Alphabet and Pronunciation

Initial background information

Learning Modern Greek has little benefit in terms of improving Ancient Greek

Unlike for Hebrew, where Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew really do share quite a lot of DNA, Modern Greek and Ancient Greek are not similar enough to obtain much crossover benefit from studying Modern Greek. In fact, due to interference effects, trying to learn both Modern Greek and Ancient Greek at the same time will likely make the learning process for both much more difficult than it would be for either language in isolation.

I had a friend in my college Greek classes who already spoke some Modern Greek due to her heritage. It helped her the first little bit with the alphabet, but that was it. She also always sort of had a hard time adopting the Ancient pronunciation for things since her brain had been hardwired from childhood to pronounce the Greek letters a certain way.

There are various technical reasons for what I’m saying, but the short version is that pronunciation shifts (particularly in the vowels) and grammar simplification make Modern Greek and Ancient Greek more or less different beasts.

Koine Greek is Ancient Greek

It is popular in certain circles to paint the so-called “Koine Greek” of the New Testament as some sort of special form of Greek, and summarily pretend as if it didn’t exist in the wider context of Greek literary production that came hundreds of years before and after it.

I am in no way saying that biblical exegetes must read Plato or Plutarch (e.g.). The main reason I am including this section is to head off the idea that Biblical Greek is categorically a separate language from Attic Greek. It’s not. They are both “Ancient Greek.”

There are some peculiarities to New Testament Greek (see A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDF) as a good starting reference), but the (minor) differences do not in any way justify the manner in which some people attempt to mark Koine Greek out as special or different.

Ancient Greek (depending on how you’d like to define “Ancient,” and how you’d like to define the boundaries) spanned from Homer in c. 800 BC to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Throughout this time, the language changed, much in the same way Chaucer sounds different than Shakespeare, who in turn sounds different than our modern English turn of phrase. Does this mean that Chaucer and Shakespeare did not write in English? No.

So too are Attic Greek and Koine Greek both “Ancient Greek.”

Greek is not so difficult that it is practically unlearnable

You may have heard the phrase “It’s all Greek to me!” and other similar pronouncements to the effect that Greek is incomprehensible.

Greek shares with its other older Indo-European language buddies (e.g., Sanskrit, Hittite, and even the relatively “younger” Latin) very complex grammar, particularly compared to the significantly simpler grammar of later Indo-European languages (the Romance languages, German, etc.).

Relative to English, it also possesses an unfamiliar alphabet, which adds another challenge that is not present in learning such languages as French and Spanish. And, like many other Indo-European languages, Greek does not have a strictly fixed word order (although it does have pretty consistent patterns that aren’t violated particularly regularly, excepting in poetry).

Finally, Greek has a number of quirks and exceptions to its own rules that can make it frustrating to learn. There’s an exception to many rules in Greek, and sometimes exceptions to the exceptions. To be fair, all languages have some degree of inconsistency (and it’s not as if we have any ground to stand on as English speakers – English is just about as bad a language as exists in this regard).

On the other hand, Greek has a much smaller core vocabulary than most languages, is not tonal (unlike, say, Mandarin), does not have a complex, character-based writing system (contrast again Mandarin), and has excellent free digital tools to assist in learning (compare the digital lexicons and morphology parsers on Perseus). All of these things actually make it easier to learn than other languages, in some regards!

Greek is hard partially because of what people wrote in it

Many writings in Attic Greek (particularly among the philosophers) are difficult to understand no matter language you put them in. Modern examples of this phenomenon would include the writings of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger: it doesn’t matter much whether you read them in German or English; they’re hard either way.

Given that a large part of the Ancient Greek literary corpus talks about complex, abstract ideas (and so on), it does not particularly surprise me that the language itself has acquired a reputation for being difficult. Imagine if two thousand years in the future, English were a dead language, and students of it primary read things like the novels of James Joyce. I’d think English was pretty darn hard too!

For those who are mostly only interested in reading the New Testament in Greek, there is good news: the Greek of the Bible is considered to be markedly easier than Attic Greek overall. As above (regarding Koine Greek), this not so much because of formal simplifications in the Greek language itself,1 but more because the topics of discussion aren’t typically as impenetrable.

The Greek alphabet

At which point in time?

The pronunciation of certain Ancient Greek sounds changed over time. In particular, aspirated stop consonants turned into fricatives: Theta (θ) went from being pronounced “like t” (that is, [tʰ]) to being pronounced like the th in “thin”; Phi (φ) went from being pronounced “like p” (that is, [pʰ]) to being pronounced like f; and Chi (χ) went from being pronounced “like k” (that is, [kʰ]) to being pronounced like a voiceless velar fricative ([x]), as in German ach, a sound we do not have in English.

