What is the Greek Alphabet?

By Kacey Kroh, Abshier House

The Greek alphabet originated in Greece in the late-800’s B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and derived from the Phoenician alphabet. The Greek alphabet is the oldest alphabet with a clear distinction between consonants and vowels.

what is the greek alphabet
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The Greek alphabet that is used for language is also used as labels for many mathematical and scientific equations.

The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest recorded alphabet consisting of line-symbols to replace Babylonian, Egyptian, and Sumerian hieroglyphs. It was developed by merchants so that trade between civilizations would be possible. This alphabet spread quickly in the Mediterranean, and was eventually assimilated and modified by all the major cultures in the region, giving birth to languages such as Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.

The Greek alphabet used for language

The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, arranged from Alpha to Omega. The letters of the alphabet have a regular symbol-to-sound mapping, making pronunciation of words simple. The table below describes the sounds of each letter:

Name Letter Sound Name Letter Sound
Άλφα – Alpha Α α [a] [ah] [eh] Νυ – Nu Ν ν [n]
Βήτα – Beta Β β [b] [v] Ξι – Xi Ξ ξ [ks] [x]
Γάμμα – Gamma Γ γ [g] Όμικρον – Omicron Ο ο [o] [oo]
Δέλτα – Delta Δ δ [d] Πι – Pi Π π [p][pe]
Έψιλον – Epsilon Ε ε [e][ee] Ρώ – Rho Ρ ρ [r]
Ζήτα – Zeta Ζ ζ [z] [zd] Σίγμα – Sigma Σ σ [s]
Ήτα – Eta Η η [h][ha] Ταυ – Tau Τ τ [t][ta]
Θήτα – Theta Θ θ [th] Ύψιλον – Upsilon Υ υ [u] [uh]
Ιώτα – Iota Ι ι [i] [ih] Φι – Phi Φ φ [ph] [f]
Κάππα – Kappa Κ κ [k][c] Χι – Chi Χ χ [kh] [x]
Λάμδα – Lambda Λ λ [l] Ψι – Psi Ψ ψ [ps]
Μυ – Mu Μ μ [m] Ωμέγα – Omega Ω ω [oh]

Keep in mind the Archaic letter/symbol Digamma (Ϝϝ) is sometimes used. Digamma sounds like the English letter W.

The Greek alphabet used for math and science

The Greek alphabet is commonly used as symbols for different variables representing specific quantities. The table below lists a few examples for each Greek symbol:

Name Symbol Description
Alpha Α α · Α – side 1 of a triangle (Geometry)

· α – angle 1 of a triangle (Geometry)

Beta Β β · Β – side 2 of a triangle (Geometry)

· β – angle 2 of a triangle (Geometry)

Gamma Γ γ · Γ – side “C” of a triangle (Geometry)

· γ – angle 3 of a triangle (Geometry)

Delta Δ δ · Δ – heat in a chemical formula (Chemistry)

· δ – a stable isotope (Chemistry)

Epsilon Ε ε · Ε – a random error (Regression Analysis)

· ε – an expected value (Statistics)

Zeta Ζ ζ · Ζ – relative vertical vorticity (Fluid Dynamics)

· ζ – zeta functions (Number Theory)

Eta Η η · Η – the Eta function (Statistical Mechanics)

· η – elacticities (Economics)

Theta Θ θ · Θ – a certain ordinal number (Set Theory)

· θ – a plane angle (Geometry)

Iota Ι ι · Ι – an inclusion map (Set Theory)

· ι – orbital inclination (Celestial Mechanics)

Kappa Κ κ · Κ – connectivity of a graph (Graph Theory)

· κ – thermal conductivity (Thermodynamics)

Lambda Λ λ · Λ – diagonal matrix (Linear Algebra)

· λ – the mean or average value (Statistics)

Mu Μ μ · Μ – a measure (Measure Theory)

· μ – the coefficient of friction (Physics)

Nu Ν ν · Ν – a true anomaly (Celestial Mechanics)

· ν – frequency in hertz (Physics)

Xi Ξ ξ · Ξ – the canonical ensemble (Statistical Mechanics)

· ξ – extent of a chemical reaction (Chemistry)

Omicron Ο ο · Ο – big O notation (Computer Science)

· ο – small o notation (Computer Science)

Pi Π π · Π – a plane (Geometry)

· π – ratio of a circle’s circumference to diameter (Geometry)

Rho Ρ ρ · Ρ – the utilization (Queueing Theory)

· ρ – the correlation coefficient (Statistics)

Sigma Σ σ · Σ – the set of terminal symbols (Formal Grammar)

· σ – stress (Mechanics)

Tau Τ τ · Τ – proper time (Relativity)

· τ – shear stress (Continuum Mechanics)

Upsilon Υ υ · Υ – the upsilon meson (Relativity)

· υ – frequency (Physics)

Phi Φ φ · Φ – cumulative distribution function (Statistics)

· φ – latitude (Geodesy)

Chi Χ χ · Χ – electron gravity (Chemistry)

· χ – chromatic number of a graph (Graph Theory)

Psi Ψ ψ · Ψ – quaternary combinator (Combinatory Logic)

· ψ – load combination factor (Structural Engineering)

Omega Ω ω · Ω – a solid angle (Geometry)

· ω – the possible outcome (Probability Theory)

There are many more uses of these symbols in math and science. The table above barely scratches the surface. Performing an internet search by a specific field of study will help you discover what the symbols represent by discipline. You can find tons of indexes of math and science symbols online.

Additionally, many science vocabulary words use common Greek roots.