Byzantine Greek: An Introduction

Byzantine Greek builds on the earlier Greek writing tradition. The minuscule hand became the standard script for penning texts in Greek shortly after the height of the Byzantine Empire, and persisted in a variety of forms until the early modern period.

In this lesson I'll teach you the basics of reading and writing Classical Greek and Medieval Greek using the Byzantine script. Since "Byzantine Minuscule" actually designates a family of related hands that vary from period to period and (taking "hand" in its literal sense) from scribe to scribe, I will also mention common and important variants and call attention to a number of Greek ligatures. I'll supplement this study with reading exercises and point the way to some excellent free materials for extra practice.

If you enjoy this topic, you can continue to practice with my thorough workbook titled Learn to Write the Medieval Greek Minuscule Script.

This webpage contains videos, exercises and explanations about the Ancient & Medieval Greek minuscule scripts. The page is divided into the following sections:

  1. Major variants of the letters (how to write the minuscule alphabet)
  2. Dieresis, accents, and breathings (how to write Byzantine diacritics)
  3. Ligatures - how to join letters in the script
  4. Examples from primary texts and manuscripts (identifying minuscule variation through history)

The Greek Alphabet & Minuscule Letter Variants

Let's review the basic forms of the Greek letters as they appear in print. These are the modern printed variants that evolved from the earlier script, and give you a good idea of the shape of each letter. Perhaps you're already an expert at reading these letters thanks to the previous online lesson or my thorough workbook, Learn to Write Ancient Greek. If that's the case, pay close attention to the details of each letter and imagine the various ways you could write the letter by hand in a cursive script. This alphabet serves as a point of comparison for the Byzantine letter versions I introduce later.

Greek letters Letter names Classical > Byzantine pronunciation (IPA) Modern pronunciation (IPA)
Α α ἄλφα (alpha) /a/ /a/
Β β βῆτα (beta) /b/ > /β/ /v/
Γ γ γάμμα (gamma) /g/ > /ɣ/* /ɣ/*
Δ δ δέλτα (delta) /d/ > /ð/ /ð/
Ε ε ἒ ψιλόν (epsilon) /e/ /e/
Ζ ζ ζῆτα (zeta) /zd/ > /z/ /z/
Η η ἦτα (eta) /ɛ:/ > /i/ /i/
Θ θ θῆτα (theta) /tʰ/ > /θ/ /θ/
Ι ι ἰῶτα (iota) /i/ /i/
Κ κ κάππα (kappa) /k/ /k/
Λ λ λάμβδα (lambda) /l/ /l/
Μ μ μῦ (mu) /m/ /m/
Ν ν νῦ (nu) /n/ /n/
Ξ ξ ξεῖ (xi) /ks/ /ks/
Ο ο ὂ μικρον (omicron) /o/ /o/
Π π πεῖ (pi) /p/ /p/
Ρ ρ ῥῶ (rho) /r/ /r/
Σ σ σῖγμα (sigma)** /s/ /s/
Τ τ ταῦ (tau) /t/ /t/
Υ υ ὖ ψιλόν (upsilon) /y/ /i/
Φ φ φεῖ (phi) /pʰ/ > /f/ /f/
Χ χ χεῖ (khi) /kʰ/ > /x/ /x/
Ψ ψ ψεῖ (psi) /ps/ /ps/
Ω ω ὦ μέγα (omega) /ɔ:/ > /o/ /o/

* Nasal gamma: γ sounds like the "ng" in sing before velars γ, κ, χ (and earlier before μ as well). The Greek name for this sound is ἄγμα (ángma), borrowed into English as engma.
** Final sigma: The shape of the letter σ changes to ς when written at the end of a word.

Minuscule Alphabet - Historical Letter Variants

Now compare common shapes of each minuscule letter. The following video shows you some of the letter forms found in late classical, medieval and early modern manuscripts.

PRACTICE 1
Copy the printed Greek alphabet, then write the cursive Byzantine letter forms found in the video above next to each printed letter.

Diacritics: Accents, Breathing Marks and the Diaeresis

The Medieval Greek script continues to include information about the Ancient Greek pitch accent and breathing marks. Watch the following video to see how diacritics are written in the Byzantine script. I also explain the function of Greek diacritics (accents, breathings and the diaeresis) below this video.

Pitch Accent

Ancient and Medieval Greek are written with a polytonic accent system. Most Greek words have one vowel with one of three distinct tones or pitches: 1) rising, 2) falling or 3) rising-then-falling. As a point of comparison, English speakers often use rising tone when asking a question, falling tone when declaring a statement and rising-falling tone in an exclamation. Let's compare all three pitches with the example Greek word below.

Greek words translation Notes
φορά.
Motion.
rising "fo-rá"
φορὰ...
Motion...
falling "fo-rà"; only found in the last syllable of a word and only within a phrase
φορᾶς
of motion
rising-falling "fo-râs"

Medieval and Modern Greek speakers dropped the pitch accent in favor of a simple stress accent. As in English, a stressed syllable is pronounced louder than the surrounding unstressed syllables. Using this monotonic accent system, any vowel bearing a pitch mark is stressed: φορά (fo-RA) came to sound exactly the same as φορἂ (fo-RA), and φορᾶς of motion just like the word φοράς fruitful.

