Greek Alphabet & Writing: An Overview
Greek has almost always been written with an alphabet. In an alphabet, each symbol more or less corresponds to one sound. The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language for over 2700 years. The exception is also the oldest form of the written Greeek language, known as Mycenaean Greek, which was encoded in a writing system known as a syllabary.
In this single concise lesson, I'm going to demonstrate the various forms of Greek writing. Along the way, I'll teach you to write the scripts for yourself. You'll also learn how to write and pronounce words and phrases once you've mastered the basics of each form of the alphabet. If you find yourself yearning for more practice, consider getting more hands-on time with my thorough, step-by-step workbook called Learn to Write Ancient Greek.
This website introduces the Classical Greek alphabet with videos, exercises and explanations. It's divided into the following sections, each one devoted to the topic of writing Greek:
The Early Greek Alphabet
Fortunately, the early form of the Greek alphabet is also the easiest to learn. Let's travel back more than 2000 years. Originally, the Greeks wrote in what we call UPPERCASE letters only. This includes the epigraphic and monumental script, etched into stone and painted on pottery. The early Greeks didn't yet incorporate the diacritics (such as "accent marks") that embellish and complicate later Greek writing.
|Greek Letters||Greek Letter Names||Pronunciation|
|Α||ΑΛΦΑ||a in father|
|Ε||ΕΨΙΛΟΝ||e in let|
|Ζ||ΖΗΤΑ||sd in Thursday|
|Η||ΗΤΑ||e in they|
|Θ||ΘΗΤΑ||th in pot-hole, not in thing|
|Ι||ΙΩΤΑ||i in sing|
|Ξ||ΞΕΙ||x in fax, not in example|
|Ο||ΟΜΙΚΡΟΝ||o in sock|
|Υ||ΥΨΙΛΟΝ||u in French tu*|
|Φ||ΦΕΙ||ph in loophole|
|Χ||ΧΕΙ||kh in backhoe|
|Ω||ΩΜΕΓΑ||o in so|
* To make this sound, round your lips to pronounce the "oo" in "soon" but say the "ee" in "seem" instead.
A few notes. It's easy to spell names and other Greek words you might already know using the equivalents I give above. Try reading: ΣΩΚΡΑΤΗΣ, ΧΑΡΑΚΤΗΡ, ΘΕΩΡΙΑ.
This form of Greek was written without spaces. For example, ΑΛΦΑΚΑΙΒΕΤΑΚΑΙΓΑΜΜΑ is "alpha and beta and gamma".
Here I don't mention some "extra" letters not found in the later versions of the alphabet.
The following image is a close-up of Greek text on the famous Rosetta Stone. Try to find ΠΟΛΛΟΥΧΡΟΝΟΥ and ΗΓΑΠΗΜΕΝΟΥ in this text.
The Later Uncial Script
The seed that was early Greek writing sprouted into a number of different scripts. By the first millenium of our era, Hellenic Koine Greek (ΚΟΙΝΗ just means "common") takes over as the spoken language, thanks to Alexander's conquest and the later iron grip of the Roman Empire. Throughout the Eastern Empire, Greek was the standard written language. The Greek alphabet we see used in texts during this time is also "uppercase only". But it looks somewhat distinct.
We call this the Uncial system, and, if you do any archaeological sleuthing, you'll find it was typical for Greek texts on papyrus, parchment and vellum in the early years AD. This is not only a crucial script to understand for New Testament and early Christian studies, but also because of the tremendous historical value and sheer volume of works from that period.
Like the original uppercase script, Uncials were written with no spaces between words.
Below you see a picture of an authentic ancient papyrus with Uncial writing. Try to find the following phrases: ΟΙΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ, ΚΑΙΕΠΙΣΚΟΠΟΣ, ΕΝΗΜΕΡΑΙΣ.