Exactly when these pronunciation shifts happen is not particularly clear (and the exact timing more than likely depended upon local geographic regions), but the fricatives did show up in the Koine period during which the New Testament was written. Since we don’t have a voiceless velar fricative in English, and some local dialects probably kept Chi as a stop consonant for some time anyhow (i.e., it is only “partially incorrect” to pronounce Chi like a stop consonant according to overall Koine pronunciation), it makes the most sense in terms of didactic expedience to pronounce Chi “like k” and leave things at that.

Professors teaching Attic Greek often argue over how to teach students to pronounce these letters. Technically, Attic Greek used the aspirated stops. However, English speakers are generally not capable of discerning the difference between aspirated and unaspirated forms of stops (e.g., [kʰ] vs. [k]), and so will subsequently struggle to differentiate between Tau and Theta, Pi and Phi, and Kappa and Chi – important for proper spelling, among other things. For this reason, I am entirely in favor of teaching the fricative pronunciations (excepting Chi, for the reasons noted above), even if it is anachronistic if one is being a purist.

I’m not a purist, but an engineer. So I choose to use and teach the pronunciation of Theta like the th in “thin” and Phi like f, while also simultaneously using the “older” pronunciation of Chi like k, although completely ignoring the fact that it is technically distinct from Kappa in that it is aspirated and Kappa is not (i.e., I pronounce Chi and Kappa the same, even though it is technically “wrong” to do so).

My “good enough” engineer pronunciations for these 3 letters are what are in the table below, and what I use and recommend.

Alphabet table

This table shows the pronunciation of the Greek letters according to Greek phonology. We’ll get to how English speakers typically pronounce the letters in the next table.

Greek has uppercase and lowercase letterforms (unlike Hebrew). This is a (more) modern convention, as most Ancient Greek texts were written without spaces between words, much less punctuation. Capitalization conventions follow closely with what you’d expect: the beginning of sentences are capitalized, as are proper nouns.

You’ll notice that many capital Greek letterforms look exactly like capital English letterforms.

Below, U refers to the sound made by the German ü (IPA: [y]).

Letter IPA English name Greek name Pronunciation of name IPA of name
Α α Short: [a], Long: [aː] Alpha ἄλφα AHL-fah [‘alfa]
Β β [b] Beta βῆτα BEH-tah [‘bɛːta]
Γ γ [g] Gamma γάμμα GAHM-mah [‘ɡamma]
Δ δ [d] Delta δέλτα DEHL-tah [‘delta]
Ε ε [e] Epsilon έψιλον EH-psee-lon [‘epsilon]
Ζ ζ [zd] Zeta ζήτα ZDEH-tah [‘zdɛːta]
Η η [ɛː] Eta ἦτα EH-tah [‘ɛːta]
Θ θ [θ] Theta θῆτα THEH-tah (th as in thin) [‘θɛːta]
Ι ι Short: [i], Long: [iː] Iota ἰῶτα ee-OH-tah [i’ɔːta]
Κ κ [k] Kappa κάππα KAHP-pah [‘kappa]
Λ λ [l] Lambda λάμβδα LAHM-dah [‘lambda]
Μ μ [m] Mu μῦ MU [myː]
Ν ν [n] Nu νῦ NU [nyː]
Ξ ξ [ks] Xi ξῖ, ξεῖ KSEE [ksiː], [kseː]
Ο ο [o] Omicron ὄμικρον OH-mee-krohn [‘omikron]
Π π [p] Pi πῖ, πεῖ PEE [piː], [peː]
Ρ ρ [r] Rho ῥῶ ROH [rɔː]
Σ σ/ς [s] Sigma σίγμα SEEG-mah [‘sigma]
Τ τ [t] Tau ταῦ TOW (rhymes with now) [tau]
Υ υ [y] Upsilon ὔψιλον U-psee-lon [‘ypsilon]
Φ φ [f] Phi φῖ FEE [fiː], [feː]
Χ χ [kʰ] Chi χῖ KEE [kʰiː], [kʰeː]
Ψ ψ [ps] Psi ψῖ PSEE [psiː], [pseː]
Ω ω [ɔː] Omega ὠμέγα oh-MEH-gah [ɔː’mega]

English pronunciation of letters

Below, A (rather than “AH”) refers to the A sound as in “app” (IPA: [æ]).

