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The majuscule (uncial, capital, or upper-case) letters of the ancient Greek alphabet, the minuscule (small or lower-case) letters, and their pronunciations are:
|Α, α (alpha)||father, calm|
|Β, β (beta)||be|
|Γ, γ (gamma)||go; but nasal before a guttural [ŋ]*|
|Δ, δ (delta)||do|
|Ε, ε (epsilon)||let, epigram|
|Ζ, ζ (zeta)||glaz’d, or adze|
|Η, η (eta)||French fête, or paper|
|Θ, θ (theta)||thin|
|Ι, ι (iota)||geranium (when short), police (when long)|
|Κ, κ (kappa)||kinetic|
|Λ, λ (lambda)||land|
|Μ, μ (mu)||man|
|Ν, ν (nu)||now|
|Ξ, ξ (xi)||axium, wax|
|Ο, ο (omicron)||obey (short o)|
|Π, π (pi)||pet|
|Ρ, ρ (rho)||roof (trilled r)|
|Σ, σ/ς (sigma)||sit|
|Τ, τ (tau)||tell|
|Υ, υ (upsilon)||French u, German ü|
|Φ, φ (phi)||graphic|
|Χ, χ (chi)||Scotch loch, German machen|
|Ψ, ψ (psi)||gypsum, eclipse|
|Ω, ω (omega)||ode, tone (long o)|
* Gamma (γ) preceding another gamma, kappa (κ), xi (ξ), or chi (ψ) represents simple nasality, as in English angular, finger, ink:
ἄγγελος angelos ἄγκυρα ankyra λάρυγξ larynx ἄγχουσα anchusa
The Latin alphabet (i.e., the alphabet devised by ancient Romans for writing in the ancient Latin language) arose by Roman adaptation of the earlier Greek alphabet. For each single character in Greek, the Romans adopted one or more characters for their own Latin alphabet, and the important correspondences for the present purpose are as follows:
|Κ (kappa)||C (Note well!)|
R (medial or final)
Observe that in some instances the Romans used one and the same letter for more than one Greek letter (thus Latin E for both Greek epsilon and Greek eta, or Latin O for both Greek omicron and Greek omega), while in other instances the Romans used two letters of their Latin alphabet (called “digraphs”) to write what in Greek was only a single letter (thus, Latin TH for Greek theta (θ), Latin PH for Greek phi (φ), and so forth).
The ancient Greeks too used certain digraphs in their writing system, particularly to represent several phonologically complex vowels called ‘diphthongs.’ There were in ancient Greek eight diphthongs, and their pronunciations relative to the Latin transliterations of them are as follows:
|ΑΙ (αι) alpha+iota||ai as in ‘aisle’||AE|
|ΑΥ (αυ) alpha+upsilon||ou as in ‘house’||AV|
|ΕΙ (ει) epsilon+iota||ei as in ‘foreign’||I|
|ΕΥ (ευ) epsilon+upsilon||
like the e in in ‘met’
+ the oo in ‘moon’
|ΗΥ (ηυ) eta+upsilon||
like the first e in in ‘there’
+ the oo in ‘moon’
|ΟΙ (οι) omicron+iota||oi as in ‘foil’||OE|
|ΟΥ (ου) omicron+upsilon||oo as in ‘moose’||V*|
|ΥΙ (υι) upsilon+iota||like English ‘we’||VI|
* [Note that V in Latin is pronounced -u- when it is followed by a consonant, but -w- when it is followed by a vowel; it is NEVER pronounced like English -v-, since that sound did not exist in the phonemics of ancient Latin.]
Besides substituting the letters of their newer, Latin alphabet for letters of the older, Greek alphabet (which had given the Romans the idea of writing in the first place), the Romans also naturally replaced the grammatical desinences (e.g., the declensional “case-endings”) of Greek with their own Latin grammatical counterparts when they had occasion to write a Greek word in the Latin alphabet, for example:
To write a Greek word in letters of the Latin alphabet—as the ancient Romans often did, particularly Greek names—is called “transliterating” from Greek to Latin. Because for many centuries even after the end of Latin antiquity (that is to say, during the Dark Ages of western Europe) no one anywhere in western Europe knew any Greek (that was part of what made the Dark Ages dark), the only forms of Greek names known to western Europeans were Latin. And indeed until the end of the 19th century, it remained customary for anyone writing an ancient Greek name anywhere within the sphere of European culture (including all of North America) to cite it according to the Latin system of transliteration from Greek, as just described.
