Greek alphabet

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Linguistics

Greek alphabet
Type Alphabet
Spoken languages Greek, with many modifications covering many languages
Time period ~ 800 BC to the present
Parent systems Proto-Canaanite alphabet
 →  Phoenician alphabet
  → Greek alphabet
Child systems Gothic
Glagolitic
Cyrillic
Coptic
Old Italic alphabet
Latin alphabet
ISO 15924 Grek
Greek alphabet
Αα Alpha Νν Nu
Ββ Beta Ξξ Xi
Γγ Gamma Οο Omicron
Δδ Delta Ππ Pi
Εε Epsilon Ρρ Rho
Ζζ Zeta Σσς Sigma
Ηη Eta Ττ Tau
Θθ Theta Υυ Upsilon
Ιι Iota Φφ Phi
Κκ Kappa Χχ Chi
Λλ Lambda Ψψ Psi
Μμ Mu Ωω Omega
Obsolete letters
Digamma Qoppa
San Sampi

Greek diacritics

The Greek alphabet ( Greek: Ελληνικό αλφάβητο) is a set of twenty-four letters that has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BC. It was the first alphabet in the narrow sense, that is a writing system that uses a separate symbol for each vowel and consonant. It is the oldest alphabetic script in continuous use today. The letters were also used to represent Greek numerals, beginning in the 2nd century BC.

The Greek alphabet is descended from the Phoenician alphabet, and unrelated to Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, earlier writing systems for Greek. It has given rise to many other alphabets used in Europe and the Middle East, including the Latin alphabet. In addition to being used for writing Modern Greek, its letters are today used as symbols in mathematics and science, particle names in physics, as names of stars, in the names of fraternities and sororities, in the naming of supernumerary tropical cyclones, and for other purposes.

History

The Greek alphabet emerged several centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and consequent abandonment of its Linear B script, an early Greek writing system. Linear B is descended from Linear A, which was developed by the Minoans, whose language was probably unrelated to Greek; consequently the Minoan syllabary did not provide an ideal medium for the transliteration of the sounds of the Greek language.

The Greek alphabet we recognize today arose after the Greek Dark Ages — the period between the downfall of Mycenae (ca. 1200 BC) and the rise of Greece">Ancient Greece, which begins with the appearance of the epics of Homer, around 800 BC, and the institution of the Ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC. Its most notable change, as an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, is the introduction of vowel letters, without which Greek would be illegible.

Vowel signs were originally not used in Semitic alphabets. Whereas in the earlier West Semitic family of scripts ( Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite etc.) a letter always stood for a consonant in association with an unspecified vowel or no vowel, the Greek alphabet divided the letters into two categories, consonants ("things that sound along") and vowels, where the consonant letters always had to be accompanied by vowels to create a pronounceable unit. Although the old Ugaritic alphabet did develop matres lectionis, i.e., use of consonant letters to denote vowels, they were never employed systematically.

History of the alphabet

Middle Bronze Age 19 c. BCE

  • Ugaritic 15 c. BCE
  • Phoenician 14–11 c. BCE
    • Paleo-Hebrew 10 c. BCE
      • Samaritan 6 c. BCE
    • Aramaic 8 c. BCE
      • Brāhmī & Indic 6 c. BCE
        • Tibetan 7 c. CE
        • Khmer/ Javanese 9 c. CE
      • Hebrew 3 c. BCE
      • Syriac 2 c. BCE
        • Arabic 4 c. CE
      • Pahlavi 3 c. BCE
        • Avestan 4 c. CE
    • Greek 9 c. BCE
      • Etruscan 8 c. BCE
        • Latin 7 c. BCE
        • Runic 2 c. CE
      • Gothic 3 c. CE
      • Armenian 405 CE
      • Glagolitic 862 CE
      • Cyrillic 10 c. CE
    • Paleohispanic 7 c. BCE
  • Epigraphic South Arabian 9 c. BCE
    • Ge'ez 5–6 c. BCE
Meroitic 3 c. BCE
Ogham 4 c. CE
Hangul 1443 CE
Canadian syllabics 1840 CE
Zhuyin 1913 CE
complete genealogy

The first vowel letters were Α ( alpha), Ε ( epsilon), Ι ( iota), Ο ( omicron), and Υ ( upsilon), modifications of Semitic glottal, pharyngeal, or glide consonants that were mostly superfluous in Greek: /ʔ/ ( 'aleph), /h/ ( he), /j/ ( yodh), /ʕ/ ( ʿayin), and /w/ ( waw), respectively. In eastern Greek, which lacked aspiration entirely, the letter Η ( eta), from the Semitic glottal consonant /ħ/ ( heth) was also used for the long vowel /εː/, and eventually the letter Ω ( omega) was introduced for a long /ɔː/.

