November 25, 2008

Greek alphabet

Image:Greek alphabet alpha-omega.svg

The Greek alphabet is a set of twenty-four letters that has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BCE. It is the first and oldest alphabet in the narrow sense that it notes each vowel and consonant with a separate symbol.[2] It is as such in continuous use to this day. The letters were also used to represent Greek numerals, beginning in the 2nd century BCE.

The Greek alphabet is descended from the Phoenician alphabet, and is not related to Linear B or the Cypriot syllabary, earlier writing systems for Greek. It has given rise to many other alphabets used in Europe and the Middle East, including the Latin alphabet.[2] In addition to being used for writing Modern Greek, its letters are today used as symbols in mathematics and science, particle names in physics, as names of stars, in the names of fraternities and sororities, in the naming of supernumerary tropical cyclones, and for other purposes.


The Greek alphabet emerged centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and consequent abandonment of its Linear B script, an early Greek writing system. Linear B is descended from Linear A, which was developed by the Minoans, whose language was probably unrelated to Greek; consequently the Minoan syllabary did not provide an ideal medium for the transliteration of the sounds of the Greek language.

The Greek alphabet we recognize today arose after the Greek Dark Ages — the period between the downfall of Mycenae (ca. 1200 BC) and the rise of Ancient Greece, which begins with the appearance of the epics of Homer, around 800 BC, and the institution of the Ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC. Its most notable change, as an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, is the introduction of vowel letters, without which Greek would be illegible.[2]

Vowel signs were originally not used in Semitic alphabets. Whereas in the earlier West Semitic family of scripts (Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite etc.) a letter always stood for a consonant in association with an unspecified vowel or no vowel; because these languages were Semitic, they lost no legibility in having no vowels, as Semitic words are based on triliteral roots that make meaning clear with only the consonants present, and vowels are clear from context. Greek, however, is an Indo-European language, and thus differences in vowels make for vast differences in meanings. Thus the Greek alphabet divided the letters into two categories, consonants ("things that sound along") and vowels, where the consonant letters always had to be accompanied by vowels to create a pronounceable unit. Although the old Ugaritic alphabet did develop matres lectionis, i.e., use of consonant letters to denote vowels, they were never employed systematically.

The first vowel letters were Α (alpha), Ε (epsilon), Ι (iota), Ο (omicron), and Υ (upsilon), modifications of Semitic glottal, pharyngeal, or glide consonants that were mostly superfluous in Greek: /ʔ/ ('aleph), /h/ (he), /j/ (yodh), /ʕ/ (ʿayin), and /w/ (waw), respectively. In eastern Greek, which lacked aspiration entirely, the letter Η (eta), from the Semitic glottal consonant /ħ/ (heth) was also used for the long vowel /εː/, and eventually the letter Ω (omega) was introduced for a long /ɔː/.

Greek also introduced three new consonant letters, Φ (phi), Χ (chi) and Ψ (psi), appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. These consonants made up for the lack of comparable aspirates in Phoenician. In western Greek, Χ was used for /ks/ and Ψ for /kʰ/ — hence the value of the Latin letter X, derived from the western Greek alphabet. The origin of these letters is disputed.

The letter Ϻ (san) was used at variance with Σ (sigma), and by classical times the latter won out, san disappearing from the alphabet. The letters Ϝ (wau, later called digamma) and Ϙ (qoppa) also fell into disuse. The former was only needed for the western dialects and the latter was never truly needed at all. These lived on in the Ionic numeral system, however, which consisted of writing a series of letters with precise numerical values. Ϡ (sampi), apparently a rare local glyph form from Ionia, was introduced at latter times to stand for 900. Thousands were written using a mark at the upper left ('A for 1000, etc).

Because Greek minuscules arose at a much later date, no historic minuscule actually exists for san. Minuscule forms for the other letters were only used as numbers. For the number 6, modern Greeks use an old ligature called stigma (Ϛ, ϛ) instead of digamma, or ΣΤ/στ if this is not available. For 90 the modern Z-shaped qoppa forms were used: Ϟ, ϟ. (Note that some web browser/font combinations will show the other qoppa here.)

