Greek alphabet

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

The alphabet used for writing down the Greek language, developed in classical times (around the 9th century BC) and used down to the present. Its symbols are nowadays used for a variety of other purposes: as mathematical variables, for naming stars, and so forth.

The Greek alphabet was derived from the North Semitic alphabet, brought to Greece via Phoenician traders. The fact that the Greek alphabet derives from an earlier Semitic script is uncontested, the exact source(s) of the Greek alphabet are however controversial. Sass (94) mentions the Proto-Canaanite and the Phoenician scripts, Coulmas (1989: 142) and Naveh (1979: 55) mention only the Phoenician alphabet.

The Greek letters and their derivations are as follows (values transcribed according to SAMPA, with changes from ancient to modern denoted by ->):

Letter Name Sound Value Semitic letter HTML entity
A α Alpha /a/ /a:/ 1 Aleph (') /?/ α
B β Beta /b/ 2 Beth /b/ β
Γ γ Gamma /g/->/G/ /j/ 3 Gimel /g/ γ
Δ δ Delta /d/->/D/ 4 Daleth /d/ δ
E ε Epsilon /e/ 5 He (h) /h/ ε
F (1) Digamma /w/->- 6 Waw /w/
Z ζ Zeta /dz/->/z/ 7 Zain /dz/ ζ
H η Eta /E:/->/i/ 8 Heth (h*) η
Θ θ Theta /t_h/->/T/ 9 Thet (t*) θ
I ι Iota /i/ -> /i/ /j/ 10 Yodh (y) /j/ ι
K κ Kappa /k/ 20 Kaph /k/ κ
Λ λ Lambda /l/ 30 Lamed /l/ λ
M μ Mu /m/ 40 Mem /m/ μ
Ν ν Nu /n/ (2) 50 Nun /n/ ν
Ξ ξ Xi /ks/ 60 Samekh (s) ξ
O o Omicron /o/ 70 Ain ()
Π π Pi /p/ 80 Pe /p/ π
M (1) San /ts/ 900 Sade (s*) /ts/
Q (1) Qoppa /k/ 90 Qoph /q/
P ρ Rho /r/ 100 Resh /r/ ρ
Σ σ,ς Sigma /s/ 200 Shin (sh) /S/ σ
T τ Tau /t/ 300 Taw /t/ τ
Y υ Upsilon /u/->/y/->/i/ 400 from Waw υ
Φ φ Phi /p_h/->/f/ 500 origin disputed (see text) &phi
X χ Chi /k_h/->/x/ 600 idem (see text) χ
Ψ ψ Psi /ps/ 700 idem (see text) ψ
Ω ω Omega /O:/->/o/ 800 idem (see text) ω

(1): Letter removed from the alphabet in early times, before the period that is now called 'classical'. Because Greek minuscules are from a (much) later date, no minuscules exist of these letters.
(2): Some scholars see agma as a phoneme in its own right.

The most notable change is the introduction of vowels, without which Greek - unlike Phoenician - would be unintelligible. In fact many alphabets that contain vowels, notably the Roman alphabet and Cyrillic alphabet, are derived ultimately from Greek. (For alphabets with signs solely used to designate vowels NOT derived from the Greek, see Old Turkic alphabet, Ethiopic alphabet Indic alphabets Old Hungarian alphabet) The first vowels were alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, and upsilon (copied from waw), modifications of either glides or breathing marks, which were mostly superfluous in Greek. In eastern Greek, which lacked breaths entirely, the letter eta was also used for a long e, and eventually the letter omega was introduced for a long o. Vowels were originally not used in Semitic alphabets, but even in the very old Ugaritic alphabet matres lectionis were used, i.e. consonant signs were used to denote vowels.

Greek also introduced three new consonants, appended to the end of the alphabet as they were developed. The consonants were to mainly to make up for the lack of aspirates in Phoenician. In west Greek, actually, chi was used for /ks/ and psi for /k_h/ - hence the value of our letter x, derived from chi. Over the middle ages these aspirates disappeared, so now theta, phi, and chi stand for /T/, /f/, and /x/. The origin of those letters is disputed: According to Miller (53), the Ψ-form kappa comes from the Proto-Canaanite. Kappa probably stood for /k/ as well as /k_h/ in early Greek orthography. Later on, the K-like kap was re-borrowed from Phoenician, in order to distinguish /k/ from /k_h/ graphemically (ibid.). Today the sign Ψ stands for /ps/, whereas X symbolizes /x/ that developed from the aspirated velar stop. Ypsilon, too, was re-borrowed from Phoenician, digamma (F) thus is the same letter, simply based on an earlier form (id. 45). Some sources however see Ψ as a real Greek innovation that has no Semitic predecessor. Jensen (426) on the other hand links psi to Y and qoppa/phi and Safatenic letters (Jensen 463).

Other Greek letters of disputed origin are X (Chi), Φ (Phi) and san. Bernal (116) and Brixhe (336) assume that qoppa originally symbolized /k_w, k_w_h, g_w/ in Greek. Those phonemes fell together with /p, p_h, b/ ? qoppa soon became superfluous. Since pi was the letter for both the aspirated and the non-aspirated phonemes, qoppa came to be the letter that symbolized the aspirated sound. ? This theory is highly controversial, there are however parallels to this process: the modern sound value of Castilian <z> is explained by the phonetic change from /dz/ over /ts/ to /θ/. Other scholars claim that phi is an original Greek invention. Sampson (102) maintains that thêta (Jensen 462) is the origin of the letter, and Swiggers (265) assumes that the letter is of Cypro-Minoan origin.

Bernal (117) claims that khi is of South Semitic origin; other scholars view it as a symbol that derives from Ξ (xi) (Jensen 462). Sampi, whose name is probably derived from Greek (ô) sán pi ('like pi') (Jensen 462) is presumably a newly developed form of san, a Semitic letter that can also be found in Etruscan. In Ionic Greek, sampi ? as the Semitic letter ? stood for /ts/ (id. 450). Gercke (ibid.) views Ξ as the predecessor of sampi.

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. San, too, was reintroduced but at the end - to stand for 900. Thousands were written with a mark at the upper left ('A for 1000, etc).

Originally there were several variants of the Greek alphabet, most importantly western (Chalcidian) and eastern (Ionic) Greek; the former gave rise to the Estruscan alphabet and thence to the Roman 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.

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. Aristophanes of Byzantium also introduced the process of accenting Greek letters for easier pronunciation.

The Greeks were the first people who generalized the alphabetic designation of vowels. They probably did so unconsciously, but opinions on this topic are characterized by great dissension. It is not clear whether Greeks and Semites made the distinction between vowels and consonants the same way present western civilization does. Bernal (128) mentions Phoenician colonization of Greece: bilingualism was probably rather frequent ? also for economic reasons. Without communication, there is no commerce. This in turn seems to imply that ? as in the case of other alphabets ? primarily bilingual or multilingual people are those who adapt alphabets. The Greek alphabet is probably not the result of a unique and isolated adoption, but a multi-layered process based on several Semitic alphabets. Other scripts ? Miller (52) even mentions graphic Linear B influence ? may also have played a part. Maybe it is also necessary to examine whether Greeks and Phoenicians made the same distinctions between different Semitic languages that scholars make today.

(see Early Semitic alphabet for bibliography)

/Talk