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|Time period||~800 BC to the present|
|ISO 15924||Grek, 200|
|Unicode range||U+0370–U+03FF Greek and Coptic,|
U+1F00–U+1FFF Greek Extended
|Time period||~800 BC to the present|
|ISO 15924||Grek, 200|
|Unicode range||U+0370–U+03FF Greek and Coptic,|
U+1F00–U+1FFF Greek Extended
The Greek alphabet is the script that has been used to write the Greek language since the 8th century BC. It was derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, and was in turn the ancestor of numerous other European and Middle Eastern scripts, including Cyrillic and Latin. Apart from its use in writing the Greek language, both in its ancient and its modern forms, the Greek alphabet today also serves as a source of technical symbols and labels in many domains of mathematics, science and other fields.
In its classical and modern forms, the alphabet has 24 letters, ordered from alpha to omega. Like Latin and Cyrillic, Greek originally had only a single form of each letter; it developed the letter case distinction between upper-case and lower-case forms in parallel with Latin during the modern era.
In traditional ("polytonic") Greek orthography, vowel letters can be combined with several diacritics, including accent marks, so-called "breathing" marks, and the iota subscript. In common present-day usage for Modern Greek since the 1980s, this system has been simplified to a so-called "monotonic" convention.
Both in Ancient and Modern Greek, the letters of the Greek alphabet have fairly stable and consistent symbol-to-sound mappings, making pronunciation of words largely predictable. Ancient Greek spelling was generally near-phonemic. For a number of letters, sound values differ considerably between Ancient and Modern Greek, because their pronunciation has followed a set of systematic phonological shifts that affected the language in its post-classical stages.
Among consonant letters, all letters that denoted voiced plosive consonants (/b, d, g/) and aspirated plosives (/pʰ, tʰ, kʰ/) in Ancient Greek stand for corresponding fricative sounds in Modern Greek. The correspondences are as follows:
|Former voiced plosives||Former aspirates|
|Labial||Β β||/b/||/v/||Φ φ||/pʰ/||/f/|
|Dental||Δ δ||/d/||/ð/||Θ θ||/tʰ/||/θ/|
|Coronal||Γ γ||/ɡ/||[ɣ] ~ [j]||Χ χ||/kʰ/||[x] ~ [ç]|
Among the vowel symbols, Modern Greek sound values reflect the fact that the vowel system of post-classical Greek was radically simplified, merging multiple formerly distinct vowel phonemes into a much smaller number. This leads to several groups of vowel letters denoting identical sounds today. Modern Greek orthography remains true to the historical spellings in most of these cases. As a consequence, the spellings of words in Modern Greek are often not predictable from the pronunciation alone, while the reverse mapping, from spelling to pronunciation, is usually regular and predictable.
The following vowel letters and digraphs are involved in the mergers:
|Η η||ɛː||→ i||Ω ω||ɔː||→ o|
|Ι ι||i(ː)||Ο ο||o|
|ΕΙ ει||ei||Ε ε||e||→ e|
|Υ υ||u(ː) → y||AΙ αι||ai|
|ΟΙ οι||oi → y|
Modern Greek speakers typically use the same, modern, sound-symbol mappings in reading Greek of all historical stages. In other countries, students of Ancient Greek may use a variety of conventional approximations of the historical sound system in pronouncing Ancient Greek.
Several letter combinations have special conventional sound values different from those of their single components. Among them are several digraphs of vowel letters that formerly represented diphthongs but are now monophthongized. In addition to the three mentioned above (〈ει, αι, οι〉) there is also 〈ου〉 = /u/. The Ancient Greek diphthongs 〈ευ〉 and 〈αυ〉 are pronounced [ev] and [av] respectively in Modern Greek ([ef, af] in devoicing environments). The Modern Greek consonant combinations 〈μπ〉 and 〈ντ〉 stand for [b] and [d] (or [mb] and [nd]) respectively; 〈τζ〉 stands for [dz]. In addition, both in Ancient and Modern Greek, the letter 〈γ〉, before another velar consonant, stands for the velar nasal [ŋ]; thus 〈γγ〉 and 〈γκ〉 are pronounced like English 〈ng〉.