The Greek Minuscule Script
Sometime within the last 2000 years, Greek got smaller. Specifically, we see Greek written using lowercase letters. In some cases, we find both uppercase ("majuscule") and lowercase ("minuscule") letters used together. In all cases, the minuscules dominate - lowercase is far more plentiful.
If you learn the Ancient Greek language from any modern book, you will learn how to used this mixed, minuscule-based script. Like in English, proper nouns (names of people and places) start with a capital letter. Paragraphs also start with a capitalized letter, but individual sentences do not.
Let's take a look at the uppercase and lowercase variants of each letter in this script.
|Majuscule & Minuscule||Greek Name|
|Ε ε||ἒ ψιλόν|
|Ο ο||ὂ μικρον|
|Σ σ||σῖγμα *|
|Υ υ||ὖ ψιλόν|
|Ω ω||ὦ μέγα|
* lowercase σῖγμα is written ς at the end of a word and σ everywhere else.
I've kept two secrets from you. The first is about an "aitch" (H h). Ancient Greek had an h-sound at the beginning of some words. When a word starts with an h-sound, minuscule script uses a rough breathing mark on top of the first letter (ἁ = "hah"). When a word has no h-sound, we write a smooth breathing mark (ἀ = "ah"). Notice that rough breathing looks like a single quote pointing towards the word.
The second secret has to do with the funny-looking marks: acute accent (´), grave accent (`) and circumflex (ˆ). Those diacritics give us extra pronunciation info. Because of them, we know to raise our pitch (ά), lower our pitch (ὰ) or quickly raise-then-lower it (ᾶ) while pronouncing a vowel. Initially, this type of change in intonation sounds tricky, but it gets easier with exposure to and practice of the language.
What seems like the most confusing situation occurs when both the tone and the breathing marks are written on the same vowel. This can only happen at the beginning of a word, like in ἄλφα or ἦτα. In both cases, the smooth breathing tells us not to put an h at the beginning of the word: alpha and eta, not *halpha and *heta. On the other hand, ῥῶ tells us to pronounce an initial h: hro (usually spelled "rho" in English). The pitch accent mark just indicates how to "sing" the vowel out - a bit higher in ἄλφα, a bit up-then-down in ῥῶ.
Try to say the following words and phrases out loud:
Ἀλεξανδρία, ϰαλός τε ϰαὶ ἀγαθός, ἀϰμή, ϰλῖμαξ, ψυχή
The Byzantine Minuscule Script
Learn more on my page dedicated to the Byzantine & Medieval Greek minuscule script.
One of the most striking examples of the minuscule script comes from texts written in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, during the rule of the Byzantine Empire.
Notice the unique, cursive style and flow of the writing. All notes given for the minuscule system above still apply (particularly diacritics, or breathings and pitch accent marks).
Below you see an image of an authentic ancient text, written in Greek with the Byzantine minuscule style. Try to find the following words and phrases:
καὶ οὐ πολὺ ὕστερον, στρατηγοῖς, τοῖς ὄρκοις, εὔεσθαι
Harder Bits of Greek Pronunciation
Pronouncing the Greek language is, for the most part, very easy once you've learned the alphabet. There's very little akin to the "silent e" of English "fares" or the "ough" in "through" versus "trough". Still, there are a couple of pronunciation points to pay attention to.
Diphthongs (vowel + vowel)
In ancient times, an iota or upsilon after another vowel represented a y-sound (ι) or a w-sound (υ), as in αι, αυ, οι, ευ.
But ου had the sound of "oo" in "moon": οὐρανός
And ει was pronounced like "ee" in "seem": βασιλεία
One deceptive "dipthong" includes the iota subscript (a small iota written below an alpha, eta or omega). Iota subscript typically goes unpronounced: ᾳ ῃ ῳ. Students and learners are often taught to flat-out ignore that little iota, but behind its silence lies its historical value.
