Lesson 1: The Greek Alphabet (capitals)

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This is a quick introduction to the Greek alphabet aimed at people who are going to spend a week or two in Greece and want to get a bit more out of their stay than a suntan. Knowing the alphabet will make a trip to Greece much more fun because you’ll understand a lot more of what’s going on around you - you’ll find that just being able to read a sign out loud will often make it obvious what it means. Once you get the alphabet down, you’ll be surprised just how many Greek words you’ll find you know already. A lot of the more complicated words in the English lexicon (especially scientific-sounding ones like ‘lexicon’) come directly from simple words in Greek - we’ll point a few out as we go.

Learning a new alphabet might look a bit daunting at first, but in fact it’s really easy. After all, plenty of other people can do it, so why not us too? We’ll do the capitals first, partly because they’re easier, but mostly because lots of signs you’ll see in Greece are written entirely in capitals anyway. We’ll do lower case in lesson two.

Half of the letters are the same

Well, nearly half - there are twenty-four letters in the Greek alphabet, and eleven are identical to letters you already know. Here they are:

What it looks like Greek name How do I remember that?
Α alphaOur word ‘alpha-bet’ comes from the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet
Β beta
Ε epsilonthe ‘psilon’ bit means ‘simple’, so this is ‘simple e’ - we’ll do ‘complex e’ later
Ι iota‘iota’ is an English word meaning a small amount (it’s the same word as ‘jot’) - because iota is the letter that requires least ink to print
Κ kappaplenty of those three-Greek-letter society names seem to end in kappa
Μ muthese two are easy to remember (though a bit tricky to say) together
Ν nu
Ο omicron‘micron’ means ‘little’ (think of ‘micro-scope’, a ‘little-viewer’), so this is ‘little o’; big o (o-mega) comes later
Τ tauanother fraternity favourite
Υ upsilon‘simple u’ (see ‘e-psilon’ above): ‘u’ and ‘y’ are essentially the same letter
Ζ zetayou might wonder why a Welsh film star should have a Greek middle name

If you ever need to use a Greek ’phone book or dictionary or look up a place in a Greek road atlas, you’ll need to know what order the letters come in. It’s mostly what you’d expect, but there are a few surprises: for example, ‘Z’ actually comes quite early in the alphabet, just after ‘E’ - so an A-to-Z of Athens isn’t much use! We’ll look at the order of the letters when we do lower case - for now you’ll just have to wade through the whole ’phone book to find the name you want.

You probably recognise a few more anyway

There are some you’ll recognise from company logos and suchlike, or which are used a lot in science:

What it looks like Roman equivalent Greek name How do I remember that?
Δ Ddeltathere’s an airline company with a logo that looks like a delta; and a river delta is a delta-shaped bit of mud in the mouth of a river
Θ THthetaused a lot to represent angles in maths; sometimes the line across the middle is shrunk down to a dot
Π Ppiused in maths, and now a major film
Σ Ssigmayou might have seen it used in maths
Ω Oomega‘mega’ means ‘big’ (think of ‘mega-phone’, a ‘big-voice’), so this is ‘big o’; and there’s a watch company that uses an omega for its logo; sometimes omega is drawn as an underlined letter ‘O’

The difficult ones

I’m afraid the rest you’ll just have to learn, but there’s only eight of them - I’m sure you can cope with that. If you happen to know a bit of Russian, you’ll recognise a few more old friends. Some of these also get used by scientists when they run out of Roman letters.

What it looks like Roman equivalent Greek name Watch out!
Γ Ggammaa few thousand years ago, this letter was drawn to look like a picture of a camel (‘camel’ and ‘gamma’ being the same word); things have changed a bit since then, but you might still be able to spot a resemblance
Η Eetait’s a vowel! it’s another ‘e’, a longer-drawn out version of epsilon
Λ Llambdadon’t confuse with ‘A’
Ξ Xxinormally three separate lines, but sometimes you see the lines joined together to make a zig-zag
Ρ Rrhonot a ‘P’ - that’s ‘pi’
Φ PHphiyet another fraternity favourite; don’t confuse it with ‘psi’ below - they can look very similar
χ CHchiit’s not an ‘X’ - see ‘xi’ above
Ψ PSpsidon’t confuse it with ‘phi’ above

It might have surprised you that there are single letters in Greek that correspond to two in our alphabet: ‘psi’ in particular looks odd. But if you think about it, it’s no different from our letter ‘X’, which stands for the two sounds ‘K’ and ‘S’ next to one another. And now you know where we get words like ‘psycho-patho-logy’ (‘mind-pain-study’) with those clumsy ‘ps’-‘ch’-‘th’ sounds.

A quick test - on some real Greek!

Here’s an extract from a Greek football (that’s ‘soccer’ to Americans) pools coupon. (In Greece the pools are called the ΠΡΟ-ΠΟ - ‘pro-po’ - short for ΠΡΟΓΝΩΣΤΙΚΑ ΠΟΔΟΣΦΑΙΡΟΥ - ‘prognostika podosphairou’ - can you imagine calling the football pools the ‘podosphere prognoses’?) As well as local games, Greeks bet on British and European football matches. Of course they write the names of the teams using the Greek alphabet and not always in the most obvious way... see if you can work out who’s playing. You’ll discover that they generally represent the sounds of the team names rather than the spellings, and that they abbreviate some of the names: so you’ll have to do some guessing. If you can’t work one out, try saying it out loud to a friend (ideally a football fan).

Home Away 1/2/X

(I’ve changed some of the fixtures, but the names of the teams are exactly as they’re written.)

Now go on to the next lesson and see how many teams you got right.

This page most recently updated Fri 5 Jan 10:25:34 GMT 2024
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