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3 Polytonic Greek, Elision, Movable Nu


Altar of Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria. Late 4th c. B.C. Athenian Agora Excavations.

Accents and Breathing Marks

Ancient Greeks, of course, knew how to pronounce their own words. When large numbers of foreigners (ξένοι) started learning Greek in antiquity, Greek scholars developed additional symbols to help non-Greeks speak the language. These additional marks have since remained part of the spelling conventions, or orthography, of each word. As a result, ancient Greek is considered a POLYTONIC – “many accents” – writing system. There are three classes of additional marks:

  1. Breathing marks
  2. Accent marks
  3. Punctuation marks


I. Breathing Marks


Classical Greek does not use a separate letter for the h, or aspirated breathing sound. You will recall, for example, that the aspirated versions of πτ, and κ are represented by different letter forms: φθ, and χ.

In some cases, the “h” breathing sound was also applied to the BEGINNING of a number of Greek words, all of which begin with a vowel, diphthong, or the letter ρ. For words that begin with a vowel or diphthong, there are two symbols that indicate the presence or lack of aspiration: a SMOOTH BREATHING mark indicates no aspiration, and a ROUGH BREATHING mark indicates aspiration (S 9-14).

In the case of the consonant ρ, it always receives ROUGH BREATHING when found at the BEGINNING of a word. This phenomenon is reflected in the spelling of English words of Greek origin, such as rhetoric and rhythm. If ρ is found within or at the end of a word, no breathing mark is applied.

e.g., ὀ = “o” smooth breathing
e.g., ὁ = “ho” rough breathing

For single vowels and the consonant ρ, the marks are placed directly above the lower case letters (e.g. and ), and immediately to the left of capital letters (e.g. and ). If placed over a DIPHTHONG, the mark is always above the SECOND vowel (e.g. οἱ, εἰ, and Εὐρώπη).


II. Accent Marks


There are three kinds of accent marks: ACUTE, GRAVE, and CIRCUMFLEX. Accents can fall on any of the last three syllables of a word. This applies even if a particular word is longer than three syllables. To facilitate discussion of syllables and accents, these last three syllables are commonly identified by the following terms:

ULTIMA: last syllable

PENULT: next-to-last syllable

ANTEPENULT: before the next-to-last syllable

The terms ultima, penult, and antepenult derive from Latin: ultima (last), paene ultima (almost/next to last), and ante paene ultima (before the almost/next to last) syllaba (syllable).


1. Acute accents and short vowels

According to ancient grammarians, accent marks were originally used to indicate the musical tone or PITCH of a vowel sound, not the stress of a syllable (S 151, 161). If there was a rising pitch on a single vowel sound, they marked the vowel with a line rising from left-to-right: /. This is called the ACUTE ACCENT.

The vowels εο, and  are short. When accented, they receive the acute accent: άέίό, and ύ.


2. Acute accents and long vowels

The vowels ηω, and  are long. In the Greek language, long vowels were TWO-BEAT vowel sounds. In other words, these vowels would take twice as long to pronounce as short vowels.

 = αα   = ιι  = υυ
η = εε ω = οο

Though English speakers tend not to hold these Greek long vowels for two beats, understanding the original Greek concept of the two-beat vowel sound is critical if we are to understand the Greek accent system. This is because, when pronouncing long vowels, only one of the two beats would be accented. If it is the second beat, then only the rising tone, or acute accent (/), is written. For example:

αά = ά ιί = ί υύ = ύ
εέ = ή οό = ώ


3. Circumflex accent

If the first beat of a long vowel bears the accent, then the long vowel begins with a rising tone (/), followed by a falling tone that marks the absence of a pitch sound (\). These vowels are marked with a CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT (^). For example:

άὰ =  ίὶ =  ύὺ = 
έὲ =  όὸ = ῶ

As a result, circumflex accents can never fall on a short vowel (S 156).


4. Grave accents

In cases where the rise in pitch – marked by an acute accent – falls on the ultima, the pitch rise was regularly left unpronounced if another word followed in the sentence. In such cases, the acute accent symbol is inverted, and the final syllable is marked by a GRAVE ACCENT: \.

As a result, grave accents can only be found on the ultima of a word.

For example:

  • τιμή → τιμ δέ.
GRAVE ACCENTS essentially mark the absence of a pitch tone in a vowel sound. In some early manuscripts, all vowel sounds not marked by an acute or circumflex (both of which mark a pitch rise) were marked by grave accents (e.g. τιμή would be written τὶμή). Eventually, the grave came to be used only in the situation noted above: when it replaced an acute on a word’s final syllable (S 155).


