Lesson 2: Sounds, Breathing, Syllables


055. The English approximations to the sounds of Greek given in §050 are more or less arbitrary and designed only to provide a reasonably consistent method of pronunciation. The student should learn to distinguish the sound as well as the sight of the language. The former can be achieved by pronouncing each word encountered and by regularly reading the text in Greek before, or instead of, translation. Reading a text not yet understood may seem like an empty gesture, but it will pay dividends in the long run.

056. Consonants require little special attention as their English equivalents are generally adequate.

056.1 γ is usually hard (as in go); before κ, γ, χ or ξ it has the nasal sound of ng, as in sing: ἄγγελλος = Latin angelus = English angel (in Greek and Latin, unlike English, the sound approximates the ng in finger, i.e. the g is hard).

056.2 ζ had the dz sound earlier (as in adze), but in the hellenistic period had been reduced to simple ζ (zone).

056.3 ξ is sounded with a slight explosion of the breath; a close English approximation is the x in hex.

056.4 ρ has both the simple r and the rh sound (cf. ῥητωρική = rhetoric). ρ was in the process of losing its aspirated sound (=rh) in the hellenistic period (Bl-D §11).

056.5 σ is voiceless or 'sharp' s (as in sit). There is evidence that σ also had a soft (voiced) sound before certain voiced consonants (e.g. β, μ), as in is (Bl-D §10).

056.6 χ is closely approximated by German ch in ich, machen (certain dialects), or Scottish ch in loch.

057. There are seven vowels: α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω. ω is the long form of ο; ε and ο are always short, η and ω always long. This list, omitting η and ω, corresponds to the English a, e, i, o, u. α, ι, υ are sometimes long and sometimes short; the long and short forms are not distinguished by separate characters. The sounds are indicated in §062.

058.1 A diphthong (δίφθογγος, two sounds) is two vowel sounds fused into one. The second is always ι or υ. The diphthongs are:

form   sound examples    
αι   ai in aisle ἀρχαῖος   cf. archaeology
  or archeology
ει   ei in freight εἰκών   cf. icon or eikon
οι   oi in oil οἰκουμενικός   cf. ecumenical
  or oecumenical
υι   we or ui in colloquial υἱός    
αυ   ow in cow ναῦς   cf. nautical
}      eu in eulogy εὑρίσκω
}           cf. eureka                               
ου   ou in group οὔρανος   cf. uranium

The Greek sound of the diphthong is rarely preserved in the related word in English (last column) . The Greek sounds are indicated in §063.

058.2 A long vowel combined with ι forms an improper diphthong: ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ. The iota is written subscript (called iota subscript) and no longer affects the sound. When α, η, ω are written as capitals, the iota must be written on the line (called iota adscript): Αι , Ηι, Ωι.

058.3 All diphthongs are theoretically long, but final αι, οι are considered short for the purposes of accent, except in the optative.

059.1 Every initial vowel or diphthong is marked for breathing. Rough breathing (spiritus asper) is marked with (῾), smooth breathing with (᾿). (῾) has the value of h pronounced before the vowel: Ἕλλην = Ηellene; ἕν (henotheism). Initial υ always has rough breathing: ὑπό (cf. hypodrome). (᾿) has no effect on the sound: ἄνθρωπος (cf. anthropology).

        ↓ 059.2 The signs for breathings are derived from H, which originally had the value of h. H came to be used for ēta, with the result that new marks were created out of the old sign by dividing it into two parts, |- and -| , one to indicate smooth, the other rough, breathing. These marks were printed as ’ and ‘ respectively.

059.3 Initial ρ is also given rough breathing and is pronounced rh: ῥέω (cf. rheostat).

        ↓ 059.4 Medial double ρ (ρρ within a word) is sometimes written -ῤῥ- to indicate that the first lacks, the second has, breathing. (Cf. Bl-D §11(1).

060. Every Greek word has as many syllables as it has separate vowels or diphthongs: τε-θέ-α-μαι.

060.1 A single consonant goes with the following vowel: λό-γος.

060.2 A cluster of consonants which can begin a word, or a consonant with μ or v, goes with the following vowel: έ-σκη-νω-σεν; τέ-κνον.

060.3 A cluster of consonants which cannot begin a word is divided: ἄν-θρω-πος. Doubled consonants are divided: ἐ-γεν-νή-θη-σαν.

060.4 Compounds are divided where they are joined: κατ-έ-λα-βεν, ἔμ-προσ-θεν.

061. Familiarity with the sight and sound of Greek can best be achieved by constant use of a Greek text. Especially at the beginning it is important to read and pronounce aloud, preferably with the instructor or a fellow student at hand to correct. The sounds of vowels and consonants are more readily learned, of course, in the context of the common phonetic patterns in Greek. For this purpose the words in any Greek text are suitable for practice.