In the polytonic orthography traditionally used for ancient Greek, the stressed vowel of each word carries one of three accent marks: either the acute accent (ά), the grave accent (ὰ), or the circumflex accent (α̃ or α̑). These signs were originally designed to mark different forms of the phonological pitch accent in Ancient Greek. By the time their use became conventional and obligatory in Greek writing, in late antiquity, pitch accent was evolving into a single stress accent, and thus the three signs have not corresponded to a phonological distinction in actual speech ever since. In addition to the accent marks, every word-initial vowel must carry either of two so-called "breathing marks": the rough breathing (ἁ), marking an /h/ sound at the beginning of a word, or the smooth breathing (ἀ), marking its absence. The letter rho (ρ), although not a vowel, also carries a rough breathing in word-initial position.
The vowel letters 〈α, η, ω〉 carry an additional diacritic in certain words, the so-called iota subscript, which has the shape of a small vertical stroke or a miniature 〈ι〉 below the letter. This iota represents the former offglide of what were originally long diphthongs, 〈ᾱι, ηι, ωι〉 (i.e. /aːi, ɛːi, ɔːi/), which became monophthongized during antiquity.
In 1982, a new, simplified orthography, known as "monotonic", was adopted for official use in Modern Greek by the Greek state. It uses only a single accent mark, the acute (also known in this context as tonos, i.e. simply "accent"), marking the stressed syllable of polysyllabic words, and occasionally the diaeresis to distinguish diphthongal from digraph readings in pairs of vowel letters. The polytonic system is still conventionally used for writing Ancient Greek, while in some book printing and generally in the usage of conservative writers it can still also be found in use for Modern Greek.
There are many different methods of rendering Greek text or Greek names in the Latin script. The form in which classical Greek names are conventionally rendered in English goes back to the way Greek loanwords were incorporated into Latin in antiquity. In this system, 〈κ〉 is replaced with 〈c〉, the diphthongs 〈αι〉 and 〈οι〉 are rendered as 〈ae〉 and 〈oe〉 (or 〈æ,œ〉) respectively; and 〈ει〉 and 〈ου〉 are simplified to 〈i〉 and 〈u〉 respectively. In modern scholarly transliteration of Ancient Greek, 〈κ〉 will instead be rendered as 〈k〉, and the vowel combinations 〈αι, οι, ει, ου〉 as 〈ai, oi, ei, ou〉 respectively. The letters 〈θ〉 and 〈φ〉 are generally rendered as 〈th〉 and 〈ph〉; 〈χ〉 as either 〈ch〉 or 〈kh〉; and word-initial 〈ρ〉 as 〈rh〉.
For Modern Greek, there are multiple different transcription conventions. They differ widely, depending on their purpose, on how close they stay to the conventional letter correspondences of Ancient Greek-based transcription systems, and to what degree they attempt either an exact letter-by-letter transliteration or rather a phonetically based transcription. Standardized formal transcription systems have been defined by the International Organization for Standardization (as ISO 843), by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, by the Library of Congress, and others.
The Greek alphabet emerged in the late 9th century BC or early 8th century BC Another, unrelated writing system, Linear B, had been in use to write the Greek language during the earlier Mycenean period, but the two systems are separated from each other by a hiatus of several centuries, the so-called Greek Dark Ages. The Greeks adopted the alphabet from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, a member of the family of closely related West Semitic scripts. The most notable change made in adapting the Phoenician system to Greek was the introduction of vowel letters. According to a definition used by some modern authors, this feature makes Greek the first "alphabet" in the narrow sense, as distinguished from the purely consonantal alphabets of the Semitic type, which according to this terminology are called "abjads".
