Introductory Ancient Greek Language/Lesson 2

Breathing Marks Explained


Every Greek word that begins with a vowel (α,ε,η,ι,ο,υ, and ω) will have something called a breathing mark. These look like apostrophes and can be either rough or smooth.

Rough Breathings

If the breathing is rough then it is an apostrophe curved in the opposite direction (ἑ,ἁ,ἡ, etc...) If a breathing is rough then the word is pronounced as if there were an /h/ in front of it. Thus, the Greek word for 'sleep' ὕπνος will be pronounced as [hupnos].

Smooth Breathings

If the breathing mark is smooth (ἀ,ἐ,ὀ, etc...) then it is shaped exactly like an apostrophe and comes either slightly before the vowel or directly above. Smooth breathing marks simply mean there is no /h/ pronounciation.


The only consonant that takes a breathing mark is the letter rho (ρ). If rho is the first letter of a word then it always has a rough breathing mark. This is why most English derived words such as rhinoceros, rheumatism, and rhododendron have the /rh/ in front.

Accent Marks


You may notice the second mark after the breathing mark in the word ὕπνος. They are important for distinguishing the difference between words. There are three different types of accents in Ancient Greek. The acute, the circumflex, and the grave. Ancient Greek was originally a tonal language - this meant that the pitch of a word made a difference to its meaning. The acute accent used to indicate a higher pitch, the grave a lower pitch, and the circumflex a higher then immediately lower pitch. Later they simply indicated on which syllable the emphasis landed.

In truth, understanding the pronunciation of the Greek accent is not deeply important for translating texts. Most experts cannot say precisely what it sounded like and we are not likely to ever know with any surety. What matters in comprehending how it changes the morphology and grammar of the Ancient Greek language. On the other hand, when orally reciting ancient greek, especially epic poetry (e.g., Homeric verse in dactylic hexameter), then the tonality creates a musicality which may have helped induce a relaxed mental state in the listener (see Platos Ion, 536b, as how a listener is in an altered mental state, much as melodic music does today).

First, you will need to know some important accentuation terminology.

1. Ultima - last syllable of a word (from Latin 'ultimus, a, um' - last)

2. Penult - next-to-last syllable of a word (from Latin 'paene' + 'ultimus, a, um' - almost last)

3. Antepenult - third-to-last syllable of a word (from Latin 'ante' + 'paene' + 'ultimus, a, um' - before next-to-last)

There are three accents in Ancient Greek:

ACUTE ACCENT - ά - may stand on any of the last three syllables, but stands on the antepenult only when the ultima is short.

GRAVE ACCENT - ὰ - (pronounced 'gr-ah-v', not 'gr-ay-v') written instead of an acute when an acute would normally stand on the ultima but the word is followed by another word without any intervening punctuation.

CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT - ῶ - stands only on long vowels or diphthongs, and only occurs on the ultima or penult. it will stand on a long penult only if the ultima is short.

The technical names of the accents that use the acute and grave are as follow:

OXYTONE - Where the word is accented on the last syllable, or ultima.

PAROXYTONE - Where the word is accented on the second to the last syllable, or penult.

PROPAROXYTONE - Where the word is accented on the third to the last syllable, or antepenult

Accents with the cirucmflex fall into two categories:

PERISPOMENON - Where a word has the circumflex accent on the ultima.

PROPERISPOMENON - Where the word has the circumflex on the penult.

NOTE: All of this may have sounded very confusing, but I think it will become clearer as you see examples of various accents in Ancient Greek. The technical terms may take a little longer to learn and keep straight however, their usage can and will dispell confusions when conversing about Greek accents. Also, you may be wondering why (or thanking the powers that be that) there are only three syllables upon which the accent can fall.