Learn Biblical Greek

Greek Phonetics



Content
[go] The Alphabet
[go] Pronunciation
[go] Punctuation Marks
[go] Accents and Breathing Marks
[go] Other Considerations

The Alphabet
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The alphabet of the Koiné Period consists of 24 letters. It was originally derived from Phoenecian, which in turn may well have come from ancient (not modern) Hebrew. The Greeks added vowels. Originally the alphabet was all capitals, which was later developed into unicals. A cursive form of writing developed which added minuscules, or lower-case letters. (I find it helpful at times to think of Greek as written in all lowercase letters so as to better get the flavor of how what was written came across to the reader at the time of the early Christians.) While the letters were fixed by the Classic Period, the pronunciation has continued to vary up until modern times. The following chart shows the Greek alphabet, it's Latin equivalent, and some general notes on pronunciation.

Letters

Name


In Latin


Notes on Pronunciation

Upper

Lower

Greek

English

Α α αλφα Alfa a as in father (long), bat (short)
Β β βετα Beta b as in ball
Γ γ γαμμα Gamma g as in get (always hard), but n before g,m,n
Δ δ δελτα Delta d as in debt
Ε ε εψιλον Epsilon e as in met (always short)
Z ζ ζητα Zeta z dz as in adze
Η η ητα Eta e as in obey (always long)
Θ θ θητα Theta th as in thin
Ι ι ιωτα Iota i as in magazine (long), pit (short)
Κ κ καππα Kappa c,k as in kin
Λ λ λαμβδα Lambda l as in lot
Μ μ μυ Mu m as in me
Ν ν νυ Nu n as in no
Ξ ξ ξι Xi x as in relax
Ο ο ο μικρον Omikron o as in omelet (always short)
Π π πι Pi p as in pay
Ρ ρ ρω Rho r as in ring (rolled like in Spanish)
Σ σ,ς σιγμα Sigma s as in sing - second form 'V' only at the end of a word
Τ τ ταυ Tau t t as in tale
Υ υ υ ψιλον Upsilon y French u or German ü or oo in boot
Φ φ φι Phi ph like in fun
Χ χ χι chi ch as in loch
Ψ ψ ψι Psi ps as in taps
Ω ω ω μεγα Omega o as in tone (always long)

Write these letters on the line: α ε ι κ ν ο π σ τ υ ω.

Write these letters partly on and partly below the line: γ η μ ρ ς χ

Write these letters partly on and partly above the line: δ θ λ

Write these letters on, above, and below the line: β ζ ξ φ ψ

Please note that the use of capital letters in Greek is different from English. In general, sentences begin with lowercase letters. Capital letters are used at the beginning of a proper noun, and at the start of paragraphs and direct address.

Pronunciation
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Since there are no ancient Greeks alive today (really!), and because sound recordings came a 'little' afterwards, it should be easy to understand that no one today knows exactly how Biblical Greek was pronounced. For the purposes of this website, the traditional pronunciation established by the Dutch humanist Erasmus (16th century) is shown. However, the student should be aware that there are some who feel that the pronunciation of modern Greek reflects more closely some of the sounds of ancient Greek than does Erasmus' sounds. However, most scholars would agree that modern Greek has lost some of the ancient sounds, such as where ι, η, υ, ει, οι, υι are now all pronounced like the iota.

Vowels: There are 7 vowels in Greek. They are classified 2 different ways. First, as to whether they are long or short. Second, as to whether they are open or closed.

ε,ο are always short.
η,ω are always long.
α,ι,υ can be either short or long.


α,ε,η,ο,ω are open.
ι,υ are closed.

Diphthongs: The combination of open and close vowels (in that order) plus the case of υι creates a construction known as a diphthong where the two vowels are pronounced as if they were one letter. The 'proper' diphthongs are:

αι as in aisle
ει as in height
οι as in oil
αυ as in kraut
ευ as in feud
ου as in group
υι pronounced like wee

Additionally, ηυ and ωυ are called 'improper' diphthongs and are pronounced by sounding the two vowels very close together.

A special case is the iota-subscript. It is a little backwards looking comma or iota ι found under (or sometimes above) the α,η,ω. It is considered an long, 'improper' diphthong, but in reality it does not change the pronunciation of the vowel.

Consonants: The Greek alphabet contains 17 consonants, 14 of which are simple, and 3 are double. They are divided into 3 general classes: liquid, mute, and sibilants.

Liquid: Pronounced with a smooth, easy flow of breath.
The liquid consonants are: λ, μ, ν, ρ

Mute: Pronounced by a momentary closing of the oral passage. They are call mute because they cannot be pronounced without the help of a vowel. The mute consononts are further subdivided as follows:

  Labial Dental Guttural
Smooth β δ γ
Middle π τ κ
Rough φ θ χ

To pronounce these letters, there must be a momentary closure of the oral passage. The passage is closed at the lips for labials, with the tongue against the upper teeth for dentals, and at the back of the throat for gutturals. The amount of closure is indicated by whether they are smooth, middle, or rough.

Sibilant: Pronounced with an 's' sound at the end.
The sibilant consonants are: ζ, ξ, σ, ψ.
The consonantes ζ, ξ, ψ are double consonants. They combine the sounds of a mute consonant with the 's', as follows:
ζ = δσ | ξ = γσ,κσ,χσ | ψ = βσ,πσ,φσ

Whenever γ occurs in front of the letters γ, κ, χ, ξ it is pronounced as a nasal n such as in "angel".

