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.
- /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
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.
|αυ, αυ||au||av, af||[au̯]||[av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
|αυ, αυ||āu||av, af||[aːu̯]||[av] before vowel or voiced consonant;
|ευ, ευ||eu||ev, ef||[eu̯]||[ev] before vowel or voiced consonant;
|ηυ, ηυ||ēu||iv, if||[ɛːu̯]||[iv] before vowel or voiced consonant;
|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; [ŋɡ] otherwise,
often reduced to [ɡ] in informal speech***
|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 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.
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.
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The semicolon 〈;〉 serves as a question mark.
- Ancient Greek phonology
- Greek alphabet
- Greek braille
- Greek diacritics
- Greek grammar
- Greek language question
- Greek ligatures
- Iota adscript
- Iota subscript
- Modern Greek phonology
- Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching
- The Details of Modern Greek Phonetics and Phonology, by Harry Foundalis