Greek Alphabet and Erasmian Pronunciation
Types of Pronunciation
There are three broad types of pronunciation of Greek:
- Reconstructed historical, including:
- Koine (κοινή \koy-'nay\), c. 300 BCE-330 CE
- Classical Attic, c. 500–300 BCE
- Classical Homeric, c. 800-500 BCE
The charts which follow show Erasmian, Modern, and biblical-era Koine pronunciations.
Erasmian (named for Desiderius Erasmus [1466-1536]), is the pronunciation traditionally taught in New Testament studies. It is easy to learn and practical for self-teaching.
It is not, however, an authentic Greek pronunciation and does not reflect a true spoken foreign language. It is an academic pronunciation which, though originally based on Classical pronunciation, became unmoored from authentic Greek long ago, conforming instead to speakers' native phonologies.
In actual practice [Erasmian] Greek is pronounced in conformity to German, English, French and so on, according to the mother tongue of the speaker (hence in our international New Testament conferences we are often conscious of a Babel-like experience when trying to figure out which Greek word the speaker was trying to pronounce). (Caragounis 1995, under2. The Error of Erasmus)
The U.S. variant of Erasmian (given here), for example, substitutes American-English vowel sounds for Greek vowels.
English is very rich in vowel sounds, still, it lacks almost completely the Greek vowels. (Foundalis, underPhonology and Orthography)
Erasmian is particularly helpful for remembering spelling and for disambiguating word inflections when speaking or transcribing in the classroom. Unlike Modern Greek, Erasmian differentiates each Greek vowel, although not every diphthong (that is, if you are able to distinguish between \ah\ in father for the letter α, and \aw\ in caught for the letter ο).
See Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching.
Robie (B-Greek, 1997):I started out using modern pronunciation, which I had learned from the local Papouli at the Greek Orthodox church. However, I found that I had a hard time looking up words in the lexicon or remembering them since so many letters simply aren't distinguished in the modern pronunciation. Also, there are some significant words that are not distinguished in modern pronunciation.... In the phrase hUMIN KAI hHMIN, the first and third words sounded identical.3
1. Harry Foundalis, About the Greek Language, http://www.cogsci.indiana.edu/farg/harry/lan/grkphon.htm#fp_jpn_u (accessed 03 February 2007), Phonology and Orthography.
Chrys C. Caragounis,
The Error of Erasmus and Un-Greek Pronunciations of Greek,
Filología Neotestamentaria, no. 8 (1995): 151-185,
available online at Biblical Studies on the Web:
http://www.bsw.org/?l=72081&a=Art06.html (accessed 03 February 2007), 2. The Error of Erasmus.
Re: Teaching Beginning Greek Pronounciation, 22 February 1997, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/test-archives/html4/1997-02/17352.html (accessed 03 February 2007).
Biblical-era pronunciation did not uniquely differentiate every vowel and diphthong. Koine-oriented shows which vowels and diphthongs, per
Living Koine (presented alongside Modern pronunciation in the next chapter) is a reconstructed Koine pronunciation by Randall Buth from biblical-era evidence.
Buth (Notes on Koine):We have thousands of documents from the time period whose misspellings show us which sounds were exactly the same for Koine Greek speakers and which sounds were distinct and phonemic in their ears.... Some misspellings reflect dialect differences and some misspellings are just haphazard mistakes. However, when hundreds and thousands of examples of the same kind of misspellings are found all over the Greek world, then we have found items that sound alike to Koine Greek speakers.6
Names of Greek Letters
Within the Erasmian guide, wherever two pronunciations are given for a Greek letter name, the first is technically preferred but the second is an acceptable (more common) alternative.
The English alphabet corresponds substantially to the Greek. This is because the Latin alphabet, from which the English alphabet was adapted c.7th century CE, was itself adapted from a variant of the Greek alphabet c.7th century BCE (five centuries before the Roman annexation of Greece).
