Lesson 2: The Greek Alphabet (lower case)

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In Lesson 1 we learned the capital letters in the Greek alphabet. In this lesson we’ll look at the lower case letters - but first, how many football teams did you get right? Here’s the coupon again, along with its translation into English:

Home Away 1/2/X
ΑΡΣΕΝΑΛ ΜΑΝΤΣΕΣΤΕΡ  
ΤΣΕΛΣΙ ΕΒΕΡΤΟΝ  
ΛΙΒΕΡΠΟΥΛ ΛΙΝΤΣ  
ΙΠΣΟΥΙΤΣ ΣΤΟΟΥΚ  
ΚΟΒΕΝΤΡΙ ΓΟΥΙΜΠΛΕΝΤΟΝ  
ΠΟΡΤΣΜΟΥΘ ΝΟΡΙΤΣ  
ΠΡΕΣΤΟΝ ΝΤΕΡΒΙ Κ.  
ΛΕΣΤΕΡ ΣΕΦΙΛΝΤ ΓΟΥΕΝ.  
ΜΙΛΑΝ ΓΙΟΥΒΕΝΤΟΥΣ  
ΜΠΟΡΟΥΣΙΑ ΝΤΟΡΤ. ΛΟΚΟΜΟΤΙΒ Μ.  
ΡΕΑΛ Μ. ΛΑ ΚΟΡΟΥΝΙΑ  
Home Away 1/2/X
ARSENAL MANCHESTER  
CHELSEA EVERTON  
LIVERPOOL LEEDS  
IPSWICH STOKE  
COVENTRY WIMBLEDON  
PORTSMOUTH NORWICH  
PRESTON DERBY C.  
LEICESTER SHEFFIELD WED.  
MILAN JUVENTUS  
BORUSSIA DORT. LOKOMOTIV M.  
REAL M. LA CORUÑA  

Notice how Greek handles sounds like the ‘ch’ in ‘Manchester’, writing ΤΣ. You’ll have worked out (from ‘Everton’, for example) that beta is pronounced as a ‘v’ sound. Delta is pronounced softly too, like the ‘th’ in ‘then’. If you want a hard ‘d’ sound in Greek, you have to write ΝΤ like in ‘Leeds’ and ‘Derby C.’. ‘Wimbledon’ looks particularly bizarre, since there’s no direct equivalent for ‘w’. On the other hand, ΛΕΣΤΕΡ is certainly a more logical way to write ‘Leicester’ than English can manage.

Lower case

Now let’s learn the lower case letters. You’ll need to be able to read these if you want to drive in Greece: although in Athens and other big cities there are road signs in both Greek and Roman letters, you sometimes find that a Roman version only appears at the last minute, just too late for you to be able to take a turn-off. In any case, you won’t want to spend all your time driving in the cities, and in the countryside it’s usually Greek only.

The easy ones

Many of the lower-case letters are either scripty versions of the corresponding capital or are similar to their Roman equivalent. So first here are the easy ones, with the capital letter alongside so you can compare them:

What it looks like Roman equivalent How do I remember that? Greek name Greek capital
α a like the Roman letter alpha Α
β b like the Roman letter beta Β
δ d a bit like the Roman letter, only curlier delta Δ
ε e like the Roman letter epsilon Ε
θ th like the capital theta Θ
ι i like the Roman letter, but with no dot iota Ι
κ k like the Roman letter kappa Κ
λ l a bit like the capital lambda Λ
ο o like the Roman letter omicron Ο
π p like the capital pi Π
ρ r like the capital rho Ρ
τ t like the capital tau Τ
υ u like the Roman letter but not like the capital (remember that ‘u’ and ‘y’ count as the same) upsilon Υ
φ ph like the capital phi Φ
χ ch like the capital chi χ
ψ ps like the capital psi Ψ

The harder ones

And now here are the rest, which you are going to have to learn the hard way. But there are only eight of them, and you’ll probably have seen one or two before. Scientists use ‘mu’, ‘sigma’ and ‘omega’ quite frequently. Pretentious scientists use the others too.

What it looks like Roman equivalent Greek name Greek capital
γ c gamma Γ
ζ z zeta Ζ
η e eta Η
μ m mu Μ
ν n nu Ν
ξ x xi Ξ
σ, ς s sigma Σ
ω o omega Ω

Why are there two sigmas?

Which one you use depends on where the letter is in the word. If the letter is at the end of the word, you use ς, whereas at the start or in the middle of a word, you use σ.

