II. Alphabet & Pronunciation

Basics

The complete alphabet is below.  The pronunciation given here is what’s known as “Erasmian,” after Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th-century Dutch theologian.  In addition to creating one of the first printed (as opposed to hand-copied) editions of the New Testament in Greek, he subsequently suggested a “correct” way to pronounce the older dialects in 1528.  Interestingly, he himself did not use it.

Over time, his standard became increasingly focused on practicality rather than historical accuracy.  It is now used for even earlier periods as well (such as the Classical period prior to 200 BC or so), and has become the standard in academia for pronouncing pre-Byzantine Greek.  Even then, some variations remain.  For example, some forms pronounce ζ, zeta, as “zd,” while others simply use “z.”

The pronunciation below is the most common form.  I’ve noted some occasional variations, but this is not intended to be a full survey of the various versions of Erasmian pronunciation that are currently in use.

Greek

Αα

Name

alpha

Pronunciation

A in factory

Ββ beta B in bonkers
Γγ gamma G in get, except before
kappa, chi, or gamma,
in which case it is ng
like angle
Δδ delta D in dog
Εε epsilon E in get
Ζζ zeta “zd” (alternate: “z”)
Ηη eta Eyyy (like the Fonze)
Θθ theta Th in thing
Ιι iota I in hit, sometimes i in ski
Κκ kappa K in kick
Λλ lambda L in long
Μμ mu M in many
Νν nu N in now
Ξξ ksi Ks/X in axe
Οο omicron O in bot
Ππ pi P in pine
Ρρ rho R in red
Σσ(ς)* sigma S in sort
Ττ tau T in too
Υυ upsilon OO in too (or German ü)
Φφ phi Ph in phone
Χχ chi Ch in loch, but softer (less raspy)
Ψψ psi Ps in corpse
Ωω omega O in note

* The form in parentheses comes at the end of words.

The vowels are the ones you would generally expect: α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω

Diphthongs

Greek
αι
Sounds like
eye
ει plate
οι oil
υι suite
αυ pout
ευ feud
ηυ feud
ου soup

Accents

Accent marks indicate which syllable has the stress.  So, for example, the accent on “Koine” would be on the final e, thus the pronunciation “coin-EI.”  Although there are three different marks in Koine, there is no difference in pronunciation between them.  Almost all words will have one (discussed more below).

ά – Acute, the most common.

ὰ – Grave.  An acute turns into this if the next syllable also has an accent.

ᾶ – Circumflex.

Accents are only written on vowels.  If you have a dipthong, it’s written on the second vowel.

While they don’t change pronunciation, they can be used to distinguish words.  For example:

εἰ  (“if”) vs. εἶ (“you are”)

Notice that εἰ doesn’t have an accent mark.  This is called an enclitic.  Certain one-syllable words do not take their own accent, and so are just pronounced naturally.1  But note that not all one-syllable words are enclitics.

Breathing

In the example above, you may have noticed that apostrophe-looking mark over the iota.  This is called a smooth breathing mark, and does not change the pronunciation.  However, some vowels have a rough breathing mark, which is the same mark facing the other way.  This adds an “h” sound in front of the vowel.

ἀ – smooth breathing, normal pronunciation

ἁ – rough breathing, adds an “h” to the front (so this would be pronounced “ha”)

Breathing marks only appear if a word begins with a vowel or a rho.  As with accent marks, they’re written on the second vowel in a diphthong.

When the accent also falls on the first letter (or diphthong), the accent and breathing mark are combined, so they both appear: εἶ has both a smooth breathing mark and a circumflex.

Iota Subscript

Sometimes you’ll see a vowel with a little hook underneath it, like this: ῳ or this ῃ.  This is called iota subscript, and is just what its name implies: the Greek letter iota written as a subscript, i.e. under the other vowel.  This only appears on α, η, or ω.  For now, just know that is has some grammatical function (discussed in the next chapter), but does not change the pronunciation of the vowel itself.

Other Orthographic Conventions

Originally, the New Testament and other works from the this time period were written all in capital letters without spaces for words.  This is a fragment of the earliest New Testament manuscript currently known, thought to have been written between 125-175 AD.  A more complete example is here, from the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament (dated to the mid-fourth century AD).  On that second link, you can compare the images of the manuscript itself with the transcription to the right of the page, and you can see where the word breaks should be.

Thankfully, modern editions of the various texts have been edited to add accent and breathing marks, word breaks, and other punctuation.

