Get to Know the Greek Alphabet, From Alpha to Omega

By: Alia Hoyt
Greek alphabet illustration
The Greek alphabet continues to be used in math, science as well as in fraternity and sorority names. HowStuffWorks

The great-granddaddy of all modern European alphabets, the Greek alphabet is used around the world, even by people who don't speak any Greek. There's a good chance you run across Greek more often than you realize. So why is that? First, let's check out the alphabet itself:

The Greek alphabet is composed of 24 letters, seven of which are vowels. Each one has a similar lowercase version.


list of Greek alphabet letters
The Greek alphabet.

Some of these letters are pronounced differently than you might expect. For example, a lot of people pronounce "alpha" using the same "a" sound as you might use in "alligator," however, it's supposed to be more like the "a" in "father." Similarly, "iota" is often said as "eye-ota," but it's supposed to be uttered like the "i" in "it." And "chi" should be pronounced like the "ch" in "Bach." More pronunciation details can be found here.


The Greek Alphabet in Everyday Life

Despite the relative dominance of the 26-letter English alphabet, Greek letters continue to exist and influence today's society. For example, a dominant man or dog is often known as the "alpha male" or "alpha dog." (The less-dominant might be the "beta.") Fraternities and sororities are almost exclusively named for a series of Greek letters, a holdover from the days when elite colleges routinely instructed students in Latin and Greek and thus Greek letters made the fraternity sound more exclusive.

Science and math are full of Greek influence, such as the number 3.14, known as "pi" or Π. "Gamma," used to describe rays or radiation, and "psi," (pronounced "sy"), used in quantum mechanics to denote wave function, are just a couple of the many ways science intersects with the Greek alphabet. And software developers might speak of "beta-testing" something, meaning the product is given to a small group of end-users to try out. Greek letters have been used to represent numbers since antiquity. Aristotle used them, for example, and the custom continued throughout history. (As we said earlier, Greek is the oldest European language.)


History of the Greek Alphabet

That's no small amount of people, as there are more than 10 million in Greece alone (Cyprus, the U.S. and Australia also have significant Greek populations). Several versions of the Greek alphabet have existed over time, and it's believed that the first was adapted from a writing system pioneered by the Phoenicians, sometime around 1000 B.C.E. In the early years, it was written right to left (sometimes alternating right to left/left to right), but 500 B.C.E. saw that switch exclusively to left to right. The Greeks one-upped everyone else by having the first alphabet to include vowels.