On the Greek Alphabet

David F. Leigh
May, 1997

You'd probably think it's very, very easy to find information on the Greek alphabet, as commonly used as it is.  I've put together this sort description and have included some more difficult to find info such as how the ancient Greeks represented numbers. Greek letters are commonly used today not only science and mathematics, but also as the alphabet of choice for several of the world's languages, such as Russian (and of course Greek!).

Table 3 shows a complete list of the Greek letters and the sounds they represent(footnote1).

The Greek alphabet was the basis of the later Roman (via the Etruscan variation) and Runic alphabets (compare them yourself!). It was descended from the earlier Phoenecian alphabet, and in fact the Greek word for letter was "phoinikeia". The earliest Greek inscriptions are dated at about 730BCE. Several variations of the alphabet existed, as is indicated by Table 3. Variations included instances where the same letter stood for more than one sound as well as instances where the same sound was represented by more than one letter. Some sounds were not represented at all. For example the Ionian alphabet had no sound for the aspirant (H). This isn't as strange as it might at first appear (if you've ever watched "My Fair Lady" you're aware that a sizeable segment of the English population gets by without an "aitch". Even those Englishmen that actually pronounce the H tend to discount it when choosing pronouns, such as "an hospital") It was eventually the Ionian alphabet that prevailed, and that is handed down to us as the modern Greek alphabet.

The earliest Greek inscriptions were written right to left, as were the Semitic writings from which this alphabet descended. Later they wrote alternate lines of text in opposite directions (right to left, then left to right, etc.). Finally the convention of writing from left to right prevailed.

Numerals were represented in one of two ways. The first was acrophonic, which was similar to the Roman method of number representation. With this method numbers are represented by the initial letter of the name of that certain numbers (as shown in the table below). Single digits were represented by single vertical strokes. As with Roman numerals numbers were simply added together until the desired result is reached.

Example: = 767

Table 1: acrophonic numerals

Name

Representation

Value


a simple vertical line (or iota, if you prefer)

1

pente

pi

5

deka

delta

10


archaic pi with embedded delta

50

hekaton

early form of the aspirate H:

100


combination of archaic pi and hekaton:

500

khilion

chi

1,000

A second method of representing numbers gives each letter of the alphabet a numerical value according to the table below, called the alphabetic system. There was no symbol for zero. Numbers were differentiated from words by adding an acute accent mark (') above the line after the number. For large numbers a similar mark was made below the line preceeding the number.

Example: ' = 767

Table 2: alphabetic numerals

1

10

100

2

20

200

3

30

300

4

40

400

5

50

500

F = 

6

60

600

7

70

700

8

80

800

9

Q = 

90

(sanpi)  

900

Table 3: variations of the Greek alphabet
(letters in parentheses indicate that both letters together represent the sound)

----Modern----

------Ancient------

Uppercase

Lowercase

Sound

Name

Ionia

Athens

Corinth

Argos

Euboea
(Etruscan)

a

alpha

b

beta

g

gamma

d

delta

e

epsilon

F

F

w

 

-

F

z

zeta

long e

eta

-

-

-

-

 

h

h

 heta

-

th

theta

i

iota

k

kappa

l

lambda

m

mu

n

nu

x

xi

()

o

omicron

p

pi

-

s

 san

-

-

q

 

r

rho

s

sigma

-

t

tau

u

upsilon

ph

phi

kh

chi

ps

psi

()

()

long o

omega

-

-

-

-

footnote1: Note that I'm using graphic representations of these letters even though there's a perfectly good TrueType font (Symbol) that supports them.  This is because not all computers have Symbol installed. Also, though Symbol represents the modern form of these letters it does not support the ancient forms I've also listed.
footnote2: BCE stands for (Before the Common Era), which is the new term referring to what we in the West used to call BC).
footnote3: The source for most of this is the excellent book by B.F. Cook entitled "Greek Inscriptions", which is part of the "Reading the Past" series published by the British Museum and the University of California Press.


The informational content of this website is copyright 1997-2002 by David F. Leigh unless otherwise stated. Permission to distribute is granted under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.