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The Greek Alphabet

The alphabet is among the few linguistic elements that have remained essentially unchanged between the Classic and Modern Greek languages. Before listing the letters, let us make a brief comment on the pronunciation of the language, as it evolved through the millennia.


How close is the sound of Modern Greek to that of Classic Greek?Phonetically, Classic Greek would sound rather alien to contemporary Greeks, but don't ever say this to them! It is an issue that most Greeks, even educated ones, ignore. I suspect it is because the alphabet has remained the same, so Greeks can read classic texts with no trouble (pronouncing in Modern Greek). After all, it all looks Greek to them! If any (non-Greek) scholar attempts to pronounceclassic text in the reconstructed (Erasmian) pronunciation, that, to Greeks is tantamount to sacrilege. As a contemporary Greek myself, I can give my personal feeling for how the Erasmian pronunciation sounds: it is as if a barbarian is trying to speak Greek. For example, take the word "barbarian" itself (which is of Greek origin): in Classic Greek it would be pronounced [barbaros]. InModern Greek, it is [varvaros]. In general, the second letter of the alphabet, beta, was pronounced as [b] in Plato's time, but was changed to [v] by the time the Gospels were written. Now, to the modern Greek ear, [v] is a soft sound (a "fricative" in linguistics), sort of smooth and gentle, while [b] is a hard one (a "plosive"), kind of rough and crass. The same can be said about the letterdelta, which was pronounced as [d] by Plato, and as [th] (as in this) since around Christ's time, and the letter gamma ([g] in Classic Greek, [gh] later [pic]the latter sound is a "voiced velar fricative"; click here to see the full repertoire of Modern Greek sounds). Greek readers of this text who do not believe that Plato, Socrates, etc., were sounding so barbaric, may take a clue from thisvery word: "barbaros" was coined after somebody who, as a non-native speaker of Greek would produce incomprehensible speech, which sounded like... well, what? Could it be "var-var-var"? Or wouldn't it sound more barbaric if it was like "bar-bar-bar"? Besides this word, I think the most direct evidence comes from a fragment of Attic comedy where it is said that the voice of the sheep isBH-BH (1). In Modern Greek this would read as "vi-vi", rather un-sheepish-like; while in the Erasmian way it would be "beeh-beeh", exactly the sound that we, contemporary Greeks, attribute to the animal. (If the reader would like to make a comment on the above issues, please email to me, and let me know what you think.)
On the other hand, the truth is when non-Greek scholars attempt topronounce Classic Greek in the Erasmian way, they think they pronounce accurately. To me, American scholars sound distinctly American (like Platos with spurs and cowboy hats), Germans sound German, etc. Probably nobody can reproduce exactly the Classic Greek pronunciation, not only because as native speakers of this or that language we necessarily carry over our native phonology, but also becausethe Classic Greek pronunciation used pitch to differentiate vowels in words, while all modern European languages (including Modern Greek) use stress instead.

The Alphabet

(Click on the name of the letter to hear the pronunciation in Modern Greek)
|  |Letter |Name & Sound |Modern Greek pronunciation |ClassicGreek |
| | | | |Pronunciation (Attic) |
|1 |[pic] |Alpha |[a], as in "father". Same like [a] in Spanish and Italian. Phonetically, this sound is: open, |As in Modern Greek |
| | | |central, and unrounded....