:]
[i]
[i]
eu
[eNu]
[eNu] ÷ [ev]
[ev]
[ev] [ef]
hi
[e:Ni]
[eNi] ÷ [i]
[i]
-
hu
[eNu]
[eNu] ÷ [ev]
[ev]
[iv] [if]
oi
[oNi]
[oNi] [y:]
[i]
[i]
ou
[o:u] ÷ [u:]
[u:]
[u]
[u]
ui
[uNj]
[yNj] ÷ [y:]
[i]
[i]
wi
[]:Ni]
[]:]
[o]
-
gg
[õg]
[õg]
[õg]
[õg]
gk
[õk]
[õk]
[õk]
[g] [õg] [õk]
gc
[õks]
[õks]
[õks]
[õks]
gx
[õkh]
[õkh] ÷ [õx]
[õx]
[õx] [õç]
digraph:
10
ORIGINS AND SOUNDS OF LETTERS
A a a!lfa
Phoenician &ālef,1 glottal plosive [§]. Classical Greek open, back, tense vowel [Y] as American
bob. Alpha could be long or short; the long alpha was just longer in duration than the short, not
a different quality of vowel. The Greeks changed the Phoenician letter name slightly because in
ancient Greek phonology, no word could end with a consonant sound other than /n/, /r/ or /s/.2
So the Greeks adapted many of the Phoenician letter names by switching the final vowel and
consonant, or leaving off the final consonant, or adding a vowel after the final consonant.
B b bh=ta
Phoenician bēt. Classical Greek voiced bilabial plosive [b], as English bet. Byzantine voiced
labio-dental fricative [v], as English vet.
G g ga&mma
Phoenician gīmel. Classical Greek voiced velar plosive [g], as English get. Byzantine voiced
velar fricative [γ], as Spanish agua (some dialects). Also in Greek, a velar nasal [õ] when it
occurs before the velar plosives g, as American anger; k, as American inky; and x, as American
income; and before the bilabial nasal m, as American hangman. The velar nasal may have been
called a!gma.
Why does our letter C occupy the space of the Greek G? I'm so glad you asked. In
Etruscan, the voiced plosives /b/, /d/ and /g/ were either non-contrastive or non-existent, i.e., the
Etruscans didn't need or use the distinct sounds which the Greeks wrote as B, D and G. So the
Etruscans efficiently used G as an allophone (a variant of a phoneme) of the voiceless velar
plosive /k/ (English "hard c") when it occurred before the vowels /i/ and /e/; they used K before
/a/ and J before /u/. G came to be shaped like a C (see the Latin precursor chart). When the
Romans borrowed the Etruscan alphabet, they kept the J for their labio-velar phoneme /kw/,
spelled QU. Since K was redundant with Latin C, they used K in place of C only for a very few
traditional spellings beginning KA and for several abbreviations; and since Etruscan had no
separate letter for the voiced /g/, they used C for both the voiceless /k/ and voiced /g/ sounds.
For the position of G in the Latin alphabet, see the paragraph following zh=ta.
1
As far as I can tell, we have found no written record of the early Phoenician letter names.
Scholars have reconstructed them mainly from the names as preserved in Greek and Hebrew.
2
The only exceptions being the /k/ in e0k and ou0k, which seldom appear alone or at the end of a
clause.
11
D d de/lta
Phoenician dālet. Classical Greek voiced alveolar plosive [d], as English bed. Byzantine voiced
dental fricative [ð] as American bother.
E e ei] (Byzantine e2 yilo/n)
Phoenician hē. Classical Greek close-mid front tense vowel [e], like American English bait, but
without any glide to the /i/ sound. The long form of this sound, written ++ up to the classical
period, came to have the same pronunciation and spelling as the diphthong +3. By the 2nd
century CE the diphthong !3 had come to have the same sound as +, so the Byzantine
grammarians distinguished them as ai di/fqoggoj ("diphthong ai") and e2 yilo/n ("bare e"). For
classical Greek purposes we should not be calling it "epsilon," but the name is so engrained that
everyone uses it anyway.
V Vau= or di/gamma
Phoenician wāw. Originally called by the Phoenician name, later called di/gamma because of its
shape. Not written in classical Attic, but written in other dialects such as Boeotian until the 3rd
century BCE. In Aeolic, Homeric (Aeolic-Ionic), Boeotian and other dialects, it was a voiced
labio-velar glide [w], as English wet. It retained its position as the numeral 6 in alphabetic
numbering systems invented around the 5th century BCE.
