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 correct pronunciation of Greek letters in English is. (Note to German readers: the English pronunciation is typically not identical to the German one.) 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.

Letter
Correct
Incorrect
\alpha (alpha) ˈælfə listen ˈʌlfə
\beta (beta) ˈbiːtə | ˈbeɪtə listen ˈbetə
\gamma (gamma) ˈɡæmə listen ˈɡʌmə
\delta (delta) ˈdeltə listen
\epsilon (epsilon) ˈepsɪlɒn, ˈepsɪlən, epˈsaɪlɒn,
ɪpˈsaɪlɒn | ˈepsɪlɑːn listen
\zeta (zeta) ˈziːtə listen ˈsiːtə, ˈsetə, ˈzetə,
ˈtsetə (German z)
\eta (eta) ˈiːtə | ˈeɪːtə listen ˈetə
\theta (theta) ˈθiːtə | ˈθiːtə, ˈθeɪːtə listen ˈtetə
\iota (iota) aɪˈəʊtə | aɪˈoʊtə listen ɪˈəʊtə, ɪˈɒtə
\kappa (kappa) ˈkæpə listen ˈkʌpə
\lambda (lambda) ˈlæmdə listen ˈlæmbdə, ˈlʌmdə
\mu (mu) mjuː listen muː,
my (German umlaut)
\nu (nu) njuː, nuː listen ny (German umlaut)
\xi (xi) saɪ, zaɪ, ksaɪ, ɡzaɪ listen ksi:, ɡzi:
o (omicron) əʊˈmaɪkrɒn | ˈɑːməkrɑːn listen
\pi (pi) paɪ listen pi: (as the letter p)
\rho (rho) rəʊ | roʊ listen
\sigma (sigma) ˈsɪɡmə listen
\tau (tau) tɔː, taʊ listen
\upsilon (upsilon) ʌpˈsaɪlən, ˈʊpsɪlɒn | ˈʊpsɪlɑːn listen
\phi (phi) faɪ listen fi:
\chi (chi) kaɪ listen ˈxi: (ch pronounced as in Loch),
dʒi:, dʒaɪ
\psi (psi) psaɪ, saɪ listen psi:
\omega (omega) ˈəʊmɪɡə, əʊˈmɪ:ɡə, ˈəʊmeɡə,
ˈəʊmeɪɡə | oʊˈmeɡə listen
o as ɒ (as in from)
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6 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.

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