Greek diacritics

Greek diacritics
Greek alphabet alpha-omega.svg
Greek alphabet
Αα Alpha Νν Nu
Ββ Beta Ξξ Xi
Γγ Gamma Οο Omicron
Δδ Delta Ππ Pi
Εε Epsilon Ρρ Rho
Ζζ Zeta Σσς Sigma
Ηη Eta Ττ Tau
Θθ Theta Υυ Upsilon
Ιι Iota Φφ Phi
Κκ Kappa Χχ Chi
Λλ Lambda Ψψ Psi
Μμ Mu Ωω Omega
Archaic local variants
Digamma · Heta · San · Koppa · Sampi  · Tsan
Ligatures (ϛ, ȣ, ϗ) · Diacritics
Numerals: Greek letter Stigma.svg (6) · Greek Koppa lamedh-shaped.svg (90) · Sampi.svg (900)
In other languages
Bactrian  · Coptic  · Albanian
Scientific symbols

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Greek orthography has used a variety of diacritics starting in the Hellenistic period. The complex polytonic orthography notates Ancient Greek phonology. The simple monotonic orthography, introduced in 1982, corresponds to Modern Greek phonology, and requires only two diacritics.

Polytonic orthography (πολύς "much", "many", τόνος "accent") is the standard system for Ancient Greek. The acute accent´ ), the grave accent` ), and the circumflexˆ ) indicate different kinds of pitch accent. The rough breathing ( ῾ ) indicates the presence of an /h/ sound before a letter, while the smooth breathing ( ᾿ ) indicates the absence of /h/.

Since in Modern Greek the pitch accent was replaced by a dynamic accent, and the /h/ was lost, most polytonic diacritics have no phonetic significance, and merely reveal the underlying Ancient Greek etymology.

Monotonic orthography (μονός "single", τόνος "accent") is the standard system for Modern Greek. It retains only the acute accent (tonos) to indicate stress and the diaeresis ( ¨ ) to indicate a diphthong: compare modern Greek παϊδάκια /pajˈðaca/ "lamb chops", with a diphthong, and παιδάκια /peˈðaca/ "little children" with a simple vowel. Tonos and diaeresis can be combined on a single vowel.



The Lord's Prayer in a 4th century uncial manuscript Codex Sinaiticus, before the adoption of minuscule polytonic. Note spelling errors: elthatō ē basilia (ΕΛΘΑΤΩΗΒΑΣΙΛΙΑ) instead of elthetō ē basileia (ΕΛΘΕΤΩ Η ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΑ)

The original Greek alphabet did not have any diacritics. The Greek alphabet is attested since the 8th century BC. Until 403 BC, variations of the Greek alphabet—which used capitals exclusively—were used in different cities and areas. From 403 on, the Athenians decided to employ a version of the Ionian alphabet. With the spread of Koine Greek, a continuation of the Attic dialect, the Ionic alphabet superseded more or less quickly the other alphabets, called epichoric. The Ionian alphabet, however, was also made up only of capitals.

Introduction of breathings

Example of polytonic text from a Byzantine manuscript, of 1020 AD, displaying the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (1:3-6)

The rough and smooth breathings were introduced in classical times in order to represent the presence or absence of an /h/ in Attic Greek, which had adopted a form of the alphabet in which the letter H (eta) was no longer available for this purpose as it was used to represent the long vowel /ɛː/.

Introduction of accents

During the Hellenistic period (3rd century BC), Aristophanes of Byzantium introduced the breathings—marks of aspiration (the aspiration however being already noted on certain inscriptions, not by means of diacritics but by regular letters or modified letters) and the accents, of which the use started to spread, to become standard in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the 2nd century AD that the accents and breathings appeared sporadically in the papyruses. The need for the diacritics arose from the gradual divergence between spelling and pronunciation.

Uncial script

The majuscule, i.e. a system where text is written entirely in capital letters was used until the 8th century, when the minuscule polytonic supplanted it.

Grave accent rule

By the Byzantine period, the modern rule which turns an acute accent on the last syllable into a grave accent (except before a punctuation sign) had been firmly established. Certain authors have argued that the grave originally denoted the absence of accent; the modern rule is, in their view, a purely orthographic convention. Originally certain proclitic words lost their accent before another word and received the grave, and later this was generalized to all words in the orthography. Others, drawing e.g. on evidence from Ancient Greek music, consider that the grave was "linguistically real" and expressed a word-final modification of the acute pitch.[1][2][3]

Stress accent

In the later development of the language, the ancient pitch accent were replaced by an intensity or stress accent, making the three types of accent identical, and the /h/ sound became silent.