The two most easily confused letters are ξ and χ. The shape of χ resembles the English letter x, but is transcribed by ch and pronounced \h\ in
ξ, on the other hand, is transcribed by x and pronounced \ks\ or \x\ in
fix. So remember: χ is not x.
|Α Β Γ Δ Ε||α β γ δ ε||a-b-gamma-d-e (like English, except γ instead of c)|
|Ζ Η Θ Ι||ζ η θ ι||\'zay-thee\ (Greek imperative to |
|ΚΛΜΝΞΟΠΡΣΤΥ||κλμνξοπρστυ||k-l-m-n-xi-o-p- -r-s-t-u (same as English, except for addition of ξ, and no q)|
|Φ Χ Ψ Ω||φ χ ψ ω||f/x (effects)-psō|
Ζῆθι (an inflection of ζάω) occurs in the Septuagint (Ecclesiates 7:14; Daniel 2:4,28; 3:9), but not in the New Testament. (Note: \'zay-thee\ is pronounced with \th\ as in
thin, not \th\ as in
this or in English
Interesting ancient Greek word play on ΖΗΘΙ at Everything2.
Underscores are used in this guide as follows:
\r\ to emphasize a trilled (or rolling) r, as opposed to an untrilled (not-underscored) English \r\;
\s\ to emphasize, where necessary, that an s remains \s\ where in English it might instead be \z\ as in
(particularly, this notation is used whenever ς \s\ follows η \ay\);
\h\ to represent the distinct ch-sound in
\gh\ to represent the distinct sound of Modern Greek γ;
\th\ to differentiate voiced \th\ in
this from voiceless \th\ in
\zh\ to represent the z-sound in
pleasure (as opposed to \z\ in
Tilde (~) is used wherever English-equivalent representations are given for non-Erasmian pronunciations to emphasize that the representations are at best approximate to Greek phonology.
|Letter||Traditional Name||IPA||Erasmian (U.S.) Pronunciation||Koine|
|Α α||Ἄλφα||Alpha||\'ahl-fuh\, \'al-fuh\||[ɑ], [ə]||[ɑ] \ah\ as in
cot; [ə] \uh\ as in
bananaon unstressed final α
|Β β||Βῆτα||Beta||\'bay-tuh\||[b]||\b\ as in
|Γ γ||Γάμμα||Gamma||\'gah-muh\, \'ga-muh\||[ɡ]||\g\ as in |
good(not \j\ in
|[ŋ]||\ng\ as in |
singwhen followed by γ, κ, ξ, or χ (see
Gamma as \ng\below)
|Δ δ||Δέλτα||Delta||\'dehl-tuh\||[d]||\d\ as in
|Ε ε||Ἒ ψιλόν||Epsilon||\eh psee-'lon\, \'eh-psi-lon\||[ɛ]||\eh\ as in |
|Ζ ζ||Ζῆτα||Zeta||\'dzay-tuh\||[dz]||\dz\ as in
|Η η||Ἤτα||Eta||\'ay-tuh\||[eɪ]||\ay\ as in
|Θ θ||Θῆτα||Theta||\'thay-tuh\||[θ]||\th\ as in
thin(not \th\ in
|Ι ι||Ἰῶτα||Iota||\ee-'oh-tuh\ (not \igh-'oh-tuh\)||[i], [ɪ]||[i] \ee\ as in |
ski; or [ɪ] \i\ as in
|[j]||Sometimes \y\ as in |
|Κ κ||Κάππα||Kappa||\'kah-puh\, \'ka-puh\||[kʰ], [k]||\k\ as
|Λ λ||Λάμβδα||Lambda||\'lahm-duh\, \'lam-duh\||[l]||\l\ as in
|Μ μ||Μῦ||Mu||\'moo\||[m]||\m\ as in
|Ν ν||Νῦ||Nu||\'noo\||[n]||\n\ as in
|Ξ ξ||Ξῖ||Xi||\'ksee\||[ks]||\ks\ or \x\ as in |
|Ο ο||Ὂ μικρόν||Omicron||\o mee-'kron\, \'ah-mi-krahn\||[ɔ]||\o\ or \aw\ as in American*
Compare \ah\ in cot to \o\ in caught
|Same as ω (e.g., \oh mee-'krohn\)|
|Π π||Πῖ||Pi||\'pee\ (not pie)||[pʰ], [p]||\p\ as
|Ρ ρ||Ῥῶ||Rho||\'rhoh\, \'roh\||[r]||Trilled (i.e., rolling) Scottish \r\
