Don’t learn Greek in English: learn to read Greek

When people go on holiday to Greece or Cyprus, they often learn a few phrases for themselves before they go. They learn the words for please, thank you, hello and goodbye, and how to order a beer. But instead of learning them in Greek letters, they sometimes learn what I call “Greek in English”: in other words, they commit to memory English spellings such as parakalo, efharisto, yassou, mia beera, and so on.

Personally I think that’s a mistake, which is why I set out to write The Greek Alphabet: 24 Letters in 24 Hours – a quick guide to the Greek alphabet in ebook form.

The problem is that the Greek alphabet and the English alphabet don’t map precisely to one another; so if you learn Greek in English letters, you are only ever approximating the sounds. Worst of all, as I recently wrote in a guest article for Omniglot.com, there is more than one way to spell any given Greek word in English – and you will often find even place names spelled in many different ways.

In that article I outline some of the fun and games you can have with Greek-to-English transliteration. Basically there are three main schemes of writing Greek in English, with variations on each. Read the article if you want to know more – but the upshot is that you can book a holiday in a place called “Hania” and when you get there, find the word “Chania” written on all the signs; or start calling a man “Georgios” when “Yoryos” is how it’s pronounced.

English spellings even go in and out of fashion. In the Cypriot example below, the current official English transliteration for the name of the village is “Agios Thomas”, but this older sign says “Ay. Thomas”, which is an abbreviation of “Ayios Thomas” (a closer pronunciation match) – which may or may not be written on your map. Nothing in the English spelling, though, will prepare you for the fact that the “th” should be pronounced like the “th” in “thesis” – unless of course you have learned your Greek letters.

Greek road sign in Cyprus

Personally I think the sounds of Greek are all-important, which is why, when writing this book, I’ve tried to make pronunciation my guide as far as I can.

In the book, I’ve devoted a new page to each letter – so I can explain how each letter of the alphabet is pronounced, with reference to English – and if any letter is particularly tricky (I’m thinking of you, gamma) I can explain it in full, warning against any common mistakes.

Best of all, the really easy thing with Greek is that if you know how a letter is pronounced, you really know it: there are no English nasties like “enough”, “cough”, “though”, “thought” and “bough”.

The end result, I hope, will be a book that gives you confidence pronouncing the Greek alphabet and reading Greek letters; so that when you’re driving down the motorway in Greece or Cyprus, you won’t be confused by the many possible English spellings – because you’re the one reading the Greek.

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