2.0 Alphabet, Vowels, Breathing Marks, Diphthongs


  • Latin and Greek were derived from the Phoenician alphabet, from which the Hebrew alphabet also took its origin.
  • 24 letters



  1. Alphabet (learn now) :Name, lower case, pronounce
  2. Vowels (α ε η ι ο υ ω)
  3. Breathing marks
  4. Diphthong (improper)



Learning the Alphabet link: Alphabet and Pronunciation PPT

Learning the Alphabet Exercise: Alphabet and Pronunciation Exercise



A diphthong is a combination of two vowel sounds in one syllable. The second letter of a Greek diphthong is always iota or upsilon. The common diphthongs and their pronunciations are:

  • αι – ai as in aisle
  • ει – ei as in neighbor
  • οι – oi as in oil
  • υι – uee as in queen
  • αυ – ow as in cow
  • ου – oo as in food
  • ευ – e as in met + u as in rude
  • ηυ – e as in obey + u as in rude


  • All words that begin with a vowel or diphthong have a breathing mark, either smooth (̓) or rough (̔). The breathing mark is written over the vowel; in the case of diphthongs, it stands over the second vowel. A smooth breathing mark has no effect on pronunciation. Thus ἐν is pronounced “en.” A rough breathing mark is equivalent to an “h” sound and is transliterated with “h.” Thus ἑν is pronounced “hen.” Finally, when the letters rho and upsilon stand in initial position, they have the rough breathing mark. Thus ῥητωρ = rhetor (speaker, orator); ὑβρις = hybris (arrogance).
  • In terms of vowel quantity, both common and improper diphthongs are long. The exceptions to this are few. Final οι and αι, that is, οι and αι at the very end of a word, are short. Elsewhere in a word they are long.



  • A Greek word has as many syllables as it has vowels or diphthongs. Thus, the word ἀπόστολος (apostle) is divided in this way: ἀ-πό-στο-λος. If a syllable contains a long vowel or a diphthong, it is long. If a syllable contains a short vowel (or final οι or αι; see §3 above), it is short. The quantity of a syllable is critical to the matter of accenting.
  • The final three syllables of a Greek word have special names. The last syllable is called the ultima; the second to last the penult; the third from last the antepenult. These syllables are the only ones that may receive an accent mark.



  • Accents in Greek were originally tonal, indicating pitch. For our purposes, accent simply identifies emphasis. The accented syllable is the one stressed in pronunciation. There are three accent marks in Greek, acute (́), circumflex (͂), and grave (̀). No distinction in pronunciation is made among the three kinds of accents. Accents are placed over vowels and diphthongs. In the case of diphthongs, accents are written over the second of the two vowels. If the vowel or diphthong also has a breathing mark, an acute or grave accent is placed after the breathing mark, a circumflex accent over the breathing mark (thus: ἄνθρωπος, ὧραι.)


Basic Rules for Accents

  • The acute accent can appear on any of the last three syllables: the ultima, the penult, or the antepenult. The circumflex accent will only appear on the last two; the grave accent only on the ultima. Thus: ἀπόστολος, πιστεύων, ἀδελφός, δοῦλος, γραφῆς, and καὶ.…
  • The circumflex accent can only stand over a long syllable.
  • If the ultima of a word is long, there are two results. First, the antepenult cannot be accented. Second, if the penult is accented, it must have the acute. Note the change from ἄνθρωπος to ἀνθρώπου.
  • If the ultima of a word is short, there are two results. First, the antepenult may receive an accent, which by rule 1 above would have to be acute. Second, a long penult, if accented, must take the circumflex. Thus, ἀπόστολος and προφῆται.
  • The grave accent is, in effect, a substitute for a final acute. An acute accent on the ultima is changed to a grave when the word is immediately followed (i.e., without intervening punctuation) by another word. Thus, ἀδελφός, but ἀδελφὸς καὶ ἀδελφή.


Acute Accent

  • The acute accent indicates that the normal rules of word stress are being overridden.
  • In ancient Greek it is used to indicate a high pitch is emphasized.


Circumflex Accent

  • The circumflex has its origins in the polytonic orthography of Ancient Greek, where it marked long vowels that were pronounced with high and then falling pitch. In a similar vein, the circumflex is today used to mark tone contour in the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Grave Accent

  • Signifies a low pitch on the accented syllable.


Pronouncing Greek Words

  • There are other rules for accenting Greek words. On the one hand, these rules should not be ignored, because in some cases accent reveals the form of a word and, consequently, its meaning. For example, κρίνω = I judge; κρινῶ = I will judge. On the other hand, because of their number, the rules are probably best learned gradually as the various instances are encountered. Only the basic information has been given here. The above rules set certain limits for accenting, but in most cases they do not determine what accent must be used. Additional rules, which help fix the accent precisely, will be introduced in subsequent lessons.
  • This is why we will practice our words by pronouncing them aloud, being sure to stress the accented syllable.



  • Greek has four punctuation marks. As in English, a minor pause is indicated by a comma (,) and a full stop by a period (.). A major pause, equivalent to our colon or semicolon, is indicated by a dot above the line of writing (·). The Greek question mark is identical in form to our semicolon (;).


Practice Greek Alphabet (5 minutes for each exercise)

  • What are the seven vowels?
  • How is the lower-case sigma written?
  • When is the final form sigma used?
  • How is the final form sigma used?
  • What are the breathing marks?
  • If the first letter of a word is a vowel or the letter rho ( r ), the word has a breathing mark.
  • If the first letter of a word is not a vowel or the letter rho ( r ), the word does not have a breathing mark.
  • If the first letter of a word is upsilon ( u ) or rho ( r ), the breathing mark is always a rough breathing mark.
  • Otherwise, either a rough breathing mark or a smooth breathing mark could be used, depending upon the word.
  • How do the breathing marks affect pronunciation?


Breathing mark placement

  • If the word begins with a diphthong, then the breathing mark goes over the second vowel of the diphthong
  • Otherwise, the breathing mark goes over the first letter of the word