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Alphabet: Diphthongs

Congratulations! You have now learned the Greek alphabet, vowels and consonants! That gives you most of what you need to know in order to read the Greek out loud. Now you just need to learn a few more details about the sounds of Greek and about the different marks found in the Greek writing system.

Diphthong is from a Greek word, dipthoggos, meaning "2-sounds." In particular, it means the combination of two vowel sounds. Because English has many diphthongs as well, you will find it easy to pronounce the Greek diphthongs. (In fact, the real problem is trying not to pronounce the single Greek vowels like eta and omega as diphthong - English speakers almost invariably pronounce these Greek long vowels as if they were equivalent to the English diphthongs in "say" and "low").

iota diphthongs αι ει οι υι
  ai as in aisle ei as in neighbor oi as in noise ui as in suite
[note: not suit - the word is suite, pronounced sweet]
upsilon diphthongs αυ ευ and ηυ ου  
  ow as in now These diphthongs are lacking in English: if you practice combining "e" and "u" into a single syllable you can certainly learn to do this! Many people also pronounce this diphthong as a long form of "u". oo as in noodle

Iota Subscript. There is also a special series of diphthongs with long vowels combined with iota (long alpha, eta, and omega). As the Greek system of writing evolved, it became customary when using lower-case letters to write this iota underneath the vowel; hence the term, iota subscript. However, with upper-case (capital) letters, the iota is written normally.

lower-ᾳ upper-ΑΙ lower-ῃ upper-ΗΙ lower-ῳ upper-ΩΙ
ai as in aisle ei as in neighbor oi as in noise

Most textbooks will tell you not to pronounce the iota subscript. I strongly disagree with this. The iota subscript will help you recognize dative forms of the nouns along with many important verb forms. By pronouncing the iota subscript, you will learn these forms! If you do not pronounce the iota subscript, you will never learn these forms. (Read more about this on the Greek Pronunciation page at this website.) I always pronounce the iota subscript, and I know that this helps me to understand the Greek much more clearly. I strongly recommend that you get in the habit of pronouncing the iota subscript too!

Diphthongs and Syllables. It is extremely important to understand that a diphthong is a single syllable! There are other vowels that can stand next to each other in a word, but they are pronounced separately. A diphthong is a single sound, where the vowels are pronounced together as a single syllable. In other vowel combinations, the vowels are pronounced separately as separate syllabus. Here are some examples:

Ανδρέας (Andreas = Andrew) has three syllables: Αν-δρέ-ας (the combination ε-α is not a diphthong)

Γεδεών (Gideon) has three syllables: Γε - δε - ών (the combination ε-ω is not a diphthong)

Δημήτριος (Demetrios) has four syllables: Δη - μή - τρι - ος (the combination ι-ο is not a diphthong)

Diphthongs and Diaeresis. Sometimes a vowel combination that is usually pronounced as a diphthong (single syllable) is actually pronounced as two separate syllables. When that happens, a special sign called a diaeresis (Greek take, aer, apart, dia) is used to show that the diphthong is meant to be taken apart into its separate components. The diaeresis is two dots over the second vowel of the combination. For example:

Στοϊκός (Stoic) may be printed with a diaeresis to show that the combination ο-ι is two separate syllables

The diaeresis sign is not very commonly found (usually the placement of accent marks can be used to indicate this), but you need to be prepared to recognize it when you see it.

Diphthongs and Vowel Length. You have already learned that some vowels in Greek are always long (η and ω), and some vowels are always short (ε and ο), while some vowels can be either long or short (α and ι and υ). Diphthongs, since they consists of two vowels, are almost always long, with very few exceptions (αι and οι at the end of a word are short). So, as a general rule, if you see a diphthong, you can regard it as an example of a long vowel. You will be learning about the importance of long and short vowels when you get to the rules for accent marks later on.

Okay, now that you are able to recognize not just vowels but vowel combinations, you are ready to practice with some more Greek Names:

Biblical Greek Online. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. Page last updated: April 9, 2005 8:06 PM

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