At the beginning of the 20th century (official since the 1960s), the grave was replaced by the acute, and the iota subscript and the breathings on the rho were abolished, except in printed texts.[4] Greek typewriters from that era did not have keys for the grave accent or the iota subscript, and these diacritics were also not taught in primary schools where instruction was in Demotic.

Official adoption of monotonic system

Following the official adoption of the Demotic form of the language, the monotonic orthography was imposed by law in 1982. The latter uses only the acute accent (or sometimes a vertical bar intentionally distinct from any of the traditional accents) and diaeresis and omits the breathings. This simplification has been criticized on the grounds that polytonic orthography provides a cultural link to the past.[5]

Modern use of polytonic system

Some individuals, institutions, and publishers continue to prefer the polytonic system (with or without grave accent), though an official reintroduction of the polytonic system does not seem probable. The Greek Orthodox church, for example, continues to use polytonic orthography, and some books and the daily newspaper Estia are still published in polytonic, especially those few still written in Katharevousa. Though the polytonic system was not used in Classical Greece, these critics argue that modern Greek, as a continuation of Byzantine and post-medieval Greek, should continue their writing conventions.

Some textbooks of Ancient Greek for foreigners have retained the breathings, but dropped all the accents in order to simplify the task for the learner.[6]


Polytonic Greek uses many different diacritics in several categories. At the time of Ancient Greek, each of these marked a significant distinction in pronunciation.

Monotonic orthography for Modern Greek uses only the two diacritics, tonos and diaeresis (sometimes used in combination) that have significance in pronunciation. Initial /h/ is no longer pronounced, and so the rough and smooth breathings are no longer necessary. The unique pitch patterns of the three accents have disappeared, and only a stress accent remains. Iota subscript was a diacritic invented to mark an etymological vowel that was no longer pronounced, so it was dispensed with as well.

acute acute,
Άά Έέ Ήή Ίί Όό Ύύ Ώώ ΐ ΰ Ϊϊ Ϋϋ

The transliteration of the Greek names follows Latin transliteration of Ancient Greek; modern transliteration is different, and does not distinguish many letters and digraphs that have merged by iotacism.


The accents (Ancient Greek: τόνοι tónoi, singular τόνος) are placed on an accented vowel or on the last of the two vowels of a diphthong (ά, but αί) and indicated pitch patterns in Ancient Greek. The precise nature of the patterns is not certain, but the general nature of each is known.

The acute accent (Ancient Greek: ὀξεῖα oxeîa "sharp" or "high") — ά — marked high pitch on a short vowel or rising pitch on a long vowel.

The grave accent (Ancient Greek: βαρεῖα bareîa "heavy" or "low") — — marked normal or low pitch.

The grave was originally written on all unaccented syllables,[7] but now only replaces the acute at the end of a word if another accented word follows immediately without punctuation.

The circumflex (Ancient Greek: περισπωμένη perispōménē "twisted around"), sometimes printed in the form of a tilde, macron, or inverted breve — — marked high and falling pitch within one syllable. The circumflex was also known as ὀξύβαρυς oxýbarys "high-low" or "acute-grave", and its original form (like a caret: ^ ) was from a combining of the acute and grave diacritics. Because of its compound nature, it only appeared on long vowels or diphthongs.


The breathings were written over a vowel or r.

The rough breathing (Ancient Greek: δασὺ πνεῦμα dasù pneûma; Latin spiritus asper), , indicates an /h/ before the vowel in Ancient Greek. In Greek grammar, this is known as aspiration. This is different from aspiration in phonetics, which applies to consonants, not to vowels.

Rho (Ρρ) at the beginning of a word always takes rough breathing, probably marking unvoiced pronunciation. In Latin, this was transcribed as rh.

Upsilon (Υυ) at the beginning of a word always takes rough breathing. Thus, words from Greek begin with hy-, never with y-.

The smooth breathing (Ancient Greek: ψιλὸν πνεῦμα psilòn pneûma; Latin spiritus lenis) — — marked the absence of /h/.

A double rho in the middle of a word was originally written with smooth breathing on the first rho and rough breathing on the second one (διάῤῥοια). In Latin, this was transcribed as rrh (diarrhoea or diarrhea).


The coronis (Ancient Greek: κορωνίς korōnís "curved") indicates a vowel contracted by crasis where two words have merged into one. It is identical in appearance to a smooth breathing, from which it may be distinguished by the fact that breathings can only occur on vowels at the start of a word.


The iota subscript (Ancient Greek: ὑπογεγραμμένη hypogegramménē "written under") — — is placed under the long vowels ᾱ, η, and ω to mark the ancient long diphthongs ᾱι, ηι, and ωι, in which the ι is no longer pronounced.


