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.
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
|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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
God or god
|δύναµις||power, strength, authority||dynamic|
|γραφή||writing, written words||Graph|
|ἥλιος||sun||Helios, God of the Sun|
|γένος||family, race, offspring||gene|
|ἰχθύς||fish||commonly used in Christian context|
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.