Dictionary definitions for the English language usually have the word spelled out in Greek letters to indicate how the word is pronounced phonetically.

Examples highlighted:

What are these Greek phonetic words called? And more importantly, where is it writ how these should be pronounced? I find them unhelpful because of my ignorance and I'd like to learn.

  • 4
    I don't think those are Greek...
    – DyingIsFun
    Jun 22, 2016 at 20:10
  • 2
    Consult the pronunciation key for the tome you are referencing.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 22, 2016 at 20:13
  • 3
    They aren't Greek. It's the International Phonetic Alphabet. Various systems are in use for transcribing English, but Wikipedia provides a general overview with example words. Hot Licks' suggestion of finding the key for whatever specific dictionary you're using is the best idea, but if you can't find a key, the next best way to figure out how to interpret them is to look at what transcriptions the dictionary gives for words that you already know how to pronounce.
    – herisson
    Jun 22, 2016 at 20:13
  • BTW, if you are using Word, you can reproduce them by going to [Insert], [Symbols], [more Symbols], then Subset: [IPA extensions]. Jun 22, 2016 at 21:46
  • 1
    Of course, your other option is to click on the little loudspeaker icon.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 7, 2019 at 23:51

2 Answers 2


It's not "Greek". It's the IPA - International Phonetic Alphabet.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (unofficially—though commonly—abbreviated IPA) is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin alphabet. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of oral language. The IPA is used by lexicographers, foreign language students and teachers, linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors, constructed language creators, and translators.

The IPA is designed to represent only those qualities of speech that are part of oral language: phones, phonemes, intonation, and the separation of words and syllables.To represent additional qualities of speech, such as tooth gnashing, lisping, and sounds made with a cleft palate, an extended set of symbols called the Extensions to the International Phonetic Alphabet may be used.

There's a chart with the sounds the symbols make on the IPA's official website.

  • Thanks for the succinct, quick answer with detail I can follow up on Jun 22, 2016 at 20:22
  • It's all Greek to me!!
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 7, 2019 at 23:52

It's not completely true that it is not Greek. Yes, it is IPA, but they needed so many symbols for IPA that they borrowed from Greek for some of them.

Many of them,

⟨ɑ⟩, ⟨ꞵ⟩, ⟨ɣ⟩, ⟨ɛ⟩, ⟨ɸ⟩, ⟨ꭓ⟩, and ⟨ʋ⟩

have different Unicode characters, but are Greek for practical purposes,


is a actual Greek Unicode character, and

⟨β⟩ and ⟨χ⟩

are usually represented by the actual Greek letters though they are not supposed to be.

This is described in Wikipedia.

Some of the modified letters look as close to Greek letters as to Roman ones:

⟨ʋ⟩ ⟨ʙ⟩, ⟨z⟩, ⟨ⱱ⟩, ⟨ɵ⟩, ⟨ɛ⟩, ⟨ɜ⟩, ⟨ɤ⟩, ⟨ʏ⟩, ⟨ʊ⟩, ⟨ɪ⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨ʌ⟩

So, taken all together, and from the point of view of someone familiar only with the Roman and Greek alphabets, it does appear to have a significant proportion of Greek in it.

  • 1
    Not a single one of the letters in the OP's examples, /ˈnjuːklɪə/ and /ˈmʌskɪt/, is Greek!
    – TonyK
    Apr 8, 2019 at 0:28
  • I noticed, @TonyK. But I was referring to the actual question, which said 'usually have the word spelled out in Greek letters' and pointing out that a signficant proprtion at least looks like Greek, rather than going by the OP's example, which has an unusually low proportion of Greek-like letters - what bad luck. I suppose the ⟨ɪ⟩ could pass for a small capital ⟨Ι⟩ (and I have used a genuine Greek letter here). Apr 8, 2019 at 0:41
  • Some of the characters in the first blockquote aren't displaying for me (ꞵ, ꭓ). Is there some way you can fix this?
    – Laurel
    Apr 8, 2019 at 1:27
  • That is very interesting, @Laurel. These are ones where Wikipedia says that these letters look identical to Greek but have different Unicode, but most people just use the Greek. This sort of thing is bound to lead to errors (in this case an omission in the font you are using). It is a common maxim in computing that duplication leads to errors. Since the two letters (IPA and Greek) display the same, most people will be unaware of which they have used and may well use them inconsistently. They need to get rid of these harmful duplicate! The Greek letters are β and χ. I hope they display! Apr 8, 2019 at 12:06
  • Intruiguing, @Laurel. My phone doesn't display them either, so I have checked how my reply was displaying. I see that the Wiki article uses different codes for the beta in two places, one of which displays and the other doesn't, and different codes for chi, which display differently. They really do have to get rid of these fake Greek letters. Apr 8, 2019 at 12:15

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