Greek also introduced three new consonant letters, Φ ( phi), Χ ( chi) and Ψ ( psi), appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. These consonants made up for the lack of comparable aspirates in Phoenician. In western Greek, Χ was used for /ks/ and Ψ for /kʰ/ — hence the value of the Latin letter X, derived from the western Greek alphabet. The origin of these letters is disputed.

The letter Ϻ ( san) was used at variance with Σ ( sigma), and by classical times the latter won out, san disappearing from the alphabet. The letters Ϝ (wau, later called digamma) and Ϙ ( qoppa) also fell into disuse. The former was only needed for the western dialects and the latter was never truly needed at all. These lived on in the Ionic numeral system, however, which consisted of writing a series of letters with precise numerical values. Ϡ ( sampi), apparently in a rare local glyph form from Ionia, was introduced at latter times to stand for 900. Thousands were written using a mark at the upper left ('A for 1000, etc).

Because Greek minuscules arose at a much later date, no historic minuscule actually exists for san. Minuscule forms for the other letters were only used as numbers. For the number 6, modern Greeks use an old ligature called stigma (Ϛ, ϛ) instead of digamma, or ΣΤ/στ if this is not available. For 90 the modern Z-shaped qoppa forms were used: Ϟ, ϟ. (Note that some web browser/font combinations will show the other qoppa here.)

Originally there were several variants of the Greek alphabet, most importantly western (Chalcidian) and eastern (Ionic) Greek. The former gave rise to the Old Italic alphabet and thence to the Latin alphabet, while the latter is the basis of the present Greek alphabet. Athens originally used the Attic script for official documents such as laws and the works of Homer: this contained only the letters from alpha to upsilon, and used the letter eta for the sound "h" instead of the long "e". In 403 BC Athens adopted the Ionic script as its standard, and shortly thereafter the other versions disappeared.

By then Greek was written left to right, but originally it had been written right to left (with asymmetrical characters flipped), and in-between written either way — or, most likely, in the so-called boustrophedon style, where successive lines alternate direction.

Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

In the Hellenistic period, Aristophanes of Byzantium introduced the process of accenting Greek letters for easier pronunciation. During the Middle Ages, the Greek scripts underwent changes paralleling those of the Latin alphabet: while the old forms were retained as a monumental script, uncial and eventually minuscule hands came to dominate. The letter σ is even written ς at the ends of words, paralleling the use of the Latin long and short s.

Letter names

Each of the Phoenician letter names was a word that began with the sound represented by that letter; thus 'aleph, the word for “ox”, was adopted for the glottal stop /ʔ/, bet, or “house”, for the /b/ sound, and so on. When the letters were adopted by the Greeks, most of the Phoenician names were maintained or modified slightly to fit Greek phonology; thus, 'aleph, bet, gimel became alpha, beta, gamma. These borrowed names had no meaning in Greek except as labels for the letters. However, a few signs that were added or modified later by the Greeks do in fact have names with a meaning. For example, o mikron and o mega mean “small o” and “big o”. Similarly, e psilon and u psilon mean “plain e” and “plain u”, respectively.

Main letters

Below is a table listing the modern Greek letters, as well as their forms when romanized. The table also provides the equivalent Phoenician letter from which each Greek letter is derived. Pronunciations transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Also note that the classical pronunciation given below is the reconstructed pronunciation of Attic in the late 5th and early 4th century (BC). Some of the letters had different pronunciations in pre-classical times or in non-Attic dialects. For details, see History of the Greek alphabet and Ancient Greek phonology. For details on post-classical Ancient Greek pronunciation, see Koine Greek phonology.