(not English [ɹ] \r\); initial ρ is always aspirated \rh\
Babel Babble: IPA [r]
|Σ σ,ς||Σίγμα||Sigma||\'seeg-muh\, \'sig-muh\||[s]||\s\ as in
face(not \z\ in
|Τ τ||Ταῦ||Tau||\'tow\ (as in
tower, not toe)
|[tʰ], [t]||\t\ as in
|Υ υ||ὖ ψιλόν||Upsilon||\'oo psee-'lon\, \'oo-psi-lon\||[u]||Same as diphthong ου (below)||Fr. u or Ger. ü (e.g., \'u psee-'lohn\)|
|Φ φ||Φῖ||Phi||\'fee\||[f]||\f\ or \ph\ as in
|Χ χ||Χῖ||Chi||\'hee\, \'kee\||[x]||\h\ as in Scottish |
loch(not lock) ; (see
Pronunciation of Chibelow)
Babel Babble: IPA [x]
|Ψ ψ||Ψῖ||Psi||\'psee\||[ps]||\ps\ as in |
|Ω ω||Ὦ μέγα||Omega||\'oh 'meh-guh\, \oh-'meh-guh\||[oʊ]||\oh\ as in American*
Note: For variations on the above, see
*Where American English is specifically noted [in the pronunciations of α, ο and ω], American and British vowels differ. α: American cot is pronounced [kɑt], while British cot is [kɒt] (American and British English agree on the a in father: [fɑ-ðəɹ] vs. [fɑ-ðə]). ο: American caught is [kɒt] while British caught is [kɔt]; ditto for law and ought. ω: American goat is [goʊt] while British goat is [gəʊt]; ditto for go. (See Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online.)
Notes on the Alphabet
a. ἒ ψιλόν: Originally just ἔ (ἐ?). Ψιλόν, meaning ε from αι (Smyth, 7), which in Koine and Modern Greek (though not in Erasmian) are pronounced alike.
b. ὖ ψιλόν: Originally just ὖ (ὔ?). Ψιλόν (υ from οι (Smyth, 7), which in Koine and Modern Greek (though not in Erasmian) are pronounced alike.
Originally just ὄ. Μικρόν, meaning
little, was added in the Middle Ages to differentiate ο from ω (Smyth, 7), which in Koine and Modern Greek (though not in Erasmian) are pronounced alike.
Originally just ὦ. Μέγα, meaning
great, was added in the Middle Ages to differentiate ω from ο (Smyth, 7), which in Koine and Modern Greek (though not in Erasmian) are pronounced alike.
e. ξῖ, πῖ, φῖ, χῖ and ψῖ: Historically spelled ξεῖ, πεῖ, φεῖ, χεῖ and ψεῖ respectively, these were shortened in the Middle Ages (Smyth, 7), reflecting the merger of ει with ι in Koine and Modern Greek (though they are pronounced distinctly in Erasmian).
\kh\, \ph\ and \th\: English aspirates k, p and t before stressed vowels (link), i.e., \khik\, \phighp\ and \thot\ (except when preceded by s: \skip\, \spike\, \stop\).
These are not recognized in English as distinct phonemes, but in Classical Greek exaggerated forms of these sounds were the original pronunciation of χ, φ and θ, respectively (instead of today's \h\, \ph\ and \th\).
Heavy aspiration is what differentiated χ, φ and θ from κ, π and τ, which in Greek are never aspirated.
The aspirates φ, θ, χ were voiceless stops ... followed by a strong expiration:
πh, τh, κh as in upheaval, hothouse, backhand (though here h is in a different syllable from the stop).
