2 Greek Consonants

2010.01.0320

Ostraka of Xanthippos Arriphronos, father of Perikles, dated to ca. 484 B.C. Athenian Agora Excavations.


Consonants

I. Labials, Dentals, Palatals

Greek consonants are built around just three basic sounds:

  • LABIALS, which are formed with the lips.
  • DENTALS, which are formed with the tongue and teeth.
  • PALATALS, which are formed with the tongue and palate.
Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k)
 Π π  pi “p”  = P p
 Τ τ    tau “t”  = T t
 Κ κ  kappa  “k”  = C c or K k

Notice that in pronouncing these three consonants, the airflow or breathing passage must be momentarily closed. For this reason, these are sometimes called STOP consonants. Pronouncing the same three sounds while vibrating your vocal cords produces three new consonants, called VOICED STOPS.

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
Β β  beta “b”  = B b
Δ δ    delta “d”  = D d
Γ γ  gamma “g”  = G g

Add a breathing or “h” sound to the consonants, and you get a third set, called ASPIRATED STOPS.

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
φ (ph) θ (th) χ (kh) = aspirated
Φ φ  phi “f”  = Ph ph
Θ θ    theta “th”  = Th th
Χ χ  chi  “kh”  = Ch ch or Kh kh

II. The Trouble with Sigma

Greek is strange when it comes to pronouncing and writing words with the “s” sound, represented by the Greek letter sigma. On the one hand, the sound is very common in Greek. On the other, if a word is odd or difficult to spell or pronounce, it seems that a sigma is often involved. Note what happens, for example, when sigma directly follows a labial, dental, and palatal.

  • Any labial (π β φ) + σ = ψ
  • Any dental (τ δ θ) + σ = σ
  • Any palatal (κ γ χ) + σ = ξ
Athenian use of the DOUBLE CONSONANTS ψ and ξ began in earnest after they adopted the Ionic Greek alphabet in 403 B.C. Before this, Athenians regularly spelled out combinations such as πσκσ, and χσ. Note, for example, in the image at the top of this lesson that Athenians in 484 B.C. spelled the name Ξάνθιππος without the double consonant: Χσάνθιππος.

The resulting consonant chart now looks like this:

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
φ (ph) θ (th) χ (kh) = aspirated
ψ (ps) σ (s) ξ (ks) = + σ
Ψ ψ  psi “ps”  = Ps ps
Σ σ ς  sigma “s”  = S s
Ξ ξ  xi “ks”  = X x
Sigma is unique among Greek letters in that it has two lower case versions: σ and ς. The form ς only occurs at the end of words. The form σ is used in all other locations, a convention that arose from the desire of early manuscript writers to have a cursive form that easily continued to the next letter.

III. Nasals, Liquids, and Zeta

While STOP consonants are made by pushing air through the mouth, NASALS are formed by pushing air through the nasal cavity. The ancient Greek nasals are similar to the English consonants mn, and –ng. As you review the chart below, note that in Greek, the –ng sound is represented by double gamma (-γγ), not nu gamma (-νγ).

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
φ (ph) θ (th) χ (kh) = aspirated
ψ (ps) σ (s) ξ (ks) = + σ
μ (m) ν (n) -γγ (ng) = nasal
Μ μ  mu “m”  = M m
Ν ν  nu “n”  = N n

LIQUIDS are consonants produced when the tongue only partially blocks airflow through the mouth during pronunciation. Like English, ancient Greek has only two liquid consonants.

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
φ (ph) θ (th) χ (kh) = aspirated
ψ (ps) σ (s) ξ (ks) = + σ
μ (m) ν (n) γγ (ng) = nasal
λ (l) ρ (r) = liquid
Λ λ  lambda “l”  = L l
Ρ ρ  rho “r”  = R r

The last consonant, ζ, is a DOUBLE CONSONANT, originally representing either σδ or δσ. The sound has evolved in modern Greek into a consonant similar to the English z, which is how most pronounce the ancient Greek zeta today.

IV. The Consonant Chart

With the addition of the zeta, the full consonant chart is as follows (cf. S 15-22):

Labial Dental Palatal
π (p) τ (t) κ (k) = unvoiced
β (b) δ (d) γ (g) = voiced
φ (ph) θ (th) χ (kh) = aspirated
ψ (ps) σ (s) ξ (ks) = + σ
μ (m) ν (n) γγ (ng) = nasal
λ (l) ρ (r) = liquid
ζ (z) = zeta
Ζ ζ  zeta “z”  = Z z

 V. The Full Alphabet

Taken altogether, the Greek alphabet has twenty-four letters.

Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω

α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ρ σ ς τ υ φ χ ψ ω

What’s missing?

Note that some English consonants are not represented in the ancient Greek alphabet, such as jv, and w. Other sounds, such as “sh” in “shop” and “ch” in “chips,” are also impossible to render precisely in the Greek alphabet!

 

– τὸ τέλος –

 


Key Terms and Concepts

  • LABIALS
  • DENTALS
  • PALATALS
  • STOP CONSONANTS
  • VOICED STOPS
  • ASPIRATED STOPS
  • THE TROUBLE WITH SIGMA
  • NASALS
  • LIQUIDS
  • DOUBLE CONSONANT
  • THE CONSONANT CHART
  • THE FULL ALPHABET

Exercises

I. Write out the full consonant chart (a worksheet is available here: Blank Consonant Chart). For a guide to writing Greek letters, click here: How to Write Greek. Handwriting paper is available here: Lined Paper.

ΙΙ. Practice pronouncing the following words. Stress the underlined syllable.

  1. χαρακτηρ
  2. βαρβαρος
  3. ψυχας
  4. σωφρονων
  5. οντων
  6. ουτος
  7. θεατροκρατια
  8. ρυθμοειδης
  9. ζευγνυμι
  10. ηυρηκα
  11. αθλητικῃ
  12. εγχρονιζω
  13. εξαγωνος
  14. γλισχρος
  15. πεπασμην

ΙΙΙ. Practice reading aloud the following Greek names written in capital letters. Stress the underlined syllable.

  1. ΑΓΑΜΕΜΝΩΝ
  2. ΑΘΗΝΑ
  3. ΟΥΡΑΝΟΣ
  4. ΚΛΥΤΑΙΜΝΗΣΤΡΑ
  5. ΟΙΔΙΠΟΥΣ
  6. ΘΗΣΕΥΣ
  7. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ
  8. ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ
  9. ΠΗΝΕΛΟΠΗ
  10. ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ

 

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Greek Consonants by Wilfred E. Major and Michael Laughy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.