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Learning the Greek alphabet

As I said in my discussion of different scripts, the Hellenic languages use the Greek alphabet. Here it is. I’m afraid the table is a little complicated, because (a) each letter has a name, which it’s useful to know, and (b) there are some differences in pronunciation between Ancient Greek (which is still a language that people want to learn today), and Modern Greek. To try and keep it simple, I have only mentioned those that are not as they seem to an English speaker (Ancient Greek), or, in Modern Greek, those that vary from their Ancient sounds.

  Name Transcription Ancient Greek pronunciation Modern Greek pronunciation
Α α alpha a short as in await or cup, or long as in father as in father
Β β beta b   v as in vote
Γ γ gamma g as in get, but sometimes like sing y as in yellow
Δ δ delta d   th as in then
Ε ε epsilon e short e, as in set  
Ζ ζ zeta z as in wisdom z as in zoo
Η η eta (long e) e long e, as in hair i as in machine
Θ θ theta th t as in top th as in thin
Ι ι iota i short, as in hit  
Κ κ kappa k    
Λ λ lambda l    
Μ μ mu m    
Ν ν nu n    
Ξ ξ xi ks    
Ο ο omicron o short as in pot  
Π π pi p    
Ρ ρ rho r trilled  
Σ ς sigma s    
Τ τ tau t    
Υ υ upsilon u or y short as in French lune, or long as in French ruse  
Φ φ phi ph as in pot f as in five
Χ χ chi (kh) ch as in cat ch as in loch or Bach
Ψ ψ psi ps both pronounced, as in lips  
Ω ω omega (long o) ô as in saw short o, as in soft

In my workbook for the Greek script, I use several strategies to help learners achieve mastery quickly and thoroughly. These strategies include:

  • grouping
  • visual mnemonics
  • test questions to help you practice
  • vocabulary lists for further practice.

These vocab lists appear for each group of letters, so you can practice on words that only use the letters you have learned. To make them easier to read (and also, beneficially, remember), the words are mostly cognate with English words (my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary was invaluable for that).

Some of the visual mnemonics are ‘cards’ for each letter. These mnemonic cards include a keyword to help you remember the name of the letter, and another one to help you remember how it’s pronounced. Here are some examples:

mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card

Each “card” shows, first, the upper and lower case forms of the Greek letter, written in a color picked out from the picture. Below these is the English letter that is translated as its equivalent. Below that is a word, in English, showing how that letter is pronounced. The part of the word that is the appropriate sound is written using the Greek letter. A picture showing the meaning of the word is then shown — not because the word is anything other than simple! but because images are generally much more memorable than words.

The images, where necessary, are also used to help remember the shapes of unfamiliar letters, for example:

fan shape

You can augment the lessons in the book with some activities I've provided. Even if you don't have the book, if you are learning Russian, or are interested in refreshing your knowledge of it, you may find the games helpful or fun.

Beginning Ancient Greek A Visual Workbook

Learning a different script

Learning a new language is made considerably more difficult if that language is written in an unfamiliar script. For some, indeed, that proves too massive a hurdle, and they give up the attempt.

Scripts, like languages, also vary considerably in difficulty. There are two main reasons for this. One is the number of characters to learn, and here an alphabetic script (like the Roman one we’re using now) has a big advantage. The marvellous wealth of the English language is available using only 26 letters! Most alphabets come in at somewhere around this number (although the largest, Khmer, is 74).

A syllabic system, on the other hand, ranges from around 50 to several hundred! Japanese hiragana, for example, contains 75.

Japanese is a very interesting example, because it has three scripts in use: two syllabic and one logographic. The logographic, which is called kanji, derives from the Chinese. Logographic scripts contain thousands of characters. The Japanese Ministry of Education prescribes a ‘basic’ 1,850 as most essential for everyday use.

It’s not surprising that mastery of two syllabic scripts and nearly 2,000 kanji proves a stumbling block for many students of the language!

The second reason for the great variation in script difficulty is the complexity of the characters. While some logographic characters can be as simple as Roman letters, these are few. Most are complex, some bewilderingly so.

If you want to learn a language that uses a script different to your own, you will find it much easier if you concentrate on the script as a separate issue (don’t simply struggle through trying to learn the language and script at the same time). You want to get your familiarity with the script to something approaching automaticity — that is, you don’t need to think about what the letter is, you just know it. The only way that’s going to happen is through practice.

Of course you get practice if you work on the language and script at the same time, but the problem is that the practice is not concentrated enough to speed your progress. You will actually save time (and make it more likely that you’ll continue with the language), if you master the script swiftly, through concentrated practice. (These remarks refer only to alphabetic or syllabic scripts, which have a more limited number of characters — whatever you do, you’re not going to master a logographic system swiftly!)

As always, though, your need for practice will be reduced if you can make the letters more memorable.

Within the Indo-European language family, there are essentially 5 scripts in use. The most common is the Roman script, which is what English uses. The Hellenic languages use (of course) the Greek alphabet. Russian and many other Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. Sanskrit and Hindi (and many other Indian languages) use Devanagari. Persian is written in the Persian alphabet, which is a modified Arabic script. Pashto, similarly, is written in its own modified Arabic script.

I have produced a short workbook for the Russian script, which uses grouping and visual mnemonics to make the letters more memorable, test questions to help you practice the letters, and vocabulary lists for further practice. The vocab lists appear for each group of letters, so you can practice on words that only use the letters you have learned. They also use words that are mostly cognate with English words (my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary was invaluable for that), or are otherwise easy to remember. Thus you can not only practice your letters, but also pick up some few hundreds of words as well.

I’ve put up a page with the Russian alphabet and some of these visual mnemonics.

I have also now produced a similar workbook for the Greek alphabet, which includes 800 words in ancient Greek and a special section of medical and scientific root words. You can see a page with the Greek alphabet and some visual mnemonics from the workbook.

There are also some games for both the Russian and Greek alphabets.