Two consonants written side-by-side in Greek indicate that you hold the consonant sound out longer. The common wisdom is - two consonants, twice as long. Greece's very name in Greek has an example of double-lambda: Ἑλλάς.
A g is a g for the most part (like in English game or give, not age or gentle). At times, though, classical Greek gamma plays tricks - in speech, it sometimes sounded like the "n" in "sing". That unique velar nasal sound is found only when gamma comes before "k" and "g" sounds that trigger the nasal pronunciation.
Gamma before kappa: ἄγκυρα
Gamma before gamma: σπόγγος
Gamma before mu: ἄγμα
FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about Ancient Greek Writing
What's the earliest (or the oldest) written Greek?
Greek has been written in various versions of two different scripts. The second script encompasses all the versions we learned above, and is known as the Greek alphabet. Greek is still written using this alphabet.
There is an even older Greek writing system known from inscriptions in Crete and southern Greece. We know this script as Linear B, and it seems entirely unrelated to the later Greek alphabet. Inscriptions in Linear B preserve an early dialect called Mycenaean Greek. Linear B predates the Greek alphabet by perhaps 500 years. It is a syllabary (symbols represent syllables, not individual letters or sounds) with some logographs ("picture-words").
The Greek alphabet must have been around by the time Homer's epic poetry was written, possibly before 750 BC (more than 2700 years ago). On the other hand, the Mycenaean Greeks borrowed their Linear B writing system from the Minoans. The Mycenaean Greeks first inscribed their language in the 1300s BC (3300 years ago).
What is the oldest surviving Greek artifact with Greek language writing on it?
As I explained above, there are two Greek writing systems - a very old alphabet, and an even older syllabary.
The oldest alphabetic inscription that we can still see with our own eyes is either the "Dipylon Inscription" or the "Nestor Cup". Both are pottery pieces, and both date to around 750 to 700 BC.
The oldest inscription in Linear B is older still, and even tougher to date. Archaeologists excavating in Knossos unearthed clay tablets that bore the linear script. Those tablets were later deciphered and proven to be written in the Greek language.
How hard is it to learn Greek?
If you've read this page, you've already taken the first step. The writing system is the first barrier, since it makes Ancient Greek look strange and difficult to English speakers.
The grammar can be challenging (noun declensions, active-middle-passive voices, various word orders, etc.), but using the language in practice, reading and writing can overcome those obstacles quickly. It is a real, viable, learnable language. In fact, it's not so foreign - Greek & English are both Indo-European languages.
What's the difference between Ancient and Modern Greek?
If you approach Ancient & Modern Greek expecting two completely separate languages, the similarities between them will surprise you. On the other hand, if you expect to learn one and be automatically equipped to read the other, you'll have plenty of linguistic obstacles to overcome.
Consider one example taken from Greek grammar. Regular nouns in Ancient Greek are masculine, feminine or neuter in gender. Regular nouns may also be singular or plural. On top of that, Greek nouns use nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and vocative endings to reflect their function in a sentence. All of the above grammatical categories apply to Modern Greek nouns, with a single exception: Modern Greek nouns have lost dative endings.
What's the difference between Homer's Greek, the Greek of Plato & Aristotle, and the Greek of the New Testament (Biblical Greek)?
I'll keep this explanation short, since the question covers so much history.
Classical Greek lasted a tremendously long time, and tends to look different in each period. On top of that, there are dialects spoken at various places at any one time, like the Doric of Sparta and the Attic of Athens.
Most of the Greek world adopted a sort of standardized Athenian Greek known as the Koine as a result of Alexander the Great's conquests. For that reason, the Greek of Aristotle and Plato looks similar to the Greek of centuries later.
Homer narrated in a different dialect (his own poetic, artificial version) and at an earlier time. Reading the Iliad or the Odyssey requires getting used to new word endings, vocabulary choices and structure, but not learning a whole new language.
