The ancient Greek alphabet: when was it invented, how many letters are there and how do you pronounce them?
From college fraternities and the fields of maths and science through to the Bible, ancient Greek letters appear to be everywhere. Professor Paul Cartledge, A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge, gives us a primer on the history of the ancient Greek alphabet – and why it really should be alphabets…
Ancient Greek letters appear to be everywhere. Most of us have probably heard of the Nile delta, even if we don’t automatically associate that geographical designation with the shape of the fourth letter of the ancient Greek (and modern Greek, as it happens) alphabet.
Any film set in an American college is almost certain to feature ‘frat boys’ and ‘sorority sisters’ (though some fraternities now welcome girls), aka ‘Greeks’, whose fraternities and sororities are named after letters of the ancient Greek alphabet.
These ancient Greek letters appear in other fields too, including mathematics (most famously perhaps, pi) and astronomy (where Greek letters are used to designate the brightest stars in a constellation). Sadly, we’re probably all nowadays familiar with the use of Greek letters to denote variants of the coronavirus, the latest of which is the still rather mysterious strand named omicron.
Did the ancient Greeks invent the alphabet?
The ancient Greeks didn’t invent the alphabet, though they may be credited with inventing an alphabet – a new form of alphabetic writing, one that added signs for vowels to signs for consonants. Thereby their alphabet is the world’s first fully phonetic alphabetic script, which emerged sometime around 800 BC.
Or rather, their alphabets, plural: for there were several, local or regional versions of the ancient Greek alphabet, with differing numbers of letters ranging from 24 to 28.
Usually, the ancient Greeks were less than keen to credit non-Greeks – ‘barbarians’ as they sometimes derogatorily called them – with anything positive. But in this exceptional case they acknowledged the immediate source of their borrowing: for they called their alphabets ‘Phoenician letters’ after the ancient people that then occupied what is today Lebanon, and parts of Syria and Israel.
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The very names of the first two Greek letters are a bit of a clue to alien origins: in Greek alpha and beta mean nothing, but that’s because they are in fact Hellenised versions of Semitic words – aleph ‘ox-head’ and beth ‘house’ – which were so called because schematically that’s what those two letters look like in the original, Semitic alphabets.
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However, that wasn’t the only difference between Phoenician and Greek alphabets. Precisely because the Greeks’ source script, Phoenician, represented a Semitic language, like all Semitic scripts it did without signs for vowels.
Greek on the other hand was an Indo-European language and had sounds which the Phoenicians didn’t, and vice versa for Phoenician. So the real genius of the Greek invention (or re-invention) of an alphabetic script was that it not only copied roughly the Phoenician signs for sounds that the Greeks themselves used, but also brilliantly borrowed Phoenician signs for the Phoenicians’ non-Greek sounds and applied them to write Greek vowel sounds: alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, omega, upsilon.
How many letters were there in the ancient Greek alphabet?
Though there were several local variations of the alphabet in classical Greece, it was the Ionic alphabet that was eventually adopted by Athens and became dominant across the Greek-speaking world. This ancient Greek alphabet has 24 letters.
What are the letters of the ancient Greek alphabet and what order are they in?
The ancient Greek alphabet we are familiar with begins with alpha and ends with omega – something referenced in the Bible. The chart below includes uppercase and lowercase variations of each letter, alongside its anglicised equivalent.
|Name||Uppercase letter||Lowercase letter|
|Sigma||Σ||σ / ς|
There are two lowercase forms for sigma, which is written as σ unless it is at the end of a word – in which case it appears as ς. Also, a letter called digamma – roughly a ‘w’ sound – appeared in early versions of the Doric alphabet but was later dropped.
Greek Alphabet chart – all 24 letters
How should we pronounce ancient Greek letters?
We know of course how modern Greek is pronounced, but – notoriously – we can’t actually say for certain how any version of ancient Greek was pronounced, partly because there’s a dispute over what the accent markings of an ancient Greek text signified. Was it pitch? Or was it stress or emphasis? Did the one succeed the other, and if so when? The precise answers elude us.
Not quite as notoriously, scholars of ancient Greek differ amongst themselves as to how we should pronounce ancient Greek.
Take, for instance, the letter name omicron: was it o-mike-ron? Or, as seems to have become the announcer’s norm, o-mick-ron? The word itself means ‘little o’ (in contrast to omega – ‘big O’), so the first ‘o’ of omicron is definitely a short syllable, as in ‘hot’.
Contrary to today’s norm, it used to be taught to pronounce ancient Greek as if the (male) Greeks themselves had been British gentlemen, so omicron becomes ‘o-mike-ron’, with the emphasis/stress on the ‘mike’ syllable.
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What did the ancient Greek alphabet mean for those in classical Greece?
One of the very earliest Greek alphabetic inscriptions to survive speaks worlds. It consists of three lines of verse scratched on a relatively humble clay pot made in Asia Minor (now western Turkey) but found in a grave on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples.
The regional form of the lettering employed is associated with the island of Euboia (modern Evvia) near Athens, which is where the emigrant Greek settlers of Ischia (ancient Pithekoussai) had originally come from, looking for a better life in southern Italy.
What’s more, the three-line message seems to be making a rather good joke. In the Iliad, the epic poem about the Trojan War ascribed to Homer, the aged Greek king Nestor is said to have possessed a large and expensive, precious-metal drinking goblet.
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The writer of the Ischia graffito acknowledges the merit of Nestor’s goblet – but caps that by adding humorously as well as amorously that anyone who drinks (wine) from his (relatively humble, clay) cup will immediately be seized with irresistible sexual desire.
There are scholars who believe that one of the greatest impulses behind the spread of alphabetic literacy in the Greek world of the eighth and seventh centuries BC was the felt need to write down and so make permanent versions both of the Iliad and of Homer’s other epic masterpiece, the Odyssey.
Whether or not that hypothesis is correct, the Greeks’ new alphabets were certainly revolutionary, being in a cultural sense democratic. A child of five could now be fully literate – whereas for writing the earliest, abandoned form of Greek script, the so-called Linear B, only professional scribes could master and use the 200 or so signs and ideograms required.
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How closely is ancient Greek related to modern Greek and other languages?
The alphabetic Greek language represents, besides the (non-alphabetic) Chinese, the oldest continuous written literary tradition in the world. Greek as a language has of course evolved and mutated in the hundreds of years since the eighth century BC, but a modern Greek speaker confronted with a printed ancient text of Homer would have no difficulty reading it.
It is within ancient Greek that we find the ultimate origin of our own English alphabet. Ancient Greek formed the root Etruscan alphabet and the Latin alphabet of the Romans, and was thence via the European Middle Ages and Renaissance passed down to us. It was also during the Middle Ages that the ancient Greek alphabet formed the basis for Cyrillic, just as the ‘Phoenician letters’ had done so before.
Professor Paul Cartledge is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge. His books include Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, now available in paperback (Picador, 2021)