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definitions - Greek_alphabet

Greek alphabet (n.)

1.the alphabet used by ancient Greeks

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synonyms - Greek_alphabet

Greek alphabet (n.)

Greek script

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Greek alphabet

Greek alphabet
Type Alphabet
Languages Greek
Time period ~800 BC to the present[1]
Parent systems
Child systems Gothic
Armenian alphabet
Old Italic alphabet
Latin alphabet
ISO 15924 Grek, 200
Direction Left-to-right
Unicode alias Greek
Unicode range U+0370–U+03FF Greek and Coptic,
U+1F00–U+1FFF Greek Extended
Greek alphabet alpha-omega.svg
Greek alphabet
Αα Alpha Νν Nu
Ββ Beta Ξξ Xi
Γγ Gamma Οο Omicron
Δδ Delta Ππ Pi
Εε Epsilon Ρρ Rho
Ζζ Zeta Σσς Sigma
Ηη Eta Ττ Tau
Θθ Theta Υυ Upsilon
Ιι Iota Φφ Phi
Κκ Kappa Χχ Chi
Λλ Lambda Ψψ Psi
Μμ Mu Ωω Omega
Archaic local variants
  • Digamma
  • Heta
  • San
  • Koppa
  • Sampi
  • Tsan
Greek letter Stigma.svg (6)
Greek Koppa lamedh-shaped.svg (90)
Sampi.svg (900)
In other languages
Scientific symbols
  Dipylon inscription, one of the oldest known samples of the use of the Greek alphabet, ca. 740 BC

The Greek alphabet is the script that has been used to write the Greek language since at least 730 BC (the 8th century BC).[2] The alphabet in its classical and modern form consists of 24 letters ordered in sequence from alpha to omega. The Greek alphabet was derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, from which it differs by being the first alphabet that provides a full representation of one written symbol per sound both for vowels as well as consonants. The Greek alphabet in turn is the ancestor of numerous other European and Middle Eastern scripts that follow the same structural principle, among them Cyrillic and Latin.[3]

The Greek alphabet reached its classical form around 400 BC, with some details, including the use of diacritic marks, becoming fixed only during the following centuries of the Hellenistic and Roman period. The sequence of letters has remained unchanged since then up to the present day, although the sound values of individual letters have changed considerably due to phonological changes between ancient and modern Greek. While it was originally written with only a single, majuscule form for each letter, the Greek alphabet developed a second set of letter forms, the minuscule letters, during the Middle Ages, resulting in the modern system of uppercase and lowercase forms.

In addition to being used for writing Greek, both ancient and modern, the letters of the Greek alphabet are today used as technical symbols and labels in many domains of mathematics, science and other fields.



In its classical and modern form, the Greek alphabet contains 24 letters. They are named, in order, as follows: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi, omega. The 24 capital letters (upper-case symbols) are: Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε, Ζ, Η, Θ, Ι, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Ο, Π, Ρ, Σ, Τ, Υ, Φ, Χ, Ψ, Ω. The 24 minuscule symbols (lower-case letters) of the Greek alphabet (in order) are: α, β, γ, δ, ε, ζ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, μ, ν, ξ, ο, π, ρ, σ (ς), τ, υ, φ, χ, ψ, ω. Before the 24-letter alphabet, three of the original Phoenician letters had been in use before the alphabet took its classical shape: the letter Ϻ (san), similar to Σ (sigma) denoting the same phoneme /s/; the letter Ϙ (qoppa), which was redundant with Κ (kappa) for /k/; and Ϝ (digamma), whose sound value was /w/. A system of diacritics on some letters was added during the Hellenistic period. Today the diacritics exist in two orthographic variants: the traditional ("polytonic") system and a simplified ("monotonic") one that has been in official use for Modern Greek since the 1980s.


  Variations of ancient Greek alphabets

The Greek alphabet emerged in the late 9th century BC or early 8th century BC[4] Another, unrelated writing system, Linear B, had been in use to write the Greek language during the earlier Mycenean period, but the two systems are separated from each other by a hiatus of several centuries, the so-called Greek Dark Ages. The Greeks adopted the alphabet from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, a member of the family of closely related West Semitic scripts. The most notable change made in adapting the Phoenician system to Greek was the introduction of vowel letters. According to a definition used by some modern authors, this feature makes Greek the first "alphabet" in the narrow sense,[3] as distinguished from the purely consonantal alphabets of the Semitic type, which according to this terminology are called "abjads".[5]

Greek initially took over all of the 22 letters of Phoenician. Five of them were reassigned to denote vowel sounds: the glide consonants /j/ (yodh) and /w/ (waw) were used for [i] (Ι, iota) and [u] (Υ, upsilon) respectively; the glottal stop consonant /ʔ/ ('aleph) was used for [a] (Α, alpha); the pharyngeal /ʕ/ (ʿayin) was turned into [o] (Ο, omicron); and the letter for /h/ (he) was turned into [e] (Ε, epsilon). A doublet of waw was also borrowed as a consonant for [w] (Ϝ, digamma). In addition, the Phoenician letter for the emphatic glottal /ħ/ (heth) was borrowed in two different functions by different dialects of Greek: as a letter for /h/ (Η, heta) by those dialects that had such a sound, and as an additional vowel letter for the long /ɛː/ (Η, eta) by those dialects that lacked the consonant. Eventually, a seventh vowel letter for the long /ɔː/ (Ω, omega) was introduced.

