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The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language since about the 9th century BCE. It was the first alphabet in the narrow sense, that is, a writing system using a separate symbol for each vowel and consonant alike. It is the oldest alphabetic script in use today. The letters are also used to represent numbers—Greek numerals.
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 originated as a modification of the Phoenician alphabet and in turn gave rise to the Gothic, Glagolitic, Cyrillic, and Coptic, as well as the Latin alphabet. The Greek alphabet is also considered a possible ancestor of the Armenian alphabet. It is unrelated to Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, earlier writing systems for Greek.
Historically, the Greek alphabet emerged several centuries after the fall of Mycenaean civilization and consequent extinction 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 Greek language sounds. The Greek alphabet we recognize today arose after the illiterate Greek Dark Ages — the period between the downfall of Mycenae (c. 1200 B.C.) and the rise of Ancient Greece, which begins with the appearance of the epics of Homer, around 800 B.C., and the institution of the Ancient Olympic Games in 776 B.C.
The most notable change in the Greek alphabet, as an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, is the introduction of written vowels, without which Greek — unlike Phoenician — would be unintelligible. In fact, most alphabets that contain vowels are derived ultimately from Greek, although there are exceptions (Hangul, Orkhon script, Ge'ez alphabet, Indic alphabets, and Old Hungarian script). The first vowels were alpha, e (later epsilon), iota, o (later omicron), and u (later upsilon), modifications of Semitic glottal, aspirate, or glide consonants that were mostly superfluous in Greek: /ʔ/ (aleph), /h/ (he), /j/ (yodh), /ʕ/ (ayin), and /w/ (waw), respectively. In eastern Greek, which lacked breaths entirely, the letter eta (from the Semitic aspirate consonant /ħ/, heth) was also used for a long e, and eventually the letter omega was introduced for a long o. Vowel signs were originally not used in Semitic alphabets, although even in the very old Ugaritic alphabet matres lectionis were used, i.e. consonant signs were used to denote vowels. Matres lectionis were, however, never used systematically. Whereas in the earlier West Semitic family of writings (Phoencian, Hebrew, Moabite etc.) a sign always stood for a consonant in association with an unspecified vowel or no vowel, the Greek alphabet divided the signs into two categories, consonants ("things that sound along") and vowels, where the consonant signs always had to be accompanied by vowel signs to create a pronouncable unit.
Greek also introduced three new consonant signs, Φ, Χ and Ψ, appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. These consonants made up for the lack of comparable aspirates in Phoenician. In west 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 those letters is disputed.
The letter san was used at variance with sigma, and by classical times the latter won out, san disappearing from the alphabet. The letters waw (later called digamma) and qoppa disappeared, too, the former only needed for the western dialects and the latter never really needed at all. These lived on in the Ionic numeral system, however, which consisted of writing a series letters with precise numerical values. Sampi (apparently in a rare local glyph form from Ionia) was introduced at the end — 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 numerically. For number 6, modern Greeks use an old ligature called stigma (Ϛ, ϛ) instead of digamma or use στ if it is not available. For 90 they use modern z-shaped qoppa forms: 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. Athens took the Ionic script to be its standard in 403 BC, and shortly thereafter the other versions disappeared. By then Greek was always 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, boustrophedon, so that the 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 Roman 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 long and short s at the time.
Below is a table listing the modern 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.
Also note that 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.
|Α α||ἄλφα||άλφα||alpha||[a] [aː]||[a]||Aleph||a||1|
|gamma||[g]||[ɣ~ʝ]||Gimel||g||gh, g, y||3|
|Δ δ||δέλτα||δέλτα||delta||[d]||[ð]||Daleth||d||d, dh||4|
|Ε ε||εἶ||ἒ ψιλόν||έψιλον||epsilon||[e]||He||e||5|
|Η η||ἦτα||ήτα||eta||[ɛː]||[i]||Heth||e, ē||i||8|
|iota||[i] [iː]||[i], [j]||Yodh||i||10|
|Ξ ξ||ξεῖ||ξῖ||ξι||xi||[ks]||Samekh||x||x, ks||60|
|Ο ο||οὖ||ὂ μικρόν||όμικρον||omicron||[o]||'Ayin||o||70|
|Ρ ρ||ῥῶ||ρω||rho||[r], [r̥]||[r]||Resh||r (ῥ: rh)||r||100|
|Υ υ||ὗ||ὓ ψιλόν||ύψιλον||upsilon||[y] [yː]
(earlier [u] [uː])
|[i]||Waw||u, y||y, v, f||400|
|Φ φ||φεῖ||φῖ||φι||phi||[pʰ]||[f]||origin disputed
|Χ χ||χεῖ||χῖ||χι||chi||[kʰ]||[x~ç]||ch||ch, kh||600|
|Ω ω||ὦ||ὦ μέγα||ωμέγα||omega||[ɔː]||[o]||'Ayin||o, ō||o||800|
- For details and different transliteration systems see Transliteration of Greek into English.