Does digamma have something to do with our letter F? In a word, yes. The Greeks
didn't have an /f/ sound until post-classical times. Our friends the Etruscans, however, did have
an /f/ sound and originally spelled it VH, apparently because of the similarity of their voiceless
/f/ to a voiceless aspirated /w/, like English initial "wh." The Romans left F in place to represent
the Latin /f/ sound, while V dropped out of the Attic-Ionic dialect from which koine descended.
Z z zh=ta
Phoenician zajin. Pre-classical Greek voiced alveolar affricate [dz], similar to the consonant
cluster [dz] in English adz. Classical Greek consonant cluster [zd] by metathesis (exchange of
phoneme order), as English wisdom. Byzantine voiced alveolar fricative [z], as English biz.
So why is our Z at the end of the alphabet, and how did G get to seventh position? Easy.
Go back to gamma and review why Latin C is where Greek G was. In the late 4th or 3rd century
BCE the Romans added a slash mark to their C to distinguish the voiced /g/ sound, and stuck the
new G in the seventh position, the slot formerly occupied by the Etruscan -, for which the
Romans had no use at the time – in Etruscan it was a voiceless [ts]. But around the 1st century
BCE, when the Romans had borrowed a great many Greek words, they decided they needed a
letter to represent the sound of Greek zeta, which by then had lost its /d/ element and was just
[z]. Very practically, the Romans tacked Z back onto the end of their alphabet (see also the note
under upsilon about how we got our Y at the same time).
12
H h h]ta
Phoenician £ēt, voiceless pharyngeal fricative [£]. Originally h[ta, classical Attic (before the
alphabet reform in 403 BCE) voiceless glottal fricative [h], as English hat. The Ionians and
Aeolians did not use initial [h] and used the letter instead for one of their vowels. In Attic after
403 BCE, the letter had its Ionian value: long, mid-open, front, lax vowel [e:] as English bet (but
longer in duration). Byzantine high front vowel [i], as English beet. After / became a vowel, a
half / | was used to signify initial aspiration (around 300 BCE). The two halves of the old H, |
and }, became the rough and smooth breathing marks, ) and ( .
If / used to be an /h/ sound but came to stand for a vowel in Ionian, why does the letter
now appear to correspond again to the Latin and English /h/? Also easy. The Etruscans
borrowed the Greek alphabet from western Greeks, who did pronounce initial /h/, and in whose
alphabet, as in classical Attic, / was still /h/. So the Romans used it likewise.
Q q qh=ta
Phoenician ṭ ēt, pharyngealized alveolar plosive [t¨]. Classical Greek aspirated voiceless alveolar
plosive [th], as English tin. Byzantine voiceless interdental fricative [›], as English bath.
This seems like a useful letter. Why isn't it in our alphabet? Two reasons. First, because
native Latin (like English) never differentiated between two words solely by the difference
between an aspirated [th] and an unaspirated [t] – that difference was not "distinctive" (as they
say in linguistics). So they simply left the Greek and Etruscan Q out of their own alphabet.
Mind you, the Romans could hear the difference in Greek pronunciation, and by the middle of
the 2nd century BCE, were accurately transcribing Greek words containing an aspirated [th] with
Latin "TH." Second, Latin (unlike English) had no interdental fricative at all. Although the
classical Greek aspirated [th] mutated into the koine interdental fricative [›], the Romans
continued to spell it "TH" and never added (or restored) a letter to imitate the foreign sound, as
they did for Y and Z. Old English had interdental fricatives, for which scribes added two
interchangeable letters to the Latin alphabet, ð (eth or edh) and þ (thorn), but the traditional
Latin spelling TH prevailed.
I i i0w~ta
Phoenician yōd. Greek close front tense vowel [i], as American beet. Could be long or short in
duration.
K k ka&ppa
Phoenician kāf. Greek unaspirated,voiceless, velar plosive [k], as English skit. In the
preposition e0k, it probably assimilated to the following consonant, becoming voiced [g] before
voiced consonants and aspirated [kh] before aspirated consonants.
13
L l la&bda, later la&mbda
Phoenician lāmed. Greek voiced, alveolar, lateral approximant [l], as English let.
M m mu=
Phoenician mēm. Greek voiced, bilabial nasal [m], as English met.
N n nu=
Phoenician nūn. Greek voiced, alveolar nasal [n], as English net.
C c cei=, later ci=
Phoenician sāmek. Greek affricate [kNs] or [khNs], as English bucks. Present in the Corinthian and
Ionic alphabets from early times, the Athenians added it to the Attic alphabet in 403 BCE. In
older Attic, the /ks/ sound was written out with two consonants: KS, XS or GS.