Breathing

When a Greek word starts with a vowel, Ancient Greek speakers sometimes pronounced an "h" sound before the vowel, and sometimes pronounced the vowel on its own. Words that start with this "h" sound are written with a small rough breathing mark above the initial vowel. Words starting without an "h" sound (that is, just the bare vowel) are written with a smooth breathing mark above the vowel.

Greek words meaning Notes
λλά
but
starts with smooth breathing: /a/
πό
beneath
starts with rough breathing: /hypó/

If a word starts with an accented vowel, both accent and breathing marks are placed above that first vowel.

Greek words translation pronunciation (in IPA)
νθρωπος
the human
/ho ánθropos/
τὸ σθμα
(the) asthma
/tò âsθma/

If a word starts with a diphthong (two adjacent vowels in the same syllable), the accent and breathing marks are placed on the second vowel in the diphthong.

Greek words translation pronunciation (in IPA)
ἐγὼ δ'οὐ
not me
/egò dú/
τὸ αἷμα
the blood
/tò ma/

Note that the letter ρ rho takes a rough breathing ("h" sound) when it starts a word. This appears in the letter's name - ῶ in Greek - and is reflected in English transliterations: ῥῶ rho, ῥινός rhino-, ῥεύματος rheumat- and so on.

Diaeresis

Two dots above a vowel in a diphthong effectively "break" that diphthong, signaling that its constituent vowels are pronounced separately. This symbol is called a diaeresis (or dieresis).

Greek words translation pronunciation (in IPA)
λαιμός
throat
/lemós/
λαϊκός
popular
/laikós/

The examples above show that the expected pronunciation of the diphthong is /e/, but the dieresis breaks the diphthong into its individual components αϊ /ai/.

Notice that some Byzantine scribes consistently write iota with two dots. When scribes use this form of iota, the two dots simply form part of the letter's shape and should not be read as a dieresis.

PRACTICE 2
Rewrite the example words & phrases in this section using the Byzantine minuscule letter forms you've learned so far. Include accent and breathing marks.

Byzantine Greek Ligatures

As is common in cursive scripts, Byzantine minuscule letters tend to connect to one another. These connections between letters are known as ligatures. Let's divide minuscule ligatures into two types: basic ligatures and unique ligatures. Basic ligatures hold for the script in general, while unique ligatures apply to specific letter combinations.

Basic ligatures

Notice that most letters can join to surrounding letters. Some letters tend to connect only to the previous letter, some only to the following letter, some both to the previous and the following letter, and still others tend not to connect at all.

Also, certain letters joins occur only occasionally, such as omicron connecting on its left or rho connecting to its right.

Unique ligatures

Some letters join in very unique ways. These ligatures take shapes that do not resemble the sum of their parts. For example, the letter combinations sigma and tau, epsilon and iota, and omicron and upsilon are very often represented by unique ligatures that differ from the individual letters.

PRACTICE 3
Rewrite the words & phrases from the last practice exercise. This time, connect the letters using both basic ligatures and unique joined forms.

Primary Texts & Manuscripts

In this section you will begin reading and copying medieval manuscripts directly. First, a few comments.

Manuscripts typically include elaborate titles. Titles may be written in Greek majuscule (Uncial script) and appear more ornate than the body of the text. Another characteristic of these illuminated manuscripts is a highly decorated first letter. These initial letters are to be read as part of the body of the text, not an adjacent title.

The body of a manuscript is arranged in uniform rows or lines (στίχοι). Line notes and margin notes accompany the body of many texts. The term scholia (τὰ σχολία) refers to critical commentary, which often reflects the thought of multiple commentators over a long period of time.

Religious texts contain abbreviations. Sacred names or nomina sacra are abbreviated to their first and last letters, and a bar is placed above these letters. For example, ΙΣ ΧΣ stands for ῆσους Χριστός Jesus Christ and ΙΥ ΧΥ for ῆσου Χριστο of Jesus Christ.

Practice Copying Minuscule Texts

Copy Practice 1: Early minuscule manuscripts.
Copy at least a few lines from every one of the following manuscripts. Zoom in on each image for proper perspective.

  1. Fifteenth century New Testament manuscript: practice image 1.
  2. Eleventh century Escorial Iliad: image 2
  3. Ninth century New Testament manuscript: image 3.
  4. Tenth century Venetus A Iliad: image 4.
  5. Tenth century Venetus A Iliad: image 5.

Copy Practice 2: Late minuscule manuscripts.
The cursive hand changed and developed as the centuries passed. Copy four or more lines from each of the manuscripts in the links below. Use the zoom and pan features to view the details of each character and ligatures. Change pages in the upper right corner of the viewer - "f" stands for folio, "r" for recto (the front of a sheet of paper), "v" for verso (the back of a sheet).

  1. Eighteenth century treatise on mechanics with illustrations: copy practice manuscript 6
  2. Eighteenth century grammar: manuscript 7. Start copying from "ὅτι ἡμεῖς διαλεγόμεθα, λέγουσιν ὅτι νῶϊ διαλεγόμεθα" (more than halfway down) to avoid stains & smudges.
  3. Turkish-Greek medical glossary from the same period: manuscript 8. Start under the heading for gamma.

More Resources

The British Library has digitized its collection of Greek manuscripts, which you can browse or search. This will give you plenty of practice and a variety of styles for reference.

Conduct an image search for large, clear photos of Byzantine manuscripts. These pictures will supplement your practice.

I have carefully crafted a workbook with plenty of examples and copy practice activities - Learn to Write the Medieval Greek Minuscule Script.