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In Greek, for example, the letter β is pronounced "veeta", but in science, people use "beta". Some other offenders are η "eeta", ι "yiota", μ "mee", ν "nee", π "pee", τ "taf", χ "hee", ψ "psee".

I understand the difficulties of pronouncing the γ sound and such, but the translation of the "ee" sound into "i" is what I don't understand.

When did this start? Perhaps when Greek letters became commonly used in science? How has their pronunciation changed through the years?

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The only mispronunciation on this list I've heard is "eeta" (and I'm a student of science). I believe you of course, and agree there's no reason for these mispronunciations... –  Noldorin Feb 4 '11 at 18:28
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I think it's all part of science's tradition of pronouncing things however you please. There are four different pronunciations of "algae" to be had (I've no idea which if any of them are "correct"), two for "meson", and as for "Betelgeuse", well... –  Brian Hooper Feb 4 '11 at 18:52
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As a practical matter, of course, it is helpful that the adopted pronunciations are so distinct from the names of Roman letters in English. It's bad enough to have written p, P, and ρ all on the blackboard at the same time--I'm glad we don't pronounce π and p the same way! –  nibot Feb 4 '11 at 19:31
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BTW, there's also a US/UK/Europe difference here: certainly at least in India the letters are pronounced "beeta", "theeta", etc., unlike the US pronunciation (and unlike the Modern Greek, which as JSBangs has already said is contrary to Classical Greek). –  ShreevatsaR Feb 4 '11 at 20:46
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Don’t we all just love questions that start with a boldly asserted false premise (or in this case, several)? –  Konrad Rudolph Feb 5 '11 at 16:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 33 down vote accepted

The pronunciation of Greek letters by scientists isn't very different from the pronunciation of the Greek letters in the respective countries: American scientists pronounce them pretty much the same way the general American population does, and so on.

So your question is actually about why the English pronunciation of Greek letters, and the answer is that it is based on (but not always actually very close to) the reconstruction of the Classical Greek pronunciation by Erasmus in 1528 and by John Cheke and Thomas Smith around 1540, which were adopted in schools. This pronunciation underwent some change along with the rest of English during the Great Vowel Shift, and a re-reconstruction in the mid-19th century brought it back in line (incompletely) with Ancient Greek. The Wikipedia page on Pronunciation of Ancient Greek in teaching has more details.

For sake of completeness, here's a (very incomplete) table showing the pronunciation in American English, British English, Ancient Greek, and Modern Greek. I've rearranged the alphabet to put sort-of rhyming letters together, but all letters are there.

[Disclaimer: Many of the entries may be terribly wrong. The American and British IPA entries are based on the article English pronunciation of Greek letters, the "pseudo-phonetic spellings" are from here and here. The Classical and Modern Greek pronunciation columns I made up, partly from Swedish Wikipedia, partly from piecing together each letter's pronunciation in this table, partly from here for Modern Greek, and partly on my own — and I don't actually know IPA.]

[Edit: This table has now been edited to correct the IPA and source Classical Greek pronunciations from the English Wikipedia.]

