Learn The Greek Alphabet: Detailed Guide

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

Alphabets are scary things — when you understand an alphabet, you are sufficiently equipped to intuit many things about the text written in it, even if you don't actually know a word of that language. However, when you don't understand the alphabet, you find yourself saying, "It's all Greek to me!"

Knowledge is power, so erase the mystery

Growing up in the United States, I was surrounded with anti-Russian propaganda. Movies and pictures in Russia were scary, filled with strange writing and ominous architecture. But with a little study of history, a big building with a fancy dome has stopped being an ominous building, and is now recognized as a church. And since learning the Russian language, what once used to be scary, strange writing is now easily recognized as a boring old pharmacy, or a restaurant.

Fortunately, we Americans were never sold any propaganda making Greece a scary place, but it's still a mystery. Just like Russian, the Greek language also has a strange alphabet with weird characters, and when I see something written in Greek, I haven't a clue what it says.

Now I don't know a single word of Greek, and I am not in any hurry to learn any. However, the English language (like most modern languages) has a lot of its roots in Greek, so sometimes a little intuition might be all a person needs in order to understand a little bit here and there.

Of course for that to work, you need to know how to read.

The Greek alphabet

Okay, some of these are a little easier for me since they resemble the Cyrillic characters of Russian. But none of this is difficult. In fact, after you read your first words, you'll be hooked. And if you practice it just a few times, it will be enough that you'll never forget it.

Αα : the /a/ sound in father

Ββ : the /v/ sound in voice

Γγ : the /g/ sound in goal

Δδ : a /zd/ like the th sound in other

Εε : the /eh/ sound in wet

Ζζ : the /z/ sound in zoo

Ηη : the /ee/ sound in meet

Θθ : the /th/ sound in thing

Ιι : the /ee/ sound in feet

Κκ : the /k/ sound in make

Λλ : the palatalized /l/ sound like the li in _portfoli_o

Μμ : the /m/ sound in man

Νν : the /n/ sound in no

Ξξ : the /ks/ sound made by the x in exorcist

Οο : the /o/ sound in oats

Ππ : the /p/ sound in paint

Ρρ : the rolled /r/ sound like the Spanish name roberto

Σσς : the /s/ sound in sea

Ττ : the /t/ sound in top

Υυ : the /ee/ in see

Φφ : the /f/ in fate

Χχ : the /kh/ sound made by the ch in channukah

Ψψ : the /ps/ sound as in collapse

Ωω : the /aw/ sound of the o in long

So that's it. Pretty easy, just 24 letters, and all easy enough to reproduce. Only the rolled /r/ and the palatalized /l/ are strange to an English speaker, but they are both well represented in other common languages of the world.

Take note that this is a rough estimation based on a handful of instructional videos I watched on YouTube. There are a few different pronunciations, which appear to differentiate between ancient Greek and modern Greek, and possibly regions, too. We're just learning the alphabet here, not studying the modern day colloquial Greek spoken by youth in Athens... so getting it absolutely right isn't extremely important. The goal is just to be able to read.

A hard /b/ sound appears to be missing, but it's actually not. Greeks form this sound by combining the /m/ and /p/ as μπ. For example, the word μπλογκ (blog). Looking at the end of that word makes me believe that the /g/ and /k/ combination (γκ) might be common too, but I didn't find that specified in any of the materials I checked before writing this.

So, now that you know how to read...

Once you've learned the sounds each letter makes, you can read Greek. Most of the time you're not going to know what a word means just because you can read it, but often you'll be able to make out enough of what you read in order to form an idea of at least the subject.

But let's take a look at some words you already know! Yes, that's right, you already speak Greek. Below are a few Greek words that you already know. If you hover your mouse over them, you'll see the English translation:

ίντερνετ Ευρώπη ταξί αρχαιολογικός εσπεράντο τηλεγράφος κωμωδία Αραβικά

Were you surprised and excited when you sounded out the word and then found out you were right? Learning a new alphabet is fun! It's also empowering, because (as I said above) you can start to make some sense out of the things you see, even without knowing any of the language. And if you've learned some Esperanto, you'll be surprised to find you understand even more of what you read in Greek.

Well, that's it. Congratulations! Now go tell all your friends that you can read Greek.