Letter Corresponding
Phoenician
letter
Name Transliteration1 Pronunciation Numeric value
English Ancient
Greek
Medieval
Greek
(polytonic)
Modern
Greek
Ancient
Greek
Modern
Greek
Classical
Ancient
Greek
Modern
Greek
Α α Aleph Aleph Alpha ἄλφα άλφα a [a] [aː] [a] 1
Β β
ϐ
(alternate2)
Beth Beth Beta βῆτα βήτα b v [b] [v] 2
Γ γ Gimel Gimel Gamma γάμμα γάμμα
γάμα
g gh, g, y [g] [ɣ], [ʝ] 3
Δ δ Daleth Daleth Delta δέλτα δέλτα d d, dh [d] [ð] 4
Ε ε
ϵ ϶
(alternate)
He He Epsilon εἶ ἒ ψιλόν έψιλον e [e] 5
Ζ ζ Zayin Zayin Zeta ζήτα ζήτα z [zd]
( or [dz])
later [zː]
[z] 7
Η η
Ͱ ͱ
(alternate)
Heth Heth Eta ἦτα ήτα e, ē i [ɛː] [i] 8
Θ θ
ϴ ϑ
(alternate)
Teth Teth Theta θῆτα θήτα th [tʰ] [θ] 9
Ι ι Yodh Yodh Iota ἰῶτα ιώτα
γιώτα
i [i] [iː] [i], [ʝ] 10
Κ κ
ϰ ϗ
(alternate)
Kaph Kaph Kappa κάππα κάππα
κάπα
k [k] [k], [c] 20
Λ λ Lamedh Lamedh Lambda λάβδα λάμβδα λάμδα
λάμβδα
l [l] 30
Μ μ Mem Mem Mu μῦ μι
μυ
m [m] 40
Ν ν Nun Nun Nu νῦ νι
νυ
n [n] 50
Ξ ξ Samekh Samekh Xi ξεῖ ξῖ ξι x x, ks [ks] 60
Ο ο Ayin 'Ayin Omicron οὖ ὂ μικρόν όμικρον o [o] 70
Π π
ϖ
(alternate)
Pe Pe Pi πεῖ πῖ πι p [p] 80
Ρ ρ
ϱ
(alternate)
Res Resh Rho ῥῶ ρω r (: rh) r [r], [r̥] [r] 100
Σ σ
Ϲ ϲ
Ͻ ͻ
ς
(alternate3)
Sin Sin Sigma σῖγμα σίγμα s [s] 200
Τ τ Taw Taw Tau ταῦ ταυ t [t] 300
Υ υ
ϒ
(alternate)
Waw Waw Upsilon ὓ ψιλόν ύψιλον u, y y, v, f [y] [yː]
(earlier [ʉ] [ʉː])
[i] 400
Φ φ
ϕ
(alternate)
origin disputed
(see text)
Phi φεῖ φῖ φι ph f [pʰ] [f] 500
Χ χ Chi χεῖ χῖ χι ch ch, kh [kʰ] [x], [ç] 600
Ψ ψ Psi ψεῖ ψῖ ψι ps [ps] 700
Ω ω Ayin 'Ayin Omega ὦ μέγα ωμέγα o, ō o [ɔː] [o] 800
  1. For details and different transliteration systems see Romanization of Greek.
  2. Used only in the middle of a word but extremely rare in typography. Widely used in handwriting though.
  3. Used only in the end of a word.

Obsolete letters

The following letters are not part of the standard Greek alphabet, but were in use in pre-classical times in certain dialects. The letters digamma, san, qoppa, and sampi were also used in Greek numerals.

Letter Corresponding
Phoenician
letter
Name Transliteration Pronunciation Numeric value
English Earlier
Greek
Later
Greek
(polytonic)
Ϝ ϝ
Ͷ ͷ (alternate)
Waw Waw Digamma ϝαῦ δίγαμμα w [w] 6
Ϻ ϻ Sade Tsade (position)
Sin Sin (name)
San ϻάν σάν s [s] 90
Ϟ ϟ
Ϙ ϙ (alternate)
Qoph Qoph Qoppa ϙόππα κόππα q [q] 90
Ͳ ͳ
Ϡ ϡ (alternate)
Origin disputed,
possibly Sade Tsade
Sampi δίσιγμα σαμπῖ ss probably affricate,
but exact value discussed
[sː], [ks], [ts] are proposed
900
  • Digamma disappeared from the alphabet because the sound it notated, [w], had disappeared from Ionic and most other dialects. It remained in use as a numeric sign denoting the value 6. In this function, it was later conflated in medieval Greek handwriting with the ligature sign stigma (ϛ), which had a similar shape in the minuscule script.
  • Sampi (also called disigma) notated a geminate affricate that later evolved to -σσ- (probably [sː]) in most dialects, and -ττ- (probably [tː]) in Attic. Its exact value is heavily discussed, but [ts] is often proposed. Its modern name is derived from its shape: (ω)σαν πι = like (the letter) pi.