Thus, φεύγω was π῾ εύγω, θέλω was τ῾ έλω, ἔχω was ἔ-κ῾ ω. Cp. εφ’ ᾧ for ἐπ(ὶ) ῾ῷ, etc. Probably only one h was heard when two aspirates came together, as in ἐχθρός (ἐκτ῾ ρός).1)
κ and χ: Kappa and chi can both look confusingly like an x depending on the font. The distinction between the two glyphs is that χ drops
below the line. (Look up, for example, the word χοϊκός in BDAG (3d ed., 2000), or compare the word ἀρχῇ to καὶ here as displayed in either of the fonts MgOpen Canonica and TITUS Cyberbit Basic.)
σ and ς: Sigma is written σ in an initial or medial position (i.e., at the beginning or in the middle of a word)
and ς in final position (at the end of a word); e.g., Χριστός \hree-'stos\.
Sigma used in isolation must be medial, not final.2
In some texts you will find a single, older form of sigma, ϲ, lunate sigma in all positions instead of σ/ς.3)
j. ζ: Zeta began as a double consonant, evolving from σδ \sd\ (Smyth) (not θς \ths\ or τς \ts\?) into a single- (pure?) consonant.
The Alpha and the O
Rev. 1:8, 21:6 and 22:13 show the pre-μέγα spelling of omega (note 4, above):
τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ. Technically the correct pronuciation of Ὦ is, therefore, just \oh\. Appending \meh-guh\ is anachronistic (except as an editorial parenthetical).
1. Herbert Weir Smyth, A Greek Grammar for Colleges (New York [etc.]: American Book Company, 1920), available online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library: http://www.ccel.org/s/smyth/grammar/html/smyth_1a_uni.htm, 13.
2. Nick Nicholas, Greek Unicode Issues, http://www.tlg.uci.edu/~opoudjis/unicode/letters.html#finalsigma (accessed 16 February 2007), 1. Final Sigma.
3. Donald J. Mastronarde, Ancient Greek Tutorials, Berkeley Language Center of the University of California, Berkeley, http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~ancgreek/pronunchtml/sigmaU.html (accessed 03 February 2007), Sigma.
The αι in θεάομαι (meaning, to look at) is a digraph, meaning that it is pronounced as a single sound (\igh\ as in aisle or high), in contrast to the medial ε, α and ο which are each pronounced distinctly: θε-ά-ο-μαι \theh-'ah-o-migh\.
Greek has eight such vowel-digraphs, which are commonly and traditionally grouped under the umbrella of diphthongs (this term, though, is technically incorrect; see
Technically Speaking below).
|Vowel Digraphs||IPA||Erasmian (U.S.) Pronunciation||New Testament Examples||Koine|
|αι||[aɪ]||\igh\ as in |
|καινός \kigh-'nos\ (new)||Same as ε (e.g., \keh-'nohs\)|
|αυ||[aʊ]||\ow\ as in |
(to be amazed)
|ει||[eɪ]||Same as η (\ay\)||μείζων \'may-zohn\ (greater)||Same as ι (e.g., \'mee-zohn\)|
|ευ||[ɛʊ]||\eoo\ (similar to \yoo\ in |
feud, but replace \y\ with \eh\ and keep it monosyllabic)*
|φεύγω \'feoo-goh\ (to flee)|
ἱερεύς \hee-eh-'reoos\ (priest)†
|ηυ||[ɛʊ]||Same as ευ||ηὔξανεν \'eoo-ksah-nehn\|
(inflection of αὐξάνω, to grow)
|Distinct from ευ (\ayoo\?)|
|οι||[ɔɪ]||\oy\ as in |
|ἀνοίγω \ah-'noy-goh\ (to open)||Same as υ (e.g., \ah-'nu-goh\)|
|ου||[u]||\oo\ as in |
|οὐρανός \oo-rah-'nos\ (sky, heaven) |
[ρου (παρουσία, presence) distinct from ρευ (πορεύομαι, to traverse)]
|υι||[wi], [wɪ]||\wee\ as in |
suite, or \wi\ as in
|υἱός \hwee-'os\ or \hwi-'os\ (son)†||Same|
*Colt (B-Greek, 2004):
‘e’ as in ‘set’ followed by ‘oo’ as in ‘food,’ but it's a diphthong (as though I were to say that ‘ou’ in ‘out’ is pronounced as ‘a’ as in ‘calm’ followed by ‘oo’ as in ‘food’).1
†A rough-breathing mark ( ῾ ) —which looks like reverse comma
over an initial vowel, diphthong, or rho, such as υἱός or the letter name
ῥῶ—indicates an initial h-sound. (A smooth-breathing mark ( ᾿ ) indicates no h-sound. See the
Barbara D. Colt,
pronunciation of Cockney ‘belt’, 07 November 2004, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2004-November/031861.html (accessed 03 February 2007).
