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I've noticed that the Greek alphabet is systemically mispronounced in the English speaking world. What is the main reason for that?

Examples and remarks

I've never heard anyone pronounce the letters β,γ,δ,ι the right way even though these sounds are common in the English language. This has led me to believe that scholars simply don't teach them the right way. But even if they were taught Greek the wrong way I still can't understand why people mispronounced my name after hearing it when I introduced myself (Dimitris - Τheemeetrees - Δημήτρης).

Most common occurrences of mispronunciations

  1. Names of fraternities in American colleges
  2. Greek letters in mathematics
  3. Common arithmetic letters like alpha/beta (versions) or delta (military task force)

Sounds that are not present in English

The only sound that is absent from the English alphabet is the hard Y (Γ). In Greek a soft Γ is easy to be pronounced by foreigners but corresponds to different writing. The English sounds yo, ya, ye, yu are written as γιο, για, γιε, γιου. The hard Γ is pronounced without the ι. It's impossible to speak a hard yi, ye. Although the hard γα and γο sounds are nowhere to be found in English, the hard γου is everywhere. Words like word, where, wait, work and womb have hard yama. But even if I spell γαμμα as wama everyone will read it as whama.

Letters, diphthongs, digraphs and their proper explanation

The following will help you pronounce the alphabet the right way:

e - like in epitome

ee - like in sheep

o - like in knot (not to be confused with the pronunciation of o in "no")

y - like yo-yo

x - like mexican

Letter pron. Letter pron. Letter pron. Letter pron.
Α alfa Η eeta Ν nee Τ taf
Β veeta Θ theeta (as thunder) Ξ xee Υ eepseelon
Γ yama Ι yota Ο omeekron Φ fee
Δ thelta (as this,the,there) Κ kapa Π pee Χ he
Ε epsilon Λ lamtha (as those) Ρ ro Ψ psee
Ζ zeeta Μ mee Σ seeyma Ω omeya

ς - is not part of the alphabet and is called terminal siyma. There's no word ending in σ.

Diphthongs that produce sounds not present in the alphabet

g - like gear

Letter sound Letter sound Letter sound Letter sound
ΜΠ b ΤΖ j ΤΝ d ΤΣ ch (like charcoal)
ΓΚ g ΓΓ g ΕΥ ef/ev ΑΥ af/av
ΗΥ eev ΣΤ st ΟΥ oo

In schools we are taught that diphthongs are compound sounds (hence the name). ΜΠ = m+p sounds like b if spoken fast. Some Greek letters sound like diphthongs probably as an ancient remnant of concatenation of more letters due to high frequency. Ψ = p+s , Ξ = k+s

Other digraphs

digraph sound digraph sound digraph sound
ΟΙ ee ΕΙ ee ΑΙ e

Some footnotes

I used the letters ee instead of i for pronunciation of the letters ι,η,υ,οι,ει because some might try pronouncing it like in mice. I could provide the guideline ship but from my experience people tend to go the other way again soon. It is true that in modern Greek the above 5 phthongs don't have the long "e" sound of sheep but this way you can't ignore the right sound 😊

Many know alpha written with a ph but for purposes of this article I write with the simplest sound forms.

Any other pitfall is already mentiond.

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Well, I mean Greek is pronounced by English speakers the way an English speaker would pronounce an English word, i.e. according to English conventions. It may be possible for an English speaker to say thelta instead of delta for example, but in English a d is pronounced as /d/, so that is the natural way to pronounce it. But it is not only Greek.

Take Japanese. People typically pronounce tsunami as sunami. Or Tokyo (Tookyoo) as "Tohkio". Or sake (sakeh) as "sahki" based on the spelling because it's not normal to have the /e/ vowel at the end of a word in English, even though it is possible to pronounce it.

English has stress as opposed to pitch in Japanese. So words like tempura are pronounced with a heavy stress in the middle of the word even though it doesn't exist in the Japanese pronunciation.

Pronunciation also gets perpetuated by large population, meaning that even if people know that the original pronunciation is different, it sounds weird to say it that way because its not what our ears are accustomed to in an English conversation. Even as a Japanese speaker, I don't say them the Japanese way when I speak English because that's not how these words are said in English.

Word meaning change when they move into other languages, they often change grammatically too. It's probably only natural that pronunciation changes also take place in a way that is most comfortable to the speakers of that language.

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    This reminds me the words Hawaii and Mexico ... the people of those regions must really cringe when they hear the wrong pronunciation ... – Demis Mar 9 at 19:08
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I can't comment on English, but I am guessing a part of the reason is the historical position and development of the Greek language.

In Finnish, the names of the first four Greek letters are: alfa, beeta, gamma, delta. I use Greek letters mostly in mathematics. I have not studied the language.

Looking at the table of pronunciation of Greek letters at Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_alphabet#Letters , we see that beeta used to be pronounced as what I would write as b, but in modern Greek is pronounced as what I would write as v. Gamma and delta signify different sounds, too.

So, a simple hypothesis is that the names of the letters are from an older variant of Greek and someone who does not study the language learns a pronunciation based on the names of the letters; this serves quite well in mathematics and even in reading the occasional classical name like Ὀδύσσεια and recognizing it.

So maybe people are not so much mispronouncing the words/letters as pronouncing them according to the classical Greek pronunciations?

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  • I don't think there is any historic document providing information about how Greek was supposed to sound like back then, like we don't know how Mayan and Egyptian sounded like, but this needs a feedback from someone with a PhD in linguistics and I'm not sure if my question should be moved or even copied to an other exchange group... But I think my tables really can help people in this group learning Greek (if there isn't some other post already doing it). – Demis Feb 25 at 15:34
  • The standard solution is to let the question stay here for a week or so and then crosspost somewhere else with a note that is crossposted and a link to the elder question, and also edit this one to include a similar note to the new question. – Tommi Feb 26 at 16:51
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    Ancient pronunciations can be inferred from ancient loanwords, though of course It's Never That Simple. – Anton Sherwood Mar 19 at 1:44

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