Introduction to ancient Greek pronunciation
The Ancient Greek alphabet consists of twenty-four letters. In great antiquity, there were only capital letters, there were no diacritical marks, and there were no spaces between the words. The diacritical marks are the creation of Alexandrian scholars as a memory of very ancient pronunciation. The use of small-case letters was further developed in medieval times. These marks give clues as to accent and, in some cases, to sounds that are known to have existed in the language, but had all but disappeared by the Hellenistic period. This diacritical system of writing Greek is called polytonikó sýstima (polytonico systema, πολυτονικό σύστημα), the polytonic or multi-accented system.
The Erasmian method of pronouncing ancient Greek
Western universities follow a method of pronunciation based on ideas found in the writings of the humanist scholar Erasmus in his dialogue De recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione. This text lays out what is known as the Erasmian method of pronouncing ancient Greek, also referred to as "restored classical pronunciation."
The Reuchlinian method of pronouncing ancient Greek
When English-speaking professors, presumably using the Erasmian method, venture beyond common Greek words, pronunciation dramatically varies from scholar to scholar, usually with the words pronounced as one would imagine them in English, oblivious of correct accentuation. Of course this is understandable, as most teachers work from transliterations which do not have accents or other clues to help them. Pronunciation by Greek scholars, on the other hand, is consistent from one scholar to another, for it is the same as Modern Greek pronunciation and they are working from Greek texts.
Using Modern Greek pronunciation to pronounce the ancient language is what scholars call the Reuchlinian Method. It is named after a contemporary of Erasmus, Johannes Reuchlin, another humanist from the Dutch Renaissance. Reuchlin disagreed with Erasmus, suggesting that reverting to a proposed antique pronunciation would create a mess. Unfortunately, the Western universities eventually decided to follow Erasmus.
The creator of this website is aligned with Greeks and, therefore, uses the Reuchlinian method exclusively.
The Reuchlinian method in practice
The Reuchlinian method, at least as concerns diacritics, is a more simplified Greek because the diacritical marks are largely ignored, with the notable exception of the stress/accent marks. The pronunciation of the letters and diphthongs as given below is the critical factor, and it is significantly different from the Erasmian pronunciation. After we go through the letters of the alphabet, there is a more detailed explanation of some of the subtleties of pronunciation. Also there is an explanation of the diacritical symbols, most of which are now ignored, as they were originally meant to be understood.
To avoid confusion, the pronunciation examples in the chart below represent American-English pronunciation. Please take this into account if you are more familiar with English pronunciation. If you need clarification, please write firstname.lastname@example.org; I will be happy to go through the pronunciation over Skype.
It is not so difficult to memorize how the letters are pronounced. In time, anyone can also master the various subtleties as well. All this will enable the student to pronounce any ancient Greek word with considerable accuracy. If you can find the Greek word in ancient script, you can pronounce it with confidence.
It is recommended that students develop a discipline of reading several pages of text every day, even before learning the language. Within a few months you will become much more proficient and you will avoid the problem many students of ancient languages face of being able to translate but being unable to actually speak the language.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a student just entering university, the Reuchlinian method will not be accepted by professors using the Erasmian method. This is a contentious issue for many students of Greek. There are also some teachers who prefer the Reuchlinian method, but they are likely in the minority. Nonetheless, if you also need to learn Modern Greek, the Reuchlinian method is identical. Students who intend to do research in Greece and who desire to interact with Greek scholars will need to know modern pronunciation. Using the Erasmian method is, for the most part, unintelligible to Greeks.
Transliteration using the Reuchlinian method of pronunciation
In order to incorporate the Greek pronunciation into transliteration, an entirely new system has been developed, with the non-scholar in mind. This method uses accent marks, which greatly simplifies pronunciation choices for students. To learn more about why we spell words the way we do, visit this page:
Perhaps the most important words to pronounce correctly are the names of the Gods. At the the following link you will find a list of some of the major deities in Ællinismόs (Hellenismos, Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion:
THE ANCIENT GREEK ALPHABET
- standing between π and ρ in early Greek alphabets; later displaced by κ, but surviving in Latin as Q and retained in Greek as a numeral = 90 (L&S p. 979, left column)
By observing the above lists, you will note that the following letters all have the identical sound, the sound of ee in bee:
η (íta), ι (ióhta), and υ (ýpsilon), as well as the diphthongs: ει, οι, and υι.
It is thought that in very ancient Greek, these various vowels and diphthongs each had a distinct sound, but that through time they all came to be pronounced like ι (ióhta). The process of their becoming identical in pronunciation has been called iohtakizmós (iotacismus or iotacism, ἰωτακισμός). It is important, however, to retain the original letters, even though they may be pronounced all the same, as it is essential in the study of the language, for instance, in the etymology of words.
