Lesson 1.
The Letters And Sounds Of Greek

1.1 The Greek Alphabet

New Testament Greek has twenty-four letters. The English alphabet roughly corresponds to the Greek. Notice that the first, third, and fifth groups of letters are similar to the corresponding English letters. This grouping is significant only as a learning aid.

Capital
Letters
Small
Letters
Name Transliteration Pronunciation
Α α alpha a fuather
Β β beta b ball
Γ γ gamma g gift
Δ δ When γ is followed by a γ, κ, or χ, it is pronounced like an English n. Example: ἄγγελος (an' ge los). delta d debt
Ε ε epsilon e met
Ζ ζ zeta z or dz zion, adze When initial, zeta is z; when internal, it is dz.
Η η eta ē obey
Θ θ theta th theme
Ι ι Sometimes ι appears under long vowels, in which case it is called iota subscript, as in ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ (see 1.4). iota i pit (short) or
magazine (long)
Κ κ kappa k kit
Λ λ lambda l long
Μ μ mu m man
Ν ν nu n no
Ξ ξ xi x relax
Ο ο omicron o omelet
Π π pi p pay
Ρ ρ rho r ring
Σ σ(ς) When sigma is at the end of a word, the form ς is used; elsewhere σ is used. There is no difference in the pronunciation of the two forms. sigma s sing
Τ τ tau t tale
Υ υ upsilon u or y When υ is not used in a diphthong, it is usually transliterated as the English y (see 1.4). tube
Φ φ phi ph phonetics
Χ χ chi ch chemical
Ψ ψ psi ps taps
Ω ω omega ō tone

1.2 Writing Greek Letters

You can write Greek letters correctly if you will use lined paper and draw a dotted line in the middle. Then practice writing the letters in the following way:

a. These letters are written on the lower line.

b. These letters are written on the lower line and extend below that line.

c. These letters are written on the lower line and extend above an imaginary middle line.

d. These letters are written on the lower line, but also extend below that line and above the imaginary middle line.

e. Capital letters are used in the Greek New Testament for titles and proper names, at the beginning of paragraphs, and, in some editions, at the beginning of direct discourse. Sentences generally begin with small letters. Capital letters extend from the upper line to the lower line as in the examples below.

f. Certain Greek letters while similar to English characters in appearance represent different letters. Do not confuse the letters below. They appear similar at first glance, but are distinct in appearance and writing.

Greek English
Capital Letters
Η H
Ρ P
Υ Y
Χ X
Small Letters
η n
ι i
ν v
ρ p
υ u

Also, do not confuse these Greek letters:

Greek γ and ν
Greek ν and υ
Greek ο and σ

1.3 The Vowels

There are seven Greek vowels: α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, and ω. Of these, ε and ο are always short in pronunciation; η and ω are always long; and α, ι, and υ may be either long or short.

1.4 Diphthongs

In Greek, as in English, two sounds often unite in a syllable to form a single sound. Such a construction is called a diphthong. The seven common or proper diphthongs in Greek are as follows:

  Pronunciation Transliteration
αι = ai in aisle ai
αυ = au in kraut au
ει = ei in height ei
ευ = eu in feud eu
οι = oi in oil oi
ου = ou in group ou
υι = ui in suite ui υἱ (with a rough breathing mark) is transliterated hui. The rough breathing mark (') is pronounced like the English letter h (see 2.3).

Another type of diphthong has an iota subscript. This occurs when an iota follows a long vowel, in which case the iota is written under the vowel. The three iota subscript diphthongs are ᾳ, ῃ, and , and they are transliterated ai, ei, and oi. An iota subscript does not affect the pronunciation.

All diphthongs are long, for accenting purposes, except when αι and οι are final in a word, in which case they are short, even though the pronunciation does not change. Thus the diphthong οι in ἄνθρωποι is short because it is final, but οι in ἀνθρώποις is long because another letter follows it.

1.5 The Consonants

There are seventeen consonants in New Testament Greek. They are grouped in three classes:

a. Liquids λ, μ, ν, and ρ

These are called liquids because of the smooth, easy flow of breath used in their pronunciation.

b. Mutes β, γ, δ, θ, κ, π, τ, φ, χ

These consonants are pronounced by momentarily closing portions of the oral passage, then suddenly releasing the sound. As the names suggest, labials are sounded with the lips, dentals with the teeth (and tongue), and palatals with the back of the throat. The following chart demonstrates the relationship of the mute consonants grouped according to class and order. Class refers to the way in which the lips, teeth, tongue, and throat are used to form the sound. Order refers to how smoothly or roughly you pronounce the letter.

According to order
  smooth
(flat)
middle
(sharp)
rough
(aspirate)
According to class
Labials π β φ
Dentals τ δ θ
Palatals
(Gutturals)
κ γ χ

c. Sibilants σ, ζ, ξ, and ψ

These consonants all have an "s" sound. Three of these (ζ, ξ, and ψ) are called compound consonants or digraphs because they resulted from the combination of a mute consonant with σ.

1.6 Exercises

  1. a. Learn the names of the letters of the Greek alphabet so that you can say them from memory as fluently as you say the letters of the English alphabet.
  2. b. Write all Greek letters carefully several times in capital and small letters using the three lines as suggested.
  3. c. Pronounce each Greek letter and diphthong aloud until you have mastered the correct sounds.
  4. d. Transliterate the following proper names from the New Testament: Ἰωάννης (Matt. 3:1); Πέτρος (Matt. 10:2); Φίλιππος (Matt. 10:3); Γαβριήλ (Luke 1:26); Παῦλος (Rom. 1:1); Τιμόθεος (2 Cor. 1:1); Τίτος (Gal. 2:3); Ἰάκωβος (James 1:1).