Greek alphabet | History, Definition, & Facts (2024)

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Article History

Key People:
Claude Garamond
Related Topics:
runic alphabet
Cyrillic alphabet
Ionic alphabet
Chalcidian alphabet
digamma

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Top Questions

Where did the Greek alphabet come from?

The Greek alphabet is a writing system that was developed in Greece about 1000 BCE. It is the direct or indirect ancestor of all modern European alphabets. It was derived from the North Semitic alphabet via that of the Phoenicians.

How is the Greek alphabet used today?

The Greek alphabet is still used for the Greek language today. The letters of the Greek alphabet are now also used as symbols for concepts in equations of the interrelated fields of mathematics and science—for example, the lowercase alpha () can be used to represent an angle in mathematics.

Is the Greek alphabet the same as the Cyrillic alphabet?

The Greek alphabet is not the same as the Cyrillic alphabet. But the Cyrillic alphabet was heavily based upon the Greek alphabet, so the two writing systems resemble each other. The Cyrillic alphabet was created during the Middle Ages, and it includes additional letters to account for the sounds which Slavic languages use that aren’t present in Greek. The Cyrillic alphabet is now also used for non-Slavic languages, such as Kyrgyz and Tajik.

Why was the Greek alphabet a significant development?

The Greek alphabet was a significant development because it was a more efficient and accurate way to write a non-Semitic language. It did so through the addition of several new letters and the modification or dropping of several others. Most important, some of the symbols of the Semitic alphabet, which represented only consonants, were made to represent vowels.

Greek alphabet, writing system that was developed in Greece about 1000 bce. It is the direct or indirect ancestor of all modern European alphabets. Derived from the North Semitic alphabet via that of the Phoenicians, the Greek alphabet was modified to make it more efficient and accurate for writing a non-Semitic language by the addition of several new letters and the modification or dropping of several others. Most important, some of the symbols of the Semitic alphabet, which represented only consonants, were made to represent vowels: the Semitic consonants ʾalef, he, yod, ʿayin, and vav became the Greek letters alpha, epsilon, iota, omicron, and upsilon, representing the vowels a, e, i, o, and u, respectively. The addition of symbols for the vowel sounds greatly increased the accuracy and legibility of the writing system for non-Semitic languages.

Before the 5th century bce the Greek alphabet could be divided into two principal branches: the Ionic (eastern) and the Chalcidian (western). Differences between the two branches were minor. The Chalcidian alphabet probably gave rise to the Etruscan alphabet of Italy in the 8th century bce and hence indirectly to the other Italic alphabets, including the Latin alphabet, which is now used for most European languages. In 403 bce, however, Athens officially adopted the Ionic alphabet as written in Miletus, and in the next 50 years almost all local Greek alphabets, including the Chalcidian, were replaced by the Ionic script, which thus became the Classical Greek alphabet.

The early Greek alphabet was written, like its Semitic forebears, from right to left. This gradually gave way to the boustrophedon style, and after 500 bce Greek was always written from left to right. The Classical alphabet had 24 letters, 7 of which were vowels, and consisted of capital letters, ideal for monuments and inscriptions. From it were derived three scripts better suited to handwriting: uncial, which was essentially the Classical capitals adapted to writing with pen on paper and similar to hand printing, and cursive and minuscule, which were running scripts similar to modern handwriting forms, with joined letters and considerable modification in letter shape. Uncial went out of use in the 9th century ce, and minuscule, which replaced it, developed into the modern Greek handwriting form.

Classical Greek alphabet

The table indicates the Classical Greek alphabet.

Classical Greek alphabet
letters equivalents
capital lowercase combinations name Britannica preferred alternatives approximate Classical Attic pronunciation
*Old-style character.
**Final, ç.
Α α, α* alpha a are
αι ae in proper nouns, ai in common words e ice
αυ au now
Β β beta b baby
Γ γ gamma g go
γγ ng angle
γκ nk nc ink
γξ nx thanks
γχ nch nkh in case
Δ δ, ∂* delta d dog
Ε ε epsilon e bet
ει ei e or i day
ευ eu bet + now
Ζ ζ zeta z used
Η η eta ē e air
ηυ ēu eu airway
Θ θ, ϑ* theta th tin
Ι ι iota i even or pin
Κ κ kappa c in proper nouns, k in common words pocket
Λ λ lambda l lily
Μ μ mu m maim
Ν ν nu n not
Ξ ξ xi x ax
Ο ο omicron o German so
οι oe in proper nouns, oi in common words German so + day
ου ou own
Π π pi p spin
Ρ ρ rho initial, rh; medial, r rose
ρρ rrh German Naturrecht
Σ σ** sigma s sand
Τ τ tau t stay
Υ υ upsilon y u French du
υι ui French concluiez
Φ ϕ, φ* phi ph pin
Χ χ chi ch kh kin
Ψ ψ psi ps perhaps
Ω ω omega ō o call

Classical Greek numerals

The table indicates the Classical Greek numerals.

Classical Greek numerals
Greek Arabic
α′ 1
β′ 2
γ′ 3
δ′ 4
ε′ 5
ζ′ 6
ξ′ 7
η′ 8
θ′ 9
ι′ 10
ια′ 11
ιβ′ 12
ιγ′ 13
ιδ′ 14
ιε′ 15
ιζ′ 16
ιξ′ 17
ιη′ 18
ιθ′ 19
κ′ 20
κα′ 21
κβ′ 22
κγ′ 23
κδ′ 24
λ′ 30
μ′ 40
ν′ 50
ξ′ 60
ο′ 70
π′ 80
ϙ′ 90
ρ′ 100
σ′ 200
τ′ 300
υ′ 400
ϕ′ 500
χ′ 600
ψ′ 700
ω′ 800
ϡ′ 900
α 1,000

Modern Greek alphabet

The table indicates the Modern Greek alphabet.

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Modern Greek alphabet
Greek letters
capital lower case combinations name equivalents approximate pronunciation
*Old-style character.
**Pronounced with a long a.
***Final, ç.
Α α, α* álfa a bother
αι e bed
αï ai life
αυ av/af lava**, waft
αϋ ai life
Β β víta v van
Γ γ ghámma gh before α, ο, ου, ω, and consonants other than γ, ξ, and χ, y before αι, ε, ει, η, ι, οι, υ, υι; n before γ, ξ, and χ wit, yet, sing
γκ initial, g; medial, ng go, finger
Δ δ, ∂* dhélta dh; d between ν and ρ then, wondrous
Ε ε épsilon e bet
ει i even
εï day
ευ ev/ef revel, left
Ζ ζ zíta z zone
Η η íta i fig
ηυ iv/if even, leaf
Θ θ, ϑ* thíta th thin
Ι ι ióta i even
Κ κ káppa k kin, cook
Λ λ lámbdha l lily
Μ μ mi m maim
μπ initial, b; medial, mb bake, ambush
Ν ν ni n not
ντ initial, d; medial, nd dog, fender
ντζ ntz chintz
Ξ ξ xi x ax
Ο ο ómikron o saw
οι i even
οï oi boy
ου u food
Π π pi p pin
Ρ ρ ro r rose
Σ σ*** sígma s sand
Τ τ taf t tie
Υ υ ípsilon i initially and between consonants even
υι i even
Φ ϕ, φ* fi f fifty
Χ χ khi kh German Buch
Ψ ψ psi ps perhaps
Ω ω oméga o bone
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy McKenna.

Greek alphabet | History, Definition, & Facts (2024)
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