062. The Vowels

062.1 α is pronounced like the a in father. πάλιν (Jn 8:12),
                  σάρκα (Jn 8:15), κατὰ (Jn 8:15)

062.2 ε is pronounced like the e in bet.
                  ἔλεγεν (Jn 8:31), ἐστε(Jn 8:31), γνώσεσθε (Jn 8:32)

062.3 η is pronounced like the a in hate.
                  μὴ (Jn 8:12), τῆς ζωῆς (Jn 8:12), τὴν ἀρχὴν (Jn 8:25)

062.4 ι is pronounced like either i in ĭntrīgue. When ι has the circumflex accent (~), it is long, i.e. pronounced like the second i in intrigue.
                  ὅτι (Jn 8:33), ὑμῖν (Jn 8:34), ἐστιν (Jn 8:34)

062.5 ο is pronounced like aw in awful, awl.
                  ὁ (Jn 8:12), τὸ (Jn 8:12), ὅτι (Jn 8:14), πόθεν (Jn 8:14)

062.6 υ is pronounced like German ü or French u (with lips rounded attempt the ee sound in beet).
                  μαρτυρία (Jn 8:13), ὑπάγω (Jn 8:14), δύο (Jn 8:7)

062.7 ω is pronounced like the ο in ode.
                  λέγων (Jn 8:12), ἐγώ (Jn 8:12), φῶς (Jn 8:12)

0620. Observe the following distinctions:

0620.1 Between ε and η
                    ἐλάλησεν (Jn 8:12), ζητήσετέ (Jn 8:21)

0620.2 Between α and ο
                    αἰῶνας (Rom 1:25) / αἰῶνος (Jn 9:32)

0620.3 Between ο and ω
                    λόγον (Jn 8:43) / λόγων (Jn 7:40)

0620.4 Among α, ο, ω in:
                    ὑποκάτω (Jn 1:51), ἄνθρωπον (Jn 8:40)

063. The Diphthongs

063.1 αι is pronounced like ai in aisle.
                  μαθηταί (Jn 8:32), αἰῶνα (Jn 8:35), δαιμόνιον (Jn 8:52)

063.2 ει, is pronounced like ei in freight or a in hate.
                  ἔιπον (Jn 8:13), μαρτυρεῖς (Jn 8:13), ἔξει (Jn 8:12)

063.3 οι is pronounced like oi in oil.
                  αὐτοῖς (Jn 8:12), oἰ (Jn 8:13), οἶδα (Jn 8:14)

063.4 υι is pronounced like ui in colloquial.
                  υἱὸν (Jn 8:25)

063.5 αυ is pronounced like ow in sow.
                  αὐτοῖς (Jn 8:12), ἐμαυτοῦ (Jn 8:14), ταῦτα (Jn 8:28)

063.6 ευ and ηυ are pronounced like eu in eulogy.
                  πιστεύσητε (Jn 8:24), εὐαγγέλιον (Rom 1:1), ηὐχόμην (Rom 9:3)

063.7 ου is pronounced like ou in group.
                  κόσμου (Jn 8:12), οὐ (Jn 8:12), οὖν (Jn 8:13)

0630. Observe the following similarities and distinctions:

0630.1 The pronunciations suggested for η and ει (§§062.3, 063.2) are identical. The first and second vowels in μείνητε (Jn 8:31) will therefore sound alike. In such cases, the eye must distinguish what the ear does not.

0630.2 The pronunciation suggested for ευ and ηυ (§063.6) means that these two diphthongs are indistinguishable. There will be a tendency, moreover, to confuse ευ and ηυ with simple υ (§062.6), especially as French u and German ü is an unfamiliar sound in English. This difficulty may be avoided by giving a true diphthongal sound to ευ and ηυ: ευ may be pronounced like ew in Edward without the intervening d, and ηυ may be pronounced like ayw in wayward.

0630.3 The difficulty of maintaining an un-English pronunciation of υ may produce confusion with ου: υ will tend to take on the sound of ου.

0630.4 The possibility of confusing υ, ευ, ου (§063.2-3) may be lessened by keeping the following catchwords in mind and exaggerating the distinctions between and among the vowels and diphthongs:

υ/ευ εὐθύς (Mk 1:10)
κυριεύει (Rom 6:9)
υ/ου νῦν (Jn 8:40) / νοῦν (Rom 1:28)
υ/ευ/ου κυριεύουσιν (Lk 22:25)

0630.5 The following words may also be helpful in fixing distinctions:

α/ο/ου/ω ἀκολουθῶν (Jn 8:12)                           
ε/η/υ/ει ἐληλύθει   (Jn 8:20)
ευ/η/αι γεύσηται         (Jn 8:52)      

064. Consonants. The Greek consonants offer little difficulty and the approximations suggested in §§050, 056 are generally adequate to distinguish them from each other.

064.1 κ and χ. χ can be confused with κ unless it is remembered that the breath is not entirely cut off with χ; the emission of breath should produce only a strong h.

Contrast χρῆσιν (Rom 1:26) with κρίσιν (Jn 7:24)

Observe the distinction in καύχησις (Rom 3:27)

064.2 γ before γ, κ, χ, ξ is called γ-nasal (§056.1).

γγ is pronounced like ng in finger: ἄγγελος (Mt 1:20)

γκ is pronounced like rik in think: συγκαλεῖ (Lk 15:6)

γξ is pronounced like nx in Sphinx (σφίγξ): ἐλέγξει (Jn 16:8)

γχ is pronounced like γκ only with more breath: ἐλέγχει (Jn 8:46) .

064.3 Other consonants in combination retain the sound they have separately; no consonants in Greek are silent. Note the following:

pn: πνεῦμα (Jn 1:32); cf. pneumatic
pt: πτωχοί (Mt 5:3)
phth: φθόγγος (Rom 10:18); cf. δι-φθόγγος (diphthong)
mn: μνηνιονεύετε (Jn 15:20)
chth: ἐχθρόν (Mt 5:43); cf. χθόνιος (chthonic)

065. The eye should be trained to observe rough breathing (initial υ always has rough breathing, §059.1) and thus the vowel preceded by an h-sound, e.g. ὁ (Jn 8:12), ἕξει (Jn 8:12), οἱ (Jn 8:13), ἡ (Jn 8:13), ὅτι (Jn 8:14), ὑπάγω (Jn 8:14), ὑμεῖς (Jn 8:14).