The order of the letters up to the letter Τ follows that in the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabet. The complete sequence including the obsolete letters is as follows:

The following is a graphical image of the Greek alphabet, giving pairs of upper-case and lower-case forms. When there is more than one form, the left one is earlier, and the right one is later.

Diacritics

In the polytonic orthography traditionally used for ancient Greek, vowels can carry diacritics, namely accents and breathings. The accents are the acute accent (´), the grave accent (`), and the circumflex accent (). In Ancient Greek, these accents marked different forms of the pitch accent on a vowel. By the end of the Roman period, pitch accent had evolved into a stress accent, and in later Greek all of these accents marked the stressed vowel. The breathings are the rough breathing (), marking an /h/ sound at the beginning of a word, and the smooth breathing (), marking the absence of an /h/ sound at the beginning of a word. The letter rho (ρ), although not a vowel, always carries a rough breathing when it begins a word. Another diacritic used in Greek is the diaeresis, indicating a hiatus.

In 1982, the old spelling system, known as polytonic, was simplified to become the monotonic system, which is now official in Greece. The accents have been reduced to one, the tonos, and the breathings were abolished.

Ligatures

Scribes made use of a number of ligatures to save space and time, in Greek as in other languages. Early Greek typefaces such as Claude Garamond's Les Grecs du Roi included a large number of ligatures, but modern typography uses none of them, except occasionally the Ȣ ligature for ου — resembling a V above an O; some modern alphabets based on the Latin alphabet use this as a letter, Ou. In printed 17th-century English works, there sometimes occurs a ligature of Ο with ς (a small sigma inside a capital omicron) for a terminal ος. Other ligatures include ϗ for καί, (equivalent to an ampersand) and stigma Ϛ for στ, also used as noted above to replace digamma as a numeral.

Digraphs and diphthongs

A digraph is a pair of letters used to write one sound or a combination of sounds that does not correspond to the written letters in sequence. The orthography of Greek includes several digraphs, including various pairs of vowel letters that used to be pronounced as diphthongs but have been shortened to monophthongs in pronunciation. Many of these are characteristic developments of modern Greek, but some were already present in Classical Greek. None of them is regarded as a letter of the alphabet.

During the Byzantine period, it became customary to write the silent iota in digraphs as an iota subscript (ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ).

Use of the Greek alphabet for other languages

The primary use of the Greek alphabet has always been to write the Greek language. However, at various times and in various places, it has also been used to write other languages.

Early examples

  • Most of the alphabets of Asia Minor, in use c. 800-300 BC to write languages like Lydian and Phrygian, were the early Greek alphabet with only slight modifications — as were the original Old Italic alphabets.
  • Some Paleo-Balkan languages, including Thracian. For other neighboring languages or dialects, such as Ancient Macedonian, isolated words are preserved in Greek texts, but no continuous texts are preserved.
  • Some Narbonese Gaulish inscriptions in southern France use the Greek alphabet (c. 300 BC).
  • The Hebrew text of the Bible was written in Greek letters in Origen's Hexapla.
  • An 8th century Arabic fragment preserves a text in the Greek alphabet.
  • An Old Ossetic inscription of the 10-12c CE found in Arxyz, the oldest known attestation of an Ossetic language.

With additional letters

Several alphabets consist of the Greek alphabet supplemented with a few additional letters:

  • The Bactrian alphabet adds the letter Sho and was used to write the Bactrian language under the Kushan Empire (AD 65-250).
  • The Coptic alphabet adds eight letters derived from Demotic. It is still used today, mostly in Egypt, to write the Coptic language. Letters usually retain an uncial form different from the forms used for Greek today (compare with the forms of the Latin letters used in Gaelic script).
  • The Old Nubian language of Makuria (modern Sudan) adds three Coptic letters, two letters derived from Meroitic script, and a digraph of two Greek gammas used for ng.

In more modern times

  • Coptic (see above).
  • Turkish spoken by Orthodox Christians ( Karamanlides) was often written in Greek script, and called Karamanlidika.
  • Tosk Albanian was often written using the Greek alphabet, starting in about 1500 (Elsie, 1991). The printing press at Moschopolis published several Albanian texts in Greek script during the 18th century. It was only in 1908 that the Monastir conference standardized a Latin orthography for both Tosk and Gheg. The Greek-based Arvanitic alphabet is now only used in Greece.
  • Various South Slavic dialects, similar to the modern Bulgarian language, have been preserved in Greek script. The modern Bulgarian language uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet.
  • Aromanian (Vlach) has been written in Greek characters. There is not yet a standardized orthography for Aromanian, but it appears that one based on the Romanian orthography will be adopted.
  • Gagauz, a Turkic language of the northeast Balkans.
  • Surguch, a Turkic language spoken by a small group of Orthodox Christians in northern Greece.
  • Urum or Greek Tatar.

