Greek Influence on the English and Spanish Alphabets
The Story of the PH, TH, and CH letter combinations and Greek letters in English and Spanish
By Dr. Jon Aske, Department of Foreign Languages
Many English words have the combinations of letters “ph”, “th”, and “ch”, each representing a single sound, not two, as in the words physics, thermodynamics, and chemistry.
The <ph> combination (from now on we will put letters and letter combinations within angle brackets) always has the same sound as the letter <f>, as in photograph, a sound which the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is also represented by the symbol [f] (from now on, symbols within square brackets will represent sounds in the IPA).
The <th> combination, on the other hand, can represent three different sounds: the one in cloth (the IPA symbol for this sound is [θ]), the one in clothes (yes, it’s different, and the IPA symbol for this sound is [ð]), and occasionally the one in Thomas, which is identical to the sound of the letter <t> all by itself ([t] in IPA).
Finally, the <ch> combination can stand for two different sounds, the one it has in the word chap (IPA [ʧ]) and the one it has in the words school, character, Christ or Michael , which is identical to the sound of the letter <c> in care or the letter <k> in kid, namely the sound [k].
What’s the deal with these letter combinations? Why are they the way they are and why do they represent the sounds they do? And what’s the deal with that <h>, that singular letter which in isolation is sometimes pronounced—as in hair—and sometimes not—as in honor, and which here combines with <p>, <t>, <c>? If you would like to know, keep on reading.
Our story takes us back to Ancient Greek (1,000 BC to 600 AD), the language from which Modern Greek descends, and also, of course, to Latin. Latin, as you may know, was the language of culture in Western Europe for a long time (during the Roman time and for more than 1,000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) and English took a great deal of its vocabulary from it in order to enrich the simple Germanic language it once was and took its alphabet along with those words. English, of course, is written in the Latin alphabet.
Ancient Greek had a very strong influence on Latin, and thus on English and all the languages of Europe. More than half of English words, perhaps not always the most common ones, come from Latin, and many of those words Latin took from Greek. Thus, for example, Latin VILLA gave us village, MAGNA gave us magnify and magnitude, BONUS gave us bonus, bonanza and bona fide, FAMA gave us fame, famous and infamous, and NOTA gave us note, notice, notable, and many more. (We write Latin words in caps because that is how the Romans wrote them; they did not have lower case letters, an invention of Middle Age scribes.)
Now, some of the words that English took from Latin were words that Latin had borrowed from Ancient Greek, for the Romans greatly admired Greek culture and the Greek language, which they allowed to remain the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean after they conquered it almost 2,000 years ago (a lingua franca is a language of wider communication used by peoples of different mother tongues). For example AUTOS in Greek meant “self” and from it we get automatic, autograph, and a myriad other words. From the Greek word BIOS “life” we get biology and biography. From DEMOS “people” we get democracy and demographics. From NOMOS “law, science” we get all words that end in ‑nomy, such as astronomy and gastronomy. The list is very, very long. And we can say with confidence that English words that have a <ph> or <rh> in them and a quite a few with <ch> or <th> (as well as most words with a <y> used as a vowel), were taken by English from written Latin and their ultimate source is Greek.
As I said, when the Romans took over the eastern Mediterranean about two thousand years ago, the lingua franca in that whole area was Greek, a language which had been the carrier of quite an advanced culture and civilization for at least 500 years, one with an impressive literature. That’s the reason, by the way, that the Christian Bible, the New Testament, was written in Greek, for that was the language that almost anybody who wrote in that part of the world in those days—a minority of the population to be sure—wrote in.
Greek language and culture had great prestige and the Romans greatly admired them and did not attempt to replace them where they reigned, namely in the eastern Mediterranean, what is now Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and much of the Middle East, as well as southern Italy. Thus Latin did not become the language of the Eastern Mediterranean the way it became the language of the western Mediterranean, from which French, Italian, and Spanish among others evolved a thousand years later. The Romans actually “borrowed” a great many Greek words for concepts for which the Romans had no words, or if they had them they didn’t sound to them as sophisticated as the Greek versions.
