The Greek alphabet (Ελληνικό αλφάβητο) is a set of twenty-four letters that has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BC. It is the first and oldest alphabet in the narrow sense that, as a writing system, it uses a separate symbol for each vowel and consonant. It is as such in continuous use to this day. The letters were also used to represent Greek numerals, beginning in the 2nd century BC.
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. 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 several 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.
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.
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.
|g||gh, g, y||[g]||[ɣ], [ʝ]||3|
|Δ δ||Daleth||Delta||δέλτα||δέλτα||d||d, dh||[d]||[ð]||4|
|Ε ε||He||Epsilon||εἶ||ἒ ψιλόν||έψιλον||e||[e]||5|
|Η η||Heth||Eta||ἦτα||ήτα||e, ē||i||[ɛː]||[i]||8|
|Ξ ξ||Samekh||Xi||ξεῖ||ξῖ||ξι||x||x, ks||[ks]||60|
|Ο ο||'Ayin||Omicron||οὖ||ὂ μικρόν||όμικρον||o||[o]||70|
|Ρ ρ||Resh||Rho||ῥῶ||ρω||r (ῥ: rh)||r||[r], [r̥]||[r]||100|
|Σ σ ς||Sin||Sigma||σῖγμα||σίγμα||s||[s]||200|
|Υ υ||Waw||Upsilon||ὖ||ὖ ψιλόν||ύψιλον||u, y||y, v, f||[i]||400|
|Φ φ||origin disputed|
|Χ χ||Chi||χεῖ||χῖ||χι||ch||ch, kh||[kʰ]||600|
|Ω ω||'Ayin||Omega||ὦ||ὦ μέγα||ωμέγα||o, ō||o||[ɔː]||[o]||800|
Ͷ ͷ (alternate)
|Ϻ ϻ|| Tsade (position)|
Ϙ ϙ (alternate)
Ϡ ϡ (alternate)
but exact value debated;
[sː], [ks], [ts] are proposed
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.
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.
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).
|03E0||Ϡ||ϡ||(Coptic letters here)|
|U+0300||U+0060||( ̀ )||"varia / grave accent"|
|U+0301||U+00B4, U+0384||( ́ )||"oxia / tonos / acute accent"|
|U+0304||U+00AF||( ̄ )||"macron"|
|U+0306||U+02D8||( ̆ )||"vrachy / breve"|
|U+0308||U+00A8||( ̈ )||"dialytika / diaeresis"|
|U+0313||( ̓ )||"psili / comma above" (spiritus lenis)|
|U+0314||( ̔ )||"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".|