Greek initially took over all of the 22 letters of Phoenician. Five of them were reassigned to denote vowel sounds: the glide consonants /j/ (yodh) and /w/ (waw) were used for [i] (Ι, iota) and [u] (Υ, upsilon) respectively; the glottal stop consonant /ʔ/ ('aleph) was used for [a] (Α, alpha); the pharyngeal /ʕ/ (ʿayin) was turned into [o] (Ο, omicron); and the letter for /h/ (he) was turned into [e] (Ε, epsilon). A doublet of waw was also borrowed as a consonant for [w] (Ϝ, digamma). In addition, the Phoenician letter for the emphatic glottal /ħ/ (heth) was borrowed in two different functions by different dialects of Greek: as a letter for /h/ (Η, heta) by those dialects that had such a sound, and as an additional vowel letter for the long /ɛː/ (Η, eta) by those dialects that lacked the consonant. Eventually, a seventh vowel letter for the long /ɔː/ (Ω, omega) was introduced.
Greek also introduced three new consonant letters for its aspirated plosive sounds and consonant clusters: Φ (phi) for /pʰ/, Χ (chi) for /kʰ/ and Ψ (psi) for /ps/. In western Greek variants, Χ was instead used for /ks/ and Ψ for /kʰ/ The origin of these letters is a matter of some debate.
Three of the original Phoenician letters dropped out of use before the alphabet took its classical shape: the letter Ϻ (san), which had been in competition with Σ (sigma) denoting the same phoneme /s/; the letter Ϙ (qoppa), which was redundant with Κ (kappa) for /k/, and Ϝ (digamma), whose sound value /w/ dropped out of the spoken language before or during the classical period.
Greek was originally written predominantly from right to left, just like Phoenician, but scribes could freely alternate between directions. For a time, a writing style with alternating right-to-left and left-to-right lines (called boustrophedon, literally "ox-turning", after the manner of an ox ploughing a field) was common, until in the classical period the left-to-right writing direction became the norm. Individual letter shapes were mirrored depending on the writing direction of the current line.
There were initially numerous local variants of the Greek alphabet, which differed in the use and non-use of the additional vowel and consonant symbols and several other features. A form of western Greek native to Euboea, which among other things had Χ for /ks/, was transplanted to Italy by early Greek colonists, and became the ancestor of the Old Italic alphabets and ultimately, through Etruscan, of the Latin alphabet. Athens used a local form of the alphabet until the 5th century BC; it lacked the letters Ξ and Ψ as well as the vowel symbols Η and Ω. The classical 24-letter alphabet that became the norm later was originally the local alphabet of Ionia; this was adopted by Athens in 403 BC under archon Eucleides and in most other parts of the Greek-speaking world during the 4th century BC.
When the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, they took over not only the letter shapes and sound values, but also the names by which the sequence of the alphabet could be recited and memorized. In Phoenician, each letter name was a word that began with the sound represented by that letter; thus ʾaleph, the word for "ox", was used as the name for the glottal stop /ʔ/, bet, or "house", for the /b/ sound, and so on. When the letters were adopted by the Greeks, most of the Phoenician names were maintained or modified slightly to fit Greek phonology; thus, ʾaleph, bet, gimel became alpha, beta, gamma.
The Greek names of the following letters are more or less straightforward continuations of their Phoenician antecedents. Between Ancient and Modern Greek they have remained largely unchanged, except that their pronunciation has followed regular sound changes along with other words (for instance, in the name of beta, ancient /b/ regularly changed to modern /v/, and ancient /ɛː/ to modern /i/, resulting in the modern pronunciation vita). The name of lambda is attested in early sources as λάβδα besides λάμβδα; in Modern Greek the spelling is often λάμδα. The name of iota is sometimes rendered as γιώτα in Modern Greek, following regular spelling conventions for the rendering of an initial glide /j/. In the tables below, the Greek names of all letters are given in their traditional polytonic spelling; in modern practice, like with all other words, they are usually spelled in the simplified monotonic system.
(Names of the letters pronounced in Modern Greek)
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In the cases of the three historical sibilant letters below, the correspondence between Phoenician and Ancient Greek is less clear, with apparent mismatches both in letter names and sound values. The early history of these letters (and the fourth sibilant letter, obsolete san) has been a matter of some debate. Here too, the changes in the pronunciation of the letter names between Ancient and Modern Greek are regular.