The following 2-letter vowel combinations are referred to as díphthongi (diphthongs, δίφθογγοι; singular is δίφθογγος):
αι - as the e in get. It is pronounced like ε; at the end of words it sounds a bit more like the a in say.
αυ - pronounced: ăhf if found at the end of a word with no letter following it.
- pronounced: ăhf before the following consonants: θ κ ξ π σ τ φ χ ψ (unvoiced consonants)
- pronounced: ăhv before the following consonants: β γ δ ζ λ μ ν ρ (voiced consonants)
- pronounced: ăhv when found before a vowel.
ει - as the ee in beet
ευ - pronounced: ĕf if found at the end of a word with no letter following it.
- pronounced: ĕf before the following consonants: θ κ ξ π σ τ φ χ ψ (unvoiced consonants)
- pronounced: ĕv before the following consonants: β γ δ ζ λ μ ν ρ (voiced consonants)
- pronounced: ĕv when found before a vowel.
ηυ - pronounced: eef if found at the end of a word with no letter following it.
- pronounced: eef before the following consonants: θ κ ξ π σ τ φ χ ψ (unvoiced consonants)
- pronounced: eev before the following consonants β γ δ ζ λ μ ν ρ (voiced consonants)
- pronounced: eev when found before a vowel.
οι - as the ee in beet. When the Ómikron has a stress mark over it (όι), this is not actually a diphthong, the letters are separate syllables, and it is pronounced oh + ee, but since it is spoken quickly, it sounds like the oy in boy.
ου - as the ue in glue
υι - as the ee in beet
THE LONG DÍPHTHONGI
Ypoyægrammǽni (hypogegrammene or ióhta subscript, ὑπογεγραμμένη) is a tiny mark placed underneath the letters ᾳ ῃ ῳ representing ióhta; this identifies the obsolete díphthongi ᾱι, ηι, and ωι (the long diphthongs), in which the ióhta is no longer pronounced.
Prosyægrammǽni (prosgegrammene or ióhta adscript, προσγεγραμμένη) When script is written entirely in upper case, the ióhta of the long díphthongi is printed as a normal capital ióhta, after the initial letter of the díphthongos. There is another convention called prosyægrammǽni (ióhta adscript) in which the ióhta in these obsolete diphthongs is printed in small case while the rest of the text is in upper case.
VOWEL COMBINATIONS OTHER THAN OR INCLUDING DÍPHTHONGI
Other vowel combinations are not diphthongs and should be given independent syllables as in the words φαεσίμβροτον (pha-æ-SIM-vro-ton), νεάταις (næ-AH-tais), or θέω (THǼ-oh). In a word containing a diphthong and a vowel adjacent to each other, they are given independent syllables as in the word Παιάν (Pæ-AHN) or Θέαιναι (THǼ-ai-nai).
While these rules about separate syllables are technically correct, in actual usage, we hear something different. Like any language, a native speaker of Greek talks very fast, particularly from the perspective of someone to whom it is a second language; sometimes an entire sentence will sound like one gigantic word. Adjacent vowels and diphthongs sometimes "melt" into each other and sound different than how they are pronounced independently, particularly when the first letter has the ee sound. For instance:
ια (ee-ah) becomes yah in the name Ιάσων (Jason) and sounds more like YAH-sohn.
ιε (ee-ay) becomes yæ in the word νικιέμαι and sounds more like nee-KYÆ-mai.
ιο (ee-oh) becomes yoh in the word κονιορτός and sounds more like koh-nyohr-TOHS.
ιω (ee-oh) becomes yoh in the word ἀβίωτος and sounds more like ah-VYOH-tos.
οιε (oh-ee-ay) becomes yæ in the word ποιέω and sounds more like pYAY-oh.
There are nine plosive consonants in ancient Greek. A plosive is a consonant in which the breathing passage is blocked in order to pronounce it. Plosives are also called mutes or stops. We are concerned with three types of plosives: labials (formed with the lips), dentals (formed with the teeth), and palatals (formed using the soft palate). Then there are voiceless (no use of the vocal chords or aspiration), voiced (use of the vocal chords but no aspiration), and aspirated (consonants followed by a burst of air). Here are the nine consonants with their characteristics:
π – voiceless labial
β – voiced labial
φ – aspirated labial
τ – voiceless dental
δ – voiced dental
θ – aspirated dental
κ – voiceless palatal
γ - voiced palatal (when it is a hard gámma)
χ – aspirated palatal
Five more consonants with characteristics:
σ – sibilant
λ – liquid
ρ – liquid
μ – nasal
ν – nasal
TWO-LETTER CONSONANTS INVOLVING THE GÁMMA
See above under Gámma.
