Useful Tips on Reading Greek Names in English

Founded 27-Jul-2003
Last update 27-Jul-2003

Richard C. Carrier

© 2002 Richard C. Carrier, Ph.D.; used by permission
Contact: rcarrier@infidels.org
Website: www.richardcarrier.info

 

Greek uses a different alphabet than English. This means that when Greek names and words are written in English, there is often no consistency in how it is done. You will find the same name written several different ways in your readings, and this guide will help you to detect this:

1. You will often find the endings -os and -us to be interchangeable. The -os ending is closer to the Greek. The -us ending comes to us from Latin.
  Tarsos = Tarsus
2. You will often find the endings -on and -um to be interchangeable. The -on ending is closer to the Greek. The -um ending comes to us from Latin.
  Byzantion = Byzantium
Symposion = Symposium
3. Sometimes English tradition changes -os into something else:
  Rhodos = Rhodes
Tyros = Tyre
Corinthos = Corinth
4. There is no letter ‘c’ in Greek. The ‘c’ comes from Latin renderings of the Greek letter ‘k’. Thus the letters ‘k’ and ‘c’ are often interchangeable.
  Khalkidike = Chalcidice = Chalkidike
Korinthos = Corinth
(Syrakousai) = Syrakuse = Syracuse
5. There are two letters in Greek that we write as ‘e’, and one of them we sometimes write as ‘a’, following Latin practice. Thus, a name may appear with an ‘a’ where an ‘e’ appears elsewhere.
  Athene = Athena
Selene = Selena
  A question that sometimes comes up is where the word Hellene comes from. The male name Hellen (hel-LANE), the son of Deucalion, has both kinds of ‘e’ in it: the first ‘e’ is short (the actual letter is called an epsilon) and the second ‘e’ is long (called an êta), and from his name comes the name Hellas for Greece, and Hellenes (short ‘e’, then long ‘e’, then short ‘e’) for Greeks. This can be contrasted with Helen of Troy, whose name has only one ‘l’ and no long ‘e’ in it, except in the dropped ending – for her name is more acurately written Helene (in Latin, Helena), but English tradition has dropped the last letter.
  More trivia: there is no letter ‘h’ in Greek. It is merely pronounced in some cases, and the ‘h’ is added in Latin and English to explain the sound. In some dialects, the ‘h’ sound is an ‘s’ sound, represented by an actual letter ‘s’ (some linguists believe the change to an ‘h’ sound came later, as the ‘s’ was dropped). Note that this makes Helene into Selene: the Greek name for the moon. There is one problem with the analogy, and that is a change from an epsilon to an eta where we see the middle ‘e’, but this did happen in some dialects, and so the names are probably the same.
6. There is no difference in Greek between ‘u’ and ‘y’ (they are the same letter):
  Dyros = Durus
Kyme = Cume
  Usually there is no variation: e.g. Euboia is actually Eyboia, but -ey- is not pronounced in English as it was in Greek, so -eu- is always written, being closer to the original sound, as in Ulysses (Ylysses), Odysseus (Odysseys), etc.
  One particularly vexing case is Kyme. This is the name of three different Greek cities: one in Asia Minor, one in Greece, and one in Italy. Latin has named the Italian version Cumae, and it is today called Cuma. These versions of the name usually refer to that one town. The other two towns are still found in many forms: Kyme, Cyme, Kume, and Cume are typical renderings.
7. Latin changed the Greek -oi- into -oe-, and this change is sometimes preserved in English, and sometimes not:
  Euboia = Euboea
Boiotia = Boeotia
8. Latin also changed the Greek -ai- into -ae-, and you may find either spelling in English:
  Aisopus = Aesopus = Aesop
Aischylos = Aeschylus
Krataigos = Crataegus
9. Some modern authors change the Greek -ei- (as in “hay”) into the English long -i- (as in “hide”):
  Pheidon = Phidon
Kleisthenes = Clisthenes
10. Some Greek names that end in -on (sounds like “own”) lost the -n in Latin, and this change has often been retained in English:
  Zenon = Zeno
Drakon = Draco
11. Some names have been altered greatly by tradition, and you may find both forms in use today. For example, Achilles is the traditional rendering of what is more correctly transcribed as Achilleus or Achilleios, and Athens should actually be Athenai, but is never written that way. And Herakles is a closer rendering from the original Greek of what you may know, from the Latin, as Hercules. Be aware of similar diversity in the way other names are spelled, e.g. Dioskouroi is also written as Dioscuri, and Periandros is sometimes written as Periander, etc.
  There are other oddities of Greek spelling, as you may notice, but most of them do not affect how you see names in English. Once you are familiar with the above sorts of variations, you should be well prepared to notice when two different spellings are of the same name.