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Getting started on ancient Greek
Getting started on ancient Greek

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6 Transliteration

There is a standard system for representing, or ‘transliterating’, Greek letters in English. A transliteration can be a useful tool in the initial stages of learning Greek, because it can confirm that you have understood each individual letter correctly.

For example:

  • Ποσειδων Poseidо̄n
  • λεγω legо̄ (= ‘I say’)
  • σοφος sophos (= ‘wise’)

The following letters are represented in English by two letters:

  • θ (theta) th
  • φ (phi) ph
  • χ (chi) ch
  • ψ (psi) ps

The long vowels are represented by their English equivalents, ‘e’ and ‘o’ with a horizontal line above, called a macron.

  • η (eta) ē
  • ω (omega) о̄

Gamma is transliterated as ‘n’, when it precedes gamma, kappa, xi or chi. This reflects the way in which these combinations of letters were pronounced by the ancient Greeks:

  • αγγελος angelos (= ‘messenger’)
  • αγκυρα ankura (= ‘anchor’)

Upsilon can be represented as ‘u’ or ‘y’.

The transliteration of Greek names often follows a Latinised form, especially if a name is well known. Thus ‘Aeschylus’ is the usual spelling of the name of the Greek playwright, rather than the technically correct ‘Aischulos’ (Αἰσχύλος).

Activity 7 Letter counting

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

How many Greek letters are needed to write the following words?

  1. theatron (= ‘theatre’)
  2. philosophos (= ‘philosopher’)
  3. chaos (= ‘chaos’)
  4. psuchē (= ‘soul’, ‘mind’)
  5. о̄phthē (= ‘he/she was seen’)


  1. Seven letters – θεατρον (theatron)
  2. Nine letters – φιλοσοφοϛ (philosophos)
  3. Four letters – χαος (chaos)
  4. Four letters – ψυχη (psuchē)
  5. Four letters – ωφθη (о̄phthē)