Movable ν and ς: At the end of some words which would normally end with a vowel, a ν is added to the end of the word when the next word starts with a vowel. This is regularly found with words ending in: σι, χι, and ψι also to third person singular verbs ending in -ε, and in εστι. However, in the Greek of the Greek Scriptures it often occurs when there is no need for it. Also a movable ς is added to some words for similar reasons. For example: ουτως, αχρις, and μεχρις.

Punctuation Marks
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The following chart explains the use of punctuation in Greek:

Name Symbol Use
Apostrophy ' Placed between two words to indicate the deletion of either the last vowel of the first word or the initial vowel of the second word.
Coronis ' Placed between two words to indicate the fussion of the last vowel of the first word and the initial vowel of the second word.
Diæresis ¨ Placed over the second of two vowels to indicate that they should be pronounced separately and not as a diphthong.
Period . As in English.
Comma , As in English.
Colon : As in English.
Question ; Uses a semicolon instead of an English question mark.

Accents and Breathing Marks
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Breathing Marks: Any word that begins with a vowel must have a breathing mark over it. There are two types of breathing marks: the smooth breathing mark ( ’ ); and the rough breathing mark ( ‘ ). The smooth breathing mark is not pronounced, but the rough is pronounced like the English 'H'. Additionally, any word that begins with the letter "ρ" must also have a rough breathing mark.

Accent Marks: Except as noted below, Greek words always have an accent mark. (Well, they didn't always have an accent mark. The invention of the accent marks is attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 275-180 BCE). However, they did not come into general use until the third century CE. Hence, it is likely that none of the original Bible manuscripts had accent marks.) The accent mark indicates the raising or lowering of the tone of the voice. Only the last three syllables of a Greek word may have an accent mark.

The last three syllables have names. They are: ULTIMA for the last one, PENULT for the next to last, and ANTEPENULT for the syllable before the Penult. There are three types of accents:

ACUTE ( ´ )
May be placed on any of the last 3 syllables. However, it can only be on the antepenult if the ultima is short. When found on the ultima with other words following, without intervening punctuation, it will change to a grave. Tone of voice is raised.

CIRCUMFLEX ( ~ )
May only be placed on the penult or ultima. Can only be over a long syllable. May only be on the penult if the ultima is short. Tone of voice is raised and lowered successively.

GRAVE ( ` )
May only be placed on the ultima. There can be no punctuation between it and the next word. Slight rise in tone of voice.

These rules show under what conditions the different types of accents may or may not be used, but they don't tell us what accent a word should have. There are some rules of accent that determine how a word should be accented. They are:

Noun Accent

Throughout a declension the accent in nouns remains on the same syllable as in the nominative singular as nearly as the general rules of accent permit. However, the position of the accent in the nominative singular is something that must be learned along with the spelling of the word. (Sorry, can't do any better than that!)

Verb Accent

The accent in verbs is recessive. In all verbs the accent is as far from the ultima as the general rules permit. Determine whether the tone of the ultima is long or short and place the accent as far to the left as the rules allow. (Not as bad as nouns!)

Enclitics and Proclitics: The exception to the above are certain words call enclitics and proclitics. These have no accent marks of their own and are pronounced with adjoining words. Enclitics are combined with the word that preceded them, and proclitics are combined with the word that follows it. For example, ο λογος μου would be considered as one four-syllable word for accenting and pronouncing. Note the following rules for accenting enclitics and proclitics:

  1. An enclitic at the beginning of a sentence retains its accent.
  2. An enclitic or proclitic is accented before another enclitic.
  3. An acute accent on the ultima is retained in a word standing before any enclitic. It does not chage to grave.
  4. If a word preceding an enclitic has an acute on the antepenult or a circumflex on the penult, it takes an additional acute on the ultima.
  5. If the word preceding an enclitic has an acute on the penult or a circumflex or acute on the ultima, an enclitic of one syllable loses its accent.
  6. If a word preceding an enclitic has an acute on the penult or a circumflex on the ultima, an enclitic of two syllables retains its accent.

How important are the accents? Not really very important at all. They have little or no grammatical function, and can be ignored by the casual student. (Now he tells me!)

Other Considerations
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In addition to the above, there are some other changes that take place in the spelling of words. They are important to know since they can affect declinations or conjugations. Here are the most important ones:

  1. Two vowels in a word are combined into either a long vowel or a diphthong.
  2. Labial or guttural consonents preceding a σ are combined with the σ to form one of the double consonents: ψ,ξ.
  3. The dental consonents δ,τ,θ,ν disappear when before an σ.
  4. The σ will disappear when between vowels or in front of another σ.
  5. A guttural or labial consonent before a dental is adjusted to be spoken the same as the dental (smooth, middle, or rough).
  6. A dental consonent before another dental is changed into an σ.
  7. Two syllables together cannot begin with a rough consonent. The first syllabel must become a middle consonent.

A Greek word that does not end in a vowel must end in either ν,ρ,ς (ψ,ξ). All other consonents disappear, except the μ, which changes into an ν.

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