Greek also introduced three new consonant letters for its aspirated plosive sounds and consonant clusters: Φ (phi) for /pʰ/, Χ (chi) for /kʰ/ and Ψ (psi) for /ps/. In western Greek variants, Χ was instead used for /ks/ and Ψ for /kʰ/ The origin of these letters is a matter of some debate.

Conversely, three of the original Phoenician letters dropped out of use before the alphabet took its classical shape: the letter Ϻ (san), which had been in competition with Σ (sigma) denoting the same phoneme /s/; the letter Ϙ (qoppa), which was redundant with Κ (kappa) for /k/, and Ϝ (digamma), whose sound value /w/ dropped out of the spoken language before or during the classical period.

Greek was originally written predominantly from right to left, just like Phoenician, but scribes could freely alternate between directions. For a time, a writing style with alternating right-to-left and left-to-right lines (called boustrophedon, literally "ox-turning", after the manner of an ox ploughing a field) was common, until in the classical period the left-to-right writing direction became the norm. Individual letter shapes were mirrored depending on the writing direction of the current line.

There were initially numerous local variants of the Greek alphabet, which differed in the use and non-use of the additional vowel and consonant symbols and several other features. A form of western Greek native to Euboea, which among other things had Χ for /ks/, was transplanted to Italy by early Greek colonists, and became the ancestor of the Old Italic alphabets and ultimately, through Etruscan, of the Latin alphabet. Athens used a local form of the alphabet until the 5th century BC; it lacked the letters Ξ and Ψ as well as the vowel symbols Η and Ω. The classical 24-letter alphabet that became the norm later was originally the local alphabet of Ionia; this was adopted by Athens in 403 BC under archon Eucleides and in most other parts of the Greek-speaking world during the 4th century BC.

  Early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

In the Hellenistic period, Aristophanes of Byzantium introduced diacritics to Greek letters, to specify features of pronunciation that were being lost from the popular spoken language at around that time: the pair of rough and smooth breathing, to denote the absence or presence of an initial /h/, and the set of three accent marks (acute, grave and circumflex) to denote distinctions of classical Greek pitch accent. 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.

Letter names

Each of the Phoenician letter names was a word that began with the sound represented by that letter; thus ʾaleph, the word for "ox", was adopted for the glottal stop /ʔ/, bet, or "house", for the /b/ sound, and so on. When the letters were adopted by the Greeks, most of the Phoenician names were maintained or modified slightly to fit Greek phonology; thus, ʾaleph, bet, gimel became alpha, beta, gamma. These borrowed names had no meaning in Greek except as labels for the letters. However, a few signs that were added or modified later by the Greeks do in fact have names with meanings. For example, o mikron and o mega mean "small o" and "big o". Similarly, e psilon and u psilon mean "plain e" and "plain u", respectively.

Number notation

Greek letters were also used to write numbers. In the classical Ionian system, the first nine letters of the alphabet stood for the numbers from 1 to 9, the next nine letters stood for the multiples of 10, from 10 to 90, and the next nine letters stood for the multiples of 100, from 100 to 900. For this purpose, in addition to the 24 letters which by that time made up the standard alphabet, three of the obsolete letters were revived: wau/digamma (Ϝ) for 6, koppa (Ϙ) for 90, and a rare Ionian letter for /ss/, today called sampi (Ͳ), for 900. This system has remained in use in Greek up to the present day, although today it is only employed for limited purposes, similar to the way Roman numerals are used in English. The three extra symbols are today written as ϛ, ϟ and ϡ respectively.

List of letters

Below is a table listing the 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.

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.

