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Greek alphabet

The Greek language is written in the Greek alphabet, developed in classical times (ca 9th century BC) and passed down to the present. In ancient Greece its letters were also used to represent numbers, called Greek numerals, analogous to Roman numerals. Besides writing modern Greek, today its letters are used as mathematical symbols, as names of stars and fraternities and sororities, and for other purposes.

The Greek alphabet was a modification of the Phoenician alphabet (represented in the table below by the Hebrew alphabet, a modern adaptation). It in turn has given rise to other scripts such as the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. See alphabet: history and diffusion.

Contents

Main table

The Greek letters and their derivations are as follows (pronunciations transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet):

Letter Name Pronunciation Numeric value Corresponding Hebrew letter HTML entity Latin transliteration (but see diphthongs, etc.)
Greek Traditional transcription Pronunciation
classical modern old classical modern
Α α Alpha [ˈalfa]   [a] [a:] [a] 1 א 'Aleph α a
Β β βῆτα Beta [ˈbɛːta] [ˈvita]   [b] [v] 2 ב Bet β b
Γ γ γάμμα Gamma [ˈgamma] [ˈɣama]   [g] [j] before [e] or [i]; [ɣ] otherwise 3 ג Gimel γ g
Δ δ δέλτα Delta [ˈdelta] [ˈðelta]   [d] [ð] 4 ד Dalet δ d
Ε ε ἒ ψιλόν Epsilon [ˈe psiˈlon] [ˈepsilon]   [e] [e] 5 ה He ε e
Ϝ ϝ (1) Ϝαυ ? Digamma [ˈwau] ? [ˈðiɣama] [w] - - 6 ו Vav Ϝ w
Ζ ζ ζῆτα Zeta [ˈzdɛːta] [ˈzita]   [zd], later [zː] [z] 7 ז Zayin ζ z, s (between vowels)
Η η ἦτα Eta [ˈɛːta] [ˈita] [ɛː] [h] [ɛː] [i] 8 ח Het η ē, e, ê
Θ θ θῆτα Theta [ˈtʰθɛːta] [ˈθita]   [tʰ] [θ] 9 ט Tet θ th
Ι ι ἰῶτα Iota [ˈiɔːta] [ˈjota]   [i] [iː] [i] [j] 10 י Yod ι i
Κ κ κάππα Kappa [ˈkappa] [ˈkapa]   [k] [k] 20 ך כ Kaf κ k, c
Λ λ λάμβδα Lambda [ˈlambda] [ˈlamða]   [l] [l] 30 ל Lamed λ l
Μ μ μῦ Mu [myː] [mi]   [m] [m] 40 ם מ Mem μ m
Ν ν νῦ Nu [nyː] [ni]   [n] [n] 50 ן נ Nun ν n
Ξ ξ ξῖ Xi [ksiː] [ksi]   [ks] [ks] 60 ס Samekh ξ x, (ks)
Ο ο ὄ μικρόν Omicron [ˈo miˈkron] [ˈomikron]   [o] [o] 70 ע `Ayin ο o
Π π πῖ Pi [piː] [pi]   [p] [p] 80 ף פ Pe π p
M (1) (Ϻ ϻ)   San     [z] - - - ץ צ Tzadik Ϻ ϻ s
Q (1) (Ϙ ϙ)   Qoppa     [k] - - 90 ק Kuf Ϙ ϙ q
Ρ ρ ῥῶ Rho [r̥ɔː] [ro]   [r], [r̥] [r] 100 ר Resh ρ r, rh (beginning a word), rrh (doubled)
Σ σ σῖγμα Sigma [ˈsiːgma] [ˈsiɣma]   [s] [s] 200 ש Shin σ s, ss (between vowels)
  ς Sigma (final) 6 (modern) ς s
Τ τ ταῦ Tau [tau] [taf]   [t] [t] 300 ת Tav τ t
Υ υ ὒ ψιλόν Upsilon [ˈyː psiˈlon] [ˈipsilon] [u] [y] [yː] [i] 400 from ו Vav υ u, y (between consonants)
Φ φ φῖ Phi [pʰiː] [fi]   [pʰ] [f] 500 origin disputed (see text) φ ph
Χ χ χῖ Chi [kʰiː] [xi] [kʰ] [ks] [kʰ] [ç] 600 χ ch, kh
Ψ ψ ψῖ Psi [psiː] [psi]   [ps] [ps] 700 ψ ps
Ω ω ὦ μέγα Omega [ɔːˈmega] [oˈmeɣa]   [ɔː] [o] 800 ω o, ô
Ϡ ϡ (1)   Sampi     [ss] [ks] - - 900 Ϡ ϡ

(1): Letter removed from the alphabet in early times, before the period that is now called "classical". Only capitals were written; the lowercase forms are modern.

Letter combinations and diphthongs

v
Letters Pronunciation Latin transliteration
old classical modern
αι   [] [ɛ] ae
ει [] [e:] [e:] [i] i
οι   [] [i] oe, i (final)
υι   [] [i] ui
ωι   [ɔɪ] [ɔ] o
αυ   [] [av] before voiced sound
[af] before voiceless sound
au, av
ευ   [] [ev] before voiced sound
[ef] before voiceless sound
eu, ev
ηυ   [ɛ:ʊ] [iv] before voiced sound
[if] before voiceless sound
eu
ου [] [o:] [u:] [u] u, ou
γγ (2)   [ŋg] [ŋɡ] ng
γκ (2)   [ŋk] [ɡ] at the beginning of a word
[ŋk] otherwise
nc, nk
γξ (2)   [ŋks] [ŋks] nx, nks
γχ (2)   [ŋx] [ŋ] nch, nkh
μπ - - [b] at the beginning of a word
[mb] otherwise
mp
ντ - - [d] at the beginning of a word
[nd] otherwise
nt

(2): Some scholars see agma as a phoneme in its own right.

