Modern Greek phonology

Modern Greek phonology

This page presents a sketch of the phonology of Standard Modern Greek.



The consonantal system of Greek is difficult to describe, as there is considerable debate about which sounds to describe as separate phonemes and which to analyse as conditional allophones. The following table presents a near-maximum inventory of 27 sounds.

  Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t c k
voiced b d ɟ ɡ
Fricative voiceless f θ s ç x
voiced v ð z ʝ ɣ
Affricate voiceless ts
voiced dz
Trill r
Lateral l ʎ

Of the 26 consonantal sounds shown here, only the 15 shown in black are undisputed phonemes.[1] These 15 sounds are also the only ones represented by single letters in Greek orthography and directly correspond to consonant phonemes in Ancient Greek. In this minimalist analysis, all others can be analysed as combinatorial clusters of two phonemes or allophonic variants of another phoneme:

  • The palatals [c, ɟ, ç, ʝ] can be analysed as allophones of their velar counterparts before front vowels. When these sounds occur before back vowels, a silent interceding vowel /i/ (represented in orthography as <ι>, <υ> and <ει>) is typically assumed.[2] The velar sounds only ever occur before back vowels.
  • The sounds [ɲ, ʎ] are usually analysed as clusters of /ni/ and /li/, respectively, and are also spelled accordingly in Greek orthography.
  • The series of voiced plosives can be analysed as sequences of nasals and voiceless plosives, [b] = /mp/, [d] = /nt/, [ɡ] = /nk/. Again, this corresponds to the orthographic spelling (using digraphs <μπ, ντ, γκ>).
  • /ts/ and /dz/ can be analysed as biphonemic clusters rather than as separate phonemes.

Standard Modern Greek does not have geminated consonants within words, although some southeastern dialects (notably Cypriot and Rhodian) do.

Phonetic realisation

The phonetic realisation of voiced plosives /b, d, ɡ/ (or prenasalised stops /mp, nt, nk/, depending on the analysis of underlying representation) is variable. In word-initial position, they are pronounced as simple voiced plosives. In medial position, they can be realised as either a full sequence of nasal plus stop [mb, nd, ŋɡ], or as a stop with only slight pre-nasalisation [ᵐb, ⁿd, ᵑɡ], or again as a single stop. This used to be a matter of considerable sociolinguistic and dialectal variation, and some social stigma was attached to certain variants; since the second half of the twentieth century, speakers have increasingly eliminated pre-nasalisation from their speech, pronouncing these sounds like simple voiced plosives in every position. Some speakers, following a prescriptive norm, have a marginal phonological contrast between pure voiced stops and nasal clusters word-medially, e.g. in [veˈdeta] ('celebrity', < Ital. vedetta), vs. [venˈdeta] ('blood feud', < Ital. vendetta). The same prenasalised stop sounds can also occur as the result of assimilation of /np, nt, nk/ clusters across word boundaries (sandhi).

The nasals tend to assimilate to following consonants in place of articulation; thus there is a velar nasal [ŋ] (spelled ⟨γ⟩) before /k, ɣ, x/) and a labiodental nasal [ɱ] ⟨μ⟩ before /f, v/.

/r/ can be realised either as a trilled [r] or, in intervocalic position, as a tapped [ɾ].

[c] and [ɟ] are further palatalised and turn into affricates [t͡ɕ] and [d͡ʑ] in some dialects, notably those of Crete and the Mani.

[z] and [s] can be apical ([s̻], [z̻]).

[s] and [z] are lamino-alveolar in many dialects, and are articulated closer to the positions of [ɕ] and [ʑ].