All right, so what happened to C and why do we write the /ks/ sound with X? Again, the
Etruscans borrowed a western Greek alphabet which had no letter C. The Etruscans had no
separate letter for [kNs]; they had a suspiciously X-shaped letter at the position of C in their
alphabet, but apparently it corresponded to the fricative [ • ] (English "sh"), which did not exist
in Greek. The western Greeks used the letter O, positioned where it is in the eastern Attic-Ionic
alphabet, to write the sound [kNs], and the Romans eventually (not until the 1st century BCE)
borrowed that letter, which had no Etruscan counterpart. The western Greek Y stood for [kh],
which was spelled X in Attic-Ionic (see the chart of Latin precursors).
O o ou], o! (Byzantine [email protected] mikro/n)
Phoenician #ayin, voiced pharyngal fricative. Classical Greek short, close-mid, back, tense,
rounded vowel [o], as American English boat (but with no glide to an /u/ sound). The distinction
between long and short vowels and between the sounds of omicron and omega had disappeared
by the Byzantine period, so the Byzantine grammarians distinguished O from W by calling them
[email protected] mikro/n (small O) and w} me/ga (large O). For classical Greek purposes we should not be
calling it "omicron," but the difference in both quality and quantity of the classical Attic omicron
and omega are difficult for us to hear, so the Byzantine names are convenient.
P p pei=, later pi=
Phoenician pē. Greek unaspirated, voiceless, bilabial plosive [p], as English spin.
14
J ko/ppa
Phoenician qōf. Pre-classical back allophone of /k/, used before back vowels /o/ and /u/. The
letter J apparently dropped out of use in Greece because the use of the back allophone was
automatic and non-distinctive, but it retained its position as the numeral 90. The Etruscans
borrowed the western Greek alphabet before J dropped out, and did use the letter, and it became
the Latin Q.
R r r(w~
Phoenician rēš. Classical Greek voiced alveolar trill [r] as Spanish perro, or (probably)
voiceless alveolar trill in initial and sometimes medial position. The r was always aspirated r(
when initial, and sometimes when medial in double rr(. Aspirated r( was probably a voiceless
trill, but when aspiration disappeared after the Hellenistic period, it became voiced.
S s j si/gma
Phoenician šīn. Greek voiceless alveolar fricative [s], as English best, except before voiced
consonants when it was voiced [z], as English bismuth.
T t tau=
Phoenician tāw. Greek unaspirated, voiceless alveolar plosive [t], as English sting. The Greek
/t/ sound may have been dental, as in Spanish, but there isn't much difference.
U u u[ (Byzantine u] yilo/n)
Phoenician wāw (see also Vau=). Pre-classical Greek close, back, tense, rounded vowel [u], as
English boot. Classical Greek long or short, close, front, tense, rounded vowel [y], as French
butte or German Bütt. Byzantine close, front, tense, unrounded vowel [i], as English beet.
Between the 4th and 10th centuries CE, the diphthong oi had come to have the same [i] sound as
u, so the Byzantine grammarians distinguished them as oi di/fqoggoj ("diphthong oi") and u]
yilo/n ("bare u"). For classical Greek purposes we should not be calling it "upsilon," but the
name is so engrained that everyone uses it anyway.
Why does our English "Y " look like the Greek upsilon? Well, for a long time the
Romans transliterated Greek words having an upsilon with the Etruscan/Latin V, which had the
[u] sound of the pre-classical Greek upsilon. But the sound of the Greek letter changed to [y],
and in the 1st century BCE, the Romans added upsilon as a separate letter to transcribe Greek
words. The Romans tacked the new letter onto the end of the Latin alphabet just before the
restored Z (see the note under zeta about how Z, once in seventh position, got to the end of the
alphabet). At some point, after the Greek Y [y] started sounding like a Latin I [i], Latin scholars
15
started calling it "i graeca" to avoid confusion, hence its modern name in several languages, like
French (i grec), Spanish (i griega) and Italian (i greca).
F f fei=, later fi=
No Semitic precursor. Classical Greek aspirated, voiceless, bilabial plosive [ph], as English pin
(compare to non-initial /p/ in spin, Greek p). Byzantine voiceless labio-dental fricative [f], as
English fin.
X x xei=, later xi=
No Semitic precursor. Eastern classical Greek aspirated, voiceless, velar plosive [kh], as English
kin (compare to non-initial /k/ in skin). Byzantine voiceless palatal fricative [ç], as German ich,
or velar fricative [x], as German Bach. In the western Greek alphabet from which the Romans
borrowed some non-Etruscan letters, the letter X stood for the sound [kNs], and so it did in Latin.
