The Greek alphabet has been in continuous use for the past 2,750 years
or so since about 750 BC. It was developed from the Canaanite/Phoenician
alphabet and the order and names of the letters are derived from
Phoenician. The original Canaanite meanings of the letter names was lost
when the alphabet was adapted for Greek. For example, alpha comes for the
Canaanite aleph (ox) and beta from beth (house).
At first, there were a number of different versions of the alphabet
used in various different Greek cities. These local alphabets, known
as epichoric, can be divided into three groups: green, blue and
red. The blue group developed into the modern Greek alphabet, while
the red group developed into the Etruscan
alphabet, other alphabets
of ancient Italy and eventually the Latin
By the early 4th century BC, the epichoric alphabets were replaced
by the eastern Ionic alphabet. The capital letters of the modern Greek
alphabet are almost identical to those of the Ionic alphabet. The minuscule
or lower case letters first appeared sometime after 800 AD and developed
from the Byzantine minuscule script, which developed from cursive writing.
- Type of writing system: alphabet – the first one to include vowels.
- Direction of writing: Originally written horizontal lines either from right
to left or alternating from right to left and left to right (boustrophedon/βουστροφηδόν).
Around 500 BC the direction of writing changed to horizontal lines running
from left to right.
- Diacritics to represent stress and breathings were added to the
alphabet in around 200 BC. In 1982 the diacritics representing breathings,
which were not widely used after 1976, were officially abolished by
- The letter sigma has a special form which is used when it appears
at the end of a word.
Used to write
Greek (Ελληνικά), an
Indo-European language spoken by about 14 million people mainly in Greece and
Cyprus, where it is an official language. Greek is also recognised as a minority
language in parts of Turkey, Italy and Albania.
Today the Greek alphabet is used only to write Greek, however at various
times in the past it has been used to write such languages as Lydian, Phrygian,
Thracian, Gaulish, Hebrew, Arabic, Old Ossetic, Albanian, Turkish, Aromanian,
Gagauz, Surguch and Urum.
Ancient Greek alphabet
This alphabet is based on inscriptions from Crete dated to about 800 BC.
Greek was written from right to left in horizontal lines at this time. The
names of the letters were slightly different to those for later varities
Greek alphabet (Classical Attic pronunciation)
- Σ = [z] before voiced consonants
Obsolete and archaic letters
Greek numerals and other symbols
The Ancient Greeks had two numeric systems: the Acrophonic or Attic system
used the letters iota, delta, gamma, eta, nu and mu in various combinations.
These letters were used as they represented the first letters of the
number names, with the exception of iota: Γέντε (gente)
for 5, which became Πέντε (pente); Δέκα
(Deka) for 10, Ηἑκατόν
(Hektaton) for 100, Χίλιοι
(Khilioi) for 1,000 and Μύριον (Myrion)
for 10,000. This system was used until
the first century BC.
The Acrophonic system was replaced by an alphabetic system that assigned
numerical values to all the letters of the alphabet. Three obsolete letters,
stigma, koppa and sampi, were used in addition to the standard Greek letters,
and a apostrophe-like numeral sign was used to indicate that letters were
being used as numerals.
Greek alphabet (Modern pronunciation)
Sample text in Greek
Óli i ánthropi yeniúnde eléftheri ke
ísi stin aksioprépia ke ta dhikeómata. Íne
prikizméni me loyikí ke sinídhisi, ke ofílun
na simberiféronde metaksí tus me pnévma adhelfosínis.
Sample text in Polytonic Greek
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)