But during the 20th century, it became conventional instead of using Latin transliteration to transliterate directly from ancient Greek into letters of the English alphabet, ignoring particularly the Latin custom of writing diphthongs differently from non-diphthongal sequences of the same letters in the Greek alphabet. Comparing therefore all three ways of writing—the original ancient Greek, the old Latin system of transliteration, and the more contemporary English (and American) system of transliteration—one obtains the following comprehensive chart:
—,* yi (following
—,* ui (following
* [Does not occur initially.]
That a system for transliterating directly into English from ancient Greek came into general use during the 20th century has not however in any way negated continuing use of the older transliterations from Greek into Latin, or the perpetuation in English of the Latinate forms of established Greek names. So, for example, the famous Alexandrian Greek poet Kallimachos continues to be called also Callimachus (even though Kallimachos/Callimachus himself never wrote a word of Latin)—and therefore as a practical matter, any student of a subject connected with the ancient world must be fluently conversant with both Greek → Latin and Greek → English transliterations.
Here, to help you become familiar with the effective “dual standard” for recognizing and writing ancient Greek words—especially names—in English, are some typical pairs, transliterated Greek → Latin on the left, and transliterated again Greek → English on the right:
When, as opposed to transliteration, the Romans actually borrowed a word from Greek—adopted it as a part of their own Latin language—a variety of other changes might occur. For example, for some Greek names the Romans simply preferred a different ending than the one found in Greek. So we have:
Certain additional forms arose not through the operation of any single process of Greek → Latin adaptation, but rather through the effect of some peculiar combination of changes, as for instance:
* [This Latin deformation of the Greek hero’s name arose in 293 b.C., when the Romans imported his religious cult to help them magically cure a tenacious epidemic.]
By a process of ‘Anglicizing’ (making English) certain Latin transliterations, the sequence -ae- (derived by transliteration into Latin from Greek -ai-) may be reduced to -e-, as in:
|Greek → English||Greek → Latin||Latin → English|
Keep in mind that sometimes the alternative forms of a name for one and the same person or place in Greek mythology are not at all the result of different ways of transliterating from Greek, but are instead just variations found in ancient Greek itself, as for example:
- Bellerophon or Bellerophontes
- Poseidon, Poseidaon, or Poteidan
- Typhon, Typhaon, or Typhoeus
- Skamandros or Xanthos
It must similarly be remembered that many authors of secondary works pertaining to ancient Greek mythology (or any other aspect of the ancient Greek world for that matter) not uncommonly mix transliteration-systems in their writing. So one and the same modern writer may in one sentence refer, for example, to the ancient Greek poet Alcman (Latinate transliteration!), and in the very next sentence mention Karystos (Anglicistic transliteration!) whom Alcman (Alkman) alluded to in a fragment of his early Greek poetry.
Or, another modern author may habitually write some such inconsistent form as Uranos (mixed transliteration!) rather than either Ouranos (Greek → English) or Uranus (Greek → Latin); or Graiae (mixed transliteration!) rather than Graiai (Greek → English) or Graeae (Greek → Latin). In any field that is so devoted to the recovery and preservation of cultural matter from the past as is the study of Greek antiquity, perfect consistency costs too much in willful abandonment of tradition to be either wholly or perfectly acceptable. You should therefore expect inconsistency, and cultivate your own ability to recognize and write with equal facility the forms of names dictated by both systems of transliteration, Greek → Latin → English and Greek → English.
Finally, do not confuse transliteration, which is a process of orthography, with the fragmentary and half-hearted attempt by some Romans during the age of Latin antiquity to equate certain ancient Greek deities with a few of the gods in Latin pseudo-mythology, as for example:
This intellectually shallow and largely spurious theology was just one of many manifestations of Roman nationalism, and it has nothing interesting to do with ancient Greek mythology itself, which predates even the earliest Roman contact with any Hellenic people.