In the following group of consonant letters, the older forms of the names in Ancient Greek were spelled with -εῖ, indicating an original pronunciation with -ē. In Modern Greek these names are spelled with -ι.
The following group of vowel letters were originally called simply by their sound values as long vowels: ē, ō, ū, and ɔ. Their modern names contain adjectival qualifiers that were added during the Byzantine period, to distinguish between letters that had become confusable. Thus, the letters 〈ο〉 and 〈ω〉, pronounced identically by this time, were called o mikron ("small o") and o mega ("big o") respectively. The letter 〈ε〉 was called e psilon ("plain e") to distinguish it from the identically pronounced digraph 〈αι〉, while, similarly, 〈υ〉, which at this time was pronounced [y], was called y psilon ("plain y") to distinguish it from the identically pronounced digraph 〈οι〉.
|Ε||eː||εἶ||ἐ ψιλόν||'plain e'||ˈepsilon||ἔψιλον||epsilon|
|Ο||oː||οὖ||ὀ μικρόν||'small o'||ˈomikron||ὄμικρον||omicron|
|Υ||uː, yː||ὖ||ὐ ψιλόν||'plain y'||ˈipsilon||ὔψιλον||upsilon|
|Ω||ɔː||ὦ||ὠ μέγα||'big o'||oˈmeɣa||ὠμέγα||omega|
Like Latin and other alphabetic scripts, Greek originally had only a single form of each letter, without a distinction between uppercase and lowercase. This distinction is an innovation of the modern era, drawing on different lines of development of the letter shapes in earlier handwriting.
The oldest forms of the letters in antiquity are majuscule forms. Besides the upright, straight inscriptional forms (capitals) found in stone carvings or incised pottery, more fluent writing styles adapted for handwriting on soft materials were also developed during antiquity. Such handwriting has been preserved especially from papyrus manuscripts in Egypt since the Hellenistic period. Ancient handwriting developed two distinct styles: uncial writing, with carefully drawn, rounded block letters of about equal size, used as a book hand for carefully produced literary and religious manuscripts, and cursive writing, used for everyday purposes. The cursive forms approached the style of lowercase letter forms, with ascenders and descenders, as well as many connecting lines and ligatures between letters.
In the 9th and 10th century, uncial book hands were replaced with a new, more compact writing style, with letter forms partly adapted from the earlier cursive. This minuscule style remained the dominant form of handwritten Greek into the modern era. During the Renaissance, western printers adopted the minuscule letter forms as lowercase printed typefaces, while modelling uppercase letters on the ancient inscriptional forms. The orthographic practice of using the letter case distinction for marking proper names, titles etc. developed in parallel to the practice in Latin and other western languages.
The Greek alphabet was the model for various others:
Apart from the daughter alphabets listed above, which were adapted from Greek but developed into separate writing systems, the Greek alphabet has also been adopted at various times and in various places to write other languages. For some of them, additional letters were introduced.
Greek symbols are traditionally used as names in mathematics, physics and other sciences. Many symbols have traditional uses, such as lower case epsilon (ε) for an arbitrarily small positive number, lower case pi (π) for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, capital sigma (Σ) for summation, and lower case sigma (σ) for standard deviation.
Several Greek letters are used as phonetic symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Several of them denote fricative consonants; the rest stand for variants of vowel sounds. The glyph shapes used for these letters in specialized phonetic fonts is sometimes slightly different from the conventional shapes in Greek typography proper, with glyphs typically being more upright and using serifs, to make them conform more with the typographical character of other, Latin-based letters in the phonetic alphabet. Nevertheless, in the Unicode encoding standard, the following three phonetic symbols are considered the same characters as the corresponding Greek letters proper:
|β||beta||U+03B2||voiced bilabial fricative|
|θ||theta||U+03B8||voiceless dental fricative|
|χ||chi||U+03C7||voiceless velar fricative|
On the other hand, the following phonetic letters have Unicode representations separate from their Greek alphabetic use, either because their conventional typographic shape is too different from the original, or because they also have secondary uses as regular alphabetic characters in some Latin-based alphabets, including separate Latin uppercase letters distinct from the Greek ones.
