Lesson 2: The Greek Alphabet (lower case)
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:
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.
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:
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.
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 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 ταβέρνα (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, ταξί (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.
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?
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.
You also need to know the pronunciations of the following combinations:
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, κέικ is pronounced as the English ‘cake’ (which is what it means); κεικ, or κείκ, 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 Fri 4 Feb 16:49:57 GMT 2022
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