OTHER 2-LETTER CONSONANT EXCEPTIONS
All four of these examples are found more frequently in Modern Greek than in Ancient Greek:
μπ is seen occasionally in Ancient Greek, pronounced as the b in boy at the beginning of a word, if inside a word, a slight m is heard before the b-sound.
ντ is actually very common in Ancient Greek. It is pronounced as the d in dog at the beginning of a word; if inside a word, a slight n is heard before the d-sound, pronounced as nd, as in the name Kohnstandínos (Constantinos, Κωνσταντῖνος). Some more examples: εἴπαντος (pronounced: EE-pan-dohs), ἐβουλεύοντο (pronounced: eh-voo-LEV-ohn-doh), and στήσονται (pronounced: STEE-sohn-day).
τσ as the ch in chew, not very common in Ancient Greek but seen more frequently in Modern Greek.
τζ almost like the j in James, especially when at the beginning of a word, but more like the ds in loads or a simple z as in zero when within a word. Example: τζαγκάριος pronounced jang-KA-ri-os. This letter combination is not very common in Ancient Greek but seen more frequently in Modern Greek.
PRONUNCIATION PROBLEMS INVOLVING TWO WORDS AND THE LETTER NI
As is typical in spoken language, words are spoken rather quickly and sentences sound almost like one big word; under certain circumstances, this alters the way particular letters are pronounced. When a word ends in Ni (ν Ν) and the next word begins with κ, ξ, π, τ, ψ, χ the combination sounds thus:
κ - ng
ξ - ngz
π - nb
τ - nd
χ - ngkh
ψ - nbz
In reality, when the language is mastered, such peculiarities will occur naturally.
The following letters are sometimes called double consonants because they sound somewhat like two letters sounded together:
ζ - sounds like z or s + d
ξ - sounds like x or k + s
ψ - sounds like p + s
The term "double consonant" is sometimes used to refer to two identical consonants, adjacent with each other, within a word; these are pronounced as though they are only one letter. For example, ἀλληγορῶ, sounds like "aligoróh," as though there was only one λ.
VARIOUS DIACRITICAL MARKS
DIAIRÆSIS: Ϋ, ϋ, ΰ, ῢ, ῧ; Ϊ, ϊ, ΐ, ῒ, ῗ
When two vowels appear together and one of them (almost always the second letter) has two dots above it (such as ϊ ϋ), this diacritical mark is called a diairæsis (diaeresis or division, διαίρεσις); in such case, the vowels are pronounced separately, indicating that this 2-letter combination is not actually a diphthong. An example would be λαϊκός; in which case the αϊ is not a diphthong and the letters are pronounced as two separate syllables: lah-ee-KOHS. Another example would be: πλήθεϊ (pronounced: PLEE-theh-ee). Linguists say that the appearance of a diairæsis in a Greek word is a clue that the word may be of other-than-Greek origin.
In very ancient Greek, every word beginning with a vowel or a diphthong will have what is called a breathing mark. This mark indicates what are called pnévmata (pneumata, πνεύματα), breathings. The pnévmata are indicated by an apostrophe-like symbol over the first letter of a word or the second letter of a diphthong. When the first letter is an upper-case letter, the breathing-mark will appear before the letter and near its top. These markings are ignored in the Reuchlinian pronunciation. While they are no longer pronounced, their retention has value in the study of the language:
Dasý pnévma (rough breathing or aspiration, δασὺ πνεῦμα): With the dasý pnévma (rough breathing), the hollow of the breathing symbol faces the right (ἁ ἑ ἱ). The aspiration only occurs at the beginning of a word in which the first letter is a vowel (with the exception of Roh [Ρ ρ ϱ)] see below). In very ancient times, there was an h-sound before the initial letter. This is why in the Erasmian system, the name Ἑρμῆς is transliterated "Hermes," but in Reuchlinian pronunciation, the h-sound not pronounced; thus it is transliterated "Ærmís."
Roh (Ρ ρ ϱ) at the beginning of a word always has the dasý pnévma (rough breathing), even though it is a consonant, and this is why it has been transliterated rh, but we avoid that convention because it is simply pronounced like an ordinary (faintly-rolled) r in the Reuchlinian method. Ýpsilon (Υ ϒ υ) at the beginning of a word also always has the rough breathing, but, again, we just use the single letter to transliterate the letter as it is no longer pronounced differently from an ordinary ýpsilon.
