The Greek Alphabet

The word “alphabet” itself comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The original Greek letter society, Phi Beta Kappa, took its initials from the motto “Philosophy is the Helmsman of Life”. Since then, campus secret societies have adopted letters which have similar cryptic meanings. Delta Upsilon, which is non-secret, means “Justice is our Foundation.”

The Greek alphabet derived from the earlier Caananite/Semitic alphabets, by way of the Phoenicians. You remember the Caananites as the people who were driven out by the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. In turn, the Greek alphabet passed, by way of the Etruscans, to Rome, where it became the basis of the alphabets used for English, French, Spanish, German, Romanian, and so forth. The Greek alphabet was adapted by Cyril and Methodius, Christian missionaries, as the Russian alphabet.

The Greeks pronounced their letters and words differently from the way we do. The Greeks said “AHL-phah”, “BAY-tah”, “LAHM-bdah KHEE AHL-phah”, and so forth. Socrates said his own name “Saw-KRAHT-tays”. Classical Greek pronunciation follows spelling, except that “tt” is pronounced “s”, “gg” is pronounced “ng”, and “gk” is pronounced “nk”. “R” is trilled.

Almost all Greek words have an accent mark. The Greek accent was tonal, i.e., you changed the pitch of your voice (up, down, or down-then-up, depending on the shape of the accent mark.) This is hard for us to do or hear, so we say the accented syllable louder instead.

You can spot words of Greek origin because they have "ph" instead of "f", have "h" only at the beginning or in an initial "rh" or "th" or "ch" anywhere, may have initial "ps", end in a vowel or "n", "r", "x", or "s", and do not have "q", "v", "w’, "c" (except in "ch") or "j".

Α α
Alpha
Transliterated "A"
Ancient Pronunciation: "a" as in "father",
maybe sometimes as in "cat"

The first letter of the Greek alphabet is said to derive from the Egyptian hieroglyphic for a horned ox’s head, by way of the semitic "aleph", which today doesn’t look at all ox-like. Originally on its side, our modern "A", like its Greek ancestor, has the horns pointed downward.

Β β
Beta
Transliterated "B"
Ancient Pronunciation: "b" as in "bubble"

This is supposed to be the picture of a house, with two stories. "Beta" is cognate with "Beth", Hebrew for "house", given to many Jewish congregations.

Γ γ
Gamma
Transliterated "G"
Ancient Pronunciation: "g" as in "goggles"

"Gamma" is the same word as "camel", in Semitic "gimel". The letter actually does look like a camel’s head. This letter passed into the Latin alphabet in this position in a curved form as our "C". The Etruscans did not distinguish between the "g" and "k" sounds, so Greek gamma came to have the "k" sound in Latin. The Romans needed another letter for the "g" sound, so theyadded a bar to the "C" to get "G".

Δ δ
Delta
Transliterated "D"
Ancient Pronunciation: "d" as in "daddy"

This was supposed to be a door, in Semitic "Daleth". It became tilted and one side rounded as our "D". You know the mouth of a river and maybe other triangular things as "deltas".

Ε ε
Epsilon
Transliterated "E"
Ancient Pronunciation: "e" as in "feather bed"

"Psilo" means "little", hence "little E" or "short E". The letter began in Semitic as "heh", for the "H" sound, or rough aspirate. Their alphabet did not have a letter for this vowel (or most others), so the Greeks used it instead for the short "e" sound, and used a reverse apostrophe to indicate the "h" sound, which in Greek occurs only at the beginnings of words.

Ζ ζ
Zeta
Transliterated "Z"
Ancient Pronunciation: "z" as in "zoo"

This letter came directly from the Semitic alphabet. Some people will tell you that the letter was always pronounced "dz". I find this a little bit hard to believe.

Η η
Eta
Transliterated "E"
Ancient Pronunciation: "long a" like the "e" in "Riviera"

This was a consonant in Semitic, but the Greeks used it as their "long a" sound. On the continent, e often takes what we call the "long a" sound. Curiously, the letter moved into Latin as the "H", which they needed because the Greek reverse apostrophe wouldn’t do.

Θ θ
Theta
Transliterated "TH"
Ancient Pronunciation: "unvoiced th" as "thin"

This is always. It used to exist in English (as did the voiced "th", as in "father", the letter "thorn", a lower-case "d" with the upright crossed), but was replaced by the "th". It’s easy to see the letter’s origin. It’s the tongue protruding just between the front teeth of the open mouth, as when you say the "th" sound.

Ι ι
Iota
Transliterated "I"
Ancient Pronunciation: "long e" as in Italian "Italia",
maybe sometimes "short i" as in "pin"

Lower-case "i", a simple mark for a simple sound. Our English "short i" is hard for many non-English-speakers to learn to say. The letter is the smallest in Greek, was cited in the New Testament ("not a jot…"), and actually became our word "jot".

