Modern Greek: alphabet and pronunciation

Greek pronunciation has changed mightily since the days of Sophocles and Aristotle, as explained in etacism and Greek. Anyone who learnt Ancient Greek in school would not be understood if they took it out "on the road".

However, the current pronunciation is still largely phonetic: there are a number of rules that take you reliably from a sequence of letters to a spoken word, at least in most situations. The inverse is emphatically not true: the same sound can correspond to many different spellings (homophony). (This means using a Greek dictionary to figure out what someone said to you is next to impossible.) Presumably, these redundancies reflect the history of the language in that different spellings did once signify different sounds, which have now assimilated.


The Greek alphabet (with approximate pronunciation)
Α α : "álfa"
Β β : "véeta"
Γ γ : "gámma"
Δ δ : "dhélta" (see below)
Ε ε : "épsilon"
Ζ ζ : "zéeta"
Η η : "éeta"
Θ θ : "théeta"
Ι ι : "yóta"
Κ κ : "cáppa"
Λ λ : "lámdha"
Μ μ : "mee"
Ν ν : "nee"
Ξ ξ : "ksee"
Ο ο : "ómeecron"
Π π : "pee"
Ρ ρ : "ro"
Σ σ : "sígma" (C in old-fashioned capitals, ς at the end of a word)
Τ τ : "taf"
Υ υ : "ípsilon"
Φ φ : "fee"
Χ χ : "khee" (see below)
Ψ ψ : "psee"
Ω ω : "oméga"

consists of seven vowels
α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω

and seventeen consonants, divided into voiced
β, γ, δ, ζ, λ, μ, ν, ρ

and unvoiced
θ, κ, ξ, π, σ, τ, φ, χ, ψ.

(Even though υ is sometimes pronounced as a consonant, it retains an honorary status as a vowel.)

Here, the acute accent marks mean simply which syllable is to be accented. Like English, Greek is an accented language, and you will find that most documents include accents; however, road signs or other signs written in capitals may not. I will represent the Greek δ by "dh": it is approximately the sound that begins the word "that" in English, also known as "eth", þ. The "kh" sound is similar to the Scots and German "ch" sounds. The Greek ρ is a slightly rolled "r", somewhat as in Italian, but shorter. As you can see, it is high time I came to...


Single letters

α : "a" as in "hat", except in the combination αι

β : "v" as in "vine"

γ : before an "e" or "ee" sound, "y" as in "year"; before any other sound approximately "g" as in "got" (but softer or with a slight guttural inflection), except in the combinations γκ, γγ and γχ

δ : "th" as in "that"

ε : as in "met" except in the combination ει

ζ : "z" as in "zoo"

η : "ee" as in "meet"

θ : "th" as in "thin"

ι : "ee" as in "feet" except unstressed before another vowel, when it is "y" as in "shipyard", and in the combination αι

κ : as in "Karl" except in the combination γκ

λ : as in "lark"

μ : as in "mud" except in the combination μπ

ν : as in "nibble" except in the combination ντ

ξ : "x" as in "maximum"

ο : "o" as in "pod" except in the combination οι

π : as in "pig" except in the combination μπ

ρ : "r" as in "very" (lightly rolled)

σ : as in "set", except when followed by the (voiced) consonants β, γ, δ, ζ, μ, ν, ρ, when it is a "z" sound as in "deserve"

τ : as in "tea" except in the combination ντ

υ : "ee" as in "meet" except in the combinations ευ, αυ and ου

φ : as in "feet"

χ : "ch" as in "loch" or "Ach" (or simply a heavy "h" at the beginning of a word) except in the combination γχ

ψ : "ps" as in "upset"

ω : "o" as in "pod"


Vowel combinations

αι : "e" as in "met", same as ε

ει : "ee" as in "meet", except unstressed and before another vowel, when it is "y" as in "shipyard", same as ι

οι : same as ει

αυ : "av" as in "average" before voiced consonants or vowels, "af" as in "affect" before unvoiced consonants

ευ : "ev" as in "ever" before voiced consonants or vowels, "ef" as in "left" before unvoiced consonants

ου : "oo" as in "boom"

Consonant combinations

γγ : "ng" as in "bungle"

γκ : "ng" as in "ingot" except at the beginning of a word, when it is a hard "g" as in "got"

γχ : "nh" as in "inherent"

μπ : "mb" as in "amber" except at the beginning of a word, when it is a hard "b" as in "bang" (but see 'Loan words')

ντ : "nd" as in "hand" except at the beginning of a word, when it is a hard "d" as in "dim" (but see 'Loan words')

τζ : "dz" as in "adze"; also "j" as in "jam" (see 'Loan words')

Double letters

A doubled letter means the same as the corresponding single letter, except for γγ or in the case of a diaeresis.

