§101. Transliteration and Latinization

The transfer of a Greek word, letter for letter, from the Greek alphabet to the Roman alphabet, is called TRANSLITERATION. The most precise method of doing so was shown earlier in this chapter, by means of the equivalencies in §98. For most letters of the Greek alphabet, the suggested equivalents create no problems: transliterations such as δραμα = drama, βαθος = bathos, and γραφη = graphē are perfectly straightforward, given the principles of pronunciation that we have now examined. However, when we have to deal with the Greek letters κ, χ, ῥ, and υ, we may start to wonder. If we are to be as exact as possible, we ought to transliterate καρδια as kardia, καρακτηρ as kharaktēr, and ῥυθμος as ruthmos. But wouldn’t our English derivatives from these three words suggest the transliterations cardia, charactēr, and rhythmos? In fact, these three alternative versions are perfectly acceptable transliterations, preferred by many authorities. Historically, the Latin language rendered Greek kappa (κ) by the consonant c, chi (χ) by the two Roman letters ch, and aspirated rho (ῥ) by rh; as we saw in §100, Latin represented Greek upsilon (υ) by the Roman letter y. In pondering what to do with these four Greek letters, we must come to terms with the whole question of LATINIZATION, a broader issue which complicates the process of exact transliteration. It is the Latinized spelling of Greek words that will often determine the form of our English derivatives.

The problem can be neatly illustrated by taking a few Greek proper names, either historical or mythological. An exact transliteration of Σωκρατης and Περικλης ought to produce kratēs and Periklēs; but because the Latin language knew these two men as Socrates and Pericles, their names have been spelled with a c for over 2,000 years. Nonetheless, there are Greek purists who prefer the English spellings Sokrates and Perikles, however pedantic that may seem. What are we to do with Aἰσχυλος — Aiskhulos or Aischylos or Aeschylus? The first version is an exact transliteration; the second can also be described as a transliteration, using Roman alphabet conventions (χ = ch, υ = y); but the third is a full-blown LATINIZATION, where a Greek diphthong (αι) has been spelled as its Latin counterpart (ae), and where the Greek noun ending -ος has been rendered by the equivalent Latin declension form (-us). Examine the following cases, and observe how the Latinized form has affected the traditional English spelling:

ʼAχιλλευς Akhilleus Achilleus Achilles Achilles
Mυκηναι Mukēnai Mykēnai Mycenae Mycenae
Tηλεμαχος Tēlemakhos Tēlemachos Telemachus Telemachus
Θουκυδιδης Thoukudidēs Thoukydidēs Thucydides Thucydides
Oὐρανος Ouranos Ouranos Uranus Uranus
ʼAπολλων Apollōn Apollōn Apollo Apollo
ʽHφαιστος Hēphaistos Hēphaistos Hephaestus Hephaestus
ʽPοδος Rodos Rhodos Rhodos (-us)

From this small sampling it will be obvious that Latinization went far beyond the four simple conventions that we noted above (κ = c, χ = ch, ῥ to rh, and υ = y). In modifying the spelling of Greek words that they brought into Latin, the Romans were mainly trying to represent, in an accurate and familiar form, the sounds that they heard in Greek. For example, the Greek diphthong αι sounded to them exactly like their own Latin diphthong ae, whereas the Greek diphthong ου apparently sounded very much like the Latin vowel u. In addition, the ending of a Greek noun might be adapted to the parallel Latin noun declension. Occasionally, the Latin version evolved into a completely new word: thus the Romans knew the Homeric hero ʼOδυσσευς (Odysseus) as Ulixes or Ulysses, and changed the name of his fellow-warrior Aἰας (Aias) to Aiax (E Ajax); similarly, they transformed the Queen of Troy from ʽEκαβη (Hekabē) to Hecuba, and they came to know the great ʽHρακλης (Hēraklēs) as Hercules. Today, in a Greek context, we usually refer to him as Herakles or Heracles; in a Roman context, the name is Hercules.

There was one special circumstance where the Greek consonant gamma (γ) was represented not by Roman g, but by Roman n—a surprising change, one might suppose. Again, however, the Romans were simply using phonetic spelling. In classical Greek, whenever gamma occurred before another palatal consonant (γ, κ, χ, or ξ), it was nasalized, changing in sound from [g] to [ŋ]. The principle can be illustrated as follows:

G ἀγγελος L angelus
G ἐγκωμιον L encomium
G κογχη L concha
G λαρυγξ L larynx

The exact transliteration of the four Greek words would be aggelos, egkōmion, kogkhē, and larugx. These precise versions, however, are almost unreadable and unpronounceable in the Roman alphabet. Even a purist might here be tempted to use the n convention, and write angelos, enkōmion, konkhē and larunx. It would be standard and acceptable to transliterate the last two as konchē and larynx.

If you are asked to give a TRANSLITERATION of a Greek word, you can normally use your own judgement in choosing between the exact and the conventional Roman alphabet options.[1] Under no circumstances, however, should you change diphthong spellings or word endings. By doing so, you would be definitely crossing the boundary between TRANSLITERATION and LATINIZATION. Try to keep the two procedures separate.

When we examine Greek noun declensions, we’ll see how Latinization affected the word-endings of Greek words adopted into Latin. For reference purposes, here is a summary of changes caused by the LATINIZATION OF GREEK DIPHTHONGS:

αι ai   >   ae G αἰθηρ, δαιμων L aethēr, daemōn
αυ no change αὐτογραφος autographus
ει ei   >   ī
ei   >   ē
εἰκων, εἰρωνεια


īcōn, īrōnīa


ευ no change εὐχαριστια eucharistia
οι oi   >   oe ἀμοιβη, Φοιβος amoeba, Phoebus
ου ou   >   ū μουσα, ʼEπικουρος mūsa, Epicūrus

  1. Major English-language reference works differ in their preference for exact or conventional Greek transliteration. Very few dictionaries favour a rigidly exact system, though professional Greek scholars are increasingly moving in that direction.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part II - Greek Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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