There are in English a great many nouns gotten from ancient Greek, many of mythological significance, which are written with an -y where Attic Greek had the noun-formant -ia (-ια, iota+alpha) and the Ionian Greek dialect had -ie (-ιη, iota+eta), as for example English ‘Theogony’ from (Attic) Greek θεογονία (Ionian θεογονίη), or English ‘Gigantomachy’ from (Attic) Greek γιγαντομαχία (Ionian γιγαντομαχίη).
This curiosity of English orthography arises partly from the history of English writing itself, and partly from the influence on English writing of the French language and French traditional orthography.
A late Old English (West Saxon) orthographic practice used the letter -y- alternatively to -i-, especially when the -i- represented the earlier Anglo-Saxon sound -ie-; so, for example, in West Saxon the earlier Old English word ciele was commonly written cyle.
The long evolution of this old orthographic custom into the age of printing resulted in -i- sounds at the end of English words being conventionally written with an -y-, as for example in the modern English word ‘fly’ (instead of ‘flie’), or ‘family’ (instead of ‘familie’), or ‘destroy’ (instead of ‘destroie’).
The revival of classical (ancient) learning was everywhere in Europe a concomitant and consequence of the Renaissance, which first reached England by way of France and the French language. French custom was to transliterate the Greek noun-formant -(ε)ia (or Ionian -iη) into French -ie, as for example French philosophie for ancient Greek φιλοσοφία. But in the French language of that era, -ie at the end of a word, which had earlier been disyllablic, had already become a monosyllable, so that the five-syllable ancient Greek word χρηστομάθεια when transliterated into French chrestomathie was pronounced with only four syllables in French, ‘chrestomatEE.’
Quite naturally, although of course somewhat ignorantly too, the English when they received words of this kind from French spelled them in English the same way they were historically accustomed to spell any native English words that ended in the sound -i, namely by writing the letter -y. So from French chrestomathie the English wrote ‘chrestomathy;’ from French Theogonie, English ‘Theogony;’ and from French Gigantomachie, English ‘Gigantomachy.’
Present-day English usage permits either the Anglicized forms of such words (i.e., the forms ending in -y), or the forms transliterated directly from ancient Greek; the choice is rather a matter of style appropriate to context than of orthographic prescription. So we may often have in contemporary English two valid forms of many such nouns, of which the following are only a few instances:
Note however that a good many nouns of this sort, when their meaning is strictly technical or technological, have in good English only the Anglicized form, as for example ‘telemetry’ but NOT ‘telemetria,’ or ‘hydrophily’ but NOT ‘hydrophilia.’ On the other hand, ancient Greek nouns of this sort that did NOT come into English from French do not show forms in -y in the current English lexicon; thus, ‘theomythia’ but NOT ‘theomythy;’ ‘hydrophobia’ but NOT ‘hydrophoby.’
A word in ancient Greek can end in a number of different vowels, but only one of three consonants can terminate a Greek word. Those three consonants are -ν (nu), -ρ (rho), and -ς (sigma). When the transliteration of a Greek work ends in English -n- or -r- the English genitive singular case is written no differently than for any native English word. So, for example:
|Nominative Case||Genitive Case|
|rhaetor||the rhaetor’s speech|
But the English genitive singular of a Greek word ending in -ς (sigma) always omits the redundant English -s-, thus:
|Nominative Case||Genitive Case|
|Laios||Laios’ son Oidipous|
Like the use in English of ancient Greek mythological names transliterated into Latin, Latin accentuation of such names was also commonly imitated in English until the latter part of the 20th century, when a counter-tendency to respect at least the syllabic location of the ancient Greek accents gained ground among some knowledgeable speakers of English. So just as with the two different methods for visually importing the names of ancient Greek mythology into English—either from Greek to English via Latin, or else directly from Greek into English—two different pronunciations of one and the same name of an ancient Greek god/goddess or hero/heroine often coexist, the one reflecting Latin accents of Greek words, the other reflecting the Greek directly.