Fast forward a thousand plus years, to the recently formed kingdom of England, created by immigrant bands of Saxons, Angles, Jutes and other Germanic peoples, which were closely related to the ancestors of modern Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and other peoples of northern Europe. When the locals started to develop their relatively simple oral language (Old English) into a written language (something which was happening to French, Spanish and other European languages at around the same time), they went to the main model of a developed written language of the time in Western Europe, the language that all writing was still being done in there, namely Latin (despite the fact that the Roman empire had fallen half a millennium earlier). And, like the Romans had done with Greek, the English imported a great many words from Latin to enrich the incipient written language. And along with those words came many that had originally been Greek words. Hence the <ph>, <th>, and <ch> letter combinations in English. So let’s look at those letter combinations, or digraphs, now.
The Greek and Latin alphabets
The Greeks had a somewhat different alphabet from the one the Romans used, the Latin alphabet. Actually the latter was derived from the former. The sounds of the Greek language were also somewhat different from those of the Latin language. Greek for instance had several sounds that Latin did not have, despite the fact that Latin and Greek were related Indo-European languages, which means that they descend from a common ancestor, of which we know very little, but which must have existed about 7,000 years ago.
The Greeks had letters and sounds that were equivalent to those of Latin <P>, <T>, and <C>. They had a letter and a sound equivalent to Latin (and English) <T>, written <Τ τ> (upper and lower case respectively). The Greeks also had a letter and a sound equivalent to Latin (and English) <P>, written <Π π> (upper and lower case respectively). These ones do look a little different. And the Greeks had a letter and a sound equivalent to Latin <C> (equivalent to English <c> or <k>), written <Κ κ>. Yes, English K is not a Latin letter, but a Greek one.
As you can see, the Greek and Latin alphabets weren’t all that different after all. That is not surprising, since the Latin alphabet was derived from the Western version of the Greek alphabet to begin with, as borrowed by the Etruscans, from which the Romans eventually got it around the 7th century BCE.
But Greek also had three other letters which represented sounds similar to Latin <P>, <T>, and <C>, but not quite the same. These were, at last until 2,000 years ago, aspirated versions of the <P>, <T>, <C> sounds. This means that those sounds, which are called voiceless stop sounds, were pronounced with a puff of air upon their release. Actually English <p>, <t>, <c>/<k> typically sport such a puff of air in many cases, compared to the French, Italian or Spanish versions of these sounds. The <p> in the English word pan has a puff of air, whereas the <p> in Spanish pan, meaning “bread” does not. The International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for these sounds are [ph] [th] and [kh] respectively. The Greek letters for these sounds were (phi), (theta), and <Χ χ> (chi) respectively.
So, when the Romans borrowed words from Greek that had these sounds they lacked, they could have just borrowed the letters themselves, as they did in some other cases (more on this later), but instead they chose to create double letters or digraphs for them , using letters that Latin already had. As you may have guessed, the letter combinations Romans used to transliterate these Greek letters were <ph>, <th>, and <ch>. The letter <h>, after all, was a silent letter in Latin by the first century of our era, and thus it didn’t represent any sound, and the sound it had once represented may not have seemed all that different from the puff of air we just mentioned, so it may have seemed like an obvious choice.
The Story of PH
The story of PH is simple. You can be sure that any English word that sports a <ph> comes from Greek. That includes words such as photograph, phenomenon, and pharmacy, for example.
But rarely did English borrow one of these words directly from Greek, however. Typically the word came through Latin first. That is, the Romans borrowed a Greek word and then English borrowed it from Latin in the Late Middle Ages, either directly from written Latin sources or through Norman or Parisian French, which got the words directly from spoken Latin as transmitted through many generations of Latin speakers (and thus suffered many sound and meaning changes along the way).
As regards pronunciation, I said that Φ (phi) was an aspirated [p] ([ph]) in Ancient Greek, but by the time of Koine Greek in the early centuries of our era, the pronunciation had changed to [f], the sound of the English <f> (<F> is a Latin letter), which is why we pronounce <ph> the same way as <f>.
So things are simple when it comes to <ph>. All such words come from Greek and the <ph> represents the Latin transliteration of Greek letter F f (phi). Things are a bit more complicated when it comes to words which contain CH or TH. In some cases the words are indeed Greek, words such as character and thermometer for example, and many more, as we saw above. But not all <ch>’s and <th>’s come from Greek, so let’s turn now to the stories of these two digraphs.