The Greek New Testament is a codified compilation of a variety of writings from a variety of writers. We can contrast the clumsier style of Mark with the highly-polished Luke, but both works are still obviously using the same language as the Athenian authors, with some notable changes over time.
I suppose the best answer is that a lot of little things separate the periods of and dialects of Ancient Greek, but the same broad strokes apply to all of them.
Why do iota and upsilon sometimes have two dots on top of them (ϊ and ϋ)?
Those two dots are known as the diaeresis (or dieresis), which is the Greek word for division. It's used for breaking up diphthongs (the vowel + vowel combinations we talked about earlier). For example, I explained that the diphthong alpha + iota is pronounced something like the "ai" in "aisle". If, instead, we expected the sound of ah + ee (as in the name Sayeed), we would mark the iota with a diaeresis, and the two individual letters would be pronounced separately.
I'm looking at some very old copies of New Testament papyri / codices (or other Christian works). Why do some letters have bars on top of them?
You've stumbled upon an ancient Christian scribal practice which applies to the Uncials we learned about above. Those bars mark the nomina sacra, Latin for "sacred names". Nomina sacra included the names of God and extended to titles and names of sacred figures. They are formed by abbreviating a word to only the first and last letters of a word and writing a line above the two. Some nomina sacra are longer than two letters.
Nomina sacra are common in the art and literature of Greek-speaking Christianity. ΘΣ God is an abbreviation of θεός (all caps ΘΕΟΣ).
Some scholars argue that, since nomina sacra are found in the Septuagint (the LXX), it must be a Jewish practice that predates its Christian use.
Thanks! Now I understand how the Ancient Greek alphabet works, and even how words and phrases were written at different periods. But what about punctuation?
Originally, classical Greek punctuation was scarce and not applied even-handedly. As I mentioned a couple of times, the earliest script didn't even use spaces to delineate words: EVERYTHINGLOOKEDLIKETHIS
In the 100's BC, Dionysius Thrax writes extensively about the Greek language. His Τέχνη γραμματική (Grammatical Art, or Art of Grammar) is the oldest surviving text on Greek grammar and language usage. He uses a three-dot system, where a dot at the top of a line closes a statement (like a period), a dot in the middle of a line breaks it (like a semicolon or a colon) and a dot at the bottom of a line provides a small break in the flow (like a comma). Even though the system he describes was standardized in the 3rd century BC, it was far from universal.
In ancient manuscripts on papyri and elsewhere, we find a variety of symbols. We might encounter double and triple dots, lines above letters and editorial symbols of all kinds.
The standard convention for Ancient Greek in books and modern media now uses a low dot for a period (.), a semicolon for a question mark (;) and a raised dot for a colon or semicolon (·).
You've used the words papyrus, parchment and codex. What do they mean? What were Greek documents written on?
Ancient papyrus (plural papyri) was pressed into sheets from the stems of Egyptian papyrus plants. Egypt profited greatly from the papyrus trade as the Greek world became more and more literate. Our word "paper" derives from the Greek word πάπυρος.
Parchment is a stretched animal skin, and finer quality parchment is known as vellum. It looks more like paper than you might imagine from my description. In ancient times, the cost of parchment was far higher than papyrus.
A codex (plural codices) is a bound form, like our modern books. The bound pages were made of papyrus or parchment. Before codices, readers unravelled long scrolls to read book-length works.
I noticed you sell a workbook. What's it like? Is it chatty or does it get down to business?
My publication, Learn to Write Ancient Greek, is a practical application workbook. I do explain how Greek implements tougher concepts like accents, breathings, syllables, punctuation, basic words and sentences, but much of the book spends time on activities and copy practice. The goal is to get you writing Greek. Check out the book's preview for a sense of its approach and scope.
Learn to Write Ancient Greek is available for purchase online through Amazon and Lulu. You'll also find its sister workbooks, Learn to Write Modern Greek and Learn to Write the Medieval Greek Minuscule Script, through these same retailers.