  Name   American English       British English           Classical   Modern     Greek
                                                           Greek       Greek      name
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 Alpha   /ˈælfə/ AL fuh         /ˈælfə/ AL fuh            [aːlpʰa]    [aːlfa]    ἄλφα
 Beta    /ˈbeɪtə/ (BAY tuh)     /ˈbiːtə/ (BEE tuh)        [bɛːta]     [vita]     βῆτα
 Zeta    /ˈzeɪtə/ (ZAY tuh)     /ˈziːtə/ (ZEE tuh)        [zɛːta]     [zita]     ζῆτα
 Eta     /ˈeɪtə/ (AY tuh)       /ˈiːtə/ (EE tuh)          [ɛːta]      [ita]      ἦτα
 Theta   /ˈθeɪtə/ (THAY tuh)    /ˈθiːtə/ (THEE tuh)       [tʰɛːta]    [θita]     θῆτα
 Pi      /ˈpaɪ/ (PIE)           /ˈpaɪ/ (PIE)              [peɪ],[piː] [pi]       πεῖ
 Phi     /ˈfaɪ/, /ˈfiː/         /ˈfaɪ/, /ˈfiː/            [feɪ],[fiː] [fi]       φεῖ
         (FIE, FEE)              (FIE, FEE)
 Chi     /ˈkaɪ/ (KIGH, KEE)     /ˈkaɪ/ (KIGH, KEE)        [kʰeɪ],     [çi]       χεῖ
                                                           [kʰiː]
 Psi     /ˈsaɪ/,/ˈpsaɪ/,/ˈsiː/  /ˈsaɪ/,/ˈpsaɪ/,/ˈsiː/     [pseɪ],     [psi]      ψεῖ
         (SIGH, PSIGH, PSEE)    (SIGH, PSIGH, PSEE)        [psiː]
 Xi      /ˈzaɪ/, /ˈksaɪ/        /ˈzaɪ/, /ˈksaɪ/ (ZIGH,    [kseɪ],     [ksi]      χεῖ
         (ZIGH, KS EYE, KSEE)    KS EYE, KSEE)             [ksiː]
 Gamma   /ˈɡæmə/ (GAM uh)       /ˈɡæmə/ (GAM uh)          [gamma]     [ɣamma]    γάμμα
 Delta   /ˈdɛltə/ (DELL tuh)    /ˈdɛltə/ (DELL tuh)       [delta]     [ðelta]    δέλτα
 Epsilon /ˈɛpsɨlɒn/             /ˈɛpsɨlɒn/ (EP sil on),   [e psilon]  [e psilon] ἒ ψιλόν
         (EP suh lon)           /ɛpˈsaɪlən/ (ep SIGH lun)
 Upsilon /ˈʌpsɨlɒn/             /ˈʊpsɨlɒn/,/juːpˈsaɪlən/  [y psilon]  [i psilon] ὖ ψιλόν
         (UP suh lon)           (OOP sil on, YOOP sil on)
 Omicron /ˈɒmɨkrɒn/             /ˈɒmɨkrɒn/, /ˈoʊmɨkrɒn/               [omikron]  ὂ μικρόν
         (AH mih cron,          /ˈoʊmaɪkrɒn/ (OM ih cron
          OH mih cron)           OH my cron)
 Omega   /oʊˈmeɪɡə/             /oʊˈmeɪɡə/, /ˈoʊmɨɡə/                 [o'meɣa]   ὦ μέγα
         (oh MAY guh)           (oh MAY guh, OH mee guh,
                                 OH meg uh)
 Iota    /aɪˈoʊtə/              /aɪˈoʊtə/ (eye OH tuh)                ['jota]    ἰῶτα
         (eye OH tuh)
 Mu      /ˈmjuː/, /ˈmuː/        /ˈmjuː/ (MYOO)            [mŷː]       [mi]       μῦ
         (MYOO, MOO)
 Nu      /ˈnuː/ (NOO)           /ˈnjuː/, /ˈnuː/           [nŷː]       [ni]       νῦ                                    (NYOO, NOO)
 Kappa   /ˈkæpə/ (CAP uh)       /ˈkæpə/ (CAP uh)                      ['kapa]    κάππα
 Lambda  /ˈlæmdə/ (LAM duh)     /ˈlæmdə/ (LAM duh)        [laːbdaː]   ['lamða]   λάμβδα
 Rho     /ˈroʊ/ (ROE)           /ˈroʊ/, /ˈr̥oʊ/                        [ro]       ῥῶ
                                (ROE, HROE)
 Sigma   /ˈsɪɡmə/ (SIG muh)     /ˈsɪɡmə/ (SIG muh)                    ['siɣma]   σῖγμα
 Tau     /ˈtaʊ/, /ˈtɔː/         /ˈtaʊ/, /ˈtɔː/            [ˈtaʊ]      [taf]      ταῦ
         (TOW rhyming with COW, (TOW, rhyming with COW,
          TAW rhyming with LAW)  TAW, rhyming with LAW)

Notes:

  • The table, especially the all-important Classical Greek pronunciation column, is incomplete; I ran out of patience.
  • For the rhyming letters Beta-Zeta-Eta-Theta, the American pronunciation (-ayta) is closer to Classical Greek and the British pronunciation (-eeta) closer to Modern Greek.
  • For the rhyming letters Phi-Chi-Psi-Xi (but not Pi for some reason!) there seems to be a variant (-ee) pronunciation close to modern Greek that exists only(?) in science and mathematics.

I've made this community wiki so that someone can fix the errors or complete the table (including possibly myself if I regain the patience to finish this sometime!)

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4  
+1 for the effort. When you get a chance you can finish the list, for completion which might be used as a reference in the future (if it lands in google results). –  ja72 Feb 20 '11 at 23:20
    
+1 for a nice table. Is there a specific reason not to put the letters in alphabetical order (alpha-beta-gamma-delta etc)? –  psmears Feb 21 '11 at 17:00
    
@psmears: I wanted to put the rhyming letters together (especially Beta-Eta-Zeta-Theta together, and Pi-Phi-Chi-Psi-Xi together), to highlight the common changes their pronunciations have undergone… but I never got around to writing extensively on it. :p –  ShreevatsaR Feb 21 '11 at 19:06
    
Displacement activities for the win ;o) –  Owen Blacker Jan 21 '12 at 13:45
    
Here's a puzzle poem with the British pronunciation of η. Note that the last line is supposed to be printed on a slant. I'll give Rα dog, oh φ // all he liked was cherry π // the cat will η fish and μ // ο-ology –  Peter Shor Jan 25 '12 at 16:15

Some of the factors include:

  • Ancient Greek pronunciation was, it is believed, significantly different to the modern language. How do we know? Well, that's a fascinating topic, but there are various clues, including the way animal noises were rendered (suggesting that the ancient "beta" was closer to "b" than "v", because sheep's bleating sounds more akin to "baa, baa" than "vee, vee"!). Wikipedia's article on Ancient Greek phonology has more details.
  • The pronunciations have come to English via other languages (French/Latin), which have exerted their own influence.
  • The pronunciations received from them went through the Great Vowel Shift, which probably explains the "pee"-versus-"pie" for "pi" aspect.