Latin accentuation was a matter of contrast between length and shortness of syllables, whereas ancient Greek distinguished between both length/shortness and rising or level pitch. Neither system equates to the use primarily of amplitude (loudness/softness) in the accentuation of English speech, so that only greater loudness of one syllable or another in the English pronunciation of ancient Greek mythological names really differentiates derivation of their accent in English from Latin or from the underlying Greek originals.
Thus, for English accentuation of many (but not all!) names in ancient Greek mythology there is a choice between Latinate accent (not truly Latin, but only an English similacrum of it) and Hellenizing accent (not truly Greek, but only an English simulacrum of it).
Especially prominent examples are numerous Greek feminine nouns ending in the pattern -ĕ/ă/ŏCη (including -μένη) where C=any of numerous consonants or none. Here and in all the following tables, the italicized vowel indicates location of the accent in English:
Several important mythological names of four syllables end in -on (-ων), with accent on the penult. Latinate accentuation retracts the accent to the antepenult:
The foregoing examples of divergence between Latinate and original Greek accentuation follow a general rule: Whenever the Greek accent resides on a short penult preceding a long ultima, Latinate accentuation retracts the accent to the antepenult. The same rule governs the following names too:
Ancient Greek possessed many words accented on the last syllable, and there are many such names in ancient Greek mythology. Accentual emphasis on the final syllables of polysyllabic words is however alien to both Latin and English. Wherever possible (i. e., in any polysyllabic word with such an accent), Latinate accentuation retracts the accent, whereas Hellenizing accentuation keeps the original location; so, for example, all (masculine) nouns ending in -eus (-εύς) and (feminine) nouns ending in omega (-ώ). The Greek -eus is often pronounced as two syllables in English [-ee us], but it consists properly of only one diphthongal syllable in Greek:
Here are some prominent feminine nouns ending in accented omega:
A further group of names with word-final accent in Greek had endings in -ós (-ός) or -ís (-ίς). Latinate accentuation retracts the accent to the penult if the penult’s vowel is long vowel or it is a closed syllable, otherwise to the antepenult if there is one:
Other Greek word-ending accents are similarly retracted by Latinate accentuation:
|Ηermes||Hermes (Ἑρμῆς, Ἑρμείας)|
Among mythological names, the name in Greek of Okeanos’ and Tethys’ daughter Argeia (Ἀργεία) is unusual in the location of its accent; the Hellenic accent of most names ending in -eia (-εια) resides on the syllable immediately preceding that ending. In pronouncing these and other words of similar shape, the Latinate habit delays the accent:
|Medeia (Medea)||Medeia (Μέδεια)|
Just as the Latinate habit abhors accenting final (word-ending) syllables, so too it shuns accenting first (word-initiating) syllables. In particular, where Greek names of three syllables are accented in Greek on their first syllables and have either long or closed second syllables, the Latinizing custom moves the accent to the second syllable:
and also a
with the same word-ending
The same Latinizing process that moves accent from first to second syllables in many 3-syllable Greek names operates also on 4-syllable nouns; namely, when a Greek noun has an accented short antepenult and a long or closed penult, Latinizing habit moves the accent to the penult:
A number of ancient Greek mythological names occur most frequently in the plural, and most such plurals together with their singulars are usually just Anglicized, i. e., treated as ordinary English words without regard to either Latinate or original Hellenic accentuation, though occasionally both an Anglicized and a Latinate form coexist:
or Latinate form
|Earthborn (Gegeneis)||Gegeneis (Γεγενεῖς)|
|Dioscures (Dioscuri)||Dioskouroi (Διὸς Κοῦροι)|
|Furies (Erinyes)||Erinyes (Ἐρινύες)|
|Lapiths (Lapithai)||Lapithai (Λαπίθαι)|
|Fates (Moirai)||Moirai (Μοῖραι)|
Nota bene! The two-syllable word Kyklops (Κύκλωψ, Cyclops) is singular; its plural is three syllables: Kyklopes (Κύκλωπες, Cyclopes).
Go to Index of Myths