Letter Corresponding
Name Transliteration1 Pronunciation Numeric
English Ancient
Α α Aleph Aleph Alpha ἄλφα άλφα a [a] [aː] [a] 1
Β β Beth Beth Beta βῆτα βήτα b v [b] [v] 2
Γ γ Gimel Gimel Gamma γάμμα γάμ(μ)α g gh, g, y [ɡ] [ɣ], [ʝ] 3
Δ δ Daleth Daleth Delta δέλτα δέλτα d d, dh [d] [ð] 4
Ε ε He He Epsilon εἶ ἒ ψιλόν έψιλον e [e] 5
Ζ ζ Zayin Zayin Zeta ζῆτα ζήτα z [zd, dz, zː] (?) [z] 7
Η η Heth Heth Eta ἦτα ήτα e, ē i [ɛː] [i] 8
Θ θ Teth Teth Theta θῆτα θήτα th [tʰ] [θ] 9
Ι ι Yodh Yodh Iota ἰῶτα (γ)ιώτα i [i] [iː] [i], [ʝ] 10
Κ κ Kaph Kaph Kappa κάππα κάπ(π)α k [k] [k], [c] 20
Λ λ Lamedh Lamedh Lambda λάβδα λάμβδα λάμ(β)δα l [l] 30
Μ μ Mem Mem Mu μῦ μι/μυ m [m] 40
Ν ν Nun Nun Nu νῦ νι/νυ n [n] 50
Ξ ξ Samekh Samekh Xi ξεῖ ξῖ ξι x x, ks [ks] 60
Ο ο Ayin 'Ayin Omicron οὖ ὂ μικρόν όμικρον o [o] 70
Π π Pe Pe Pi πεῖ πῖ πι p [p] 80
Ρ ρ Res Resh Rho ῥῶ ρω r, rh r [r], [r̥] [r] 100
Σ σ ς Sin Sin Sigma σῖγμα σίγμα s [s] 200
Τ τ Taw Taw Tau ταῦ ταυ t [t] 300
Υ υ Waw Waw Upsilon ὗ/ὖ ὖ ψιλόν ύψιλον u, y y, v, f [ʉ(ː)], [y(ː)] [i] 400
Φ φ origin debated Phi φεῖ φῖ φι ph f [pʰ] [f] 500
Χ χ Chi χεῖ χῖ χι ch ch, kh [kʰ] [x], [ç] 600
Ψ ψ Psi ψεῖ ψῖ ψι ps [ps] 700
Ω ω Ayin 'Ayin Omega ὦ μέγα ωμέγα o, ō o [ɔː] [o] 800
  1. For details and different transliteration systems see Romanization of Greek.

Obsolete letters

  • Digamma or wau (Ϝ) was the continuation of Phoenician waw, denoting the sound /w/. It stood in the sixth position in the alphabet, after Ε. It dropped out of use because the sound /w/ became mute during the archaic and classical era. It remained in use as a numeric sign denoting the number six. In this function, its shape in uncial and cursive writing changed to "ϛ", until in medieval Greek handwriting it was conflated with an accidentally similar ligature sign for "στ". The symbol "ϛ", both in its function as a numeral continuing that of digamma and in its function as a ligature, is today called "stigma".
  • San (Ϻ), shaped like a modern M, was a continuation either of Phoenician sin or tsade (the exact relationship being unclear), and was used as an alternative to sigma in writing the sound /s/ in some dialects. It was replaced by standard sigma during the classical period. Its position in the alphabet was after pi.
  • Koppa (Ϙ) was the continuation of Phoenician Qoph and was used in some dialects to denote the retracted allophone of /k/ before back vowels. Like digamma, it remained in use as a numeral sign after it had become obsolete as an alphabetic letter. It is used for the number 90, reflecting its original position in the alphabet between pi and rho. In uncial and cursive handwriting its shape changed to Greek Koppa cursive 03.svgGreek Koppa cursive 04.svg. In its numeral function it is today displayed as ϟ.
  • Sampi (Ͳ), of unknown origin, was a short-lived addition used for writing a consonant /ts/ or /ss/ in some Ionic forms of Greece, and then remained in use as a numeral for 900. It may have been a continuation of san, although in its numeral position it did not continue the position of the latter but was placed at the end, after omega. In later handwriting its shape changed to Greek Sampi palaeographic 05.svg and it is today displayed as ϡ. Its modern name sampi probably refers to its shape ("(ὡ)σὰν πῖ", i.e. "like a pi").

Variant forms

Some letters can occur in variant shapes, mostly inherited from medieval minuscule handwriting. While their use in normal typography of Greek is purely a matter of font styles, some such variants have been given separate encodings in Unicode.