Next to a capital, the iota subscript may be written as a lower-case letter (Αι), in which case it is called iota adscript (Ancient Greek: προσγεγραμμένη prosgegramménē "written next to").


In Ancient Greek, the diaeresis (Ancient Greek: διαλυτικά dialytiká "distinguishing"), ϊ ϋ, appears on the letters ι and υ at the beginning of a word or to show that a pair of vowel letters is pronounced separately, rather than as a diphthong.

In Modern Greek, where diphthongs have become monophthongs, the diaeresis marks vowels that are pronounced as a diphthong rather than together as a digraph for a single phonetic vowel. 

The diaeresis can be combined with acute, grave and circumflex but never with breathings, since the letter with diaeresis cannot be the first vowel of the word.[citation needed]

Position in letters

The diacritics are written above lower-case letters and at the upper left of capital letters. In the case of a diphthong or a digraph, the second vowel takes the diacritics. A breathing diacritic is written to the left of an acute or grave accent but below a circumflex. Accents are written above a diaeresis, or between the two dots in the case of the acute or grave. When a word is written entirely in capital letters, diacritics are never used; the word (or), is an exception to this rule because of the need to distinguish it from the nominative feminine article Η. Diacritics can be found above capital letters in medieval texts. The diaeresis is always written.


The Lord's Prayer
polytonic monotonic

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς· ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου·
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς·
τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον·
καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,
ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφίεμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν·
καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

Πάτερ ημών ο εν τοις ουρανοίς· αγιασθήτω το όνομά σου·
ελθέτω η βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω το θέλημά σου, ως εν ουρανώ, και επί της γης·
τον άρτον ημών τον επιούσιον δος ημίν σήμερον·
και άφες ημίν τα οφειλήματα ημών,
ως και ημείς αφίεμεν τοις οφειλέταις ημών·
και μη εισενέγκης ημάς εις πειρασμόν, αλλά ρύσαι ημάς από του πονηρού.

Computer encoding

There have been problems in representing polytonic Greek on computers, and in displaying polytonic Greek on computer screens and printouts, but these have largely been overcome by the advent of Unicode and appropriate fonts.


While the tónos of monotonic orthography looks similar to the oxeîa of polytonic orthography in most fonts, Unicode has historically had separate symbols for letters with these diacritics. For example, the monotonic "Greek small letter alpha with tónos" is at U+03AC, while the polytonic "Greek small letter alpha with oxeîa" is at U+1F71. The monotonic and polytonic accent however have been de jure equivalent since 1986, and accordingly the oxeîa diacritic in Unicode decomposes canonically to the monotonic tónos — both are underlyingly treated as equivalent to the Latin acute accent, U+0301.

Below are the accented characters provided in Unicode. In the uppercase letters, the iota adscript may appear as subscript depending on font.

Upper case

accent vowel rho
  Α Ε Η Ι Ο Υ Ω Ρ
acute ´ Ά Έ Ή Ί Ό Ύ Ώ        
grave `        
smooth ᾿  
circumflex Ἷ  
diaeresis ¨ Ϊ Ϋ
macron ˉ
breve ˘

Lower case

accent vowels rho
α ε η ι ο υ ω ρ
acute ´ ά έ ή ί ό ύ ώ  
grave `  
smooth ᾿
diaeresis ¨ ϊ ϋ
acute ΅ ΐ ΰ
macron ˉ
breve ˘

See also


  1. ^ Probert, Philomen (2006). Ancient Greek accentuation. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 59. ISBN 9780199279609. 
  2. ^ Devine, Andrew M.; Stephens, Laurence D. (1994). The prosody of Greek speech. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 180. ISBN 0195085469. 
  3. ^ Allen, William S. (1987). Vox graeca. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 124–130. 
  4. ^ (in Greek) Συγχρονισμένο ορθογραφικό λεξικό της νεοελληνικής (Contemporary Orthographic Dictionary of Modern Greek). Κέντρον Εκπαιδευτικών Μελετών και Επιμορφώσεως. 1976. p. 11. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Betts, G. (2004). Teach Yourself New Testament Greek. London: Teach Yourself Books. ISBN 0340870842. 
  7. ^ Smyth, par. 155

Further reading

  • Panayotakis, Nicolaos M. (1996). "A Watershed in the History of Greek Script: Abolishing the Polytonic". In Macrakis, Michael S.. Greek Letters: From Tablets to Pixels. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press. ISBN 1884718272.  Panayotakis is critical of the adoption of monotonic, and also provides a useful historical sketch.

External links

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Polytonic Greek fonts:

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