Dieresis

Rarely, a word will have two vowels written together that shouldn’t be pronounced as a diphthong.  In that case, the second vowel will have a dieresis, identical to the German umlaut (i.e. two dots).

Probably the most common example is Moses’s name in Greek, Mωϋσῆς.  So rather than being pronounced as it is in English, it’s more like “Mo-oo-ses” (with the omega and upsilon forming separate syllables).

Punctuation

Periods and commas are used just as they are in English, although commas are much less common.

Instead of colon (:) or semicolon (;), Greek texts use the high dot (·), basically the top half of a colon.  This is also often used to begin a direct quotation.  Quotation marks are not used, although generally direct speech will start with a capital letter.

A semicolon, meanwhile, takes the place of a question mark.

Proper names (for people and places) are capitalized also.  The beginning of a sentence is not.

Vocabulary

It’s time to start learning some words!  I’ve included here some of the most common words in the New Testament as well as words that will be readily recognizable even if you’ve never seen them before.

The forms listed are the nominative singular (we’ll get into what this means in the next chapter).  The first section contains just the Greek word: you should try to sound this out first before checking the second list.  I haven’t put a direct pronunciation there, but I did include a definition and English word(s) that derive from the Greek.  These will generally be similar to the Greek pronunciation, but may not always be exact!

θεός

ἄνθρωπος

πνεῦµα

οὐρανός

γῆ

κόσµος

ἄγγελος

ἔργον

πόλις

ἔθνος

καρδία

προφήτης

σῶµα

φωνή

ζωή

δύναµις

ψυχή

µήτηρ

ὕδωρ

φῶς

σάββατον

θρόνος

λίθος

διδάσκαλος

χρόνος

σοφία

γλῶσσα

γραφή

φόβος

σπέρµα

ἀγρός

περιτοµή

βιβλίον

ἥλιος

γνῶσις

µυστήριον

δένδρον

πορνεία

ἀστήρ

πληγή

πλοῦτος

γένος

ἡγεµών

ἰχθύς

βάπτισµα

µαρτύριον

βλασφηµία

πόλεµος

ἵππος

ποταµός

ὑποκριτής

κλέπτης

πέτρα

γράµµα

ἀγορά

πρᾶγµα

βίος

στρατηγός

ψεῦδος


Greek
θεός
Meaning
God or god
English derivative
theology
ἄνθρωπος human, person anthropology
πνεῦµα wind, spirit pneumatic
οὐρανός sky, heaven Uranus
γῆ earth Gaia, geology
κόσµος world, universe Cosmos
ἄγγελος messenger, angel angel
ἔργον deed, work energy
πόλις city metropolis
ἔθνος nation, people ethnic
καρδία heart cardiac
προφήτης prophet prophet
σῶµα body psychosomatic
φωνή voice, sound phonics
ζωή life, living zoology
δύναµις power, strength, authority dynamic
ψυχή soul psyche
µήτηρ mother (cognate)
ὕδωρ water, rain (cognate)
φῶς light phosphorescent
σάββατον sabbath Sabbath
θρόνος throne throne
λίθος stone lithography
διδάσκαλος teacher didactic
χρόνος time chronology
σοφία wisdom sophomore
γλῶσσα tongue glossary
γραφή writing, written words Graph
φόβος fear phobia
σπέρµα seed, offspring sperm
ἀγρός farm, field agriculture
περιτοµή circumcision (literal)
βιβλίον book bibliography
ἥλιος sun Helios, God of the Sun
γνῶσις knowledge agnostic
µυστήριον mystery mystery
δένδρον tree dendrite
πορνεία sexual immorality pornography
ἀστήρ star asteroid, astronomy
πληγή plague, injury plague
πλοῦτος riches Pluto, plutocracy
γένος family, race, offspring gene
ἡγεµών governor, leader hegemony
ἰχθύς fish commonly used in Christian context
βάπτισµα washing, baptism baptism
µαρτύριον witness, martyrdom martyrdom
βλασφηµία blasphemy blasphemy
πόλεµος war polemic
ἵππος horse hippopotamus
ποταµός river hippopotamus
ὑποκριτής hypocrite hypocrite
κλέπτης thief kleptomania
πέτρα stone petrify
γράµµα letter grammar
ἀγορά marketplace, square agoraphobia
πρᾶγµα action, deed pragmatic
βίος life biology
στρατηγός general strategy
ψεῦδος false pseudonym

Next chapter –>


1 For our basic purposes, this is true. Technically what happens is the enclitic “joins” with the next word for pronunciation/stress purposes. But again, this really isn’t something we have to worry about. Back.