Accents

Accents in Greek are (a) easy and (b) helpful to foreigners. There’s only one sort of accent (there used to be three a few years ago, but they’re not used any more; you might see them in older books). Accents only appear on the vowels ( α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω ), you get at most one in a word, and it tells you which syllable to stress when pronouncing it. Apart from that, it doesn’t modify the sound of the word at all. So for example ταβε'ρνα (which, as you will have guessed, means ‘taverna’) is stressed on the second syllable, and is therefore pronounced in Greek pretty much as it is in English. However, ταξι' (which means ‘taxi’) is stressed on the last syllable, not on the first like we do in English. Try saying ‘taxI!’ a few times - best to practice now, as you’ll need to be able to shout it confidently when you’re trying to get some attention above the traffic noise of central Athens.

Quiz

Here are some more Greek words for you to practice reading lower case. They’re all real Greek words, but they all happen to be the same (or nearly the same) as English words. Which ones are stressed on the same syllable as they are in English?

δρα'μα
ξυλο'φωνο
ρετσι'να
μεταμο'ρφωσις
συ'μβολο
ψυχη'
ζωολογι'α
κο'μμα
γε'νεσις
Αθη'να
χειροπρακτικη'

Summary of the alphabet with pronunciation guide

Finally, here’s a summary of the alphabet, with the letters in the correct Greek order. The pronunciation examples are only intended as a rough guide, and assume you have a standard southern British English accent. Some details have been glossed over, but the pronunciation of Greek is in general pretty regular, and so you won’t make too many mistakes following the rules below.

Capital Lower case Greek name Pronunciation
Α α alpha ‘a’ as in ‘hat’
Β β beta ‘v’ as in ‘vat’
Γ γ gamma before consonants and alpha, omicron and omega: somewhere between ‘g’ as in ‘get’ and ‘ch’ as in Scottish ‘loch’, like the Spanish ‘g’ in ‘fuego’; otherwise ‘y’ as in ‘yet’
Δ δ delta ‘th’ as in ‘that’ (NOT as in ‘thin’: see theta below)
Ε ε epsilon ‘e’ as in ‘pet’
Ζ ζ zeta ‘z’ as in ‘zoo’
Η η eta ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
Θ θ theta ‘th’ as in ‘thin’ (NOT as in ‘that’: see delta above)
Ι ι iota ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
Κ κ kappa ‘k’ as in ‘kit’
Λ λ lambda ‘l’ as in ‘let’
Μ μ mu ‘m’ as in ‘met’
Ν ν nu ‘n’ as in ‘net’
Ξ ξ xi ‘x’ as in ‘axe’ (NOT as in ‘xylophone’)
Ο ο omicron ‘o’ as in ‘lot’
Π π pi ‘p’ as in ‘pet’
Ρ ρ rho ‘r’ as in ‘rat’
Σ σ, ς sigma ‘s’ as in ‘cats’ or as in ‘dogs’ according to context: your intuition for English pronunciation will generally be correct for Greek too
Τ τ tau ‘t’ as in ‘top’
Υ υ upsilon ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
Φ φ phi ‘f’ as in ‘fit’
χ χ chi ‘ch’ as in Scottish ‘loch’
Ψ ψ psi ‘ps’ as in ‘upset’
Ω ω omega ‘o’ as in ‘lot’

You also need to know the pronunciations of the following combinations:

αι ‘e’ as in ‘pet’
ει ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
υι ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
οι ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’
ου ‘oo’ as in ‘root’
αυ ‘af’ or ‘av’ according to context: your intuition for English pronunciation will generally make the correct choice for you
ευ ‘ef’ or ‘ev’ according to context
μπ ‘b’ as in ‘bat’
ντ ‘d’ as in ‘dot’
γκ ‘g’ as in ‘get’
γγ ‘ng’ as in ‘sing’
τσ, τζ in foreign words, generally ‘j’ as in ‘jet’

Two vowels that you might expect to form a combination as shown in the table above are pronounced separately if the first has an accent. For example, κε'ικ is pronounced as the English ‘cake’ (which is what it means); κεικ, or κει'κ, would be pronounced ‘keek’. A dieresis (two dots, like a German umlaut, over the second vowel) can also be used to separate a combination.

Now let’s learn how to say ‘hello’, in Lesson 3.


This page most recently updated Mon 16 Jan 11:10:10 GMT 2017
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