The Greek alphabet is an alphabet that has been used to write the Greek language since about the 9th century BC. It was the first true alphabet, that is, an alphabet with a symbol for each vowel and consonant, and is the oldest alphabetic script in use today. The letters are also used to represent numbers — Greek numerals — in the same sorts of contexts as Roman numerals. Besides writing modern Greek, today its letters are used as mathematical symbols, particle names in physics, as names of stars, in the names of fraternities and sororities, in the naming of supernumerary tropical cyclones, and for other purposes. The Greek alphabet originated as a modification of the Phoenician alphabet and in turn gave rise to the Gothic, Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Coptic, and possibly the Armenian alphabets, as well as the Latin alphabet, as documented in History of the alphabet. The Greek alphabet is unrelated to Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, earlier writing systems for Greek.
- 1 Main table
- 2 Letter combinations and diphthongs
- 3 Ligatures
- 4 History
- 5 Use of the Greek alphabet for other languages
- 6 Greek encodings
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 See also
- 9 External links
The Greek letters and their derivations are as follows (pronunciations transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet):
- For details and different transliteration systems see Transliteration of Greek into English.
Some of the letters had different pronunciations in pre-classical times or in non-Attic dialects. For details, see History of the Greek alphabet.
The following letters are not part of the standard Greek alphabet, but were in use in pre-classical times or in certain dialects. The letters digamma, qoppa, and sampi were also used in Greek numerals.
|40px||Sampi||[ts] ?||Origin disputed||–|
Letter combinations and diphthongs
|οι||[oɪ]||[i]||oe, i (final)|
|αυ||[aʊ]||[av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[af] before voiceless sound
|ευ||[eʊ]||[e̞v] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[e̞f] before voiceless sound
|ηυ||[ɛːʊ]||[iv] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[if] before voiceless sound
|γγ*||[ŋg]||[ŋg] in formal speech (palatalised to [ŋɟ] before [e̞] or [i]),
but often reduced to [g] (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i]);
also pronounced [ŋɣ] in some contexts (palatalised to [ŋʝ] before [e̞])
|γκ*||[ŋk]||[g] at the beginning of a word (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i]);
[ŋg] otherwise (palatalised to [ŋɟ] before [e̞] or [i]),
but often reduced to [g] (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i])
|γχ*||[ŋx]||[ŋç] before [e̞] or [i];
|μπ||-||-||[b] at the beginning of a word;
[mb] otherwise, but often reduced to [b]
|ντ||-||-||[d] at the beginning of a word;
[nd] otherwise, but often reduced to [d]
Before the days of printing, scribes made use of a number of ligatures to save space, in Greek as in other languages. The ligature for ου — resembling a V above an O — is still sometimes seen. For a modern use of this in the Latin alphabet, see Ou (letter)
Main article: History of the Greek alphabet.
The most notable change in the Greek alphabet, compared to its predecessor, the Phoenician alphabet, is the introduction of written vowels, without which Greek — unlike Phoenician — would be unintelligible. In fact most alphabets that contain vowels are derived ultimately from Greek, although there are exceptions (Hangul, Orkhon script, Ge'ez alphabet, Indic alphabets, and Old Hungarian script). The first vowels were alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, and upsilon (copied from waw), modifications of either glides or breathing marks, which were mostly superfluous in Greek. In eastern Greek, which lacked breaths entirely, the letter eta was also used for a long e, and eventually the letter omega was introduced for a long o. Vowels were originally not used in Semitic alphabets, but even in the very old Ugaritic alphabet matres lectionis were used, i.e. consonant signs were used to denote vowels.
Greek also introduced three new consonants, appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. These consonants made up for the lack of aspirates in Phoenician. In west Greek, Χ was used for /ks/ and Ψ for /kʰ/ — hence the value of our letter x, derived from the western Greek alphabet. Over the middle ages these aspirates disappeared, so now theta, phi, and chi stand for /θ/, /f/, and /x/. The origin of those letters is disputed.
The letter san was used at variance with sigma, and by classical times the latter won out, san disappearing from the alphabet. The letters waw (later called digamma) and qoppa disappeared, too, the former only needed for the western dialects and the latter never really needed at all. These lived on in the Ionic numeral system, however, which consisted of writing a series letters with precise numerical values. Sampi (apparently in a rare local glyph form from Ionia) was introduced at the end — to stand for 900. Thousands were written using a mark at the upper left ('A for 1000, etc).
Originally there were several variants of the Greek alphabet, most importantly western (Chalcidian) and eastern (Ionic) Greek; the former gave rise to the Old Italic alphabet and thence to the Latin alphabet. Athens took the Ionic script to be its standard in 403 BC, and shortly thereafter the other versions disappeared. By then Greek was always written left to right, but originally it had been written right to left (with asymmetrical characters flipped), and in-between written either way — or, most likely, boustrophedon, so that the lines alternate direction.
During the Middle ages, the Greek scripts underwent changes paralleling those of the Roman alphabet: while the old forms were retained as a monumental script, uncial and eventually minuscule hands came to dominate. The letter σ is even written ς at the ends of words, paralleling the use of the long and short s at the time. Aristophanes of Byzantium also introduced the process of accenting Greek letters for easier pronunciation.
Because Greek minuscules arose at a (much) later date, no historic minuscule actually exists for san. Minuscule forms for the other letters were only used numerically. For number 6, modern Greeks use an old digraph called stigma (Template:Polytonic, Template:Polytonic) instead of digamma or use στ if it is not available. For 90 they use modern z-shaped qoppa forms: Template:Polytonic, Template:Polytonic (Note that some web browser/font combinations will show the other qoppa here).
