Traveling in a foreign land can be stressful, especially if you're going alone and don't speak the language. If you're planning a trip to Greece this year, knowing how to identify the letters of the Greek alphabet can go a long way in helping you feel at home in this European country, and might even help you know the difference between Athens and Piraeus or "New Epidaurus" and the "Port of Epidaurus."
While you may not need to know how to read the Greek alphabet if you're on an organized tour of the country, it will certainly help orient you in Greece if you're able to read signs around town. It's handy to be able to at least read the letters of the Greek alphabet because even if you don't learn Greek, some words are similar to English so it can help you get around more smoothly.
Once you know the alphabet, your travels will be as easy as A-B-C. In fact, the phrase "From Alpha to Omega" or "beginning to end" comes from the Greek alphabet which starts with the letter alpha and ends with Omega, making these two perhaps the best-known letters and a good place to start learning.
The 24 Letters of the Greek Alphabet
Take a look at all 24 of the letters of the Greek alphabet in this handy chart. While many may seem familiar, it's important to note the difference between English and Greek pronunciation as well as the alternative forms of Greek letters. In Greek, remember that "beta" is pronounced "vayta;" you'll need to pronounce the "puh" sound in "Psi, unlike in English where the "p" would be silent; and the "d" in "Delta" is pronounced as a softer "th" sound.
The different shapes of the Greek lower-case letter Sigma are not really alternate forms; they are both used in modern Greek, depending on where the letter occurs in a word. However, the more "o" shaped variant starts a word, while the more "c" shaped version usually ends a word.
In the following slides, you'll find the alphabet broken down by groups of three, which are given in alphabetic order, starting with alpha and beta—which is where we get the word "alphabet!" All Pronunciations are approximate as this is designed to help you sound out signs rather than speak the language
Alpha, Beta, and Gamma
The first two letters are easy to remember—"alpha" for "A" and "beta" for "B"—however, in Greek, the "b" in beta is pronounced more like a "v" is in English. Similarly, the next letter in the alphabet, "gamma," while defined as "g," is often pronounced much more softly as well like a "y" sound in front of "i" and "e" as in "yield."
Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta
In this group, the letter "delta" looks like a triangle—or the delta formed by rivers familiar to those who took a geography class. If you need help in remembering what this triangle represents, you can try mentally turning it on its side, where it looks similar to the letter "d."
"Epsilon" is a simple one because it not only looks like the English letter "e," it's is pronounced similarly. However, instead of a hard "e" sound like in English, it is pronounced "eh" as in "pet" in Greek.
"Zeta" is a surprise so early in the list of letters, since we're used to seeing "Z" at the end of our alphabet, but it's next up in the Greek alphabet and pronounced exactly how it would be in English.
Eta, Theta, and Iota
The next letter, "eta," is represented by a symbol that looks similar to an "H' but functions in the Greek language to represent a short "i" or "ih" sound, making it a little difficult to learn and remember.
"Theta" looks like an "o" with a line through it and is pronounced "Th," making it one of the more unusual ones on the list, which has to be memorized entirely.
Next up, the letter that actually looks like the English letter "i" is "iota," which gave us the phrase "I don't give one iota," referring to something very tiny. Like eta, iota is also pronounced as "i."
Kappa, Lambda, and Mu
Of these three Greek letters, two are exactly what they appear to be: The "Kappa" is a "k," and the "Mu" is an "m," but in the middle, we have a symbol that looks like a bottomless "delta" or an inverted letter "v," which represents "lambda" for the letter "l."
Nu, Xi, and Omicron
"Nu" is "n" but watch out for its lower-case form, which looks like a "v" and resembles another letter, the upsilon, which we will encounter later in the alphabet.
Xi, pronounced "ksee," is a tough one in both its forms. But you can try to remember by associating the three lines of the uppercase letter with the phrase "three for ksee!" Meanwhile, the lowercase form looks something like a cursive "E," so you can associate it with the phrase "Kursive "E" for ksee!"
"Omicron" is literally "O Micron"—the "little" O as opposed to the big "O," "Omega." In ancient times, the upper and lowercase forms were pronounced differently, but now they're both just "o."
Pi, Rho, and Sigma
If you stayed awake in math class, you'll recognize the letter "Pi." If not, it's going to take some training to reliably see it as "p," especially since the next letter in the Greek alphabet, "rho," looks like the English character for "P" but represents the letter "r."
Now comes to one of the biggest problems, the letter "Sigma," which looks like a backward "E" but is pronounced "s." To make matters worse, its lowercase form has two variants, one of which looks like an "o" and the other which looks like a "c," though that may at least give you a hint as to the sound.
Confused? It gets worse. Many graphic artists have seen the apparent resemblance to the letter "E" and routinely plop it in as if it were an "E" to give a "Greek" feel to lettering. Movie titles are particular abusers of this letter, even in " My Big Fat Greek Wedding," whose creators should have known better.
Tau, Upsilon, and Phi
The Tau or Taf looks and functions the same as it does in English, giving a soft and hard "t" sound to words, which means you've already learned another letter in Greek just by knowing English.
"Upsilon," on the other hand, has a big form that looks like a "Y" and a lowercase form that looks like a "u," but both are pronounced like an "i" and often used in the same way as eta and iota are, which can be rather confusing as well.
Next, "Phi" is represented by a circle with a line through it and is pronounced using the "f" sound. If you need help remembering this, you can think of the sound a beach ball might make if you stabbed a wooden peg directly through the middle of it—"pffff."
Chi, Psi, and Omega
The "chi" is "X" and is pronounced as a vigorous "h" sound like the "ch" in Loch Ness Monster while the trident-shaped symbol is "psi," which is pronounced "puh-sigh" with a gentle and quick "p" sound before the "s."
Finally, we come to "omega," the last letter of the Greek alphabet, which is often used as a word meaning "the end." Omega represents a long "o" sound and is the "big sibling" to omicron. Although these used to be pronounced differently, they're both pronounced the same in modern Greek.