The term diphthong refers to a sound, regardless of spelling, in which two vowel sounds blend into a monosyllabic sound.
In Erasmian pronunciation, this includes not only αι, αυ, ει, ευ, ηυ, οι, and υι, but also η and ω (\ay\, which
off-glides into a trailing \ee\ sound,
and \oh\, which
off-glides into a trailing \u\ or \w\ sound, are diphthongal),
and does not include the monophthongal ου (\oo\, which has no glide).
The term digraph refers to any combination of two letters that represents a single monosyllabic sound. This includes all of the above vowel pairs, both diphthongal (αι, αυ, ει, ευ, ηυ, οι, and υι) and monophthongal (ου), but does not include the diphthongal monographs η and ω. Digraphs may also be either vocalic or consonantal (such as, in English, ch in church, ng in sing, and sh in shoe) whereas diphthongs are specifically vocalic.
New Testament Greek grammars appropriate the vocalic term
diphthong as a convenience to mean the vocalic digraphs,
rather than the diphthongal sound. (Albeit, in Classical Greek the eight vowel pairs were diphthongal.)
Thus – in anglicized pronunciation – one of the eight Greek
diphthongs (ου) is not a true diphthong, while two true diphthongs (η and ω) are excluded.
In Modern pronunciation, all eight
diphthongs are pronounced monophthongally.
(Additionally, Modern Greek has five consonantal digraphs: γκ, μπ, ντ, τσ, and τζ, of which γκ, μπ, and ντ are monosyllablic only
when initial, or when following another consonant, in which cases they are pronounced \g\, \b\, and \d\, respectively.)
Gamma as \ng\
When γ is followed by γ, κ, ξ, or χ, the leading γ is pronounced \ng\ as in
sing as follows.
(This tends to occur naturally, particularly with γχ, when both letters are articulated.)
|Letters||IPA||Erasmian (U.S.) Pronunciation||New Testament Examples|
|γγ||[ŋɡ]||\ng\+\g\ as in |
|ἄγγελος \'ahng-geh-los\ (messenger)|
|γκ||[ŋk]||\ng\+\k\ as in |
|ἄγκυρα \'ahng-koo-rah\ (anchor)|
|γξ*||[ŋks]||\ng\+\ks\ as in |
|λάρυγξ \'lah-roongks\ (throat)|
|γχ||[ŋx]||\ng\+\h\||σπλάγχνον \'splahngh-non\ (innards)|
Iota as \ee\ or \i\
In Erasmian pronunciation, iota may be pronounced as either \ee\ (as in
or \i\ (as in
him); for example, ιοτα itself \ee-'oh-tuh\ versus ομικρον \'o-mi-kron\.
But no set rules govern this; rather it is a concession to English phonology (as is \uh\ for unstressed final α).
However, since iota is never pronounced \i\ in authentic Greek, aim generally always to sound ι as \ee\ and let \i\ fall out wherever it flows naturally.
In Erasmian pronunciation, initial ι may be pronounced either vocalically (\ee\ or \i\), or consonantally as \y\ in
yes; both are accepted. Ἰησοῦς (Jesus), for example, may be pronounced either \ee-ay-'soos\ or \yay-'soos\.
