Singing Greek Prayers for Greek Learning

‘Kumbaya’ is that old campfire song that has been sung so much that it tends to usher forth groans. But many Papua New Guineans also know the song, at least in the pidgin version. And so we sing it in Greek as a prayer at least a couple times a day to let Jesus know that his presence is welcome in our study of Greek. He is Lord of the beginning, middle and end, just as we started singing from Revelation 1:8 on the first day of class. And so we also invite Jesus to come and be present with us in our study of Greek:

ἔρχου ὧδε κύριε, (3x)
ὦ Ἰησοῦ κύριε

Come here Lord, (3x)
Oh, Jesus Lord.

Having the guitar close by to sing these songs is a good tool for when we need to maintain our focus on learning Greek as a spiritual discipline. It can be easily forgotten when we’re learning to recognize and write a new alphabet, forcing our tongues to make new sound sequences, and trying to distinguish between all those little diacritical marks that we see in the text.

Meaning of ψιλον

The question came up in class about whether the letters of the Greek alphabet had meanings like so many of the Hebrew letters do. It’s clear that Omicron and Omega are related ‘o’ vowels as we can tell when Omicron gets lengthened to Omega in subjunctive forms. The very names of these vowels mean “small ‘o'” (o-micron) and “big ‘o'” (o-mega).

We also know that epsilon and eta are related in the same manner. So my students wanted to know the meaning of ψιλον found in Epsilon and Upsilon. Although Eta (as the long ‘e’ vowel) relates to Epsilon in the same way that Omega relates to Omicron, they do not correspond in the meaning of their names the same way that Omega and Omicron do. It is not ‘e-micron’ and ‘e-mega’! So does the ‘ta’ have a meaning in the vowel Eta?

And what does ψιλον mean? I have seen suggestions of ‘plain’, ‘bare’, ‘simple’, and ‘strait’. But that also raises the question of the Upsilon. What was the corresponding non-plain, non-bare, non-simple, or non-strait u vowel earlier in the history of the Greek language? It was the Digamma. Both Upsilon and Digamma derived from the Phoenecian letter Waw. Linguistically, that the /u/ sound would be related to the /w/ sound makes perfect sense.

Knowing a little bit of this Greek language history helps us with Koine Greek. Why doesn’t the verb ἀκούω contract? The Upsilon has replaced an earlier Digamma. Why doesn’t the verb καλέω lengthen its contract vowel? A Digamma had formerly followed the Epsilon (examples from William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, 1993, pp. 134, 160).

But can anyone clarify the meaning of ψιλον and tell us what its corresponding non-ψιλον vowel means?

Greek Alphabet and Pronunciation

This was covered today during the first day of class.

For those of you who would say that Greek is “Greek to me,” here’s a lesson for you…

1. Here is the Greek alphabet in capital letters and lower case letters with their names:


α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ
μ ν ξ ο π ρ σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω

alpha beta gamma delta epsilon zeta eta theta iota kappa lambda mu nu xi omicron pi rho sigma tau upsilon phi chi psi omega

2. These Greek letters look similar to Latin letters and also represent similar sounds:

α β δ ε ι κ ο ς τ υ
alpha beta delta epsilon iota kappa omicron sigma tau upsilon

3. These Greek letters look like Latin letters but represent different sounds:

η (ēta) is not ‘n’. The Greek letter η makes an /e/ sound, transliterated as ē.

ν (nu) is not ‘v’. The Greek letter ν makes an /n/ sound.

ρ (rho) is not ‘p’. The Greek letter ρ makes an /r/ sound.

χ (chi) is not ‘x’. The Greek letter χ makes a /kh/ sound, transliterated as ‘ch’.

ω (ōmega) is not ‘w’. The letter ω makes an /o/ sound, transliterated as ō.

4. These Greek letters are transliterated with two letters:

θ = th
ξ = ks, xs, or x
φ = ph, pronounced /f/
χ = ch, pronounced /kh/
ψ = ps

5. The Greek letter sigma is written differently when it appears at the end of words:

σεισμός, seismos, ‘shaking, earthquake’
σής, sēs, ‘moth’
σιτιστός, sitistos, ‘fattened’

6. Greek vowels and ρ (rho) must have breathing marks ( ̔ or ̓ ) if they begin a word:

ἀ, a (smooth breathing)
ἁ, ha (rough breathing – makes ‘h’ sound)

ῥ (rho) and ὑ (upsilon) always have rough breathing when they begin a word.

7. Greek has two sets of vowels that relate to one another:

ω (ō mega) is the long form of ο (o micron)
η (ēta) is the long form of ε (epsilon)