Letter English name Pronunciation of name IPA of name
Α α Alpha AL-fuh [ˈælfə]
Β β Beta BEY-tuh [ˈbeɪtə]
Γ γ Gamma GAM-muh [ɡæmə]
Δ δ Delta DEHL-tuh [dɛltə]
Ε ε Epsilon EH-psih-lon [ɛpsɪlɒn]
Ζ ζ Zeta ZEY-tuh [zeɪtə]
Η η Eta EY-tuh [ˈeɪtə]
Θ θ Theta THEY-tuh (th as in thin) [ˈθeɪtə]
Ι ι Iota ai-OH-tuh [aɪˈoʊtə]
Κ κ Kappa KAP-puh [ˈkæpə]
Λ λ Lambda LAM-duh [ˈlæmdə]
Μ μ Mu MOO [muː]
Ν ν Nu NOO [nuː]
Ξ ξ Xi KSAI (sometimes just ZAI) ksaɪ
Ο ο Omicron OH-mih-krohn [ˈɒmɪkrɒn]
Π π Pi PAI [paɪ]
Ρ ρ Rho ROH [roʊ]
Σ σ/ς Sigma SIHG-muh [ˈsɪɡmə]
Τ τ Tau TOW (rhymes with now) [taʊ]
Υ υ Upsilon OO-psih-lon [ˈʊpsɪlɒn]
Φ φ Phi FAI [faɪ]
Χ χ Chi KAI [kaɪ]
Ψ ψ Psi PSAI (sometimes just SAI) psaɪ
Ω ω Omega oh-MEY-guh [oʊˈmeɪɡə]

Common alternate pronunciations

As best I can tell from my internet research:

  • Many people pronounce Iota like the I in “bit” (IPA: [ɪ]), rather than as a short form of the “ee” sound. Long Iota is still pronounced as a long form of the “ee” sound.
  • Some people pronounce Upsilon like the “oo” sound in “foot” (IPA: [ʊ]) rather than like German ü (IPA: [y]).
  • Some people pronounce Omega like the O sound in “boat” (IPA: [oʊ]) rather than [ɔː].

Technically, none of these alternate pronunciations are correct, but they do make pronunciation for English speakers easier. I personally use the alternate pronunciation of Iota, but not the others.

The vowel chart below uses this simplified pronunciation of Iota.

Vowels, digraphs, and diphthongs

Vowels

Below, Alphas, Iotas, and Upsilons with macrons (ᾱ, ῑ, ῡ) are long, while Alphas, Iotas, and Upsilons without macrons are short. There are no long forms of Epsilon and Omicron, as the letters Eta and Omega generally function as such.

Vowel Vowel sound as in IPA
α “father” (shorter “ah”) [a]
“father” (longer “aah”) [aː]
ε “pet” [e]
η “pet” (E is more open, longer; cf. French fête) [ɛː]
ι “bit” [ɪ]
“feet” [iː]
ο “story” (identical to Hebrew’s Cholam) [o]
ω “all” (A longer, round lips) [ɔː]
υ like ι but round lips ( = short German ü) [y]
like ῑ but round lips ( = long German ü) [yː]

Digraphs

Digraphs are two vowels written, but pronounced only as one.

Digraph Sound as in IPA
ει “bay” (keep mouth still – single vowel sound) [eɪ]
ου “moose” [u]

Diphthongs

Diphthongs are pronounced as written (two sounds): start with the first sound and glide quickly to the second.

Some of these have what is known as an “Iota subscript.” Rather than being written to the right of an Alpha, Eta, or Omega, the iota is written under them. The Iota still serves the same function as if it were written to the right of these letters (i.e., affects pronunciation in the same way).

Diphthong Sound as in IPA
αι “buy”
like αι but held longer
αυ “mouth”
like the digraph ει, but more open and with mouth movement
ευ o behave” (cf. Austin Powers)
ηυ like ευ but held longer
οι “boy”
like οι but held longer
υι like French oui, minus the lip movement

Breathing

Word-initial vowels and Rho may either be written with a breathing symbol opening left (ἀ), indicating so-called “smooth breathing,” or with a breathing symbol opening right (ἁ), indicating so-called “rough breathing.”

The breathing symbol is written above lowercase letters, and to the left of uppercase letters.

Smooth breathing is pronounced as normal (as if the breathing weren’t even there – hence “smooth”), while rough breathing is pronounced as if there were an H in front of the letter with the rough breathing. Thus, Hera in Greek is spelled as Ἥρᾱ.

Word-final sigma

Word-final sigma is written as ς rather than σ. Compare the so-called Sofit forms of certain Hebrew letters (like Kaf, Mem, etc.).

Gamma acting as a nasal

The Greeks did not have a separate letter for a velar nasal (think the “ng” sound in “song”; IPA: [ŋ]) – they used Gamma instead.

For this reason, before other velars, (κ, χ, ξ, and other γ’s), Gamma is pronounced as [ŋ]. This means that the double Gamma in ἄγγελος (Angel in the NT) is not pronounced as a G sound, but as [ŋ] then a G sound.

Geminated consonants

For double consonants other than Gamma, each is distinctly pronounced. Thus, ἀλλά is pronounced as “ahl-LAH”.


  1. Although this is the case to some extent; NT writers generally write much more simply than, say, Thucydides – not that they had to because the language forced them to, but because they chose to. [return]