Κ κ
Kappa
Transliterated "K"
Ancient Pronunciation: "k" as in "smokestack"

Kappa came into Greek and passed into Latin and English for the "k" sound.

Λ λ
Lambda
Transliterated "L"
Ancient Pronunciation: "l" as in "little"

This came from Semitic and was turned on its side by the Romans to become our "L".

Μ μ
Mu
Transliterated "M"
Ancient Pronunciation: "m" as in "mummy"

The Egyptians used a horned owl for "m", and this may be the origin of this letter, which came from Semitic and went into Latin and English unchanged.

Ν ν
Nu
Transliterated "N"
Ancient Pronunciation: "n" as in "noon"

The waves are supposed to be water. This also passed unchanged from Semitic into Greek, then to Latin and then English.

Ξ ξ
Xi
Transliterated "X"
Ancient Pronunciation: "ks" as "exist"

The crossmark stood for the "t" sound in Semitic, but somehow ended up as the letter "chi" in Greek. For some reason, the Greeks decided to use three bars for the "ks" double consonant. The Romans didn’t need the "kh" sound, so they used the "chi" for their "ks" sound. "Ksi" is hard to say, so campus Greeks pronounced this this letter "ZIE".

Ο ο
Omicron
Transliterated "O"
Ancient Pronunciation: "short o" or "aw" as in "doll"

"Micro" means "little", hence "little o". The throat and the lips are both rounded to make this sound, hence the shape.

Π π
Pi
Transliterated "P"
Ancient Pronunciation: "p" as in "pipe"

The Semitic form probably meant nothing. We use the Greek form for the circumference of a circle with unit diameter. Why a version of this letter with the right upright rounded became the Roman "P", matching the Greek letter for "R", is anybody’s guess.

Ρ ρ
Rho
Transliterated "R"
Ancient Pronunciation: "trilled r" as a German might say "kraut"

The Greek letter came from the Semitic form, and for some reason the Romans added a diagonal bar to distinguish this from their altered form of "pi", which they used for the "p" sound. Think about this: How many distinct ways do you hear "R" pronounced in English. There are at least six; everybody has his or her own favorite.

Σ σ
Sigma
Transliterated "S"
Ancient Pronunciation: "s" as "sense"

This came from the Semitic alphabet and was altered slightly as our "s". At the end of a word, lower-case sigma was written as our lower-case "s".

Τ τ
Tau
Transliterated "T"
Ancient Pronunciation: "t" as in "tent"

Our "T", taken from the Semitic languages which used a cross. Interestingly, some of the early Christian writers thought this letter has a special correlation with the Cross.

Υ υ
Upsilon
Transliterated "U" or "Y"
Ancient Pronunciation: "uuh" as in German "putsch"

"Long U". Its upper-case form came into English as our almost-a-vowel letter "y" (a short "long e"). It also went into Latin as "V", which has the "ooh" sound ("vir quisque vir"). When English needed a letter for the "v" sound, it used the Latin "V" and rounded its bottom for a range of vowel sounds that we call "u". Doubled "V" kept the "ooh" sound, which is what our almost-a-vowel "w" (the French call it "double V") now has.

Φ φ
Phi
Transliterated "PH"
Ancient Pronunciation: "ph" as in "phosphate",
but supposedly more breathy than our "f"

The Greeks used to have a letter ("digamma", two gammas, one on top of the other) for the "f" sound but dropped it. The Romans revived it, and neither they nor we needed a special letter for "ph". By custom, we indicate a word’s Greek origin by using the "ph" letter-pair. The Greeks made up this letter and the remaining three, and added them to the end of their alphabet.

Χ χ
Chi
Transliterated "CH"
Ancient Pronunciation: "kh" as in "chanukkah", "Achmed",
or "Ach!"

We don’t use the deep-throated sound of this letter, which is good if you have a sore throat. The Greeks made this letter up.

Ψ ψ
Psi
Transliterated "PS"
Ancient Pronunciation: "ps" as in "upset"

For some reason the Greeks thought they needed a separate letter for the "ps" sound. We don’t pronounce the "p" when it starts a word ("psychiatrist", "psalms"), but the Greeks did.

Ω ω
Omega
Transliterated "O"
Ancient Pronunciation: "long o" as in "tone"

"Big o". It was marked specially by a bar under the upper case, doubling the lower case. This letter didn’t make it into our alphabet, but survives as the symbol for electric resistance (ohms). The apocalypse has the Lord say, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end." Tielhard de Chardin, the priest-archeologist and mystic who discovered Peking Man, saw evolution reaching the "omega point".

 

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