Sandhi rules

Some of the assimilation rules mentioned above also obtain across word boundaries. In particular, this goes for a number of grammatical words ending in /n/, most notably the negation particles δε(ν) and μη(ν) and the accusative forms of the personal pronoun and definite article το(ν) and τη(ν). If these words are followed by a voiceless stop, the /n/ tends either to assimilate according to the place of articulation of the following sound or to be omitted; conversely, the stop tends to get voiced. This results in pronunciations such as τον πατέρα [to(m)baˈtera] ('the father') or δεν πειράζει [ðe(m)biˈrazi] ('it doesn't matter') instead of [ton paˈtera] and [ðen piˈrazi]. The precise extent of these assimilation effects may vary according to dialect, speed and formality of speech.[3]

Consonant clusters

Modern Greek allows 46 different consonant clusters word-initially:[4]

p- t- k- b- d- g- f- θ- s- x- v- ð- z- ɣ-
-p sp
-t ft st xt
-k sk
-f sf
-s ps ts ks
-x sx
-v zv
-r pr tr kr br dr gr fr θr xr vr ðr ɣr
-l pl kl bl gl fl θl xl vl ɣl
-n pn kn θn xn ɣn
-m tm zm

In addition, seven three-consonant cluster exist, all of them with first member /s/: /spr str skr sfr spl skl skn/.


Simple vowels

Greek has a simple system of five vowels, /a e i o u/. The vowel /a/ is realised as open central. The mid vowels /e/ and /o/ have a phonetic quality in between the close-mid and open-mid range [e̞, o̞]. The close vowels /i/ and /u/ have qualities approaching the respective cardinal vowels. Phonotactically, /e i/ count as front vowels, /a o u/ as back vowels. There is no phonemic length distinction, but vowels in stressed syllables are commonly pronounced somewhat longer than in unstressed syllables.

  Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


Modern Greek does not have distinctive diphthong phonemes; however, certain groups of vowels can be optionally treated as either two syllables or a single diphthongal syllable. Diphthong pronunciation is most common for /a.i/ and /o.i/ in words like πλάι (pláï, aside, beside) or μοιρολόι (mirolóï, dirge). Diphthongs are more commonly found in loanwords; for example a word for cake κέικ (kéïk) has an /ei/ diphthong. This same diphthong also occurs in a native Greek word, λέει (léï, s/he says), where the two vowels were formerly separated by the consonant γ (g).

Although written with a sequence of vowels, <ευ> represents /ev/, a vowel and a consonant (the /v/ is devoiced to [f] when another voiceless consonant follows.) Similarly, <αυ> represents /av/ (or /af/ in front of a voiceless consonant).


Unlike Ancient Greek, which had a pitch accent system, Modern Greek has dynamic syllable stress, like English. Still as in Ancient Greek, every multisyllabic word carries stress on one of its three final syllables.

The position of the stress can vary between different inflectional forms of the same word within its inflectional paradigm in cases where a syllable is added (e.g. πρόβλημα 'problem', προβλήματα 'problems'). In some word classes, stress position is also sensitive to Ancient Greek vowel length, so that a word cannot be stressed on the third-from-last syllable if the last syllable was long: e.g. άνθρωπος ('man', nom. sg., last syllable short), but ανθρώπων ('of men', gen. pl., last syllable long). Both of these are Ancient Greek accentual rules.

However, in Modern Greek this rule is no longer automatic and does not apply to all words, as the length distinction itself no longer exists (e.g. καλόγερος 'monk', καλόγερων 'of monks').

Enclitic words such as possessive pronouns form a single phonological word together with the host word to which they attach, and hence count towards the three-syllable rule too. This has the effect that the addition of a clitic can force the stress to move to a syllable further toward the end in the host word.

See also


  1. ^ D. Holton, P. Mackridge, I. Philippaki-Warburton (1997), Greek grammar. A comprehensive grammar of the modern language. London: Routledge.
  2. ^ H. Foundalis, Details of Modern Greek Phonetics and Phonology
  3. ^ Joseph, Brian, and Irene Philippaki-Warburton (1987): Modern Greek. Beckenham: Croom Helm. p. 246
  4. ^ Joseph, Brian, and Irene Philippaki-Warburton (1987): Modern Greek. Beckenham: Croom Helm. p. 237-238

External links

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