Use of the Greek alphabet for other languages
The primary use of the Greek alphabet has always been to write the Greek language and related dialects (including Ancient Macedonian). However, at various times and in various places, it has also been used to write other languages.
- Some Narbonese Gaulish inscriptions in southern France use the Greek alphabet (c300 BC).
- The Hebrew text of the Bible was written in Greek in Origen's Hexapla.
- An 8th century Arabic fragment preserves a text in Greek.
In more modern times:
- Turkish spoken by Orthodox Christians (Karamanlides) was often written in Greek script, and called "Karamanlidika".
- Tosk Albanian was often written using the Greek alphabet, starting in about 1500 (Elsie, 1991). The printing press at Moschopolis published several Albanian texts in Greek script during the 18th century. It was only in 1908 that the Monastir conference standardized a Latin orthography for both Tosk and Gheg. The Greek-based Arvanitic alphabet is now only used in Greece.
- Various South Slavic dialects, similar to the modern Macedonian language, have been preserved in Greek script. The modern Macedonian language uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet.
- Aromanian (Vlach) has been written in Greek characters. There is not yet a standardized orthography for Aromanian, but it appears that one based on the Romanian orthography will be adopted.
- Gagauz, a Turkic language of the northeast Balkans.
- Surguch, a Turkic language spoken by a small group of Orthodox Christians in northern Greece.
- Urum or Greek Tatar.
- The Coptic alphabet is the Greek alphabet augmented with several new letters.
- The Old Nubian language of Makuria used the Greek alphabet augmented with three Coptic letters and three unique letters.
A variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947 "Greek Character Encoding for Electronic Mail Messages".
Greek in Unicode
Unicode supports polytonic orthography well enough for ordinary continuous text in modern and ancient Greek, and even many archaic forms for epigraphy. With the use of combining characters, Unicode also supports Greek philology and dialectology and various other specialized requirements. However, most current implementations of Unicode do not support combining characters well, so, though alpha with macron and acute can be represented as U+03B1 U+0304 U+0301, this rarely renders well: Template:Polytonic.
For extended discussion of problematic Greek letter forms in Unicode see Greek Unicode Issues.
There are 2 main blocks of Greek characters in Unicode. The first is "Greek and Coptic" (U+0370 — U+03FF). This block is based on ISO 8859-7 and is sufficient to write Modern Greek. There are also some archaic letters and Greek-based technical symbols.
This block also supports the Coptic language. Formerly most Coptic letters shared codepoints with similar-looking Greek letters; but in many scholarly works, both scripts occur, with quite different letter shapes, so as of Unicode 4.1, Coptic and Greek were disunified. Those Coptic letters with no Greek equivalents still remain in this block.
To write polytonic Greek, one may use combining diacritical marks or the precomposed characters in the "Greek Extended" block (U+1F00 – U+1FFF).
Greek and Coptic
Greek Extended (precomposed polytonic Greek)
Combining and letter-free diacritics
|U+0300||U+0060||( Template:Polytonic )||"varia / grave accent"|
|U+0301||U+00B4, U+0384||( Template:Polytonic )||"oxia / tonos / acute accent"|
|U+0304||U+00AF||( Template:Polytonic )||"macron"|
|U+0306||U+02D8||( Template:Polytonic )||"vrachy / breve"|
|U+0308||U+00A8||( Template:Polytonic )||"dialytika / diaeresis"|
|U+0313||( Template:Polytonic )||"psili / comma above" (spiritus lenis)|
|U+0314||( Template:Polytonic )||"dasia / reversed comma above" (spiritus asper)|
|U+0342||( Template:Polytonic )||"perispomeni" (circumflex)|
|U+0343||( Template:Polytonic )||"koronis" (= U+0313)|
|U+0344||U+0385||( Template:Polytonic )||"dialytika tonos" (deprecated, = U+0308 U+0301)|
|U+0345||U+037A||( Template:Polytonic )||"ypogegrammeni / iota subscript".|
- Humez, Alexander and Nicholas, Alpha to omega: the life & times of the Greek alphabet, Godine, 1981, ISBN 087923377X. A popular history, more about Greek roots in English than about the alphabet itself.
- Michael S. Macrakis, ed., Greek letters: from tablets to pixels, proceedings of a conference sponsored by the Greek Font Society, Oak Knoll Press, 1996, ISBN 1884718272. Includes papers on history, typography, and character coding by Hermann Zapf, Matthew Carter, Nicolas Barker, John A. Lane, Kyle McCarter, Jerôme Peignot, Pierre MacKay, Silvio Levy, et al.
- Jeffery, Lilian Hamilton, The local scripts of archaic Greece: a study of the origin of the Greek alphabet and its development from the eighth to the fifth centuries B.C., Oxford, 1961, ISBN 0198140614.
- Macrakis, Stavros M., "Character codes for Greek: Problems and modern solutions" in Macrakis, 1996. Includes discussion of the Greek alphabet used for languages other than Greek. 
- Robert Elsie, "Albanian Literature in Greek Script: the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Orthodox Tradition in Albanian Writing", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 15:20 (1991) .
- Ancient Greek phonology
- Arvanitic alphabet
- Polytonic orthography
- Monotonic orthography
- List of Greek words with English derivatives
- Greek letters used in mathematics
- Transliteration of Greek into English
- Greek numerals, a system of representing numbers using letters of the Greek alphabet
- List of XML and HTML character entity references
- The Greek Alphabet A presentation of the Greek letters with pronunciation for Modern and Classical Greek.
- The Greek Script Online Trainer Shows common errors for each letter (e.g. υ vs. ν).