Derived alphabets

The Greek alphabet gave rise to various others:

  • The Latin alphabet, an offshoot of the archaic western form of the Greek alphabet;
  • The Gothic alphabet, devised in Late Antiquity to write the Gothic language;
  • The Glagolitic alphabet, devised in the Middle Ages for writing Slavic languages;
  • The Cyrillic alphabet, which replaced the Glagolitic alphabet shortly afterwards;

It is also considered a possible ancestor of the Armenian alphabet, and had an influence on the development of the Georgian alphabet.

Greek encodings

A variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947.

The two principal ones still used today are ISO/IEC 8859-7 and Unicode. ISO 8859-7 supports only the monotonic orthography; Unicode supports the polytonic orthography.

Greek in Unicode

Unicode supports polytonic orthography well enough for ordinary continuous text in modern and ancient Greek, and even many archaic forms for epigraphy. With the use of combining characters, Unicode also supports Greek philology and dialectology and various other specialized requirements. However, most current text rendering engines do not support combining characters well, so, though alpha with macron and acute can be represented as U+03B1 U+0304 U+0301, this rarely renders well: ᾱ́.

There are 2 main blocks of Greek characters in Unicode. The first is "Greek and Coptic" (U+0370 to U+03FF). This block is based on ISO 8859-7 and is sufficient to write Modern Greek. There are also some archaic letters and Greek-based technical symbols.

This block also supports the Coptic alphabet. Formerly most Coptic letters shared codepoints with similar-looking Greek letters; but in many scholarly works, both scripts occur, with quite different letter shapes, so as of Unicode 4.1, Coptic and Greek were disunified. Those Coptic letters with no Greek equivalents still remain in this block.

To write polytonic Greek, one may use combining diacritical marks or the precomposed characters in the "Greek Extended" block (U+1F00 to U+1FFF).

Greek and Coptic

  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
0370 Ͱ ͱ Ͳ ͳ ʹ ͵ Ͷ ͷ     ͺ ͻ ͼ ͽ ;  
0380         ΄ ΅ Ά · Έ Ή Ί   Ό   Ύ Ώ
0390 ΐ Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο
03A0 Π Ρ   Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω Ϊ Ϋ ά έ ή ί
03B0 ΰ α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο
03C0 π ρ ς σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω ϊ ϋ ό ύ ώ Ϗ
03D0 ϐ ϑ ϒ ϓ ϔ ϕ ϖ ϗ Ϙ ϙ Ϛ ϛ Ϝ ϝ Ϟ ϟ
03E0 Ϡ ϡ ( Coptic letters here)
03F0 ϰ ϱ ϲ ϳ ϴ ϵ ϶ Ϸ ϸ Ϲ Ϻ ϻ ϼ Ͻ Ͼ Ͽ

Greek Extended (precomposed polytonic Greek)

  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1F00
1F10        
1F20
1F30 Ἷ
1F40        
1F50        
1F60
1F70 ά έ ή ί ό ύ ώ    
1F80
1F90
1FA0
1FB0   Ά ι ᾿
1FC0   Έ Ή
1FD0 ΐ     Ί  
1FE0 ΰ Ύ ΅ `
1FF0       Ό Ώ ´  

Combining and letter-free diacritics

Combining and spacing (letter-free) diacritical marks pertaining to Greek language:

combining spacing sample description
U+0300 U+0060 (  ̀ ) "varia / grave accent"
U+0301 U+00B4, U+0384 (  ́ ) "oxia / tonos / acute accent"
U+0304 U+00AF (  ̄ ) " macron"
U+0306 U+02D8 (  ̆ ) "vrachy / breve"
U+0308 U+00A8 (  ̈ ) "dialytika / diaeresis"
U+0313 (  ̓ ) "psili / comma above" ( spiritus lenis)
U+0314 (  ̔ ) "dasia / reversed comma above" ( spiritus asper)
U+0342 (  ͂ ) "perispomeni" ( circumflex)
U+0343 (  ̓ ) " koronis" (= U+0313)
U+0344 U+0385 (  ̈́ ) "dialytika tonos" (deprecated, = U+0308 U+0301)
U+0345 U+037A (  ͅ ) "ypogegrammeni / iota subscript".

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