The following letters are not part of the standard Greek alphabet, but were in use in pre-classical times or in certain dialects. The letters digamma, koppa, and sampi were also used in Greek numerals.
|Ϝ ϝ||ϝαῦ ?||δίγαμμα||Digamma||probably [w]||Waw||w||6|
|Ϻ ϻ||ϻάν ?||σάν||San||[s]|| Tsade (position)
|Ϡ ϡ||Unknown||σαμπῖ||Sampi, disigma||obviously fricative,
but exact value discussed
[sː], [ks], [ts] are proposed
|ss or –||900|
San should be regarded as an early variant of sigma.
Koppa notated an allophone of Kappa before a back vowel.
Sampi notated a geminate fricative 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.
Digamma disappeared from alphabets because the sound it notated had disappeared from Ionic and most other dialects.
The order of the letters up to the letter Τ follows that in the Phoenician or Hebrew alphabet. The complete sequence including the obsolete letters is as follows:
- Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ϝ/Ϛ Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ϻ Ϙ/Ϟ Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω Ϡ
Letter combinations and diphthongs
|ᾰι, αι||[ai]||[e̞]||æ, ē||e|
|ᾰυ, αυ||[au]||[av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[af] before voiceless sound
|au, av||av, af|
|ᾱυ, αυ||[aːu]||[av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[af] before voiceless sound
|āu, āv||av, af|
|ευ||[eu]||[e̞v] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[e̞f] before voiceless sound
|eu, ev||ev, ef|
|ηυ||[ɛːu]||[iv] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[if] before voiceless sound
|ēu, ēv||iv, if|
|γγ||[ŋɡ]||[ŋɡ] in formal speech (palatalised to [ɲɟ] before [e̞] or [i]),
but often reduced to [ɡ] (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i]);
also pronounced [ŋɣ] in some contexts (palatalised to [ɲʝ] before [e̞])
|ng||ng, ny, g, y, ngh|
|γκ||[ŋk]||[ɡ] at the beginning of a word (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i]);
[ŋɡ] otherwise (palatalised to [ɲɟ] before [e̞] or [i]),
but often reduced to [g] (palatalised to [ɟ] before [e̞] or [i])
|nc||g, y, ng, ny|
|γχ||[ŋkʰ]||[ɲç] before [e̞] or [i];
|μπ||[mp]||[b] at the beginning of a word;
[mb] otherwise, but often reduced to [b]
|ντ||[nt]||[d] at the beginning of a word;
[nd] otherwise, but often reduced to [d]
* Diphthong υι [yi] was monophtongized as [yː] in Classical Attic Greek, but survives in some other contemporary dialects and in early Koine.
** The diphthong ωυ ([ɔːu]) was found in Ionic and in certain Hebrew transcriptions in the Greek Bible, but it did not occur in Attic, and was gradually lost in Koine. Where ωυ was atticized, it was often split into two separate vowel syllables ([ɔː.y]), hence the Latin transcription ōy. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Biblical Greek name Μωυσῆς [mɔːu.sɛ̑ːs], Moses, which was atticized as Μωϋσῆς [mɔː.y.sɛ̑ːs], then adapted to early Christian Latin as Mōysēs, from where it became Spanish Moisés, French Moïse, etc. The modern Greek form is Μωυσής [mo̞iˈsis], whereas the modern Latin Vulgate form is Mōsēs.
Before the days of printing, scribes made use of a number of ligatures to save space, in Greek as in other languages. The ligature for ου is ȣ, it resembles a V above an O; it is still sometimes seen (for a modern use of this in the Latin alphabet, see Ou (letter)).
In printed 17th-century English works, there sometimes occurs a ligature of Οσ (a small sigma inside a capital omicron) for a terminal "os".