Consecutive vowels, diaeresis, etc.

Two vowels in succession which do not make one of the special combinations are simply pronounced smoothly one after the other; the same for a vowel combinations next to a vowel or two vowel combinations in succession. (For example, ψυγειου "pseeyeeou", (in the) fridge.) Note that this is not a diphthong. Two vowels which would make one of the special combinations are to be pronounced as single letters if the second one carries a diaeresis, for example λαïκοσ "laeekos", popular (not "lekos"). For a double vowel with diaeresis on the second letter, the two vowels are to be pronounced separately, for example Λαοκοöν "Laoco-on".

In a somewhat counterintuitive way, a diphthong in a foreign word may be represented by using a diaeresis mark if it would otherwise coincide with a special vowel combination, thus Χουσεïν, "Hussein".

Further subtleties

If one of the unvoiced consonants κ, π, τ begins a word and follows one of certain words ending with the continuant ν (particularly τον, τιν the, and δεν, not) the sound is altered to the voiced consonants "g", "b", "d" respectively. Thus τον κολπο "ton-golpo", the bay or gulf (not "ton kolpo").

Loan words and the limits of Greek spelling

With the above rules, you are not allowed to have a hard "d" on its own in the middle or at the end of a word, for example "red": the closest one could get is ρεντ which comes out "rend". However, if the word is a recent foreign import, i.e. obviously not of Greek origin, the pronunciation of ντ can be adjusted to give a "d" without the preceding continuant "n", for example αντιο "adeeo", imported from Italian "addio". However, if one considers a foreign word containing "nt" such as "dent", it is impossible to represent this in Greek orthography, since ντεντ would be pronounced "dend" or "dead". (This pisses me off.)

Similarly there are potential problems with a hard "b" in the middle of a word or "mp" at the end of a word: one cannot write "bump" in Greek, it would come out as "bub" or "bumb". The multiple possibilities for τζ seem to spring from the different voiced fricatives in various words and names imported from other languages, which are all given the same spelling. In Thessaloniki there are many originally Turkish names that illustrate the ambiguities, for example "Hadjibaba" which is now written Χατζιμπαμπα. This may also be pronounced "Hadzimbamba", and to tell the truth I don't know if there is a hard-and-fast way for telling when μπ in the middle of a word is "mb" or just "b" and when τζ is "dz" or "j". Similarly ζ may do duty for the French "j" as in Ζαν "Jean".

Other sounds alien to the Greek language are represented approximately: the "sh" sound usually ends up as σ, thus Σικαγο "Chicago". Analogously, "ch" as in "chimp", or the Italian soft "c", is represented by τσ : thus παστιτσιο "pastitsio" = "pasticcio".

The short "u" sound as in "cut" may be written as ου or as α, thus ντονατσ "donats" = doughnuts. "Shunt" might turn out as σουντ which literally says "soud" or "soond"; "jump" might be τζαμπ or τζουμπ which might also be pronounced "dzab", "dzamb", "dzoub" or "dzoumb".

Menu items can cause hilarity when a Greek restauranteur who knows how the English words are pronounced tries to spell them according to the phonetic rules. Among the possibilities are the afore-mentioned Donats, Fried God, Baked Lamp, Fried Masrooms and Fruit Pants. In most cases, these inspired misspellings are completely logical from the point of view of Greek spelling habits.

The many influences that have been overlaid on the Ancient Greek substrate to form the modern language seem to have strained the logic of spelling and pronunciation beyond the point at which the link between symbol and sound is unambiguous. However, compared to learning English pronunciation, Greek is a pushover.

Sources: BBC Greek Phrasebook, Rough Guide to Greece, personal experience

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