|Greek letter||Phonetic letter||Uppercase|
|φ||phi||ɸ||U+0278||Latin small letter phi||voiceless bilabial fricative||–|
|γ||gamma||ɣ||U+0263||Latin small letter gamma||voiced velar fricative||Ɣ U+0194|
|ε||epsilon||ɛ||U+025B||Latin small letter open e|
|Open-mid front unrounded vowel||Ɛ U+0190|
|α||alpha||ɑ||U+0251||Latin small letter alpha||Open back unrounded vowel||Ɑ U+2C6D|
|υ||upsilon||ʊ||U+028A||Latin small letter upsilon||Near-close near-back vowel||Ʊ U+01B1|
|ι||iota||ɩ||U+0269||Latin small letter iota||obsolete for near-close near-front unrounded vowel now ɪ||Ɩ U+0196|
The Greek letter λ has also been used as a phonetic symbol, as an alternate for IPA "ɬ" (lateral fricative), especially in Americanist phonetic notation, but is not officially part of the IPA. The IPA uses the very similar-looking inverted lowercase 'y' (unicode U+028E) to represent the palatal lateral approximant.
Greek letters were also used to write numbers. In the classical Ionian system, the first nine letters of the alphabet stood for the numbers from 1 to 9, the next nine letters stood for the multiples of 10, from 10 to 90, and the next nine letters stood for the multiples of 100, from 100 to 900. For this purpose, in addition to the 24 letters which by that time made up the standard alphabet, three otherwise obsolete letters were retained or revived: digamma 〈Ϝ〉 for 6, koppa 〈Ϙ〉 for 90, and a rare Ionian letter for [ss], today called sampi 〈Ͳ〉, for 900. This system has remained in use in Greek up to the present day, although today it is only employed for limited purposes such as enumerating chapters in a book, similar to the way Roman numerals are used in English. The three extra symbols are today written as 〈ϛ〉, 〈ϟ〉 and 〈ϡ〉 respectively. To mark a letter as a numeral sign, a small stroke called keraia is added to the right of it.
In North America, many college fraternities and sororities are named with combinations of Greek letters, and are hence also known as "Greek letter organizations". This naming tradition was initiated by the foundation of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in 1776.
Some letters can occur in variant shapes, mostly inherited from medieval minuscule handwriting. While their use in normal typography of Greek is purely a matter of font styles, some such variants have been given separate encodings in Unicode.
For the usage in computers, a variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947.
For the range A0–FF (hex) it follows the Unicode range 370–3CF (see below) except that some symbols, like ©, ½, § etc. are used where Unicode has unused locations. Like all ISO-8859 encodings it is equal to ASCII for 00–7F (hex).
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. Most current text rendering engines do not render diacritics well, so, though alpha with macron and acute can be represented as U+03B1 U+0304 U+0301, this rarely renders well: ᾱ́.
There are 2 main blocks of Greek characters in Unicode. The first is "Greek and Coptic" (U+0370 to 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 alphabet. 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 (U+03E2 to U+03EF).
To write polytonic Greek, one may use combining diacritical marks or the precomposed characters in the "Greek Extended" block (U+1F00 to U+1FFF).
|Greek and Coptic|
Unicode chart (PDF)
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
|U+0300||U+0060||( ̀)||"varia / grave accent"|
|U+0301||U+00B4, U+0384||( ́)||"oxia / tonos / acute accent"|
|U+0306||U+02D8||( ̆)||"vrachy / breve"|
|U+0308||U+00A8||( ̈)||"dialytika / diaeresis"|
|U+0313||U+02BC||( ̓)||"psili / comma above" (spiritus lenis)|
|U+0314||U+02BD||( ̔)||"dasia / reversed comma above" (spiritus asper)|
|U+0342||( ͂)||"perispomeni" (circumflex)|
|U+0343||( ̓)||"koronis" (= U+0313)|
|U+0344||U+0385||( ̈́)||"dialytika tonos" (deprecated, = U+0308 U+0301)|
|U+0345||U+037A||( ͅ)||"ypogegrammeni / iota subscript".|
|Look up Appendix:Greek script in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
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