Psilón pnévma (smooth breathing, ψιλὸν πνεῦμα): When the hollow of the breathing-symbol faces left (ἀ. ἐ, ἰ, etc.), this is a psilón pnévma (smooth breathing) and it indicates that there is no aspiration before the first letter.
There are other conventions, such as how the breathing-symbols appear on the double-roh (ῤῥ), but they are simply ignored in the Reuchlinian method of pronunciation.
Breathing marks combined with accents: When the stress or accent of a word occurs on the first syllable, and that syllable is a vowel, the stress and the breathing-symbol will be combined; in the Reuchlinian method, the breathing-symbol is ignored but the stress/accent is observed.
Accentuation in ancient Greek is called prosohdía (prosodia, προσῳδία). The word refers to music. This is because the various accents had different pitches and the effect was that the language had a musical quality. As the centuries progressed, exactly how this was performed was lost and now there is simply stress-accent. At the same time, when we accent syllables, we unconsciously raise the pitch slightly, despite there being more emphasis on strong expiration.
In ancient Greek words, the accent will always fall on one of the last three syllables; this is called the Antepenult Rule. These syllables are named as follows:
Proparalígousa (antepenult, προπαραλήγουσα) is the third-to-last syllable in a word.
Protæleftaios (penult, προτελευταῖος) is the second-to-last syllable in a word.
Tæleftaios (ultima, τελευταῖος) is the last syllable in a word.
There are rather complicated rules, primarily based on what are called long and short syllables, which determine where the accent falls. Fortunately, text in small-case letters indicates which syllable receives the accent. Indication of accent or stress is found above the letter as indicated below.
Oxeia Accent (ὀξεῖα): The oxeia (acute) accent looks like a small slash above the letter, with the lower part facing the left: Ά ά Ώ ώ. This indicates not only stress but a higher pitch on a short vowel or a rising pitch on a long vowel (not observed in the Reuchlinian method).
Vareia Accent (βαρεῖα): The vareia (grave) accent looks like a small slash above the letter, with the lower part facing the right: Ὰ ὰ Ὼ ὼ. It indicates a stress on that syllable with no change in pitch or a lower pitch.
Pærispohmǽni (perispomene, περισπωμένη): The pærispohmǽni (circumflex) looks like a "squiggle" above the letter: ᾶ ῆ ῶ ῦ; an alternate symbol for the circumflex looks like a dome above the letter: ᴖ. It indicates a high and falling pitch within one syllable (not observed in the Reuchlinian method).
In the Reuchlinian method, all three symbols indicate which syllable is stressed, not with the pitch changes, but simply as indicating where the accent lies in a word.
When the accent/stress falls on a diphthong, the mark is placed on the second letter.
When the stress or accent of a word occurs on the first syllable, and that syllable is a vowel or a díphthongos, the stress and the breathing marks are combined (ἂ, ἃ, ἒ, ἓ, ἢ, ἣ, ἲ, ἳ, αὔ, αὖ etc.); in the Reuchlinian method, the breathing-mark is ignored but the stress/accent is observed.
APOSTROPHE AT THE END OF A WORD
Frequently one will find an apostrophe at the end of a word indicating a type of contraction; generally, the following word is combined with that which has the apostrophe. As an example, the beginning of line three Ὁμήρου Ἰλιάς,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους,
DIACRITICAL MARKS WHEN USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS
When Greek is written in all capital letters, no diacritical marks should be used (although you may find them in some medieval texts).
PUNCTUATION AND MISCELLANEOUS
The comma (from κόμμα, "a short clause") and the period (from περίοδος, a "cycle" or "circuit") function exactly as in English.
The semi-colon in ancient Greek text functions as a question mark.
A raised dot (κῶλον) can be used as either a colon or a semi-colon.
There is no equivalent of the exclamation point.
Quotation marks are sometimes used as in English to indicate someone speaking, although it is a modern convention. Sometimes it will be indicated by capitalizing the first letter of the quotation.
The hyphen (ὑφέν) is used as in English, to unite two words. The word ὑφέν means "put under" because the symbol was originally placed under the two consecutive letters joining the two words.
Brackets [ ] indicate that what they enclose is not actually part of the text.
Parenthesis (παρένθεσις, "insertion") as in English.
Short (ᾰ) or long (ᾱ) marks over vowels indicate whether the vowel is long or short, as in English.
The apostrophe (ἀπόστροφος, "cut off") is found at the end of a word forming a contraction with the next word, as in English.
See also: Transliteration of Ancient Greek
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Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.
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