The Greek Alphabet

and Some Greek Terms in Philosophy

Alpha to Eta Theta to Omicron Rho to Omega Other Signs
Philosophical terms derived from Greek
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First, in response to some readers, this introduction to the Greek alphabet is not meant as a guide to modern Greek. My intention is simply to help readers of philosophical texts who see a Greek word so that they can relate it to English words.


The Greek alphabet as been in use constantly for about 2,500 years. While the Greek language has undergone many changes, it has remained enough the same that if one learns classical Greek (the language of 400 or 300 B.C.), or koine Greek (as Greek was the common international language in the Time of Christ, in which the books of the New Testament are written), it is easy to recognize many written words in modern Greek. Saints Cyril and Methodius were missionaries to the Slavs, and so the Cyrillic alphabet, invented by and named after St. Cyril, is largely based on Greek, with a few additions for the unique sounds of those languages.

The Greeks also used the letters of the alphabet as numeric symbols.


alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta



  • ALPHA
  • ALPHA, the first letter in the Greek Alphabet, may be pronounced as the "a" in "cat".
    It is transliterated simply as "a".
    ALPHA + IOTA is transliterated sometimes as AI, AE, or E.
    The greek term AISTHESIS (sensation) is the root of the
    English ESTHETICS, AESTHETICS, or ÆSTHETICS.
  • BETA
  • BETA may be pronounced as the english "B".
  • GAMMA
  • GAMMA may be pronounced as the english hard "g", as in "grab". GAMMA may appear in combination with other letters.
    GAMMA combined with GAMMA is like N followed by G. For example, the greek word AGGELOS is transliterated as ANGELOS (angel).
    GAMMA combined with KAPPA is like N (or ng) followed by K. For example,the greek word OGKOS (mass, tumour), is transliterated as ONCOS or ONKOS, as in the English "oncology" (study of cancer).
  • DELTA
  • Delta may be pronounced as the English "D". Because of the shape of the upper case letter, "delta" has come to mean a triangular structure such as the Nile Delta or Mississippi Delta.
  • EPSILON
  • EPSILON may be pronounced as the short "e" sound, such as in "best" or "let".
  • ZETA
  • ZETA may be pronounced as "Z" or as "DZ".
  • ETA
  • ETA is variously pronounced: some pronounce a long "e", as in "sleep", others use a long "a" as in "fate". Sometimes it is transliterated simply as "e", sometimes as "e" with some special marking, such as "é".
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    theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi


  • THETA
  • THETA may be treated as the "TH" in "theatre" or "theology" (both words of Greek Origin). It is better not to pronounce it with vocalization, as the "TH" in "the" and "this".
  • KAPPA
  • KAPPA is simply the K sound. It is usually transliterated with a "K", but occasionally with a "C". The letter "C" appears in the Roman alphabet, but not in the Greek, and its pronunciation in Latin seems to have changed from a "K" sound, to an "S" sound in some words.
  • LAMBDA
  • LAMBDA is transliterated simply by "L".
  • MU
  • MU is transliterated simply by "M".
  • NU
  • NU is transliterated simply by "N".
  • XI
  • XI is transliterated simply by "X".
  • OMICRON
  • OMICRON is transliterated by "O". It is best pronounced as the English short "O", as in "hot", "not" or "got".
  • PI
  • PI is simply transliterated by "P".

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    rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi, omega


  • RHO
  • RHO is simply transliterated by "R", or sometimes by "RH". At the beginning of a word it is often preceded by the sign of rough breathing, which is close to an "H" sound. (See below)
  • SIGMA
  • SIGMA is simply translated as an "S".
  • TAU
  • TAU is simply transliterated as "T".
  • UPSILON
  • UPSILON is transliterated sometimes as "Y", and sometimes as "U". It is pronounced like the German "üaut;". It often appears in combination with other vowels. For example, EPSILON and UPSILON, (EU) in which we pronounce the two sounds. Many words borrowed from Greek have this combination, such as Europe, Eugenics, Euphoria, and in English this combination is pronounced like the word "you". When reading Greek, it is best to pronounce it as "E-OO". The combination OMICRON plus UPSILON (ou) is pronounced as "oo" as in the English "moon". OMICRON+UPSILON is sometimes transliterated as "OU" and sometimes as "U".
  • PHI
  • PHI is usually transliterated as "PH", but sometimes as "F". The Greek word PHANTASIA is at the origin of the English FANTASY, FANCY, FANTASTIC but also the more closely transliterated PHANTASM.
  • CHI
  • CHI is pronounced halfway between a K and an H (such as "CH" in the Scottish word "Loch"). It is usually transliterated as "CH", such as in CHORUS, CHRIST, CHARACTER.
  • PSI
  • PSI is pronounced usually as P+S, but in English we often shorten it to an "S". Examples are PSYCHE, PSYCHOLOGY, PSORIASIS.
  • OMEGA
  • OMEGA is pronounced as a long "O", such as in "HOPE". It is transliterated either simply by an "O", or else as an "O" with a special marking (Õ, Ó) to distinguish it from OMICRON.
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    Other Signs


  • IOTA SUBSCRIPT
  • The Iota subscript is a small IOTA written under another vowel. In classical times it probably indicated some difference in the pronunciation of the vowel, but today it is common to ignore it in pronunciation, although it plays a definite grammatical role in written language. It is not commonly transliterated.
  • ROUGH BREATHING MARK
  • The Rough Breathing Mark is transcribed as "H". All words beginning with vowels are preceded either by a smooth breathing mark (like a single end-quote) or a rough breating mark (like a single beginning-quote). When looking up a word in a greek dictionary, look for the vowel, and ignore the "H". For example, the English word "haptic" (related to touch) would be under the letter ALPHA. Some words derived from Greek that begin with this sound are HALO, HAMARTIA, HELIX, HELICOPTER, HEURISTIC, HOLISTIC (and WHOLE).
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    Terms derived from Greek used in Philosophy

