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The Greek alphabet has only 24 letters many of which are very easy to recognize and we happen to have borrowed an awful lot of letters from the Greek alphabet for our needs. Whether you want to learn how to read the alphabet to read some Greek signs or remember the names of the letters to impress your friends, it’s easy and worth doing. Here’s how you do it.
Learning the names of the letters
Take a look at the Greek alphabet. The good news is, chances are that you already know how to pronounce a lot of the letters.
I have shown letters that we already use in Mathematics, sciences or everyday speech and that you should know. You might not know all of them, especially sigma or nu, but you have probably at least heard of them and it will not be very difficult for you to remember those letters.
If we get this little list down, there are only about 8 letters or 1/3 of the alphabet that you still need to learn. Here’re some ways you could use to remember the rest:
- zeta – you’ll have to remember this, it’s pretty straightforward anyway… chances are, you already have
- eta = zeta minus z, not very hard to remember
- iota – could you jot down this letter? you should, because the word jot comes from the letter iota because it’s the smallest letter in the alphabet and thus easy to jot down
- kappa – it even starts with a k, if that’s still not good enough for you, think of the letter having a cap like this: |< where | is the cap and < is the head
- mu, nu – come on, these are easy letters
- chi – chill down, it’s the last one you have to memorize… also kinda sounds like the Chinese lifeforce and χ might be a good symbol for that
Remembering them in order – that’s the trick
Oftentimes in crossword puzzles and whatnot you get asked “the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet” and at those times it’s not enough to know the letter delta δ in general, you have to remember the Greek alphabet so that you can count up and find out which letter it is. That’s a different task than just learning to recognize those letters. I have you some tips with this task too.
For one things, songs help. Try listening and learning the classical song. First you hear it, then you have time to repeat it:
There is another guy who made a video where he not only teaches the sounds but also has another device to help you learn the alphabet. He suggets you learn the following four words:
And then you have a good idea on the order of the letters so that you can pronounce it. Watch his video if you will:
I haven’t seen any eye-opening mnemonics. I’d wanted to create one but it proved to be a pretty hard task. Another idea I have seen was to try breaking the alphabet in four units. Here’s how that would look like:
Alpha-Beta-Gamma-Delta – just like English except “gamma” instead of “camma”, so to speak
Epsilon-Zeta-Eta-Theta – you’ll have to memorize this one
(think: “Zeta ate a Theta and got i indigestion”)
Iota-Kappa-Lambda-Mu – everything like English
Nu-Xi-Omicron-Pi – just like English again, just remember that Pi needs a rhyme before it: “Xi”
Phi-Chi-Psi-Omega! – learn the end (sounds good) and you’re done
You could try learning that like a poem with 6 lines and the alphabet shouldn’t prove to be very difficult. In addition to that, there’s one video I have found where a guy tries to teach the alphabet by telling a story and thus connecting the letters in a fun way:
What is the way I have learned it? Well, I just memorized it. There’s nothing wrong with rote memorization and it’s sometimes kinda fun when you achieve your results with it and get this cool feeling. I also think that it is good for the memory so perhaps the aversion to it is not so deserved. I fully agree that it’s bad when rote memorization is enforced on people but that can be said about almost anything… Anyway.
Oh, and by the way, there is a caveat: you are learning the Greek alphabet used by Erasmus here (I think). On top of that, it is also americanized. Some of the letters are pronounced slightly differently in the Modern Greek alphabet now (for example, tau is pronounced taf).
I don’t care about the letters – Teach Me How to Read
That’s a bit of a harder task. Still, I’ll first tell you about what’s in front and then I’ll tell you how you can learn to read the Greek alphabet if you still want to.
To read Modern Greek (and Ancient Greek, although that’s still more complicated) you need to learn the alphabet. You don’t only need to learn the letters but also their sounds. Here’s the table I used before, take a look at the pronunciation now.
|Α α||alpha||a (car)|
|Β β||beta||v (vet)|
|Γ γ||gamma||soft g(uh) OR y (yet)|
|Δ δ||delta||ð (this)|
|Ε ε||epsilon||e (met)|
|Ζ ζ||zeta||z (zoo)|
|Η η||eta||i (king)|
|Θ θ||theta||θ (think)|
|Ι ι||iota||i (king)|
|Κ κ||kappa||k (king)|
|Λ λ||lambda||l (lion)|
|Μ μ||mu||m (met)|
|Ν ν||nu||n (net)|
|Ξ ξ||xi||ks (taxi)|
|Ο ο||omicron||o (rock)|
|Π π||pi||p (pet)|
|Ρ ρ||rho||r (red)|
|Σ σ ς||sigma||s (sit)|
|Τ τ||tau||t (tan)|
|Υ υ||upsilon||i (king)|
|Φ φ||phi||f (fate)|
|Χ χ||chi||h (hat) OR kh (Loch)|
|Ψ ψ||psi||ps (caps)|
|Ω ω||omega||o (dot)|
As you have noticed, there are letters and their pronunciation. These are not the same thing. For example, the name of the English letter is double “u” but you do not say “doubleuet”, you say “wet” because the pronunciation of the letter is different than its name. Same for Greek. Talking about pronunciation, most of the letters are pretty straightforward but you will also encounter a few that have different pronunciation depending on the surrounding letters. Such is the letter gamma, for example. Luckily, the rules are not too complicated. But even if we get that out of the way, there’s another thing.
Greek has some letter combinations that change the pronunciation dramatically. For example, the letter combination αι is pronounced e or μπ is pronounced b. Luckily, there are not too many of those (there are over a dozen but that’s not too bad). Once you have those down, as well as the letters, you’re good to go in reading Modern Greek with an infallible accent, except when you make mistakes, that is.
Yeah, okay, but how do I actually learn to read it?
Alright, what about actually learning to read it? I have told you about the alphabet but I also told you that I would tell you how to read it. And I will. In fact, in a way, I am even going to teach it to you, because…
I have made a free online course of the Greek alphabet. Check it out!
The course has 5 lessons and I teach you the letters and the most important combinations of those. The course builds on itself, uses examples and asks you to write Greek words and some sentences yourself. I encourage you to either try to learn the Greek keyboard on your computer or, better yet, get a piece of paper to write everything on it before checking the answers. That’s how you can learn to read the alphabet as well as learning the names of the letters!
- Rough Greek Overview: Modern Greek From A Learner’s Perspective
- Greek Challenge: 45 Days Report
- First Week, Review of Pimsleur Greek and First Impressions
- Week Two of My Greek Learning and Goals
- Evolution of The Alphabet