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Greek (ελληνικά)

Greek belongs to the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European language family, and is spoken by about 13 million people mainly in Greece and Cyprus, where it is an official language. Greek is also recognised as a minority language in parts of Italy, and in Albania, Armenia, Romania and Ukraine.

Greek was first written in Mycenae with a script known as Linear B, which was used between about 1500 and 1200 BC. This variety of Greek is known as Mycenaean. On Crete another script, known as the Cypriot syllabary, was used to write the local variety of Greek between about 1200 and 300 BC.

The Greek alphabet has been in continuous use since about 750 BC. It was developed from the Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet and the order and names of the letters are derived from Phoenician. The original Canaanite meanings of the letter names was lost when the alphabet was adapted for Greek. For example, alpha comes for the Canaanite aleph (ox) and beta from beth (house).

When the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to write their language they used five of the Phoenician consonants to represent vowel sounds: yodh [j] became Ι (iota), waw [w] became Υ (upsilon), 'aleph [ʔ] became Α,(alpha), 'ayin [ʕ] became Ο (omicron), and he [h] became Ε (epsilon). New letters were also devised: Φ (phi), Χ (chi) and Ψ (psi). The result was the world's first fully phonemic alphabet which represented by consonant and vowel sounds.

Greek at a glance

  • Native name: ελληνικά (elinika)
  • Linguistic affliation: Indo-European, Hellenic
  • Number of speakers: c. 13 million
  • Spoken in: Greece, Albania, Cyprus, and a number of other countries
  • First written: 1500 BC
  • Writing systems: Linear B, Cypriot syllabary, Greek alphabet
  • Status: official language of Greece, an official language of Cyprus, officially recognized as a minority language in parts of Italy, and in Albania, Armenia, Romania and Ukraine.

At first, there were a number of different versions of the alphabet used in various different Greek cities. These local alphabets, known as epichoric, can be divided into three groups: green, blue and red. The blue group developed into the modern Greek alphabet, while the red group developed into the Etruscan alphabet, other alphabets of ancient Italy and eventually the Latin alphabet.

By the early 4th century BC, the epichoric alphabets were replaced by the eastern Ionic alphabet. The capital letters of the modern Greek alphabet are almost identical to those of the Ionic alphabet. The minuscule or lower case letters first appeared sometime after 800 AD and developed from the Byzantine minuscule script, which developed from cursive writing.

Today the Greek alphabet is used only to write Greek, however at various times in the past it has been used to write such languages as Lydian, Phrygian, Thracian, Gaulish, Hebrew, Arabic, Old Ossetic, Albanian, Turkish, Aromanian, Gagauz, Surguch and Urum.

Notable features

Ancient Greek alphabet

This alphabet is based on inscriptions from Crete dated to about 800 BC. Greek was written mainly from right to left in horizontal lines at this time. It is uncertain what names were given to the letters, and some letters had more than one form.

Ancient Greek alphabet from Crete


Greek alphabet (Classical Attic pronunciation)

Greek alphabet - Classical Attic pronunciation


Diphthongs, consonant combinations and other special symbols

Archaic letters

Archaic Greek letters

Greek numerals and other symbols

The Ancient Greeks had two numeric systems: the Acrophonic or Attic system used the letters iota, delta, gamma, eta, nu and mu in various combinations. These letters were used as they represented the first letters of the number names, with the exception of iota: Γέντε (gente) for 5, which became Πέντε (pente); Δέκα (Deka) for 10, Ηἑκατόν (Hektaton) for 100, Χίλιοι (Khilioi) for 1,000 and Μύριον (Myrion) for 10,000. This system was used until the first century BC.

Acrophonic/Attic Greek numerals

The Acrophonic system was replaced by an alphabetic system that assigned numerical values to all the letters of the alphabet. Three obsolete letters, stigma, koppa and sampi, were used in addition to the standard Greek letters, and a apostrophe-like numeral sign was used to indicate that letters were being used as numerals.

Greek numerals (Alphabetic system)

Greek alphabet (Modern pronunciation)

Greek alphabet - Modern pronunciation

Download a Greek alphabet chart in Word or PDF format

Hear a recording of the Greek alphabet by Vasiliki Baskos of

Hear a recording of Modern Greek pronunciation by Vasiliki Baskos of

Greek pronunciation notes

Greek diphthongs, consonant combinations, ligatures and other special letters

Notes on the pronunciation of Greek diphthongs and consonant combinations

Sample text in Greek

Sample text in Greek (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


Óli i ánthropi yeniúnde eléftheri ke ísi stin aksioprépia ke ta dhikeómata. Íne prikizméni me loyikí ke sinídhisi, ke ofílun na simberiféronde metaksí tus me pnévma adhelfosínis.

A recording of this text by Eυτυχία Παναγιώτου (Eftychia Panayiotou)

Sample text in Polytonic Greek

Sample text in Polytonic Greek (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Sample text in handwritten Greek

Sample text in handwritten Greek (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

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All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Corrections and notes on pronunciation provided by Δημήτρης Χριστούλιας (Dimitris Christoulias)

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Information about the Greek language

Information about Greek numbering systems

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