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Alpha, Beta... ehm, Vita, Gamma

Week 14, Episode 27

Quick question: What is the second letter of the Greek alphabet? If you take into account that the word "alphabet" itself came from the name of the first two letters of the Greek (and not Latin!) alphabet, then the answer seem to be so simple: beta (beh-tah). But it depends.

Let start from saying that Greek comes from Phoenician alphabet—the oldest verified alphabet. It is derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Yeah, old stuff. Phoenician alphabet consists of 22 letters, and all of them are consonants, so the reader is the one who has to guess the vowel. Mind games, huh? This type of writing system is called abjad. And the merit of the Greek language is the creation of the vowels! Thank you sooo much!

The thing is that the Greek language, though it has the longest documented history of any single clearly-defined Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records, went through a long process of changes, many stages, co-existence of regional spoken dialects with more archaic written forms and even battles between different types of language so that one of them can become the official choice. 

And this choice hat gave us Greek we know today was made not so long ago, really—in 1976, and then was simplified in 1982, due to the writing reform.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, usually Greek is divided into Ancient Greek and Modern Greek. Modern Greek is what you learn when you learn Greek. But Ancient Greek is still taught in some schools and universities throughout Europe, too, and has its applications in scientific terminology. Greek symbols used as names in math, physics and other sciences have Ancient Greek pronunciation. Maybe, this is where you get the "beta" answer.

But though Modern and Ancient Greek alphabets are identical, the pronunciation of the letters is not. And according to the official Greek language of today, the second letter of the Greek alphabet is not "beta" but "vita" (vee-tah). By the way, in Russian we say "алфавит" (alpha-veet) for "alphabet".

This "beta-vita" complication brings us to the fact that in Modern Greek (that you learn if you want to speak to people in Greece) there is no letter representing the sound "b". In fact, there are also no letters for English "d" and "g" sounds either.

Ancient Greeks had them, but later these three sounds had shifted in pronunciation to the corresponding “soft” ones—[v] (as in "vain"), [ð] (as in "this"), and [γ] (pronounced as Ukrainian "г", or something between "g" and "h").

Now when Greeks want to write those sounds, they write them as two-letter combinations: [b] is written as μπ (mu + pi), [d] as ντ (nu + tau), and [g] as γκ (gamma + kappa), or as γγ (double gamma).

Sometimes when English speakers hear Greeks pronouncing words ending with the letter sigma (seeg-mah), they think they hear sound "sh" (as in "ship"). But there is no "sh" in Greek. The real sound sigma makes at the end of the words is something between "s" and "sh". To make it you have to stop your tongue half-way and try to say "s"

Use the same principle for the sounds [z] (as in "zoo") and [ʒ] (as in "casual"), and you'll get the sound of the Greek letter zeta (zee-tah).

Learning the Greek language now is easier than it has ever been (doesn't mean it is easy, by the way). Thanks to the reform I mentioned above, you don't need to understand all the complexities of extensive diacritics—the marks were eliminated from the modern language. The only one left is the accent mark, which is actually helpful. The pronunciation also became much easier, and if you're a Russian, just like this lucky langventurist here, you have a head start for Cyrillics is derived from the Greek script.

But enough with letters and sounds! It is time for something...

Δροσερό! (throh-seh-roh)! Cool!

" Oh, yeah! I am such a fantastic article! Like me! "

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