The Story of CH
The <ch> letter combination that Latin writers fashioned to represent the Greek letter (chi) in borrowed words, in Ancient Greek was a voiceless aspirated velar stop consonant [kh], as in the English words keep or car, but by the time of Koine Greek, about two thousand years ago, it had changed its pronunciation to that of a voiceless velar fricative [x]. But more on that later. Among English words in which <ch> stands for [k] we find chasm, chromosome, chorus, chameleon, chamomile, chaos, character, characteristic,charisma, chasm, chemical, chemist, chemistry, chemotherapy, chimera, choir, chiropractor, chlorine, cholera, cholesterol, chord,choreograph, Christ, Christian, Christmas, Christopher, chronometer, chrysalis, and chrysanthemum.
Interestingly, the <ch> letter combination ended up being co-opted to represent a new sound that evolved in a language that evolved out of Latin in the old Roman province of Galia (pretty much equal to present-day France), namely French. French is a Romance language, namely a language derived from the language of Rome, namely Latin. The new sound, which Latin did not have, was the sound that we now write with the digraph <ch>, as in cheap, which in the IPA is represented by the symbol [ʧ]. In Modern French <ch> represents a different sound, namely [ʃ], which is the sound typically written <sh> in English as in ship (but also differently in nation, ocean, machine, or mission). But in Medieval Norman French the digraph <ch> represented the sound it now typically has in English or Spanish. When French speaking Normans invaded England in 1066 they brought such spelling practices with them. Until then English writers had used the letter <c> to represent two sounds: [k], as in cat, and also [ʧ], as in chat, what was from then on to be written with <ch>. So the spelling cin could represent either the word kin or the word chin.
It was to solve the ambiguity of the letter <c>, that English writers had started in the 9th century already to sporadically use the letter <k>, which did not exist in the Latin alphabet and which was the Greek alphabet’s equivalent of Latin <c>, to represent the [k] sound in words like king and keen. This practice was fully established by the 13th century. So now English has two major ways of representing the [k] sound, namely with the letter <c>, as in cat, and with the letter <k>, as in king. And <ch> came to be used to represent the sound [ʧ] in chin.
By the way, the English digraph <sh>, which represents the sound [ʃ] in shop also stems from around this time. This was a new sound in English that developed out of the <sc> ([sk]) sound combination before certain vowels. Thus for a while <sc> spelled the sound [sk], as in skirt, but also the sound [ʃ], as in shirt. To distinguish between the two, English scribes started adding an <h> to the digraph to represent the latter sound. Thus a word like ship would be spelled schip (earlier it had been scip). This <sch> to represent the sound [ʃ] was later on simplified to <sh>. (In German this sound is still written <sch>.)
Going back to our original <ch> digraph, we can see now how it came to represent two sounds: [k] in words or Greek origin taken from written Latin, such as character, and [ʧ] in words taken from French words, such as cheap and champion.
As I was saying earlier, the Greek letter <Χ χ> (chi) which the Romans transliterated as <CH> and which was pronounced as aspirated [kh] in classical Greek, changed its pronunciation in Medieval Greek. The sound of this letter (which looks a lot like the letter <x>) changed to the sound that in the International Phonetic Alphabet is represented, not coincidentally, with the symbol [x]. Modern English does not have this sound, but it exists in other European languages. This is the sound of <ch> in the German name Bach, or <ch> in Scottish Gaelic and Scottish English loch, meaning “lake”, as in Loch Ness. It is also the sound of the letter <j> in many dialects of modern Spanish (e.g. José). (In some dialects of Spanish <j> represents the sound [h], which is the sound of the letter <h> in English hope, that is, when it is not silent, as in honor.)
It was because of the medieval sound of the Greek equivalent of Latin <CH> that some European languages, such as German, used the <ch> digraph to represent this sound. Spanish didn’t because the [x] sound is relatively recent in the history of the language and it grew out of other sounds which in some cases were written with the letter <j>, as jugar “to play” and some other cases with the letter <x>, as in xabon “soap”, now written jabón. The only common Spanish word with that sound that retained the <x> spelling is the word México, and then only in the Americas, not in Spain, where they write it Méjico.