5. Accenting diphthongs

The same rules that apply to long vowels also apply to diphthongs, which themselves are long, i.e, two beats. Note the following examples:

άὶ = αῖ έὶ = εῖ όὶ = οῖ ύὶ = υῖ
αί = αί εί = εί οί = οί υί = υί
άὺ = αῦ έὺ = εῦ όὺ = οῦ
αύ = αύ εύ = εύ ού = ού

Note that, as with BREATHING MARKS, when a diphthong receives an accent mark, the mark is placed over the second letter.


6. Accenting contract vowels

Remember that the vowels αε and ο CONTRACT when they meet. Each vowel or diphthong that they create when they contract is long. The accent used to mark the newly formed contractions or diphthongs is determined by where the accent was placed before the contraction. The same rules for marking an acute (/) or circumflex (^) for long vowels and diphthongs also apply for contract vowels. Consider the following examples:

ά +  =  έ +  =  ό +  = 
ά +  =  έ +  = οῦ ό +  = οῦ
α + έ = ά ε + ά = ή ο + ά = ώ
α + ό = ώ ε + ό = ού ο + έ = ού


III. Punctuation Marks

Greek uses four marks of punctuation:

Period: . = English period
Colon and Semicolon: · = top dot of English colon
Comma: , = English comma
Question Mark: ; = English semicolon

Elision and Movable Nu


Remember that the ancient Greeks spelled words the way they sounded, and not according to a fixed spelling system.


I. Elision

In formal written English, we tend to write only uncontracted forms (e.g., “stop and go” instead of “stop n’ go”), regardless of how we pronounce them. When Greeks ELIDED, or contracted, words as they spoke, they wrote the contracted form.

Take, for example, the phrase μετὰ ἐμοῦ, “with me.” As noted above, in spoken – and, therefore, written – Greek, there is an effort to avoid speaking two vowels back-to-back. Much of the time, then, this phrase is written as μετ’ ἐμοῦ, “wit’ me.”

In such situations, an apostrophe marks the place where the vowel was dropped, or elided.


II. Movable Nu

A word ending in –σι that precedes a word with a vowel or diphthong often DOES NOT ELIDE. Instead, spoken – and therefore written – ancient Greek adds a final –ν, called a MOVABLE NU, to make pronunciation easier. Movable nu is sometimes also added to –σι if the word is at the end of a clause.

For example:

  • εἴκοσι εἶσι. → εἴκοσιν εἶσιν.
  • δείκνυσι ἄνθρωπος → δείκνυσιν ἄνθρωπος

This phenomenon is familiar to English speakers: the indefinite article a becomes an before a word that begins with a vowel sound.


Note: For practical guides on how to type in polytonic Greek, please download this guide for Windows: Polytonic Greek in Windows; and this guide for Macs: Polytonic Greek on Macintosh.



– τὸ τέλος –


Key Terms and Concepts



Ι. Write out the alphabet, and the following Greek passage. Handwriting paper is available here: Lined Paper.

Ἡροδότου Θουρίου ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε, ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλέα γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι’ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

II. The following is from “The Sound of Ancient Greek in ‘The Iliad’,” All Things Considered, NPR, August 25, 2016. Listen to what ancient Greek may have sounded like with pitch accents, as spoken by Prof. Stephen Daitz.

III. Review the combinations below, and write the diphthong or vowel, along with appropriate accent mark, that results.

  1. άὰ =
  2. ά + ὲ =
  3. υί =
  4. ο + έ =
  5. έὲ =
  6. οό =
  7. άὺ =
  8. ίὶ =
  9. α + έ =
  10. ά + ὸ =
  11. όὸ =
  12. έὶ =
  13. ύὺ =
  14. οί =
  15. ε + ά =
  16. όὺ =
  17. αά =
  18. έ + ὸ =
  19. α + ό =
  20. αύ =
  21. εέ =
  22. έ + ὰ =
  23. ιί =
  24. εί =
  25. υύ =
  26. ό + ὲ =
  27. ού =
  28. ο + ά =
  29. έὺ =
  30. όὶ =
  31. άὶ =
  32. αί =
  33. ε + ό =
  34. ό + ὰ =
  35. ύὶ =
  36. εύ =

IV. Practice reading the Greek on the handout available here: English Derivatives.




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