Lesson 1: The Alphabet



050. The Greek alphabet (ἄλφα-βῆτ[α]) in the Koine or hellenistic period had twenty-four letters.

Form   Name   Sound
Capital Small     English Approximations Greek Examples
Α α ἄλφα alpha drama δρ
Β β βῆτα bēta bible βι-βλί-ον
Γ γ γάμμα gamma glucose γλεῦκος
Δ δ δέλτα delta decalogue δε-κά-λο-γος
Ε ε ἒ ψιλόν epsīlon ego -γώ
Ζ ζ ζῆτα zēta zēta Ζεύς
Η η ἦτα ēta they μ
Θ θ θῆτα theta theist θε-ός
Ι ι ἰώτα iōta intrigue -δι-ος, ὑ-μν
Κ κ κάππα kappa crisis κρί-σις
Λ λ λάμβδα lambda logic λό-γος
Μ μ μῦ mu mother μή-τηρ
Ν ν νῦ nu anti ν-τί
Ξ ξ ξῖ axiom ἀ-ξί-ω-μα
Ο ο ὂ μικρόν omīcron apology ἀ-ποο-γί-α
Π π πῖ pi poet ποι-η-τής
Ρ ρ ῥῶ rhō catarrh κα-τάρ-ρο-ος
Σ σ σίγμα sigma syntax σύν-τα-ξις
Τ τ ταῦ tau topic τό-πος
Υ υ ὖ ψιλόν üpsīlon French: tu
German: Tür
Φ ϕ ϕῖ phī phonetic ϕω-vή
Χ χ χῖ chī chasm χά-σμα
Ψ ψ ψῖ psī apse ἀ-ψίς
Ω ω ὦ μέγα ōmega ode -δή

0500. Notes:

0500.1 The large (capital) letters are called majuscules or uncials (majuscules are square: Ε, uncials are rounded: ε). In general, majuscules are older (in imitation of epigraphic writing) than uncials, and both are older than minuscules.

0500.2 The small letters, called minuscules, are imitations of forms used in cursive (connected) writing. Handwritten manuscripts are divided into two categories on this basis: majuscules or uncials and minuscules.

0500.3 Modern texts are generally printed in minuscules.

0500.4 At the end of a word sigma is written ς, elsewhere σ, e.g. σεισμός.

0500.5 Two other letters were used in the earlier period: Ϝ / ϝ, ϝαῦ, vau, called digamma (i.e. double-gamma, suggested by its form), which once followed ε in the alphabet. ϝ was pronounced w (work). The second was ϟ κόππα koppa, which originally followed π. ϟ and another symbol, ϡ sampi, are used as letter-numerals.

051.1 The beginning student should concentrate on the form of the small letters. Each letter should be written many times, and its name pronounced each time (by learning the names of the letters one learns most of the sounds in Greek).

051.2 Hints for writing: α is written like a figure 8 turned on its side and open on the right. Begin β with an upward stroke below the line. γ is written as a small y with a tail below the line. δ, ζ, ξ may be learned by imitation: start δ below and ζ, ξ above, completing each in a single stroke. ε may be written as one stroke for the body (C) and the tooth added (as in manuscripts). μ may be written in one stroke (starting below the line) or in two ( I from the top, with u, added on). Sufficient tail on μ helps distinguish it from υ. ν and υ are often confused: write ν pointed at the bottom and turn the right upward stroke in at the top; υ is written rounded at the bottom with the right upward stroke turned outward. ρ is written as one stroke from the bottom. φ is also written as one stroke.

052. Transliteration of Greek into English, i.e. representing the sound of Greek in English, may be helpful in learning the pronunciation of Greek. It is also of assistance in learning to recognize English words that are derived from Greek words. Transliteration is sometimes used in printing Greek when a Greek font is not available.

052.1 The common equivalencies used in transliteration are as follows:

α = a η = ē(2) ν=n τ = t
β = b θ = th(3) ξ = χ υ = u, y(4)
γ = g(1) ι = i 0 = 0 φ = ph(3)
δ = d κ = k, c π = p χ = ch
ε = e λ = l ρ = r ψ = ps(3)
ζ = z μ = m σ(ς) = s ω = ō(2)

(1) In combination with κ, γ, χ, ξ, γ is transliterated as n: γκ = nk, γγ = ng, γχ = nch, γξ = nx.

(2) ē and ō, when representing η and ω, must be marked long to distinguish them from e and o, which represent ε and o, respectively.

(3) θ, φ, χ, and ψ are represented in English by two letters.

(4) υ is transliterated as u in diphthongs (combined with other vowels, §058), otherwise as y.

052.2 A few examples will illustrate the connection between transliteration and English derivatives (Metzger: 1ff., Appendix I).

Greek Transliteration Meaning Derivative
δέρμα derma skin dermatology
διδαχή didachē teaching didactic
πνεῦμα pneuma spirit, breath pneumatic
ὕδωρ hydōr water hydroplane
φωνή phōnē sound phonetic,
Ψυχή psychē soul, life psychology