Originally there were several variants of the Greek alphabet, most importantly western (Chalcidian) and eastern (Ionic) Greek. The former gave rise to the Old Italic alphabet and thence to the Latin alphabet, while the latter is the basis of the present Greek alphabet. Athens originally used the Attic script for official documents such as laws and the works of Homer: this contained only the letters from alpha to upsilon, and used the letter eta for the sound "h" instead of the long "e". In 403 BC Athens adopted the Ionic script as its standard, and shortly thereafter the other versions disappeared.

By then Greek was written left to right, but originally it had been written right to left (with asymmetrical characters flipped), and in-between written either way — or, most likely, in the so-called boustrophedon style, where successive lines alternate direction.

In the Hellenistic period, Aristophanes of Byzantium introduced the process of accenting Greek letters for easier pronunciation. During the Middle Ages, the Greek scripts underwent changes paralleling those of the Latin alphabet: while the old forms were retained as a monumental script, uncial and eventually minuscule hands came to dominate. The letter σ is even written ς at the ends of words, paralleling the use of the Latin long and short s.

Letter names

Each of the Phoenician letter names was a word that began with the sound represented by that letter; thus 'aleph, the word for “ox”, was adopted 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, 'aleph, bet, gimel became alpha, beta, gamma. These borrowed names had no meaning in Greek except as labels for the letters. However, a few signs that were added or modified later by the Greeks do in fact have names with a meaning. For example, o mikron and o mega mean “small o” and “big o”. Similarly, e psilon and u psilon mean “plain e” and “plain u”, respectively.

Main letters

Below is a table listing the Greek letters, as well as their forms when romanized. The table also provides the equivalent Phoenician letter from which each Greek letter is derived. Pronunciations transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The classical pronunciation given below is the reconstructed pronunciation of Attic in the late 5th and early 4th century (BC). Some of the letters had different pronunciations in pre-classical times or in non-Attic dialects. For details, see History of the Greek alphabet and Ancient Greek phonology. For details on post-classical Ancient Greek pronunciation, see Koine Greek phonology.

Variant forms

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.

  • The symbol ϐ ("curled beta") is a cursive variant form of beta (β).
  • The letter epsilon can occur in two equally frequent stylistic variants, either shaped \epsilon\,\! ('lunate epsilon', like a semicircle with a stroke) or \varepsilon\,\! (similar to a reversed number 3). The symbol ϵ (U+03F5) is designated specifically for the lunate form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϑ ("script theta") is a cursive form of theta (θ), frequent in handwriting, and used with a specialized meaning as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϰ ("kappa symbol") is a cursive form of kappa (κ), used as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϖ ("variant pi") is an archaic script form of pi (π), also used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter rho (ρ) can occur in different stylistic variants, with the descending tail either going straight down or curled to the right. The symbol ϱ (U+03F1) is designated specifically for the curled form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter sigma, in standard orthography, has two variants: ς, used only at the ends of words, and σ, used elsewhere. The form ϲ ("lunate sigma", resembling a Latin c) is a medieval stylistic variant that can be used in both environments without the final/non-final distinction.
  • The capital letter upsilon (Υ) can occur in different stylistic variants, with the upper strokes either straight like a Latin Y, or slightly curled. The symbol ϒ (U+03D2) is designated specifically for the curled form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter phi can occur in two equally frequent stylistic variants, either shaped as \textstyle\phi\,\! (a circle with a vertical stroke through it) or as \textstyle\varphi\,\! (a curled shape open at the top). The symbol ϕ (U+03D5) is designated specifically for the closed form, used as a technical symbol.

Obsolete letters

The following letters are not part of the standard Greek alphabet, but were in use in pre-classical times in certain dialects. The letters digamma, san, qoppa, and sampi were also used in Greek numerals.

