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
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.
Type of writing system: alphabet - the first one to include vowels.
Direction of writing: Originally written horizontal lines either from right
to left or alternating from right to left and left to right (boustrophedon/βουστροφηδόν).
Around 500 BC the direction of writing changed to horizontal lines running
from left to right.
Diacritics to represent stress and breathings were added to the
alphabet in around 200 BC. In 1982 the diacritics representing breathings,
which were not widely used after 1976, were officially abolished by
The letter sigma has a special form which is used when it appears
at the end of a word.
Ancient Greek alphabet
This alphabet is based on inscriptions from Crete dated to about 800 BC.
Greek was written from right to left in horizontal lines at this time. The
names of the letters were slightly different to those for later varities
Greek alphabet (Classical Attic pronunciation)
Σ = [z] before voiced consonants
Obsolete and archaic 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.
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 alphabet (Modern pronunciation)
Download a Greek alphabet chart in Word
or PDF format
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Corrections and notes on pronunciation provided by Δημήτρης
Χριστούλιας (Dimitris Christoulias)
ALPHABETUM - a Unicode font
specifically designed for ancient scripts, including classical
& medieval Latin, ancient Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Umbrian,
Faliscan, Messapic, Picene, Iberian, Celtiberian, Gothic, Runic,
Old & Middle English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Old Nordic, Ogham,
Kharosthi, Glagolitic, Old Cyrillic, Phoenician, Avestan, Ugaritic,
Linear B, Anatolian scripts, Coptic, Cypriot, Brahmi, Old Persian cuneiform: