Classical Greek Lesson 1- Alphabet



  1. These notes correspond to an upcoming course I am preparing in Classical Greek.
  2. This course will follow Anne Groton’s From Alpha to Omega: A Beginning Course in Classical Greek. Buy here.


  1. Greek is an Indo-European language that has been spoken for more than three thousand years.
  2. The language’s grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation have been continuously changing, and therefore the Greek of the past (Ancient Greek) is different from the Greek spoken today (Modern Greek).
  3. Even within Ancient Greek, there are several variations with both time and location, resulting in a number of dialects.
  4. This course will teach the Greek of the Classical age (5th – 4th Centuries B.C.) as written in Athens, also known as the Attic dialect. Other literary dialects will be covered albeit briefly.
  5. Learning how to read this dialect can also prepare the student to read other dialects of the era (Ionic, Doric), as well as Greek from other periods (Hellenistic, Byzantine). While minor grammatical and vocabulary differences will exist, the overall structure of the language remains similar.


  1. One dialect of Greek, Ionic, used an alphabet that was derived from the Phoenician alphabet. During the 5th Century B.C., this alphabet was adopted by other Greek speakers, and in time became the standard Greek alphabet used to this day. This alphabet eventually influenced the Latin alphabet which is the one we use today.
  2. Although not standardized, Greek letters are typically transliterated using a given set of Latin letters.
  3. Nobody really knows how Greek was pronounced in ancient times, however, a proposed system, called Erasmian pronunciation, is accepted by Western scholars as being authentic to ancient pronunciation. Erasmian pronunciation is used almost exclusively among academic English-speaking circles. It is rarely ever used by Greek speakers.
  4. This course will emphasize the use of Modern Greek pronunciation. However, the Erasmian pronunciation will be used through the first lessons and then scarcely during the remainder of the course for comparison purposes.
  5. The following table shows the Greek alphabet letters, along with their equivalent Latin transliterations, and IPA pronunciations for Erasmian and Modern Greek. If you’re not familiar with IPA, you can use this chart for reference.
Letter Name Latin Transliteration Erasmian Pronunciation (IPA) Modern Pronunciation (IPA)
Α α alpha a a, aː a
Β β beta b b v
Γ γ gamma g g, ŋ ʝ, ɣ, ŋ
Δ δ delta d d ð
Ε ε epsilon e e e
Ζ ζ zeta z zd, dz z
Η η eta e ɛː i
Θ θ theta th θ
Ι ι iota i i, iː, j i
Κ κ kappa k k c, k
Λ λ lambda l l l, ʎ
Μ μ mu m m m
Ν ν nu n n n, ɲ
Ξ ξ xi ks ks ks
Ο ο omicron o o o
Π π pi p p p
Ρ ρ rho r/rh r, r̥ r
Σ σ, ς sigma s s s, z
Τ τ tau t t t
Υ υ upsilon y/u y, yː, w i, v, f
Φ φ phi ph f
Χ χ chi ch/kh x, ç
Ψ ψ psi ps ps ps
Ω ω omega o o
  1. Since the pronunciation of several Greek letters has evolved throughout the centuries, some letters are transliterated differently for modern words. This should not be a problem with this course, as we will only use transliteration briefly in the first lessons.
  2. When a double gamma is written (γγ), it is transliterated as ng.
  3. The letter rho (ρ) is transliterated as rh when it’s the first letter in a word. Otherwise, it is transliterated as r.
  4. The letter sigma (σ) has two lowercase forms: one written at the end of a word (ς) and another one used elsewhere (σ).
  5. The letter upsilon (υ) is transliterated as y when it comes after a consonant, otherwise, it is transliterated as u.
  6. The letter chi (χ) may be transliterated as ch or kh, and there is no rule for this variation.


  1. Two types of diphthongs exist in Classical Geek: proper diphthongs, where both vowels are pronounced, and improper diphthongs where the second letter is silent.
Proper Diphthongs Latin Transliteration Erasmian Pronunciation (IPA) Modern Pronunciation (IPA)
ΑΙ Αι αι ai ai e
ΑΥ Αυ αυ au aw av, af
ΕΙ Ει ει ei ei i
ΕΥ Ευ ευ eu ew ev, ef
ΗΥ Ηυ ηυ eu ey iv, if
ΟΙ Οι οι oi oi i
ΟΥ Ου ου ou u u
ΥΙ Υι υι ui yi i
Improper Diphthongs Latin Transliteration Erasmian Pronunciation (IPA) Modern Pronunciation (IPA)
ΑΙ Αι a a
ΗΙ Ηι e ɛː i
ΩΙ Ωι ο ο
  1. In improper diphthongs, the second letter may be written next to the first letter (adscript) or below it (subscript). When transliterating an improper diphthong, the second letter is not written.
  2. Ancient Greek writers always used an adscript for improper diphthongs. The subscript was developed in the 11th Century A.D. This course will make use of the subscript to distinguish the improper from the proper diphthong.

Breathings and Punctuation

  1. Ancient Greek words that begin with vowels may have had an aspirated sound, indicated by a rough breathing mark: Ἁ, ἁ and are transliterated with an H at the beginning of the word. When a word does not begin with an aspirated sound, it is indicated by a smooth breathing mark: Ἀ, ἀ. A rough breathing mark is also placed on words that start with ρ, and is transliterated as rh.
  2. In proper diphthongs, breathing marks are placed above the second letter: Αἱ, αἰ. In improper diphthongs, breathing marks are placed above the first letter: Ἁι, ᾀ.
  3. Classical Greek writers didn’t use spacing or punctuation. As the centuries passed, four punctuation marks were developed which are still used this day: the comma (,), the period (.), the half-stop (·), and the question mark (;).
  4. Classical Greek was written in uppercase letters, lowercase letters were developed after this period but will still be used in this course, as most digital Greek materials are typed in lowercase. Greek rarely capitalizes words, and this is usually limited to the first letter of a proper name, the first letter of a quotation, and the first letter of a paragraph or chapter.


Transliterate the following Greek names and modify to reflect the common English spelling:

  1. Ποσειδῶν
  2. Ἀφροδίτη
  3. Ἀχιλλεύς
  4. Τροία
  5. Ξέρξης
  6. Σωκράτης
  7. Ζεύς
  8. Ἀγαμέμνον
  9. Ἅιδης (note that the breathing is rough and the diphthong is improper)

Read the following story to practice pronunciation (Aesop’s Fable 119 from

Κάμηλος θεασαμένη ταῦρον ἐπὶ τοῖς κέρασιν ἀγαλλόμενον φθονήσασα αὐτῷ ἠβουλήθη καὶ αὐτὴ τῶν ἴσων ἐφικέσθαι. διόπερ παραγενομένη πρὸς τὸν Δία τούτου ἐδέετο, ὅπως αὐτῇ κέρατα προσνείμῃ. καὶ ὁ Ζεὺς ἀγανακτήσας κατ’ αὐτῆς, εἴγε μὴ ἀρκεῖται τῷ μεγέθει τοῦ σώματος καὶ τῇ ἰσχύι, ἀλλὰ καὶ περισσοτέρων ἐπιθυμεῖ, οὐ μόνον αὐτῇ κέρατα οὐ προσέθηκεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ μέρος τι τῶν ὤτων ἀφείλετο. οὕτω πολλοὶ διὰ πλεονεξίαν τοῖς ἄλλοις ἐποφθαλμιῶντες λανθάνουσι καὶ τῶν ἰδίων στερούμενοι.

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