Y y yei=, later yi=
No Semitic precursor. Greek consonant cluster [pNs] or [phNs], as English bops. Present in the
Ionic and Corinthian alphabets from early times, the Athenians added it to the Attic alphabet in
403 BCE. In older Attic, the sound was written out as two consonants: PS, FS or BS.
W w w} (Byzantine w} me/ga)
No Semitic precursor. Classical Greek open-mid, back, lax rounded vowel, as English board.
Byzantine close-mid, back, tense, rounded vowel [o], as English boat. See omicron. For
classical Greek purposes we should not be calling it "omega," but the difference in both quality
and quantity of the classical Attic omega and omicron are difficult for us to hear, so the
Byzantine names are a necessity.
` sa&n (Doric) or sa&mpi
Phoenician šādē. Pre-classical Greek voiceless, alveolar fricative [s], as English best. Used
interchangeably with sigma for the /s/ sound. It dropped out of the alphabet but kept its position
as the numeral 900.
16
leftovers
Dare one ask, where did English J and W come from? – these are the only letters in the
contemporary English alphabet not explained in the preceding materials. These have nothing to
do with Greek, but, since you ask:
The voiced affricate (meaning a stop followed by release in a continuant position) J [dN¥]
represents a Latin consonantal or semi-vowel I, which was a voiceless palatal approximant [j].
In Old French, this came to be pronounced [dN¥], like the "soft" G in Italian.3 Old English
hybridized with Old French, starting with the Norman invasion in the 11th century, to produce
Middle English. Up to the 17th century, words beginning with this French sound were spelled
with I and readers just had to know when initial I was pronounced [dN¥]. Then typographers
adopted an old form of minuscule "i" with a tail to stand for "j" and made up the capital form J.
No word which begins with "J" is derived from Old English. Its position in the alphabet is
natural, since it was historically regarded merely as a different sound of the letter I.
The voiced labial-velar approximant W [w] represents an Old English phoneme, which
sounded like the classical Latin consonantal U (or V – those were the same letter). But in the 7th
century CE, when the Latin alphabet was adapted to writing Old English, the medieval Latin
consonantal U was already pronounced as a bilabial or labial-dental fricative, like our modern V.
So English scribes at first used a ligatured UU or VV ("double U") to represent the sound, but
then switched to a Runic letter, wynn. But VV had been carried to the continent where it was
used in Old French to spell words of Germanic and Celtic origin, and was reintroduced in Britain
by Norman scribes. Its position in the alphabet is natural, since it is an adaptation of U or V (the
typographical distinction between U and V was not regular in England until the 17th century).
3
You can hear the same phonological process at work in the way some Spanish speakers
pronounce the initial "y" in English words like a "j," so for instance, "yes" becomes "jes."
17
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Allen, W. Sydney, Vox Graeca: A Guide To The Pronunciation Of Classical Greek, third
edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Allen, W. Sydney, Vox Latina: A Guide To The Pronunciation Of Classical Latin, second
edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Browning, Robert, Medieval and Modern Greek, London, Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.,
1969.
Daitz, Stephen, The Pronunciation And Reading Of Ancient Greek: A Practical Guide. New
York, Jeffrey Norton Publishers Inc., 1984.
Daniels, Peter T. and Bright, William, editors, The World's Writing Systems. Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 1996.
Howatson, M. C., editor, The Oxford Companion To Classical Literature, second edition. New
York, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Jensen, Hans, Sign, Symbol and Script; an account of man's efforts to write, third revised and
enlarged edition, translated by George Unwin. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969.
Joseph, Brian D., "Greek," in The World's Major Languages, Bernard Comrie, editor. New
York, Oxford University Press, 1987.
Liddell, Henry George and Scott, Robert, compilers, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and
augmented by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, and with the
cooperation of many scholars, with a revised supplement. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press: 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson
and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993 and 1997 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael
Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) (ed. John Simpson). University of New Mexico Zimmerman
Library, Albuquerque, New Mexico. < http://dictionary.oed.com.libproxy.unm.edu>
Pring, T.J., compiler, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek. Oxford, Oxford University
Press, 1986.
Sampson, Geoffrey, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction, London, Hutchinson & Co.
(Publishers) Ltd., 1985.
Stanford, W. B., The Sound Of Greek: Studies In The Greek Theory And Practice Of Euphony.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.
18