Conrad (B-Greek, 1999):
There's not any clear evidence, so far as I know, that the Iota had any consonantal pronunciation during the New Testament period. BUT, on the other hand, I find it interesting that Latin names like Julius and Junia are regularly spelled in Koine Greek as IOULIOS and IOUNIA. Moreover, we know that the Aramaic for Jesus was YESHUA. For this reason, and because I also suspect that Latin had a much greater impact on Greek pronunciation and even grammar than is commonly acknowledged, it wouldn't surprise me if information should someday come to light proving that the Greek Iota DID have a consonantal (‘Y’) pronunciation in initial position, especially in transliterated proper names from other languages.1
Conrad (B-Greek, 1997):
In the Latin transliteration IESUS the ‘I’ is definitely a consonant with the sound of English consonantal ‘Y.’ I know of no evidence for pronunciation of Greek Iota as a consonant, wherefore my initial guess would be that the pronunciation of the Greek name IHSOUS would have been trisyllabic: ee-ay-soos.2
Conrad (B-Greek, 1997):
Editors, by putting a smooth breathing before the upper-case Iota, seem to be indicating pronunciation as a vowel.3
Carl W. Conrad,
Pronunciation of Iesous, 20 May 1999, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/1999-May/005550.html (accessed 03 February 2007).
Carl W. Conrad,
Re: Pronunciation of IHSOUS, 09 March 1997, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/archives/97-03/0173.htm (accessed 03 February 2007).
Carl W. Conrad,
Re: Consonantal iota, 22 June 1997, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/archives/97-03/0173.html (accessed 03 February 2007).
Pronunciation of Chi
[x] or \h\ is the sound of ch in Scottish
loch (not lock).
A false k-sound may be perceived; but
χ is to κ, as θ is to τ, and φ is to π.
There is not an actual \k\ in \h\ just as there is neither a \t\ in \th\ nor a \p\ in \ph\.
To understand the formation of \h\, enunciate the progression of \puf\, \tuth\ and \kuh\.
|Letters||Erasmian (U.S.) Pronunciation||New Testament Examples|
|ββ||Same as β (\b\)||σάβ·βα·τον \'sah-bah-ton\ (sabbath)|
|δδ||Same as δ (\d\)||Σαδ·δου·καῖ·ος \sah-doo-'kigh-os\ (Sadducee)|
|θθ||Same as θ (\th\)||Μαθ·θαῖ·ος \mah-'thigh-os\ (Matthew)|
|κκ||Same as κ (\k\)||ἐκ·κλη·σία \eh-klay-'see-uh\ (assembly)|
|λλ||Same as λ (\l\)||ἀλ·λή·λος \ah-'lay-los\ (one another; each other)|
|μμ||Same as μ (\m\)||γραμ·μα·τεύς \grah-mah-'teoos\ (scribe)|
|νν||Same as ν (\n\)||Ἰωάν·νης \ee-oh-'ah-nays\ or \yoh-'ah-nays\ (John)|
|ππ||Same as π (\p\)||Φί·λιπ·πος \'fee-lee-pos\ (Philip)|
|ρρ||Same as ρ (\r\)||παρ·ρη·σίᾳ \pah-ray-'see-uh\ (boldness)|
|σσ*||Same as σ (\s\)||θά·λασ·σα \'thah-lah-suh\ (sea)|
|ττ*||Same as τ (\t\)||κρα·βάτ·τος \krah-'bah-tos\ (bedding)|
|φφ||Same as φ (\f\)||ἐφ·φα·θά \eh-fah-'thah\ (Aramiac for |
be thou opened)
*Conrad (B-Greek, 1996):
Allen ... says that -TT- and -SS- (as in Attic and Ionic spellings of the verb PRATTW/PRASSW) were pronounced as doubled-T and doubled-S respectively; I am really inclined to think that they were pronoun[ced] like -tch- in MATCH and like -sh- in MASH respectively. But I can't prove it either.1
Carl W. Conrad,
Re: Upsilon, 02 February 1996, B-Greek Mailing List Archives,
http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/test-archives/html4/1996-02/12183.html (accessed 03 February 2007).