Greek orthography

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The orthography of the Greek language ultimately has its roots in the adoption of the Greek alphabet in the 9th century BC. Some time prior to that, one early form of Greek, Mycenaean, was written in Linear B, although there was a lapse of several centuries (the Greek Dark Ages) between the time Mycenaean stopped being written and the time when the Greek alphabet came into use.

Early Greek writing in the Greek alphabet was phonemic, and different in each dialect. Since the adoption of the Ionic variant for Attic in 403 BC, however, Greek orthography has been largely conservative and historical.

Given the phonetic development of Greek, especially in the Hellenistic period, certain modern vowel phonemes have multiple orthographic realizations:

  • /i/ can be spelled η, ι, υ, ει, οι, or υι (cf. Iotacism);
  • /e/ can be spelled either ε or αι;
  • /o/ can be spelled either ο or ω.

This affects not only lexical items but also inflectional affixes, so correct orthography requires mastery of formal grammar, e.g. η καλή /i kaˈli/ 'the good one (fem. sing.)' vs. οι καλοί /i kaˈli/ 'the good ones (masc. pl.)'; καλώ /kaˈlo/ 'I call' vs. καλό /kaˈlo/ 'good (neut. sing.)'.

Similarly, the orthography preserves ancient doubled consonants, though these are now pronounced the same as single consonants, except in Cypriot Greek.

Digraphs and diphthongs[edit]

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 were already present in Classical Greek. None of them is 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.

Letters Transliteration Pronunciation
αι, αι ai e [ai̯] []
αι, āi a [aːi̯] [a]
ει, ει ei i [eː] [i]
ηι, ēi i [ɛːi̯] [i]
οι, οι oi i [oi̯] [i]
υι, υι ui i [yː]* [i]
ωι, ōi o [ɔːi̯] []
αυ, αυ au av, af [au̯] [av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[af] otherwise
αυ, αυ āu av, af [aːu̯] [av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[af] otherwise
ευ, ευ eu ev, ef [eu̯] [ev] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[ef] otherwise
ηυ, ηυ ēu iv, if [ɛːu̯] [iv] before vowel or voiced consonant;
[if] otherwise
ου, ου ou u [uː]
earlier [oː]
ωυ, ωυ ōü oi [ɔː.u]** [oi]
γγ, γγ ng ng, ny, g, y, ngh [ŋɡ] [ŋɡ] in formal registers, but often reduced to [ɡ] in informal speech;
also pronounced [ŋɣ] in some words (e.g. εγγενής, έγγραφο, συγγραφέας)***
γκ, γκ nk g, y, ng, ny [ŋk] [ɡ] word-initially and in some loanwords; [ŋɡ] otherwise,
often reduced to [ɡ] in informal speech***
γξ, γξ nx nx [ŋks] [ŋks]
γχ, γχ nch nch, nkh [ŋkʰ] [ŋx]***
μπ, μπ mp b, mb [mp] [b] word-initially and in some loanwords; [mb] otherwise,
often reduced to [b] in informal speech
ντ, ντ nt d, nd [nt] [d] word-initially and in some loanwords; [nd] otherwise,
often reduced to [d] in informal speech

* The diphthong υι [yi̯] was monophthongized to [yː] in Classical Attic Greek, but survives in some other contemporary dialects and in early Koine.

** The diphthong ωυ [ɔːu̯] was found in Ionic and in certain Hebrew transcriptions in the Greek Bible, but it did not occur in Attic, and was gradually lost in Koine. Where ωυ was atticized, it was often split into two separate syllables [ɔː.y], hence the Latin transcription ōy. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Biblical Greek name Μωυσῆς [mɔːu̯.sɛ̂ːs] (Moses), which was atticized as Μωϋσῆς [mɔː.y.sɛ̂ːs], then adapted to early Christian Latin as Mōysēs, from where it became Spanish Moisés, French Moïse, etc. The modern Greek form is Μωυσής [mo̞i̯ˈsis], whereas the modern Latin Vulgate form is Mōsēs.

***The velars [ɡ], [k], [ɣ], and [x] are palatalized to [ɟ], [c], [ʝ] and [ç] respectively before the close and mid front vowels [i] and [e̞].

It is discussed among scholars whether the velar nasal [ŋ] (ἄγμα, ágma) should be regarded as an allophone of /n/ or a phoneme in its own right in Greek.


Main article: Greek diacritics

Polytonic spelling uses a variety of diacritics to represent aspects of the pronunciation of ancient Greek. Polytonic, along with lowercase letters, became standard in Byzantine Greek, although the ancient distinctions had disappeared, replaced by a simple stress accent. The orthographies of modern Greek, both katharevousa and dhimotiki, used the polytonic system until 1982, when monotonic spelling was introduced. In some conservative contexts, such as the Church, polytonic spellings are still used.

Monotonic orthography, adopted in 1982, replaces the ancient diacritics with just two: the acute accent (tónos, e.g. ί), used to mark the stressed syllable in polysyllabic words, and the diaeresis (dialytiká, e.g. ϊ), which indicates that the vowel is not part of a digraph.


The semicolon ; in Greek is a question mark.

Modern Greek uses spaces, but Ancient Greek used a variety of word dividers, which have been encoded as Unicode characters:[1]

  • ⸒ (U+2E12 hypodiastole)
  • ⁚ (U+205A two dot punctuation)
  • ⁝ (U+205D tricolon)
  • ⁞ (U+205E vertical four dots)
  • ⁘ (U+2058 four dot punctuation)
  • ⁙ (U+2059 five dot punctuation)

Some of these characters are also used with the Early Cyrillic alphabet and Glagolitic script.

Other ancient dividers included:

See also[edit]


  1. ^

External links[edit]