How to pronounce Greek letters in English

The Greek alphabet is used in many fields, including science (mostly physics and mathematics, where one often runs out of letters to use in equations), finance, and technology. Once you are able to write and correctly identify a given Greek letter (for example, many people confuse \phi and \psi), you may find yourself wondering what the commonly used pronunciation of Greek letters in English is. German readers will find that the latter often differs from the German pronunciation, although many people feel that it is perfectly OK to use the Greek pronunciation in English (see the comments by David). The importance of knowing the Greek alphabet as a scientist is also pointed out by Nobel Laureate Gerald ‘t Hooft, see here.

Below, I have compiled the correct pronunciations and some frequently heard incorrect pronunciations for each letter. Since the pronunciation is the same for upper and lower case letters, I have only listed the latter. Remarkably, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary provides an entry for each letter, including audio files for their pronunciation. In addition, I have included pronunciations which are given in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary.

In the table, the British and American pronunciations are separated by a vertical bar (|), with the British variant(s) given first. Note that in many American accents, the letter t is replaced by a softened sound similar to d (a phenomenon called flapping), making words such as ladder and latter sound identical. For the Greek letters, flapping typically occurs for the bold t’s in beta, zeta, eta, theta, and iota.

Commonly used pronunciations
\alpha (alpha) ˈælfə listen
\beta (beta) ˈbiːtə | ˈbeɪtə listen
\gamma (gamma) ˈɡæmə listen
\delta (delta) ˈdeltə listen
\epsilon (epsilon) ˈepsɪlɒn, ˈepsɪlən, epˈsaɪlɒn,
ɪpˈsaɪlɒn | ˈepsɪlɑːn listen
\zeta (zeta) ˈziːtə listen
\eta (eta) ˈiːtə | ˈeɪːtə listen
\theta (theta) ˈθiːtə | ˈθiːtə, ˈθeɪːtə listen
\iota (iota) aɪˈəʊtə | aɪˈoʊtə listen
\kappa (kappa) ˈkæpə listen
\lambda (lambda) ˈlæmdə listen
\mu (mu) mjuː listen
\nu (nu) njuː, nuː listen
\xi (xi) saɪ, zaɪ, ksaɪ, ɡzaɪ listen
o (omicron) əʊˈmaɪkrɒn | ˈɑːməkrɑːn listen
\pi (pi) paɪ listen
\rho (rho) rəʊ | roʊ listen
\sigma (sigma) ˈsɪɡmə listen
\tau (tau) tɔː, taʊ listen
\upsilon (upsilon) ʌpˈsaɪlən, ˈʊpsɪlɒn | ˈʊpsɪlɑːn listen
\phi (phi) faɪ listen
\chi (chi) kaɪ listen
\psi (psi) psaɪ, saɪ listen
\omega (omega) ˈəʊmɪɡə, əʊˈmɪ:ɡə, ˈəʊmeɡə,
ˈəʊmeɪɡə | oʊˈmeɡə listen

10 thoughts on “How to pronounce Greek letters in English

  1. The not so silent letter p – painfulenglish

  2. Thank you for the wonderful article. It is sad to see some university doctors fail to pronounce Greek letters correctly.

    However, there are a couple of (very) minor errors that I observed.
    The link to the pronunciation of the Greek letter eta directs to the (wrongly) abbreviation ETA (estimated time of arrival). Searching in the same site for eta results in the correct pronunciation.
    The second error is just a typo. In the last sentence of the first paragraph the word Greek is misspelled as Green.

    Thank you once again for the easy-to-read and very informative article. I am sure that a lot of effort was put to make it the smooth read it is.

  3. Thanks for the nice article.
    Although you overdid it with the ɪ symbol: the name of the letter p is pronounced /pi:/, not /pɪ/ (this is also the case with all the other letters, but perhaps you had in mind incorrect spellings a German person could come up with? Anyway, a Polish person would incorrectly come up with /ksi:/, /pi:/, /xi:/ etc.).
    Unrelatedly, as much as the English-speaking folk dislike sound clutters like “ps” in the beginning of the word, is it legit to pronounce both ξ and ψ as just /saɪ/? Maybe /ksaɪ/ for ξ and /saɪ/ for ψ would be more convenient?

    • Thanks for your very helpful response – I have made the corrections you suggested using i: instead of ɪ. For some reason I had missed this before. Most of the native speakers I have heard so far do distinguish ψ and ξ by different pronunciations. However, I’m sure some people are not worried about confusing the audience – to this day I don’t quite understand why there is an American pronunciation of z that is so easy to confuse with that of the letter c, especially if used by nonnative speakers who do not distinguish between the sounds /z/ and /s/.

  4. Very nice article, but as a Greek, it is a bit weird to see that /ksi/ or /psi/ pronunciations are wrong. I mean, that is the original pronunciation both in ancient and modern Greek, but I guess this is the pronunciation of the letters in English. Just keep in mind that all the letters were pronounced differently in ancient Greek (Classical Greek, Koine Greek and other forms of Greek), because many people think that they were pronounced with the English pronunciation.

    • Glad you liked it. I agree that these kind of things can be quite strange. However, pronouncing foreign words properly typically leads to more confusion than following the English pronunciation rules.

  5. I don’t know where you get that “ksi” is an “incorrect” pronunciation. That’s exactly how it’s pronounced in modern Greek, and it’s at least as “correct” as
    “saɪ”, which is your second pronunciation for both “psi” and “xi”. I don’t know how you do it on your side of the pond, but I NEVER hear the “p” in “psi” over hear: it always sounds like “saɪ” to me.

    • Thanks for your input. I don’t know about modern Greek, but ksi: is not one of the many possible English pronunciations according to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. I cannot recall hearing it being pronounced ksi: by a native English speaker either. If you are willing to accept ksi:, then how about pronouncing pi as pi: in English? Regarding psi, I also thought for quite some time that the p is always silent, but it seems that quite a few people do pronounce it in this particular case.

      • I’d grant that pronouncing the Greek letters as “pi” or “ksi” may be an affectation, but I’m still going to take issue with calling it “incorrect.”

        Let’s try a different example. Your Oxford dictionary wants me to accent the first syllable of “lingerie”, when in fact in French it’s accented on the last syllable. It’s no more effort to accent the last than it is to accent the first syllable. Let’s not even go near the mess that Americans make pronouncing this word, even though you’ll find said mess in a dictionaries.

        I’m not going to say that accenting the first syllable is wrong in English, but it’s a French word and I’m not going to listen to anybody tell me that it’s “incorrect” to accent the last syllable.

        And I will go out on a limb and say that the way Americans usually pronounce this word *is* incorrect. If you’re not yet aware of the butchery Americans perform on this word, look it up. I think that you’ll be shocked!

        My point is that some people will pronounce some foreign words more like their originals than like their anglicizations.

      • You make a very good point. I have updated the table to have only a column “commonly used pronunciations” and no “incorrect” ones.

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