Vowels can carry diacritics, namely accents and breathings. The accents are the acute accent (´), the grave accent (`), and the circumflex (῀). In Ancient Greek, these accents mark 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 mark the stressed syllable. The breathings are the spiritus asper (῾), marking an [h] sound at the beginning of a word, and the spiritus lenis (᾽), marking the absence of an [h] sound at the beginning of a word. The letter rho, although not a vowel, when at the beginning of a word, always carries a spiritus asper. A double rho, although always in the middle of a word, is written with a spiritus lenis on the first rho and a spiritus asper on the second one. A related mark is the diaeresis (¨) marking the separate pronunciation of vowel sounds.
In 1982, the old system, known as "polytonic", was simplified to become the "monotonic" system, which is now official in Greece. The accents were replaced by a single acute accent, the tonos (´), and the breathings were abolished. The diaeresis (¨) was kept.
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.
- Most of the alphabets of Asia Minor, in use c. 800-300 BC to write languages like Lydian and Phrygian, were the early Greek alphabet with only slight modifications — as were the original Old Italic alphabets.
- Some Paleo-Balkan languages, including Thracian. For other neighboring languages or dialects, such as Ancient Macedonian, isolated words are preserved in Greek texts, but no continuous texts are preserved.
- Some Narbonese Gaulish inscriptions in southern France use the Greek alphabet (c. 300 BC).
- The Hebrew text of the Bible was written in Greek letters in Origen's Hexapla.
- The Bactrian language was written in Greek script under the Kushan Empire (AD 65-250).
- The Coptic alphabet is an uncial form of the Greek alphabet, augmented with several new letters derived from Demotic, and it is still used today, mostly in Egypt.
- The Old Nubian language of Makuria (modern Sudan) used the Greek alphabet until about AD 1400, augmented with three Coptic letters, two letters derived from Meroitic script, and a digraph of two Greek gammas used for ng.
- An 8th century Arabic fragment preserves a text in the Greek alphabet.
In more modern times:
- Turkish spoken by Orthodox Christians (Karamanlides) was often written in Greek script, and called "Karamanlidika".
- Tosk Albanian was often written using the Greek alphabet, starting in about 1500 (Elsie, 1991). The printing press at Moschopolis published several Albanian texts in Greek script during the 18th century. It was only in 1908 that the Monastir conference standardized a Latin orthography for both Tosk and Gheg. The Greek-based Arvanitic alphabet is now only used in Greece.
- Various South Slavic dialects, similar to the modern Macedonian language, have been preserved in Greek script. The modern Macedonian language uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet.
- Aromanian (Vlach) has been written in Greek characters. There is not yet a standardized orthography for Aromanian, but it appears that one based on the Romanian orthography will be adopted.
- Gagauz, a Turkic language of the northeast Balkans.
- Surguch, a Turkic language spoken by a small group of Orthodox Christians in northern Greece.
- Urum or Greek Tatar.
A variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947 "Greek Character Encoding for Electronic Mail Messages".
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.
For extended discussion of problematic Greek letter forms in Unicode see Greek Unicode Issues.
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 language. 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).
Greek and Coptic
|03E0||Ϡ||ϡ||(Coptic letters here)|
Greek Extended (precomposed polytonic Greek)
Combining and letter-free diacritics
|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".|
- Humez, Alexander and Nicholas, Alpha to omega: the life & times of the Greek alphabet, Godine, 1981, ISBN 0-87923-377-X. A popular history, more about Greek roots in English than about the alphabet itself.
- Michael S. Macrakis, ed., Greek letters: from tablets to pixels, proceedings of a conference sponsored by the Greek Font Society, Oak Knoll Press, 1996, ISBN 1-884718-27-2. Includes papers on history, typography, and character coding by Hermann Zapf, Matthew Carter, Nicolas Barker, John A. Lane, Kyle McCarter, Jerôme Peignot, Pierre MacKay, Silvio Levy, et al.
- Jeffery, Lilian Hamilton, The local scripts of archaic Greece: a study of the origin of the Greek alphabet and its development from the eighth to the fifth centuries B.C., Oxford, 1961, ISBN 0-19-814061-4.
- Macrakis, Stavros M., "Character codes for Greek: Problems and modern solutions" in Macrakis, 1996. Includes discussion of the Greek alphabet used for languages other than Greek. 
- Robert Elsie, "Albanian Literature in Greek Script: the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Orthodox Tradition in Albanian Writing", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 15:20 (1991) Template:PDFlink.
- Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.. ISBN 0-631-21481-X.
- see S. Macrakis, 1996 for bibliography