The Greek Alphabet

One of my favorite books is called The Last Samurai (nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie!), about a child prodigy who goes on a quest to find his father. His mother has some unconventional approaches to education, and the boy learns Latin, Arabic, Greek, Japanese, and a handful of other languages, along with astronomy, calculus, aerodynamics…all before the age of 10. This book was the source of a lot of motivation for me, and through it I learned how to read Greek. I even made a little song…

The method she used in the book worked really well for me, so here it is (because I know you’ve always wanted to be able to read Greek!).

In the book, the boy’s mother started out by writing out the alphabet, like above. Oddly enough, this didn’t result in education! So, she next showed him all the letters that looked like English letters:

βατ = bat
εατ = eat
αβουτ = about

Then, she introduced some letters which looked a little different: γ = g, δ = d, λ = l, μ = m, ν = n, π = p, ρ = r, σ = s.

γρατε = grate
δατε = date
σπελλ = spell
μεν = men

After that, some more complicated letters: ξ = x and ζ = z. Also, h, which works differently in Greek. It doesn’t have a letter, but instead a ‘ symbol gets placed over the letter. If the h is silent, a ’ gets used. So you get:

μιξ = mix
ζιπ = zip
ìτ = hit
íτ = it

Then there are letters that stand for sounds that, in English, are written with two letters. θ is th, but separated, like when you say “spit hard”. φ sounds like the ph in “slap hard”. χ sounds like kh as in “walk home”. And, ψ sounds like ps in “naps”.

παθιμ = pat him
βλαΧεαρτεδ = blackhearted
ὲλφερ = help her
ριψ = rips

Finally, there are the long vowels and diphthongs. Long e has the letter η, like the e of bed stretched out. Long o has the letter ω, like the o of hot stretched out. And the diphthongs:

παι = pie
παυ = pow
δει = day
βοι = boy
μου = moo

As it turns out, because of this and growing up Jewish (reading Hebrew from prayer books), I can read more languages than I can actually understand. It’s not as much fun as being able to actually understand the language, but I really like learning new alphabets. This is probably why I liked the Artemis Fowl series so much: the fairies in that book had their own alphabet, and there were secret messages along the bottom of the pages for me to decode! By the end of the book I could read that script fluently too…

Cheers,

-H

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