  • The symbol ϐ ("curled beta") is a cursive variant form of beta (β). In the French tradition of Ancient Greek typography, β is used word-initially, and ϐ is used word-internally.
  • The letter epsilon can occur in two equally frequent stylistic variants, either shaped \epsilon\,\! ('lunate epsilon', like a semicircle with a stroke) or \varepsilon\,\! (similar to a reversed number 3). The symbol ϵ (U+03F5) is designated specifically for the lunate form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϑ ("script theta") is a cursive form of theta (θ), frequent in handwriting, and used with a specialized meaning as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϰ ("kappa symbol") is a cursive form of kappa (κ), used as a technical symbol.
  • The symbol ϖ ("variant pi") is an archaic script form of pi (π), also used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter rho (ρ) can occur in different stylistic variants, with the descending tail either going straight down or curled to the right. The symbol ϱ (U+03F1) is designated specifically for the curled form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter sigma, in standard orthography, has two variants: ς, used only at the ends of words, and σ, used elsewhere. The form ϲ ("lunate sigma", resembling a Latin c) is a medieval stylistic variant that can be used in both environments without the final/non-final distinction.
  • The capital letter upsilon (Υ) can occur in different stylistic variants, with the upper strokes either straight like a Latin Y, or slightly curled. The symbol ϒ (U+03D2) is designated specifically for the curled form, used as a technical symbol.
  • The letter phi can occur in two equally frequent stylistic variants, either shaped as \textstyle\phi\,\! (a circle with a vertical stroke through it) or as \textstyle\varphi\,\! (a curled shape open at the top). The symbol ϕ (U+03D5) is designated specifically for the closed form, used as a technical symbol.

Digraphs and diphthongs

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, such as ΟΥ (pronounced [oː], then [uː]) and ΕΙ (pronounced [eː], then [iː]), were already present in Classical Greek. None of them are regarded as a letter of the alphabet.

During the Byzantine period, it became customary to write the silent iota in digraphs as an iota subscript (ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ).


In the polytonic orthography traditionally used for ancient Greek, vowels can carry diacritics, namely accents and breathings. The accents are the acute accent (ά), the grave accent (), and the circumflex accent (α̃ or α̑). 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 its absence. 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.

Use of the Greek script for other languages

The Greek alphabet has been adopted at various times and in various places to write other languages.[6] For some languages, additional letters were introduced.


Middle Ages

Early modern

Derived alphabets

The Greek alphabet gave rise to various others:[3]

It is also considered a possible ancestor of the Armenian alphabet, and had an influence on the development of the Georgian alphabet.

Greek in mathematics

Greek symbols are traditionally used as names in mathematics, physics and other sciences. Many symbols have traditional uses, such as lower case epsilon (ε) for an arbitrarily small positive number, lower case pi (π) for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, capital sigma (Σ) for summation, and lower case sigma (σ) for standard deviation.

Greek encodings

For the usage in computers, a variety of encodings have been used for Greek online, many of them documented in RFC 1947.

The two principal ones still used today are ISO/IEC 8859-7 and Unicode. ISO 8859-7 supports only the monotonic orthography; Unicode supports the polytonic orthography.

ISO/IEC 8859-7

For the range A0–FF (hex) it follows the Unicode range 370–3CF (see below) except that some symbols, like ©, ½, § etc. are used where Unicode has unused locations. Like all ISO-8859 encodings it is equal to ASCII for 00–7F (hex).

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, Unicode still falls short in rendering the full range of Greek letter forms. Most current text rendering engines do not support diacritics well, so, though alpha with macron and acute can be represented as U+03B1 U+0304 U+0301, this rarely renders well: ᾱ́.

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 (U+03E2 to U+03EF).

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[1]
Unicode chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+037x Ͱ ͱ Ͳ ͳ ʹ ͵ Ͷ ͷ ͺ ͻ ͼ ͽ ;
U+038x ΄ ΅ Ά · Έ Ή Ί Ό Ύ Ώ
U+039x ΐ Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο
U+03Ax Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω Ϊ Ϋ ά έ ή ί
U+03Bx ΰ α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο
U+03Cx π ρ ς σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω ϊ ϋ ό ύ ώ Ϗ
U+03Dx ϐ ϑ ϒ ϓ ϔ ϕ ϖ ϗ Ϙ ϙ Ϛ ϛ Ϝ ϝ Ϟ ϟ
U+03Ex Ϡ ϡ Ϣ ϣ Ϥ ϥ Ϧ ϧ Ϩ ϩ Ϫ ϫ Ϭ ϭ Ϯ ϯ
U+03Fx ϰ ϱ ϲ ϳ ϴ ϵ ϶ Ϸ ϸ Ϲ Ϻ ϻ ϼ Ͻ Ͼ Ͽ
1. ^  As of Unicode version 6.1
Greek Extended[1]
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1F3x Ἷ
U+1FBx ᾿
1.^ As of Unicode version 6.1

Combining and letter-free diacritics

Combining and spacing (letter-free) diacritical marks pertaining to Greek language:

combining spacing sample description
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 U+02BC (  ̓) "psili / comma above" (spiritus lenis)
U+0314 U+02BD (  ̔) "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".

Encodings with a subset of the Greek alphabet

IBM code pages 437, 860, 861, 862, 863, and 865 contain the letters ΓΘΣΦΩαδεπστφ (plus β as an alternate interpretation for ß).

See also

References and Notes


Further reading

External links



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