The Story of TH
The last of the Latin h-containing digraphs is <th>. As we said earlier, <TH> is how the Romans transliterated the Greek letter <Θ θ> (theta), which in classical Greek was what’s known as an aspirated t, [th] in IPA, much like the <t> in English top (which is somewhat different from the unaspirated <t>in stop).
That is how the Greek poet Homer would have pronounced that letter in 850BC but, just like the other two aspirated sounds in Classical Greek, by 2,000 years ago, the time of Koine Greek, the language the Christian bible was written in, this Greek letter had changed its pronunciation. Now it was pronounced like the <th> in English thumb (the IPA symbol is [θ]), which is the same sound as Castilian Spanish <z> in zapato “shoe”, for instance.
This was a sound that actually did exist in Old English and Old English had a letter of its very own to represent this sound, namely the letter <þ> (thorn). But when Normans took over England in 1066, they replaced that letter with the <th> digraph. Other native English letters were replaced as well: the letter <ð> (eth), which represented the sound in English then and clothes, was also replaced by the very same <th>. Most European languages, which did not have the [θ] sound, pronounced the <th> of Latinized Greek words, such as English word theatre (which English got from French) as a regular <t>, which is how it is pronounced in modern French théâtre or Spanish teatro.
That is why <th> in English typically represents the sound [θ], as in theater, or the sound [ð] in these. In English <th> is only pronounced [t] in a few cases, namely a few words, mostly proper names, such as Esther, Thomas, Thames, and thyme.
Castilian Spanish does have the [θ] sound, spelled <z> or <c>, as we have seen, but this is quite a recent development in the history of Spanish and Spanish also pronounced Latin <th> from Greek <θ> (theta) the same as <t>, that is [t] and not [θ]. In a 19th century spelling reform, Spanish removed all the (unpronounced) h’s from words like theatro “theater”, leaving them as teatro. The same thing happened with words with <ch>, so that the word for character in Spanish is now written carácter. Words that had <ph> on the other hand, had that digraph replaced by the letter <f>, so that in Spanish photograph is fotografía and phenomenon is fenómeno.
Greek letters in English
We could not finish this story about the influence of Latin and Greek on English spelling without mentioning the three Greek letters in the English alphabet. We have already mentioned <k>, which was introduced when the letter <c> changed sounds in some contexts in order to avoid ambiguities. The other two letters are <y> and <z>.
The letter <y> in English can be either a consonant sound, as in yes or yoghurt, or a vowel sound, as in happy or myth. How did this letter come into English? As you may have guessed the story takes us back to Latin and the Romans. The Latin vowels were five: A, E, I, O and U. But Greek had another vowel sound. The vowels in Classical Greek were <Α α> ([a]), Ε ε ([e]), <Η η> (long [ē] in Classical Greek), <Ι ι> ([i] in Classical Greek), Ο ο ([o] in Classical Greek), <Ω ω> (long [ō] in Classical Greek), and <Υ υ> ([u] in Classical Greek).
This last vowel, the letter <Υ υ>, which was pronounced [u], the sound of the vowel in boot or soup in Classical Greek times, changed its pronunciation in the prestigious dialect of Attica from [u] to a sound like French <u>, as in tu “you”, or German <ü>, as in Mütze “cap”, a sound which in IPA is written [y], at the time of contact with the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. This was a sound that Latin didn’t have, so when they borrowed Greek words that had this sound, they borrowed the letter too (the upper case one, since the Romans, did not use lower case letters, only upper case). (Do note that the Latin letter <U> originally derives from Classical Greek <Y>, borrowed hundreds of years earlier.)
Since Latin didn’t have this sound, only upper class Romans who spoke Greek actually pronounced it like the Greeks did, and most people pronounced like a regular <i>, which in Latin, like in Spanish, had the sound [i], as in meat, beet, machine, and Pete, or sometimes <u>, which in Latin, like Spanish, had the sound [u], as in boot and soup. (French <u>, IPA [y], is a mixture of the two sounds, [i] and [u]: the tongue is positioned just like for the [i], but the lips are positioned just like for the [u], that is, pursed or ‘rounded’.)
