It’s All Greek To Me: The Greek Letter Υ

I’m sitting in the Chania Airport for what should be a short hop to Athens, but for some reason – perhaps the Saharan sand in the air combined with rain – our plane is not here, and one flight tracker is suggesting that the delay will be 2 hrs 40 min. *sigh* At least my next flight is not until the evening – tomorrow evening, that is. And, hey, it gives me time to post this!

The most interesting letter in the Greek alphabet is, I think, upsilon. It upper case it looks like the Latin letter Y. Confusingly in lower case it looks like this: υ, or if it is accented, ύ. Why is it interesting? Because it does so much!

  • At first glance it looks like it should be a y sound, and sometimes it does have that sound, as in the Greek name for New York, Νέα Υόρκη. But that is more an accident of transliteration. Υόρκη really should have started with a soft gamma followed by a iota, as Γιόρκ, which is indeed the accepted way of writing the name in Standard Modern Greek of the original York in Yorkshire, England. The common greeting Γεια σας begins with the “yah” sound.
  • The usual pronunciation is with an “ee” sound. We English-speakers pronounce the name of the letter as “up-sígh-lawn”, but the Greeks say “eép-see-lon”. Thus, the word for dog in Greek is σκύλος, pronounced “skee-lohs”.
  • When combined with the letter omicron it creates the “oo” sound, as in φούστα “foosta”, skirt.
  • Here’s where it gets fun. Υ or υ can also sound like “fff”. That god on Olympus, the one with the thunderbolts, married to Hera but with lots of children by others, including Leda the swan? His name is Zeus, and we pronounce it “Zooss” or maybe we dipthong t a bit and elide the “eu” into a fast “eeoo”. However, the Greeks know hims as Ζευς and pronounce it “Zeffs”. Αυτός, αυτή, αυτό – the Greek for he, she, and it – is pronounced “aff-toess”, “aff-tee”, and “aff-toe”. The Greek word for automobile is αυτοκίνητο, “aff-toe-kee-ne-toe”. Australia, where many Greeks have settled, is pronounced “Aff-sta-lee-ah”.
  • Oh, and it can also sound like “vvv”. The Greek word for “tomorrow” is αύριο – “av-ree-oh”. However, if that syllable is accented, the accent is put on the ύ, even though it is functioning more like a consonant, and accents usually go on vowels.

I find all of this fascinating, although it does mean I regularly mispronounce Greek words.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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1 Response to It’s All Greek To Me: The Greek Letter Υ

  1. Marilyn says:

    Hi Bruce,
    Your musing on the Greek language transport me back many decades when I learned a bit of ancient Greek and then a few decades later studying phonology. Another example of the sound change you write about is exhibited by English ”eucharist’ and modern Greek for ‘thank you’;
    I’m enjoying your musings on ancient Greek and agree that Emily Wilson’s translation captures both the sense and emotion of Homer.
    Marilyn mahan

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