Ligatures

Before the days of printing, scribes made use of a number of ligatures to save space, in Greek as in other languages. The ligature for ου — resembling a V above an O — is still sometimes seen. For a modern use of this in the Latin alphabet, see Ou (letter)

Greek in Unicode

There are 2 main blocks of Greek characters in Unicode. The first is "Greek and Coptic" (U+0370 — 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 Coptic language; formerly most Coptic letters shared codepoints with looking-alike Greek letters. Since Unicode 4.1, Coptic is disunified from Greek since in many scholarly works, both of them occur, with quite different letter shapes. Still the Coptic letters that have no Greek equivalents remain in this block.

To write polytonic Greek (Old Greek or Katharevousa), one may use combining diacritical marks. However, Unicode also includes a full set of precomposed characters in the "Greek Extended" block (U+1F00 – U+1FFF).

Greek and Coptic

    0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
370   Ͱ ͱ Ͳ ͳ ʹ ͵ Ͷ ͷ ͸ ͹ ͺ ͻ ͼ ͽ ; Ϳ
380   ΀ ΁ ΂ ΃ ΄ ΅ Ά · Έ Ή Ί ΋ Ό ΍ Ύ Ώ
390   ΐ Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο
3A0   Π Ρ ΢ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω Ϊ Ϋ ά έ ή ί
3B0   ΰ α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο
3C0   π ρ ς σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω ϊ ϋ ό ύ ώ Ϗ
3D0   ϐ ϑ ϒ ϓ ϔ ϕ ϖ ϗ Ϙ ϙ Ϛ ϛ Ϝ ϝ Ϟ ϟ
3E0   Ϡ ϡ Ϣ ϣ Ϥ ϥ Ϧ ϧ Ϩ ϩ Ϫ ϫ Ϭ ϭ Ϯ ϯ
3F0   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   ὿
1F80  
1F90  
1FA0  
1FB0   ᾿
1FC0  
1FD0  
1FE0  
1FF0   ῿

Combining diacritics

Combining diacritical marks pertaining to Greek language are:

  • U+0300 (  ̀ ) "varia / grave accent"
  • U+0301 (  ́ ) "oxia / tonos / acute accent"
  • U+0304 (  ̄ ) "macron"
  • U+0306 (  ̆ ) "vrachy / breve"
  • U+0308 (  ̈ ) "dialytika / diaeresis"
  • U+0313 (  ̓ ) "psili / comma above"
  • U+0314 (  ̔ ) "dasia / reversed comma above"
  • U+0342 (  ͂ ) "perispomeni"
  • U+0343 (  ̓ ) "koronis" (= U+0313)
  • U+0344 (  ̈́ ) "dialytika tonos" (deprecated, = U+0308 U+0301)
  • U+0345 (  ͅ ) "ypogegrammeni / iota subscript"


History

The most notable change, compared to its predecessor, the Phoenician alphabet, is the introduction of vowels, without which Greek — unlike Phoenician — would be unintelligible. In fact most alphabets that contain vowels are derived ultimately from Greek, although there are exceptions (Hangul, Orkhon script, Ethiopic alphabet, Indic alphabets, and Old Hungarian script.) The first vowels were alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, and upsilon (copied from waw), modifications of either glides or breathing marks, which were mostly superfluous in Greek. In eastern Greek, which lacked breaths entirely, the letter eta was also used for a long e, and eventually the letter omega was introduced for a long o. Vowels were originally not used in Semitic alphabets, but even in the very old Ugaritic alphabet matres lectionis were used, i.e. consonant signs were used to denote vowels.

Greek also introduced three new consonants, appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. The consonants were to mainly to make up for the lack of aspirates in Phoenician. In west Greek, actually, chi was used for /ks/ and psi for // — hence the value of our letter x, derived from chi. Over the middle ages these aspirates disappeared, so now theta, phi, and chi stand for /θ/, /f/, and /x/. The origin of those letters is disputed.

The letter san was used at variance with sigma, and by classical times the latter won out, san disappearing from the alphabet. The letters waw (later called digamma) and qoppa disappeared, too, the former only needed for the western dialects and the latter never really needed at all. These lived on in the Ionic numeral system, however, which consisted of writing a series letters with precise numerical values. Sampi (apparently in a rare local glyph form from Ionia) was introduced at the end - to stand for 900. Thousands were written with a mark at the upper left ('A for 1000, etc).

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. Athens took the Ionic script to be its standard in 403 BC, and shortly thereafter the other versions disappeared. By then Greek was always 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, boustrophedon, so that the lines alternate direction.

During the Middle ages, the Greek scripts underwent changes paralleling those of the Roman 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 long and short s at the time. Aristophanes of Byzantium also introduced the process of accenting Greek letters for easier pronunciation.

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 numerically. For number 6, modern Greeks use an old digraph called stigma (Ϛ, ϛ) instead of digamma or use στ if it is not available. For 90 they use modern z-shaped qoppa forms: Ϟ, ϟ (Note that some web browser/font combinations will show the other qoppa here).

Additional information

For extended discussion of problematic Greek letter forms see: Greek Unicode Issues

For a clear presentation of the Greek letters with pronunciation suggestions for Modern and Classical Greek, see The Greek Alphabet at Greek-language.com

For a table of 14 different Greek character encodings that have been used in IT systems see RFC 1947 - Greek Character Encoding for Electronic Mail Messages

See also

Special characters

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