    The following terms are by no means an exhaustive list.
    ALPHA BETA GAMMA DELTA EPSILON ZETA ETA THETA IOTA KAPPA LAMBDA MU NU XI OMICRON PI RHO SIGMA TAU UPSILON PHI CHI PSI OMEGA
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    alpha
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    agnostic,
    agnosticism
    a-: not +
    gnosis: knowing
    an agnostic professes that we cannot know about
    the existence of God with our reason.
    aesthetics,
    esthetics
    æsthetics
    aisthesis: sensation, sense knowledge
    also - anaesthesia = lack of sensation
    the branch of philosophy that concerns beauty and art.
    analysis,
    analytic
    ana: up + luein: to loosen, destroy to take a problem apart, to break it up into smaller pieces.
    apodictic,
    apodeictic
    apo-: from (among other meanings) +
    deiknunai: to show, demonstrate
    adjective: demonstrated as true with the greatest certainty. This term is used in Aristotle's logical works, and also by Kant.
    atom, atomism a-: without
    tomein: to cut, to divide
    The smallest and indivisible solid particle
    The atomists taught that atoms are the ultimate reality. Democritus, Leuccipus and Lucretius were atomists.
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    beta
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    gamma
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    gnoseology gnosis: knowledge the philosophical theory of knowledge,
    more commonly called "epistemology".
    gnostic,
    gnosticism
    gnosis: knowledge a religious tradition that made salvation depend on acquiring a special spiritual knowledge accessible only to a spiritual elite. Resembles Platonism.
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
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    delta
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    dynamic dunamis: power, ability dunamis was translated into latin as potentia.
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
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    epsilon
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    energy energeia: realization
    en-: in + ergon work
    energeia was translated into Latin as actus
    entelechy entelecheia: full actualized existence
    en: in + telos: final end
    a term used by Aristotle to describe the soul as an actualization or realization of purpose. It is roughly equivalent to energeia.
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    zeta
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    zoological zoein: to live
    zoon: a living thing, an animal
    the study of animals.
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    eta
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    ethics éthos: custom, morality. ethics is the philosophical and normative science of human action.
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    theta
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    theodicy theos: God +
    diké: justice
    a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the occurence of evil in the world. This term was used by Liebniz.
    theology theos: God the study of God
    theory theórein: to behold, to contemplate a contemplative understanding of reality. Today it is often used to mean hypothesis.
    term
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    iota
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    jot, iota iota:(the letter) a very small thing, a small mark, to make small marks
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
    term greek explanation
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    lambda
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    kappa
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    mu
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    method methodos: way of inquiry
    meta: by +
    hodos: road, way
    the way by which we approach a problem
    metaphysics meta: next after +
    phusiké: study of nature
    The book after Aristotle's physics; the philosophy of all reality, of which nature is only a part.
    metempsychosis meta: among, between
    en: in, into
    psuché: soul
    The passage of the soul from one body to another; also called reincarnation; the doctrine of the Pythagoreans and to some extent that of Plato.
    monad,
    monadology
    monos: one, single A monad is an isolated single unit. Leibniz had a theory called monadology, that each real substance was absolutely isolated from every other.
    term greek explanation
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    nu
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    xi
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    omicron
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    ontology
    ontic
    on, ón: being ontology is the study of being, often synonymous with metaphysics
    Organon organon: instrument, tool The "Organon" is the title of the collection of Aristotle's works on logic and method.
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    pi
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    pantheism pan: all +
    theos: God
    the belief that God is all things taken together.
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    rho
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    sigma
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
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    tau
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    term greek explanation
    tautology tauton: the same, identical
    logos: meaning, word
    a statement that appears to explain something, but only restates the problem. E.g. "A rational animal is an animal that can reason."
    teleology telos: purpose, end the theory that everything acts for a purpose;
    a tendency to act for a purpose.
    technique,
    technology
    techné: art, knowledge applied to making things Knowledge applied to making things, called in Latin "ARS, ARTIS. It is distinguished from theoretical knowledge,which is knowledge for the sake of knowing.
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    upsilon
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    hylezoism hylé: matter (lumber)
    zoein: to be alive
    the theory that all matter is endowed with life
    held by some pre-Socratic philosophers.
    hylemorphism hylé: matter
    morphos: form
    Aristotle's theory that all material things are composed of matter and form
    hypothesis,
    hypothetical
    hypo: under
    thesis: putting
    a hypothesis is an explanation without complete proof as if someone said "what if ....?". In Kant, a hypothetic statement has the structure "if...then..."
    term greek explanation
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    phi
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    phantasm phaineisthai: to appear
    phantasia: imagination
    phantasma: an image in the mind.
    A phantasm is a mental image. The words fancy, fantasy, fantastic, and phantasy are also derived from the same source.
    phenomenon
    phenomenology
    phaineisthai: to appear A phenomenn is something that appears.
    Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that avoids the question of existence and studies reality in so far as it appears before our consciousness (Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler and others).
    philosophy philein: to love,
    sophia: wisdom
    the science investigating the ultimate principles of things. The followers of Pythagoras first called themselves philosophers or "lovers of wisdom" to set themselves apart from self-styled wise men.
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    chi
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
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    psi
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
    psyche,
    psychology
    psychic
    psuché: soul
    logos: word, meaning
    psychology is the study of the soul.
    The meaning of "psyche" varies in different modern schools of psychology.
    In philosophy, "psychic" means "related to the soul", without
    any necessary association with paranormal powers.
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    omega
    English TermGreek Rootsexplanation or definition
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