It turns out that Old English (more than 1,000 years ago) had the sound of Attic <Y> or modern French <u> too, and so it borrowed the Greek letter <y> to represent it. By the time of Middle English, hundreds of years later, English had lost that sound, which had changed to the same sound as the letter <i>, short or long versions: [ɪ] or [i]), which wasn’t the same sound it has now, since English long vowels changed their pronunciation a great deal at the end of the Middle English period, about 500 years ago.
In Modern English, vocalic <y> is still used for the sound [i] at many non-Greek words the end of a word, as in happy or city (but, note the plural cities, without a <y>), and for the sound of the diphthong [aɪ] at the end of a word or a word stem as in my, spy, and dying. The rest of vocalic y’s are in Greek words which English borrowed from Latin, such as myth, hygiene, hyper, or system, and style, typically representing one of the two vowel sounds [ɪ] or [aɪ], respectively (the [aɪ] diphthongs being the modern equivalent of Middle English [i]). (Do note that not all Greek loanwords in English came through Latin; a good number of them are typically compound words that were created from Greek elements relatively recently, such as anthropology, epistemology.)
The English letter <y> can also represent a consonantal sound, the sound in words like yell, year and yoghurt, which is represented in IPA by the symbol [j]. It seems that the letter <y> may have been introduced to replace the Old English letter yogh <Ȝȝ> where it represented that same sound [j]. (The Old English letter <Ȝȝ> was also used to represent another sounds too.)
In Spanish, by the way, the letter <y> used to have a vocalic use, representing the same sound as the letter , namely [i], but in 1792 the Spanish Academy decided that only the letter <i> would have a vocalic sound, except in the conjunction y “and”. The <y> other than that, Spanish only has consonantal use, as in yema “yolk, bud” (from Latin gemma), and an use representing the semivocalic version of the vowel [i] in diphthongs when they come at the end of a word, as in rey “king” (cf. reina “queen”, with exactly the same sound).
Finally, let’s take a look at the English letter <z>. The Greek letter < Ζ ζ >, which originally probably represented the sound [ʣ], a mixture of the sounds [d] and [z] which doesn’t exist in Latin or in English, and later the sound [z], the same as the English letter <z> in zoo. As in the case of the letter <Y>, Latin borrowed <Z> to write Greek loanwords that had that letter in the first century BCE, after Rome conquered Greece, words such as ZONA, meaning “belt” but also “zone”, and ZODIACUS “zodiac”.
The Romance languages stemmed from popular spoken Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400’s. By about 500 years later the different ways of speaking Latin throughout the western part of the former Empire had developed into different languages in France (including the precursor of modern French), the Iberian Peninsula (including the precursors of modern Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Galician), etc. And these languages had developed new sounds that didn’t exist in Latin, among them [z] and [ʣ]. Thus the letter <z> came in handy in these cases. French used it and through French influence it came into English, which also had the sound [z]. That sound had been spelled <s> before then and it has continued to be so spelled to this day, as in the words thousand or was. Some native words use <z> in English nowadays, such as frozen, squeeze or sneeze, but most English words with a <z> are probably of Greek origin, such as zeal, or sometimes Arabic, as in magazine.
Spanish used the letter <z> for the new sound [ʣ], as in fazer “to do” (hacer in Modern Spanish). When that sound disappeared around the 17th century, the letter came to signify the sound that [ʣ] morphed to, namely [θ] in Castilian Spanish and [s] in all other varieties of Spanish, but typically only before the vowels <a>, <o>, and <u>. Before <e> and <i> Spanish now writes that sound with the letter <c> (as we saw in hacer above).
I hope you have enjoyed this story about an aspect of English spelling and word history, with some aspects of the history of Spanish thrown in. For more information you can follow some of the links below.
Some recommended links for more information
A history of English spelling, by D. G. Scragg (1974)
A survey of English spelling, by Edward Carney (1994)
A short history of English spelling
Spelling and Standardization in English: Historical Overview, by Suzanne Kemmer: http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
Loanwords: Major Periods of Borrowing in the History of English
Wikipedia: Greek Alphabet
Wikipedia: List of Greek words with English derivatives
Wikipedia: Pronunciation of English th
Wikipedia: Greek alphabet
Wikipedia: English alphabet
Wikipedia: International Phonetic Alphabet
Orthographic diacritics and multilingual computing, by J.C. Wells
The Latin Alphabet
The Greek Alphabet