Greek/The Greek Alphabet/Latin is Your Friend

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This information has been placed on a separate page so you don't mistake the examples for transliteration charts.

Latin is not derived from Greek, any more than English is derived from Latin. But some Greek words made their way into classical Latin, and many more Greek words were used to make technical, scientific and medical Latin. Why should you care? Well, sometimes the Latin word, or its English derivative, is right there in front of you. It might be a footnote giving the derivation of a species name, or a dictionary entry giving the Greek and Latin origins of a technical term, or simply an etymological aside.

When you have the Latin, you can often figure out what the Greek ought to be. If your transliteration doesn’t match, you've gone astray. Or the typesetter did. This is especially helpful when holes in the Greek letters leave you unsure if it's a delta δ or a theta θ, or there's a splodge and you can't guess which of eleven possible splodges it is. The Latin will say clearly d or th, n or i. And if you've got a mental block on κ kappa and χ chi, Latin is there for you.

Letter Substitutions

Whenever possible, Greek letters were changed into the Latin letter with the same sound.


Most letters don’t change at all: β beta becomes b, δ delta becomes d and so on. The main exceptions are:

  • κ becomes c (pronounced k in classical Latin)
  • θ, φ, χ become th, ph (not f), ch
  • γ in γγ, γκ, γξ, γχ becomes n. This looks like a big change, but it isn’t. Neither Greek nor Latin had a separate letter for the ŋ or “ng” sound, and they handled it in different ways.

If the Latin says... The Greek should say...
b β
c κ
ch χ
d δ
g γ
h- [rough breathing
on first vowel
or diphthong]
l λ
m μ
n ν
ng, nk, nch, nx γγ, γκ, γχ, γξ
p π
ph φ
ps ψ
r ρ
s σ, ς
t τ
th θ
x ξ
z ζ

Vowels and Diphthongs

  • αι and οι become ae and oe, the Latin spellings of these diphthongs. Later on, most of these got reduced to simple “e”, so “archaeology” and “encyclopaedia” become “archeology” and “encyclopedia”.
  • ει sometimes becomes plain i. (History: Over time, a lot of Greek vowels and diphthongs collapsed into an “i” sound. This was one of the first to go.)
  • ου becomes u, while υ by itself becomes y. (History: By the time Greek words started being borrowed into Latin, υ upsilon was no longer pronounced like Latin u, so they had to import the Greek letter. To fill the gap left by this sound shift, ου had changed from a diphthong to something pretty much like that same u.)
  • ω/ο and η/ε collapsed into o and e because Latin didn’t have the extra letters.

If the Latin says... The Greek should say...
a α
ae αι
au αυ
e ε or η
i ι or ει
Unfortunately, this is a
”You don’t know unless you know”.
o ο or ω
oe οι
u ου
y υ

Word Endings

If a Greek word was “naturalized” into Latin, it was given the nearest equivalent Latin ending. This applies mainly to nouns and adjectives. You don’t want to mess with Greek verbs. Some common substitutions:

If the Latin ends in... The Greek might end in...
-a -α or -η
-us, -um -ος, -ον
-is -ις
-es -ης or -ευς