  • Digamma disappeared from the alphabet because the sound it notated, the voiced labial-velar approximant [w], had disappeared from the Ionic dialect and most of the others. It remained in use as a numeric sign denoting the number six. In this function, it was later conflated in medieval Greek handwriting with the ligature sign stigma (ϛ), which had a similar shape in its lower case form.
  • Sampi (also called disigma) notated a geminated affricate that later evolved to -σσ- (probably [sː]) in most dialects, and -ττ- (probably [tː]) in Attic. Its exact value is heavily discussed, but [ts] is often proposed. Its modern name is derived from its shape: (ω)σαν πι = like (the letter) pi.[3]

The order of the letters up to Τ follows that in the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabet.


In the polytonic orthography traditionally used for ancient Greek, vowels can carry diacritics, namely accents and breathings. The accents are the acute accent (´), the grave accent (`), and the circumflex accent (). In Ancient Greek, these accents marked different forms of the pitch accent on a vowel. By the end of the Roman period, pitch accent had evolved into a stress accent, and in later Greek all of these accents marked the stressed vowel. The breathings are the rough breathing (), marking an /h/ sound at the beginning of a word, and the smooth breathing (), marking the absence of an /h/ sound at the beginning of a word. The letter rho (ρ), although not a vowel, always carries a rough breathing when it begins a word. Another diacritic used in Greek is the diaeresis, indicating a hiatus.

In 1982, the old spelling system, known as polytonic, was simplified to become the monotonic system, which is now official in Greece. The accents have been reduced to one, the tonos, and the breathings were abolished.


Scribes made use of a number of ligatures to save space and time, in Greek as in other languages. Early Greek typefaces such as Claude Garamond's Les Grecs du Roi included a large number of ligatures, but modern typography uses none of them, except occasionally the Ȣ ligature for ου — resembling a V above an O; some modern alphabets based on the Latin alphabet use this as a letter, Ou. In printed 17th-century English works, there sometimes occurs a ligature of Ο with ς (a small sigma inside a capital omicron) for a terminal ος. Other ligatures include ϗ for καί, (equivalent to an ampersand) and stigma Ϛ for στ, also used as noted above to replace digamma as a number 6.

Digraphs and diphthongs

A digraph is a pair of letters used to write one sound or a combination of sounds that does not correspond to the written letters in sequence. The orthography of Greek includes several digraphs, including various pairs of vowel letters that used to be pronounced as diphthongs but have been shortened to monophthongs in pronunciation. Many of these are characteristic developments of modern Greek, but some were already present in Classical Greek. None of them is regarded as a letter of the alphabet.

During the Byzantine period, it became customary to write the silent iota in digraphs as an iota subscript (ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ).

Use of the Greek alphabet for other languages

The primary use of the Greek alphabet has always been to write the Greek language. However, at various times and in various places, it has also been used to write other languages.[4]

Early examples

With additional letters

Several alphabets consist of the Greek alphabet supplemented with a few additional letters:

In more modern times

Derived alphabets

The Greek alphabet gave rise to various others:[2]

It is also considered a possible ancestor of the Armenian alphabet, and had an influence on the development of the Georgian alphabet.

Greek in mathematics

Greek symbols are traditionally used as names in mathematics, physics and other sciences. When combined with Latin characters, the Latin characters usually indicate variables while the Greek ones indicate parameters. Many symbols have traditional meanings, such as epsilon for `a small number, which move towards the infinitesimal', capital sigma for `sum' and lower case sigma for standard deviation.

Greek encodings

For the usage in computers, a variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947.

The two principal ones still used today are ISO/IEC 8859-7 and Unicode. ISO 8859-7 supports only the monotonic orthography; Unicode supports the polytonic orthography.

ISO/IEC 8859-7

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).

Greek in Unicode

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. However, most current text rendering engines do not support combining characters well, so, though alpha with macron and acute can be represented as U+03B1 U+0304 U+0301, this rarely renders well: ᾱ́.[7]

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.

To write polytonic Greek, one may use combining diacritical marks or the precomposed characters in the "Greek Extended" block (U+1F00 to U+1FFF).

Source: Wikipedia

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