Ok, so learning biblical Greek is a huge investment in time, and as someone who has done three semesters of seminary Greek, it’s not really very necessary for most people. However, there are times where you’re digging through a text and want to know the meaning of the original word, but the original word is written in Greek. Greek, of course, uses a different alphabet than we do, so it just looks like gibberish. At least if you see the word transliterated (that means converted from one alphabet to another alphabet) into the Latin alphabet (that’s our alphabet) you could attempt a pronunciation, but if it’s in Greek, you likely have no idea how to begin to say it. For instance, you might see a word like ἀγάπη. If we transliterate it, it turns into agape, with you may or may not know is one of the four words for “love” in Greek,
Below is a chart that shows you how to convert the letters so that you can pronounce them. I’m going to give a pronunciation that scholars think was used at the time, rather than the modern pronunciation, so a modern Greek speaker would say many of these words quite differently.
A note about cases. Like English, Greek has an upper case and a lower case alphabet. The original manuscripts were written in all capitol letters (without the use of spaces. No wonder nobody could read back then) but soon afterword a lowercase form of writing became more common. We don’t have any of the original documents, so most of our manuscripts are written in the lowercase alphabet. Modern scholars use the lowercase letters almost all the time. The only time they use upper case are for 1) the first letter in a paragraph, 2) The first letter in a direct quotation and 3) the first letter of proper names.
|letter name||upper case||lower case||transliteration||pronunciation|
|alpha||Α||α||a||a in apple|
|beta||Β||β||b||b in ball|
|gamma||Γ||γ||g||g in gust|
|delta||Δ||δ||d||d in dirt|
|epsilon||Ε||ε||e||e in elephant|
|zeta||Ζ||ζ||z||ds in roads|
|eta||Η||η||ê||ey in they|
|theta||Θ||θ||th||th in tooth|
|iota||Ι||ι||i||i in pit|
|kappa||Κ||κ||k||k in kilo|
|lamda||Λ||λ||l||l in led|
|mu||Μ||μ||m||m in mouse|
|nu||Ν||ν||n||n in nut|
|xi||Ξ||ξ||x||x in fox|
|omicron||Ο||ο||o||o in hot|
|pi||Π||π||p||p in pot|
|rho||Ρ||ρ||r or rh*||r in road|
|sigma||Σ||σ or ς**||s||s in sit|
|tau||Τ||τ||t||t in town|
|upsilon||Υ||υ||y or u***||u in up|
|phi||Φ||φ||ph||f as in fox|
|chi||Χ||χ||ch||ch in chord|
|psi||Ψ||ψ||ps||ps in hoops|
|omega||Ω||ω||ô||o in go|
* usually r, but rh when it is the first letter in a word.
** Sigma normally uses σ, but uses ς when it is the last letter in the word (which we call “final sigma”)
*** Upsilon is often transliterated as a y, though the ancient pronunciation is more like our “u”. When it appears in a diphthong (more in next chart) it is always transliterated as a u.
notice the mark over the transliterated o and e. I’ve used the circumflex, but they’re usually done with a straight line over the letter. That helps you tell apart the Greek letters that transliterate to the same english letter.
The Gamma Exception:
There are times when gamma (γ) in conjunction with another letter makes an unexpected sound and transliteration
γγ = ng as in ring
γκ = nk as in blink
γχ = nch from anchor
Diphthongs (two vowels, one sound)
|letter combination||transliterated as||pronounced|
|αυ||au||ow in cow|
|ει||ei||ay in day|
|οι||oi||oy in toy|
|ου||ou||ew in new|
Those Pesky Marks
There are three types of marks in Greek: breathing marks, accent marks and subscript iotas.
- Breathing marks. Breathing marks appear when a word starts with a vowel, a diphthong or a rho (ρ). They come in two varieties: a smooth breathing mark (that looks like an apostrophe) or a rough breathing mark (that looks like a backwards apostrophe). Note that if the word starts with a diphthong, the breathing mark will be over the second letter in the diphthong. The smooth breathing mark doesn’t affect the pronunciation or the transliteration, so you can ignore it, but the rough breathing mark ads an “h” sound and an h at the beginning of the word, or, in the case of a ρ, after the ρ so ὀς = os while ὁς = hos; υἰ =ui while υἱ = hui. On capital letters, the breathing mark appears before the letter, rather than on top of it.
- accent marks. Accent marks can take the form of an acute ά a grave ὰ or a circumflex ᾶ. You’ll see one of the three in almost every word. That’s the syllable you stress. It doesn’t affect the transliteration, so ἁγάπη stresses the second syllable. if you changed its spelling to ἀγαπἠ, you would stress the last syllable (don’t confuse the breathing mark over the first letter for a stress).
- subscript iotas are little marks under α, η or ω. changing them to ᾳ, ῃ, or ῳ. They don’t change the transliteration or the pronunciation, so at this level, you’re free to ignore them. I just needed to point out what they were.
Ἰησοῦς = Iêsous (Jesus)
ἀγάπη = agapê (love)
υἱος = huios (son)
κόσμος = kosmos (world or cosmos)
χάρις = charis (grace)
πνεῦμα = pneuma (spirit)
κύριος = kyrios (Lord)
ψυχή = psychê (life or soul)