Also note that the pronunciation in English is not itself consistent: in my experience most UK speakers say "beet-a" for beta, whereas many US speakers pronounce the same letter as "bate-a".

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+1, excellent round-up. An extra factor (or variant of your second): within the English-speaking tradition itself, pronunciation gradually drifted over the years. Besides β, in my experience θ, η, ψ, φ, ξ also tend to vary between UK & US: commonly ‘theet-uh’, ‘eet-uh’, ‘sye’/‘psye’, ‘fye’, ‘ksye’/‘zye’ in BrE, vs. ‘thay-tuh’, ‘ay-tuh’, ‘see’, ‘fee’, ‘zee’ in AmE. –  PLL Feb 4 '11 at 20:05
    
@PLL: Yep. Great confusion arises in the student's mind the first time he encounters someone from the "wrong" side of the water, but after a while you stop hearing the difference. –  dmckee Feb 5 '11 at 15:28
    
I guess I better post the little piece on how to read Greek from my etymology class. –  John Lawler Apr 19 '13 at 20:00

The scientific pronunciation is based on the Classical Greek pronunciation, not the Modern Greek pronunciation. In Classical Greek:

  • η is [e] ("ay"), not [i] ("ee")
  • υ is [y] ("yoo", approximately) or [u] ("oo"), not [i] ("ee")
  • αυ is [au] (the vowel in "out"), not [av] or [af]
  • β is [b], not [v]
  • δ is [d], not [ð] (the "th" in "this")

The only cases where the English scientific rendition is "wrong" is for ι, which was [jota] even in Classical times, χ which is usually pronounced as [k], since the velar fricative [x] doesn't exist in English, and ψ and ξ which are simplified to [s] at the beginning of words since English doesn't allow [s] to be the second element in word-initial clusters. These represent adaptations to English phonology.

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But how do we know the classical pronunciation? I have heard about the arguments with βαρβαρος being pronounced "bar-bar-os" instead of the modern "var-var-os", but this is not enough to know how all the letters where pronounced. –  ja72 Feb 4 '11 at 18:15
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@ja72, there are a lot of ways that we can reconstruct the Classical pronunciation. When Greek words were borrowed into Latin, for example /β/ was rendered as /b/, not /v/--and vice-versa, Latin and Hebrew words with /b/ were borrowed into Greek as /β/ and not /μβ/. (Plus, the use of the digraph /μβ/ to spell [b] did not appear until the Middle Ages, which itself is a clue that the pronunciation of /β/ has changed over time.) We can also do linguistic reconstruction to get a better guess at the ancient pronunciation, plus use (to a limited extent) the sound descriptions of ancient writers. –  JSBձոգչ Feb 4 '11 at 18:23
    
You may be correct, but this is recent understanding of Classical sounds, and I have to assume that in Science the sounds were adopted for other reasons. –  ja72 Feb 5 '11 at 2:13
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@ja72: Not at all! The pronunciation of Classical Greek has been known since Erasmus (1528), adopted in schools since 1540, and, after some flux, finally returned to the right pronunciation by the mid-19th century. Everyone who learnt Greek learnt the proper pronunciation (except those in the Greek-speaking world, of course). So all scientists of the late 19th/early 20th centuries were using the pronunciation they'd been taught, since Classical Greek and Latin were part of everyone's education in those days. For more, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  ShreevatsaR Feb 5 '11 at 5:07
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@JSBangs: You're right that the point is that our Greek is indirectly based on Ancient Greek, not Modern Greek. A little thing: the pronunciation of some of the letters you mention is, as far as we know, not that of the Classical age, i.e. 5th-century Athens. χ = aspirated k, like /kh/, not the fricative /x/; υ = /y/, which is like French u and German ü, not English oo or yoo; η = like French ê (or American a in "ass"). Note that this pronunciation was changing already by the end of the 4th century, leading to Hellenistic koine. –  Cerberus Feb 20 '11 at 17:59

I'm not that familiar with the history of Greek pronunciation, it's quite probable that the modern pronunciations of these letters in Greek have drifted from the past pronunciation -- before they were used in English.

I would guess the pronunciation was influenced by Latin, as well. Greek words used in English normally pass through Latin. It's probable Latin influenced the pronunciation of β, certainly.

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The Greek language came to English and other languages through Latin, and at that time, Greek letters had a different pronunciation than today, plus the changes they went through when passing from one language to another.
Something similar happens with Pekin/Beijing, or why we name Persians to people that call themselves Farsi

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